On a recent visit to the city of Changsha in China’s Hunan province, I took a side trip to Shaoshan, the picturesque little village where one of the most important political figures of the 20th century, namely Mao Zedong, was born in December 1893.
I discovered that the man who was idolized by radicals worldwide during his lifetime had been truly deified since his death – an odd fate for an atheist revolutionary who once reportedly declared to the Dalai Lama, “Religion is poison.”
A Lucrative Diversion
Since 2005, Chinese officials have been actively promoting “red tourism,” encouraging Chinese to visit locations and artifacts associated with the history of Chinese communism. These include sites linked to the war with Japan, as well as the Civil War with Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalists.
Mao’s birthplace and Yan’an — the city in northwestern China that served as the base for the Chinese communists for many years prior to 1949 — are naturally two of the most important destinations for such political pilgrimages. This promotion of totalitarian nostalgia serves both ideological and development purposes, since many of the 33,000 revolutionary sites and relics are found in rural and poorer parts of China.
Over one billion red tourism trips were made in 2016, an estimated two-thirds of them by visitors under the age of 35. Most of this interest in dead revolutionaries is a reflection of the fact that with their basic needs for food, shelter, and a trendy smartphone satisfied, today’s Chinese are looking to satisfy their spiritual thirst, whether through a turn to religion or glorification of the revolutionary past.
The government has been quick to take advantage of this mood in an attempt to get people to stop thinking about the corrosive corruption in Party circles and revive revolutionary values.
It also offers opportunities to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment at sites connected to the wartime struggle with Japan and link these past events to the current territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea. For example, there is a large Memorial Museum of Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War at the Marco Polo Bridge near Beijing.
Mao’s hometown is in a beautiful area, in mid-eastern Hunan, about an hour’s drive from the provincial capital of Changsha. Shaoshan has been transformed from a nondescript backwater into a sprawling complex of 82 designated tourist spots.
Undoubtedly the most popular is the Mao family residence, built along the side of a little valley cradled between green hills. Pine trees dot the oddly shaped surrounding mountains. Behind the Mao family home, pyramid-shaped 520-meter-high Shaofeng peak looms impressively across a valley to the south. I was told the spot enjoys absolutely perfect feng shui!
The 13-room home in Qing-era style (a replica, actually, since the original was destroyed by the KMT), although simple in construction, is surprisingly spacious with nearly 475 square meters. Mao’s father was a rich peasant, so Zedong and each of his two younger brothers even had their own rooms. The walls are adorned with reproductions of family photos, and an adjoining storehouse contains the kinds of farm implements Chinese peasants typically used when Mao was young.
I couldn’t help but mentally compare this arrangement to the childhood home of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto — born the son of a low-ranking samurai in Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture, which I visited several years ago. That had been nothing but a cramped wooden shack.
During the Cultural Revolution legions of leftists made the pilgrimage to Shaoshan. They included not only young Red Guards who slept on the floors of peasant homes, but also countless foreign visitors.
Recently, I read a long article carried in the July 1966 edition of the Peking Review about foreign visitors from five continents visiting Shaoshan and effusively praising it as “sacred soil which all revolutionaries aspire to visit” and the “cradle of revolution.” One admirer praised Mao as the “beacon of revolution who had shown the way to victory for all the oppressed people and oppressed nations of the world.”
Red Tourism was apparently popular even in those days, as the article noted, “At Shaoshan, many foreign friends picked up stones at places where Chairman Mao had worked, and wrapped them up as souvenirs.”
One Vietnamese visitor waxed poetic: “The 650 million Chinese people armed with Mao Zedong’s Thought are 650 million spiritual atom bombs.” At times the effusive fervor of the visitors seemed almost comical. The reporter wrote, “The brilliant thought of Mao Tse-tung rises like the morning sun and spreads its splendid rays over every part of the earth.”
It is easy to forget, however, that not only did millions die from violence and malnutrition in China during the Cultural Revolution, in those days the PRC exported genocide as well as Mao Zedong Thought to the killing fields of Cambodia and elsewhere.
After Mao’s death in September 1976 and the arrest of the Gang of Four, Shaoshan fell on hard times. The number of visitors dwindled down from tens of thousands to a mere few hundred a day. Things picked up again in the 1990s, but the sheen was off Maoism overseas.
