Almost 30 years after the death of Mao Zedong, many are still trying to define the controversial leader of the People’s Republic of China. But like China, Mao defies simple classification. And his name still evokes deep respect among many Chinese.
On Dec. 26, Beijing officials will honor the 112th anniversary of Mao’s birth. Commemoration ceremonies will begin in Tiananmen Square, the historic heart of China where Mao’s body still lays sealed in a glass case. Each day, people from throughout China stand in long lines to pay their respects. Outside the country, many Chinese around the world say Mao gave China back its dignity.
When asked about Mao, Yun Shi, 31, who grew up in Shandong province and lives in Oakland, recalls the poet, hero and liberator who rescued Chinese from a “Century of Humiliation”—what Chinese call the 100 years of foreign domination of China since the British Opium Wars. In 1949, in founding the People’s Republic of China, “[Mao] announced in Tiananmen Square that the Chinese have stood up,” Shi says.
Shi does not discount the controversial leader’s crimes. Her own family suffered at the hands of Mao. Her great aunt was one of thousands who were forcibly taken from their homes and who had their possessions seized by peasants during the Communist takeovers that Mao led before becoming chairman. She says while she may not agree with Mao’s tactics, she still believes in the principles of a fair society.
Not all Chinese see Mao in a favorable light. In her book “Wild Swans,” Jung Chang chronicled the hardships her family endured as one of millions jailed or sent to the countryside for hard labor during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In her recently released “Mao: the Unknown Story,” written with husband Jon Halliday, Chang uncovers a much darker side of Mao, much of it never before reported. The book states that battles during the Long March, an event during the Communist revolution that made Mao the stuff of legend, were invented, and shows Mao needlessly sacrificing hundreds of men to glorify himself. Chang chronicles how, in private, Mao said he hated peasants and frequently tortured and killed them in mass. Mao sold food for arms, exacerbating one of China’s worse famines. Chang and Halliday say Mao was responsible for up to 70 million deaths.
After the book was released, Chinese came to Mao’s defense on Internet message boards, citing his contributions to China.
Chang thinks Mao’s continued idolization in China is nothing less than ongoing “brainwashing.” “He is written in the constitution as the guiding force for China,” she says, “and it is also illegal to oppose Mao.” She says because Beijing withholds the truth about Mao, younger generations who did not live under him have no other choice than to accept a distorted view of the leader. “The regime is determined to perpetuate the myth of Mao,” Chang says.
Ling-chi Wang, professor of ethnic studies at U.C. Berkeley, says that while Mao’s wrongdoings cannot be discounted, “Mao made an important contribution in Chinese history, as a leader who instilled a great sense of self-reliance and pride in the people.” Mao is still idolized in China, especially by the working class. “When Mao took over he divided the land among the peasants. At the time they were 80 percent of the population,” Wang says.
In San Francisco, where Chinese make up 20 percent of the population and form the city’s single largest ethnic group, a restaurant in the Richmond district called Mao Zedong Village is a living homage to the leader. Its décor is meant to replicate an early Chinese peasant cottage like the one that Mao grew up in the village of Shaoshan in the Hunan province. Garlic hangs on the wall next to numerous portraits of Mao.
Restaurant owner Tina Cheng, originally from Beijing, says she got the idea for the eatery after seeing diners pack similar restaurants in almost every major city on the Mainland. Like them, she serves Mao’s favorite dishes, like “Chairman Mao’s Red Cooked Pork Pot,” a rich, caramelized pork stew. Folklore says Mao loved the dish because his peasant family could have it only on special occasions. Cheng says she put a portrait of Mao on her menu because it symbolizes good luck. It appears to be working—Cheng plans to open other Mao restaurants in the Bay Area.
In Los Angeles, Mao’s Kitchen restaurant is decorated with old posters of the Cultural Revolution. In karaoke houses nationwide, Chinese speakers can select traditional songs singing Mao’s praises to an updated techno and pop beat. Mao is also a kitsch favorite among designers. Canton-born New York designer Vivienne Tam sells T-shirts of Mao in pigtails and says she admires a leader who can dictate the fashion of a billion people.
Lately, Beijing has been using Mao’s influence to advance its own agenda, says Chaohua Wang, editor of “One China, Many Paths,” and a dissident. “As discontent grew in the countryside over the growing disparity between rich and poor, in the late 1990s the government began to talk about Mao to comfort those who were complaining,” Chaohua says. Leaders like Chinese President Hu Jintao mimicked Mao, traveling to villages in the countryside, “and emphasized Mao’s achievements in making China strong.” The message that they delivered was different from Mao’s, however. Instead of speaking out against “class struggles” against capitalism, as Mao did, they emphasized a “harmonious society.”
Indeed, these days Mao is becoming more intertwined with China’s spectacular rise. Shanghai-born Michael Xin, 42, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, is in awe of what his country has become. “It has gone from being one of the weakest countries to one of the strongest in a very short period of time.” And he says Mao partly gets a nod for laying the foundation.
For Xin, the lasting impact of Mao’s formal teachings on Chinese is his most impressive legacy. Xin says he was once approached by a Taiwanese vice-president of an American high-tech company who told him that he owed his business success to Mao’s books on the “Sword” and “Practice” theories of dealing with conflict and motivating people.
Xin says, “I went to search for it right away.”
Pueng Vongs is an editor with New America Media, a collaboration of ethnic media in the United States.