SINOGRAPH Memories are made of Mao
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Two elderly people, wearing headscarves in the manner of peasants
from Shanxi province, had just left the south gate of the Forbidden City - the
former imperial palace in the heart of Beijing. They turned, and raised their
heads toward the giant portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square, then placed
their hands together in a gesture of reverence typically used in religions all
over the world.
A young policeman wearing white gloves who was patrolling the area approached
the couple, with a smile on his face. The two politely lowered their heads and
moved on. The guard is accustomed to this: many visitors from rural areas still
pay homage to the Great Helmsman, chairman Mao Zedong, who was leader of the
People's Republic of China from its establishment in
1949 until his death on September 9, 1976.
Yet, this September 9, China woke up as if it were just another ordinary day;
Beijing concealed under a wall of official silence the anniversary of Mao's
death. This silence is stronger than the boom of a thousand cannons - China is
proceeding quietly and prudently - but surely - with the process of
Many schoolbooks today devote less space to Mao than they did in previous
years. The official People's University Press, part of the People's University
established by Mao, has translated a biography critical of Mao written by Ross
Terrill, Mao: A Biography. The volume recounts how, in 1930, Mao could
have saved his second wife, Yang Kaihui, who was captured by the Nationalists
and tortured to death. Even Mao's portrait in Tiananmen is reduced in size
every year by a few centimeters.
This is a complete reversal from 30 or so years ago, when Mao was the object of
divine worship and portraits of his chubby, balding figure were like the holy
pictures that are displayed at feasts for the saints in some countries.
Thirty-three years ago when Mao died, people wept in the streets. Many thought
it was the end of the world, or simply refused to accept the fact as they
believed Mao would live forever.
The faith in Mao dies hard. Many taxi drivers in Beijing still display in their
cabs a portrait of the young Mao, just like Neapolitans with Madonna or a
crucifix. Many in the countryside retain his huge portrait at the center of
their houses. His face still features on bank notes.
Officially, while there is no fanfare about Mao, he is not demonized, despite
his highly controversial socio-political programs, including the Great Leap
Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which causing untold destruction to
culture, society, and the economy.
Mao's thinking is still a matter of careful study at universities. His only
grandchild - an extremely chubby figure - appears on television for special
occasions, wearing the uniform of a starched young colonel in memory of his
Mao's towering legacy will be represented as an important part of a blockbuster
film, Jianguo Daye (Lofty Ambitions of Founding a Republic), that will
be released on October 1 as part of the celebrations for the the 60th
anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. (See
China's birthday movie has many seeing red Asia Times Online, August
All the same, the anniversary of his death was not mentioned in the state media
- a significant omission on the eve of the important 60th anniversary, and an
even more significant omission on the eve of the Communist Party's plenum that
started on September 15.
The famous "Mao Zedong thought" is already buried under a wave of new ideas.
These include the reformist theories of Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader from
1978 to the early 1990s; the "Three Represents" of party chief Jiang Zemin
adopted in 2002, and the "harmonious society" of current President Hu Jintao.
The party that Mao molded and shaped is operating in accordance with all
theories in a "scientific manner", that is, the old ideas are still cherished
as old principles, but the real drivers are the new theories.