He was de-deified at the end of the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76), but Mao Zedong continues to be worshipped in some remote parts of China.
IN the largely Buddhist hamlet of Man’en, New China’s founder Mao Zedong is a god as revered as any other.
Most of the ethnic Dai villagers keep a small shrine of Mao in their homes, despite the “great helmsman” being de-deified after the end of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76).
A large portrait of Chairman Mao hangs in the living room of Ai Pa, with a smaller image of a senior Myanmar monk by its side.
This arrangement was a suggestion from the Buddhist clergyman, who presided over a prayer service for Ai Pa’s new house in 2000.
When Ai Pa requested a portrait of the monk to be used as a “home guardian” after the ceremony, the monk insisted his image be placed in a subordinate position to that of Mao, saying that Mao was the real saviour and guardian of the ethnic Dai people.
Loving everything about Mao, from his quotations to the passionate red songs, Ai Pa remains a loyal Mao fan even though his family suffered during his rule.
Ai Pa’s family was classified as landlords during the land reform in the 1950s, and his father fled to neighbouring Myanmar only a few days after his birth in 1957 in fear of penalties as denouncement campaigns against landlords swept Menghai county in Xishuangbanna in Southwest China’s Yunnan province.
As the descendant of a landlord, Ai Pa faced discrimination growing up. He was rejected when he registered to join the People’s Liberation Army.
Indeed, Ai Pa does think his family was wronged. “My ancestors were all poor peasants. It was not until my grandpa reclaimed some wasteland that our family began to own some padi fields and hire a few labourers,” he says.
However, the adversities did not make Ai Pa resentful. “A Buddhist should not hold a grudge or grievance,” says the 56-year-old.
He says he admires Mao because the late leader was a man who truly wanted to do good for the people, and he appreciates the values of equality that emerged in the Mao era.
Most villagers owned no land before the land reform in Xishuangbanna, and a feudal lord claimed ownership of all land.
Peasants had to shoulder the heavy burden of taxation, according to He Ming, an ethnic studies professor at Yunnan University in Kunming.
Ai Pa says that when he was a child, older people in the village told him that Mao was like the Monkey King in the traditional Chinese fairy tale Journey to the West, who was invincible and was commissioned by heaven to bring fairness and equality to the world.
Mao’s timeless appeal
Three decades into China’s reform and opening-up drive, Man’en, along with many other remote villages, has witnessed drastic economic and social transformation.
Satellite television broadcasts, mobile phones, motorcycles, cars, highways and the Internet have shortened the distance between the village and the outside world. And yet Mao has remained on a pedestal in the hamlet of more than 6,000 villagers.
A Mao portrait bought in Beijing is regarded as a very precious souvenir for local villagers, while Mao’s mausoleum is a must-see on their first trip to the national capital, says Ai Pa, who is also chief of Man’en village.
Like Ai Pa and his fellow villagers, the ethnic Blang people in Jiliang, another village with a population of more than 2,000 in Menghai, also celebrate Mao. They print his image on glazed bricks on the outside walls of their new homes.
These ethnic minority hamlets are not isolated cases. A survey by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group in 2008 in 40 Chinese cities and towns, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, showed that 11.2% of respondents enshrine Mao Zedong at home, a higher number than those who worship Buddha, the god of wealth, and other gods.
Huang Jisu, sociologist, playwright and cultural critic, says Mao worship is a complicated phenomenon strongly linked to social background and personal experiences.
However, Huang doesn’t believe there is a geographical, age or social class division in regard to people’s attitude toward Mao.
Huang says, there are also Mao fans in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, while some young people in universities also admire him. Huang also notes that it is not unusual for entrepreneurs and millionaires to admire Mao.
However, Huang stresses that admiration for Mao does not necessarily mean the admirers want to go back to the Mao era.
“It’s quite natural for Mao, such a great man, to have admirers. Just as pop stars can have so many fans, why not Mao?” says 58-year-old Huang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
Ordinary people psychologically need a great person to hold in high esteem, Huang says, and Mao has filled – and continues to fill – that need.
In Huang’s view, the greatest good that Mao did for the nation was lead the Chinese revolution, which ended the nation’s survival crisis that had lasted a century.
Both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek failed to lead the nation out of that crisis, and Mao was an unrivalled great man of his century, Huang says.
Passion through the lens
Sun Dahong, a photographer who has published an album of Mao fans of many ethnicities, argues that the modern passion for Mao has nothing to do with a personality cult.
“It’s not a political fervour that creates blind followers like those during the ‘cultural revolution’, but a kind of spontaneous affection or emotion that has sprouted at the grassroots and passed from generation to generation,” says Sun, a former provincial deputy police chief of Yunnan.
Sun cites the example of an ethnic Hani herb-store owner in Kunming he met when working on the album. The middle-aged man has kept a Mao portrait for 30 years that he inherited from his grandfather, previously a headman who was invited to Beijing and met Mao after liberation.
The man moved to Kunming from Pu’er for business 18 years ago, and now the Mao portrait hangs in his herb store.
“I always take it with me wherever I go,” the man told Sun.
Sun says he has witnessed much Mao worship among ethnic minorities.
As a police officer, he has been to many areas of Yunnan, home to 25 ethnic minority groups, and he often sees Mao’s image in the homes of local people, sometimes alongside their ancestors’ shrines.
The idea of shooting an album of Mao fans occurred to Sun when, during the Lantern Festival in February 2011, he photographed three old women in Chengjiang county of Yunnan talking merrily under a portrait of Mao.
His collection of more than 90 photos was exhibited in Beijing from Dec 22 to 28 to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth.
He says that through his photos he would like to share with people of all ethnic groups a feeling of affection, respect and admiration for New China’s founding father.
Sun spent nearly three years travelling across Yunnan and other parts of the country to capture the images, which cover Mao’s admirers from all the 56 ethnic groups, including the fishing tribe of Hezhe people in the northernmost Heilongjiang province and the Muslim Tatars in far-flung Xinjiang in the west.
Sun reveals that it was more than a journey for art but also a process of soul searching.
“There have always been concerns that today’s society is one without belief, but I have rediscovered it among the ordinary people. Mao worship is an instinctive expression of their emotion and perhaps even reflects a higher level of spiritual need,” Sun says.
“To his worshippers, Chairman Mao stands for auspice and victory, represents social justice and is a man that leads them to common wealth. So they believe in, respect and love Chairman Mao,” Sun says.
Also a Mao fan, Sun is not dissimilar to Ai Pa, in that his family also suffered under Mao’s rule. Sun’s mother, a provincial cadre in Yunnan, was persecuted to death during the “cultural revolution”, when Sun and his younger brother were both in Shanxi province receiving re-education from local peasants.
His mother’s death has been a lingering anguish but Sun has never blamed or hated Chairman Mao. After all, he says, blame for personal grievances should not all go to a policymaker.
As for Mao’s errors, a controversial topic, Sun would like to quote a man he met in Dehong, an autonomous prefecture of ethnic Dai and Jingpo, when shooting his album: “Chairman Mao’s contributions and merits are like a majestic mountain, but his faults can be measured in just a handful of earth.”
Huang Jisu agrees that Mao’s mistakes should be placed under critical analysis, but he argues that criticism should be based on facts instead of rumours or slander.
“For such an epoch-making man, he is always a giant, no matter what the comments are, be it praise or censure,” Huang says. — The China Daily/Asia News Network