The fallen god

Mao's successes and failures are triggering a new debate as China re-examines its political past, and plots its political future.

December 31, 2011 05:58 pm | Updated 05:58 pm IST

An industry around Mao. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

An industry around Mao. Photo: Ananth Krishnan

“Seeking truth from fact” are the words carved into the wooden archway that hangs above the entrance to the Yuelu Academy. One of China's four great centres of classical learning, the more than 1000-year-old university was founded in 976, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The phrase, Shi Shi Qiu Shi in Chinese was taken from the Second Century Book of Han, and inscribed onto the university's front door by administrators to serve as a moral guide to its elite students.

To most of the world though, the words were made famous by Mao Zedong, becoming one of the many famous sayings that became banners of his revolution. It was at Yuelu where Mao first came across the phrase. In 1917, a 24-year-old Mao, who was just out of college and only beginning to adjust to the thriving intellectual climate of Changsha — a world away from his farming hometown of Shaoshan — landed up at Yuelu. On a recent winter's morning, several groups of Chinese high-school students were given a tour of Yuelu. The main attraction was a small, sparse room, decorated only by a rickety desk and hard, wooden bed. “It was here that Chairman Mao studied, and it was here that he became so wise,” their teacher told them. “So you must all study hard so one day you can become like the Chairman.”

Modern pilgrimages

Yuelu is the first stop on what has now unofficially become the Mao Pilgrimage Tour. The second stop is Shaoshan, his birthplace, which is a two-hour drive from Changsha, Hunan's bustling provincial capital. The road to Shaoshan is like any you will find in small-town China: immaculately paved, with four wide lanes and a steady procession of coal-laden trucks to keep travellers company. As you drive into the town, though, it becomes quickly clear this is no ordinary city. The small town's streets are lined by tour buses, while local Hunan women, famed for their fiery temper (which, locals like to say, is only matched by the hot local cuisine) swarm over visitors, hawking Mao key-chains, Mao statues, and Mao t-shirts. Pudgy Mao impersonators, dressed in green coats, wander the streets offering to pose with tourists.

Shaoshan's main square is, however, the main draw for visitors. A towering Mao statue, one of the largest in China, casts a shadow over the main square. Far removed from the bustling Mao-inspired local commerce that thrives on the city's edges, the square presents a solemn sight. Hundreds of Chinese, from all over the country, come here to pay their respects to Mao. For many, the experience is almost religious. The devotees — there is no more apt description — walk around the statue slowly, their heads respectfully lowered. They circle the statue four times, before kneeling down in front of it. As they place a wreath at Mao's feet, some utter prayers. Many are moved to tears. There are students, soldiers, serving government officials and, most common of all, retirees. They come from all over China. “We are to say thank you for what he has done for us,” says one 80-year-old man who has travelled from northern Hebei.

There are two aspects to this devotion, says Chen Yuxiang, who is a professor at the Marxism School of Hunan University, whose campus today houses the Yuelu Academy. The first, he says, is the pervasive belief of most Chinese today that Mao was a great man, despite an awareness of all his flaws, from the 1958 Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine, which claimed the lives of an estimated 30 million Chinese, to the devastating Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Government propaganda, which emphasises Mao's achievements as the People's Republic's founding father while downplaying his mistakes, has contributed to this perception. But there is also genuine nostalgia, especially among older Chinese, for Mao's days because they were a time when “they had something to believe in.” Visitors to parks in every Chinese city will find this nostalgia on clear display every Sunday afternoon, when dozens of older Chinese still gather every week to sing Red songs from the days of the Cultural Revolution.

The second reason, Professor Chen says, is a calculated commercial attempt to build a “Red tourism” industry. Last year, more than five million visitors descended on Shaoshan. Local officials say tourism has boomed in the past 12 months because of a resurgence of interest in Mao's life, sparked by the many events held in China over the past year to mark the Communist Party of China's (CPC) 90th anniversary. Part of the tourism effort has been to create an image of Shaoshan as an almost mystical place of pilgrimage. One popular story that locals like to tell visitors is when the Mao statue was unveiled in 1996, both the Sun and the Moon rose together. Others say this town of green fields and lakes, which is surrounded by mountains, has the best feng shui in all of China, which passes positive energy to visitors.