Mao Family Saga — a Guide’s Rendition
Apparently, these days it is relatively rare for foreign visitors to visit Shaoshan, so my friend and I were given special treatment with a local guide providing some tantalizing background information. The Mao family saga is certainly a fascinating story in its own right.
“It is said that Mao’s spirit of destiny was so powerful that it overwhelmed many of those closest to him,” our young female escort in military-style garb told us. “In any event, most of his close relations met bad ends.”
It appears that Mao’s qi (life force) was so great that, like a vampire, it sucked up the qi of those around him. In any event, his beloved second wife was executed by the KMT, one son died in combat in the Korean War, another son was mentally ill, and his fourth wife — the infamous Madame Mao (Jiang Qing) — hung herself in 1991.
Mao’s parents were buried on nearby hills. “The KMT was determined to destroy the tremendous feng shui that seemed to make Mao invincible, so they disturbed the family tombs and did things like that,” our guide told us.
Nowadays, the fervor in Shaoshan is as much about making money as honoring the memory of its favorite son.
Wellspring of Revolution
A short distance from the Mao family home stands a giant 10-meter-high bronze statue of the chairman, to which thousands of Mao worshippers each day bring fresh flowers or other offerings, just as if he were a Buddha or bodhisattva. And, walk into any gift shop in Shaoshan and you can find a full lineup of Mao statues of all sizes, Mao shirts and Mao badges — all of which have come to be considered good luck charms. I happened to be wearing a couple of vintage Mao badges I picked up at a temple fair in Suzhou many years earlier, which earned me a thumbs-up from one of the local sales clerks.
Perhaps the most interesting attraction of all at Shaoshan are the buildings at the Di Shui (“Water Dripping”) Cavern complex, which include an earthquake-proof, cement-and-steel bunker and bomb shelter, designed to withstand an A-bomb attack. It was reportedly built in an area Mao used to play in when young, after the Chairman suggested that after retirement he would like to live in a thatched-roof hut in Shaoshan.
In the No.1 Building, glass windows allow visitors to peek in at Mao’s private bedroom and study, as well as the bathroom of “his wife” (Jiang Qing is apparently like Voldemort, a name that can never be uttered).
Although Mao made a much-publicized visit to his hometown in 1959, less often spoken of is his 11-day stay here in June 1966, to plot the course of the Cultural Revolution. In the meeting hall, you can see a movie projector — no doubt for Jiang Qing’s use because of her love for screening classic Hollywood films like Gone with the Wind and especially movies starring Greta Garbo.
The Cultural Revolution devastated the ranks of the CCP. The top rulers today are in many cases the children of those who suffered most. They may honor Mao, but they also hate his spirit, fearing it will infect the young once again with utopian dreams.
The official verdict is that he was a “great proletarian revolutionary” and founder of modern China who committed “gross mistakes” in his later years.
Mao, Xi — The Battle for Hearts Today
The Party, although it may have adeptly transformed itself into an authoritarian quasi-capitalist dictatorship, still looks to Mao for its legitimacy.
And it still maintains a one-party Leninist institutional vice grip on education, the media, and the judiciary. It remains determined to ferret out dissidents and any other conceivable challenges to its power.
Current supremo Xi Jinping has concentrated more power in himself than any Chinese leader since Mao. Not only has he been made leader for life, but his “thought” has been enshrined as official ideology for the new era, despite the fact that it is as inspiring as a thousand-year-old egg.
Nevertheless, even today many Chinese clearly remain nostalgic for the Cultural Revolution.
An Awkward Embrace
Not only are elderly pensioners who have lost their social safety net resentful of the gaping economic disparities in today’s China, so are many idealistic young people. Some even dare to say that Deng Xiaoping and his successors have betrayed both Mao and communism. They argue that the Cultural Revolution was intended to root out official corruption, and imply it is perhaps time for a repeat performance. Some critics go so far as to claim that China was a more democratic society under Mao, since the common people had a voice in politics.
Beijing finds itself in a bit of a quandary these days, since it wants to use Mao as a symbol of revolutionary commitment to buttress the authority of Xi, while not allowing neo-Maoist enthusiasm to get out of hand.
