Tough times breed nostalgia for Mao
By Wu Zhong, China Editor
HONG KONG - Although Mao Zedong died 33 years ago, the founding father of
communist China seems to still be alive in the hearts of many Chinese.
A new wave of nostalgia for the late chairman is sweeping the nation ahead of
the 60th birthday of People's Republic of China (PRC) and amid the global
financial crisis. The leader, who led the PRC from its establishment until his
death in 1976, is surging though his brand of socialism has long been
officially abandoned and there has been criticism of "serious mistakes" such as
the Cultural Revolution.
Chingming is a traditional Chinese festival for the dead when families tend to
the graves of their ancestors. It normally falls on
April 4-5 each year. During Chingming this year, tens of thousands of visitors
flocked into Shaoshan, Mao's native village in Hunan province, to pay homage.
According to Hong Kong's Ta Kung Pao daily, on April 2 alone at least 30,000
people from various places of the country visited Shaoshan.
The visitors ranged from retired party and government officials to primary and
high school pupils. They first bowed and placed wreaths at a 10.1-meter-tall
bronze statue of Mao erected in the village - the numerical figure 10.1 stands
for October 1, the date on which Mao declared the founding of the PRC in 1949.
They then visited the mud-walled, clay-tile-roofed rural house where Mao was
born. Many also went to pay tribute to the tombs of Mao's parents and ancestors
near the village.
Another sign of growing nostalgia for Mao is the comeback in popularity of his Little
Red Book among Chinese university students, according to a report by
the France24 news channel. "We are selling five times as many copies of his
book as before the [financial] crisis," said Fan Jinggang, the owner of
neo-leftist Utopia Bookstore near Peking University. He said 200 copies had
been sold a month since the start of the economic downturn late last year.
The global financial crisis has already cost some 25 million migrant workers
their jobs in China, and university graduates also face an uncertain future.
"I have spent so much money in going to university to study," 22-year-old
student Yang Lu was quoted as saying on the France24 report. "I will graduate
next June, but I don't know if I will be able to find work. In this kind of
situation, how could we not feel nostalgic for the Mao era, when all students
were guaranteed work?"
Chinese are also increasingly worshipping the late chairman like a god. The
Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group last year conducted a survey
on religious beliefs in 40 cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and
It found that 11.5% of the families surveyed had a shrine in their homes of
Mao, in the form of a statue or bust. This was only slightly less than the
number of families (12.1%) that keep memorial tablets of their ancestors. Only
9.9% of families had a Buddhist icon, and 9.3% and 8.8% of families worshiped
icons of the God of Fortune and God of Land, respectively. The survey did not
cover rural areas, where many families are known to keep statues or pictures of
Mao in their homes.
According to Hong Kong's Ming Pao daily, some of the visitors to Shaoshan
during the Chingming Festival prayed to Mao to bless them with health, fortune
or love, while some high-school students hoped Mao would help them pass their
university entrance exams. Some retired cadres prayed to Mao for an end to
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao was worshipped like a god with
his Little Red Book read like the bible. But shortly after his death,
his merits were re-evaluated by the party when it was led by Deng Xiaoping,
whose reform and open-door policy ran counter to Mao's ideal of socialism.
In the 1980s, Mao was "taken down from the sacred shrine" and articles and
novels published that denounced the Cultural Revolution, a nationwide social
and political upheaval spearheaded by Mao that he hoped would eliminate his
political rivals and revolutionize Chinese society.
Between 1966 and 1968, Mao encouraged his young supporters, the Red Guards, to
take over power from state authorities and form "revolutionary committees" to
replace government establishments. But soon Mao's supporters split into
factions and started fighting one another. In the chaos and violence that
ensued, millions were killed and millions more injured or imprisoned.
Then in 1993, the centenary of Mao's birth, a wave of nostalgia for the
chairman swept the country. It was partially encouraged with official memorial
activities. Some people close to Mao, such as his guards, secretaries or
doctors and nurses, published articles or books about his daily life, and
movies and television series about Mao in war times were screened. One feature
was common in all of them, Mao was depicted as a human leader - a great one,
but not a god.
Even after Mao was removed from the "sacred shrine", some mysterious phenomena
seemingly occurred that added to his god-like status. On its completion, Mao's
statue was inaugurated on December 20, 1993, six days before Mao's 100th
birthday. Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited it to remove the red
silk covering the statue, but after several tries he still could not pull down
the cover. After some whispered advice from one of his staff, Jiang
respectfully stepped back and bowed three times to Mao's statue. Only after
this did he succeed in pulling down the silk. Stories like this have led many
people to believe that Mao had become a god after his death.
But the worship of Mao like a god, for whatever reasons, is just a by-product
of the growing nostalgia for the chairman. Although Chinese people may
generally live a better life today, they feel much less secure and safe than
under Mao's rule.
"I earned less than 100 yuan a month [US$14 at today's exchange rates] in Mao's
time. I could barely save each month but I never worried about anything. My
work unit would take care of everything for me: housing, medical care,
retirement and my children's education, though there were no luxuries. If I had
some problem, I could always turn to my work unit for help. Now I receive 3,000
yuan as a [monthly] pension, but I have to count every penny - everything is so
expensive and no one will take care of me now if I fall ill," said a retired
middle-ranking official in Beijing.
China today faces social evils which were apparently less common - or
publicized - during Mao's rule, such as rampant official corruption, a growing
wealth gap, and rising crime such as drug abuse and prostitution. This is
another reason people fondly remember the Mao era.
In a old joke, Deng was troubled by growing problems caused by his reforms, so
one night he paid a visit to Mao's memorial hall at Tiananmen Square. Looking
at Mao lying in his crystal coffin, Deng murmured, "Chairman, pray tell me how
to deal with the problems." Suddenly Mao sat up pointing a finger at Deng and
said, "You come in, I go out. And all these problems will be solved!" The joke
shows that even years ago public discontent with societal problems had already
began to grow and people wished for a strongman like Mao to solve them.
In the hope of finding a solution to these problems, some educated people such
as the neo-leftists are re-reading Mao's works. They are outspoken critics of
capitalist-style economic reforms and demand a return to some sort of
socialism. (See China at
a crossroad: Right or left?, Asia Times Online, Apr 24, 2009)
But the liberal intellectuals who support capitalist-style reforms strongly
resent the public nostalgia for Mao. Well-known author Zhang Xianliang, who is
also deputy to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, once
tabled a motion urging the government to suppress the nostalgia for Mao, saying
such sentiment would jeopardize ongoing reform and "opening up".
Apparently for Chinese communist leaders, Mao is still a legacy. So, public
nostalgia for Mao could help justify the legitimacy of the communist rule of
the country. For, while Mao's socialism is abandoned in practice, Mao Zedong
thought is still upheld by the party, at least in theory. In this sense, the
nostalgic sentiments could also somehow help fill the nation's ideological
vacuum left by reform and "opening up".
However, for the communist leaders, nostalgia for Mao could also be a
double-edged sword. If they fail to ease growing public discontent behind such
nostalgic feelings, one day public discontent could erupt and threaten their