A different faith

One young Changsha girl, who works in the town's booming entertainment industry and carries a Louis Vuitton bag, said she had visited Shaoshan on three occasions. On each trip, she made a sizeable donation. She said her prayers “always came true”. “In the 20th century Mao in China was treated no different as a God,” Professor Chen told me. “In China now, many people have no belief so they need to have some source of spiritual support. In part it is the belief Mao was a great man. But encouraging Mao as a god is also a way to earn money.”

What is curious about this devotion to Mao in Hunan is that it persists at a time when his legacy is being increasingly reexamined in the rest of China. Earlier this year, a leading Chinese economist, Mao Yushi, triggered heated debate when he penned an article flaying Mao's legacy. “In Mao Zedong's eyes, the people were just meat and muscle,” he wrote. “They were tools he used to shout ‘Long Live'. His thirst for power dominated his life, and to this end, he went entirely mad.” Such explicit criticisms are rarely voiced in China, in spite of a consensus among historians of Mao's direct responsibility for both the calamitous Great Leap Forward and the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution, even as the CPC continues to officially largely blame Mao's associates for the disasters.

The article was taken down by censors, but not before it unleashed a storm of controversy. Nationalists and the “New Left” lambasted Mao Yushi. Some called for his arrest, and others threatened violence. What was remarkable was that a number of liberal intellectuals openly came to his defence. I visited Mao Yushi, now 82, in his modest west Beijing apartment and asked him why he wrote that essay. “My view,” he said, “is that the legitimacy of the CPC comes from success in conducting reform and opening up, and not because of Mao.” His larger point was an open, objective assessment of the dangers of Maoism was needed in order to create the momentum for further economic and political reform — as well as ensure there is no regression back to the totalitarian days of Mao.

Mao Yushi also wanted to respond to a new resurgence among some sections in the CPC, loosely dubbed the New Left, to revive some of Mao's ideas, which they see as the solution to the problems of rising economic inequality and ideological confusion faced by China today — problems, which, they say, are a legacy of reforms. Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary in western Chongqing, who is widely tipped to be appointed to the influential nine-member Politburo Standing Committee next year, is seen by many as representing this school of thought. He is also one of China's most popular political figures. He has initiated a campaign to revive “Red culture”, encouraging the singing of Red songs and bringing back Mao into the political debate. He has attempted to expand the government's role, both in terms of driving the economy and providing welfare, and launched a popular corruption crackdown (which, however, worried some legal scholars for allegedly giving short shrift to legal process).

Professor Chen says “some people feel that the many problems in China are because people are not following the direction of Mao Zedong Thought.” But this is “more an emotional response,” he says. But Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, says “those who are using Mao Zedong Thought are not using it as an empty invocation.” “They do advocate to the substance of Mao Zedong Thought - equality, mass line, and serving the people wholeheartedly. In fact, Bo Xilai, is putting these into practice. He has been sending cadres to rural areas [and] this practice is reportedly rather successful.” Even three decades on after his death, even as his legacy faces increasing scrutiny, Mao's ideas still continue to shape China's political discourse.

Scars from the past

In the 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, the Mao-inspired Red Guards ransacked the Yuelu Academy. The object of their anger was a Confucius temple that sits on the eastern section of the academy — only a few hundreds yards from where Mao lived and studied. The temple was destroyed. It was subsequently rebuilt, but still bears signs of damage. One of the two dragon statues that sits in front of the temple has a disfigured left ear. A bright red wall sits incongruously in the garden. The red paint, an official told me, was put there to cover the scarred remains of an old panel of inscriptions that the Red Guards attacked.

“The fact is in the last 50 years, we have had many problems because of Mao Zedong Thought,” Professor Chen told me when I asked him about the temple. “Mao believed we needed violent revolution for independence. The main problem was that after the PRC was founded, we continued to use violent revolutionary ways to solve all problems. This has been his biggest negative influence.”

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.