Xi’s embrace of Mao’s legacy frequently appears awkward. In fact, for many leftists in China today, praising Mao represents veiled criticism of Xi and the current “princeling” leadership.
Maoists blame the unspoken pact that Deng made with the Chinese people in 1978 that they would be allowed economic freedom in return for renouncing political participation for the gross materialism, rampant corruption, and yawning economic inequality plaguing China today. They yearn for the “good old days” when all were equally poor, but at least theoretically everyone shared the same subsistence lifestyle, with free education and medical benefits, etc.
These neo-Maoists have become willing to overlook the terror and chaos of Mao’s era and romanticize its dream of utopian egalitarianism. In fact, some malcontents continue to laud Bo Xilai, the purged rival of Xi, who used revolutionary songs and other Maoist trappings to build a nationwide following.
Religion of Maoism
One thing people tend to forget is that with every revolution there are winners as well as losers. I spoke to a Changsha resident, who had hailed from the kind of poor peasant family that still consider Mao a savior. Families like his had truly hardscrabble lives as farmers or tenants before land reform. This man had been one of the best students in his district, earning him a place at a local university. This would never have been possible in the old society.
I asked him: “Who do you think is the greater leader, Mao or Xi Jinping?” Although he avoided giving a direct answer, his reply was quite interesting. “Mao was the founder of New China and Deng Xiaoping opened us up to the outside world,” he began. “Now Xi is trying to restore China as a great nation. But Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao (referring to Xi’s two immediate predecessors as China’s top leader) really didn’t do anything much.”
After visiting Russia and meeting Lenin, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1920 wrote, “Bolshevism as a social phenomenon is to be reckoned as a religion, not an ordinary political movement.”
That was certainly true of Maoism in its heyday. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the “little red book” (Quotations from Chairman Mao) was said to be the most widely distributed book in the world, with the exception of the Bible. Indeed, it was the bible for many Marxist and fellow travelers worldwide.
Mao’s gospel that “it is right to rebel” was welcomed on college campuses from Berkeley to the Sorbonne. I remember visiting the campuses of Tokyo University and Waseda University in Tokyo during 1969, and with bewilderment observing large groups of helmeted radicals snake-dancing and shouting revolutionary slogans through megaphones. I even witnessed an incident in which a member of an opposing faction was cornered and beaten viciously with staves by one gang of these Mao-inspired zealots. I could well have been in China watching opposing groups of armed Red Guards clashing.
Since for Mao clones, wherever they might be, “everything is permitted,” before long the aggressive drive of the radicals of those days to “put politics in command” had descended into Lord of the Flies. There were sectarian squabbles and murderous ultraviolence of the sort practiced by the Baader-Meinhof Group in West Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Rengo Sekigun (United Red Army) and Nihon Sekigun (Japanese Red Army) in Japan.
Maoism Lives On
Maoism continues to live in today’s China. In fact, recently the government cracked down on neo-leftist websites, and plain clothes police have been sent in to break up meetings of “Marxist student societies” at top universities. For example, in December of 2018, the authorities quashed a group of students and recent graduates from prestigious Peking University who had invoked Mao’s gospel of equality when joining with labor activists to support factory workers trying to establish their own union.
Long gone are the days when a cavalcade of “useful idiots” from abroad pranced through the fields of Shaoshan. Nevertheless, Maoism — which has been called “one of the most ambitious attempts at human manipulation in history” — continues to remain a force shaping today’s world.
Mao saw himself as leader of the world and even today his revolutionary thought continues to have a long afterlife — often in bizarre mutations. Although the radical chic epitomized by college dorm posters of Mao or French New Wave films may be passé, Mao’s influence lives on in the political correctness of many Western classrooms.
That is true on the other side of the political spectrum as well. Mao’s emphasis on culture as a sociopolitical weapon that he first enunciated at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in May 1942, and the application of which reached a crescendo during the Cultural Revolution, by the 1980s had spawned the neoconservative culture wars in the United States.
And Trumpism is surely a cultural as well as a political phenomenon. Like Mao, Donald Trump is a master showman who knows how to prey on the fears and resentments of his followers, while demonizing his political opponents and issuing a constant barrage of verbal attacks using dehumanizing rhetoric.
The bastard offspring of Maoism continues to breed.
Author: John Carroll