To some people braving the cold of Beijing’s winter, the desire to gaze upon their former ruler comes from genuine respect for his achievements.

“I admire him,” proclaimed one retired worker, surnamed Ma. “He was a great leader; he fought the Japanese and united China. He was a master strategist and inspirational speaker.”

Others were not so willing to give praise. “I have no interest in him,” opined one college student, “I was born after his death and although he is seen as a respected figure, I have no relationship with him.”

Her reaction offers a general insight into the generational differences of opinion towards Chairman Mao.

Various views

According to Yang Tianshi, a professor of Modern Chinese History at the Academy of Social Sciences, attitudes towards Mao will vary depending upon age, social background and personal experience.

For intellectuals like himself, one of the defining moments of Mao’s legacy was the Cultural Revolution, a period of brutal turmoil when students, encouraged to attack ‘rightist elements’ within society often turned upon their own teachers and each other with tragic consequences.

However, for non-intellectuals during Mao’s leadership, Yang believes that now there is often nostalgia for former times when life was “simpler, more egalitarian".

Crowds have visited Mao's crystal
coffin for over 20 years

In China’s schools, Mao is portrayed as the great leader, the man who united China after decades of division at the hands of brutal warlords and foreign imperialists.

He is described as a great idealist whose visionary policies helped China industrialize and begin to regain her rightful place among the world's leading nations.

Forgotten history

Although now officially recognized, little emphasis is placed on his so-called ‘mistakes’, the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61 and subsequent famine in which some 20 million people reportedly died, and the more infamous Cultural Revolution of 1966-69.

“We studied Mao in compulsory politics classes from primary school until university,” explained Communist Party member Audrey Li.

“We study his contributions to Marxist-Leninist thought, we study his childhood, everything, even his poetry. In many ways he was a prodigy, one that only appears every 1000 years.”
 
One of the more important things to take into account when assessing Mao believes China historian Steve Smith, “is to remember that what Chinese people know about Mao is limited and heavily censored".

Revised and edited

A professor at Essex University, Smith points out that even though Mao’s legacy has been revised (for example, the labelling of the Cultural Revolution as a mistake) the Communist Party that is in power today is the same Communist Party that existed under Mao.

“On one hand, this is just about making money off foreigners, on the other it is indicative of how important Mao is too modern China, we cannot escape him. This does not mean though that people idolise him; just that his presence is part of our lives”

Former Tiananmen Square activist

Any open and uncensored re-examination of his legacy might question not just Mao’s reputation but also that of the Communist Party.

Certainly, the range of literature on offer is restricted.

According to Yang, only the government can sanction official biographies on Mao although these, when they are written, usually contain new material on Mao’s life.

For example, one work published in the 1990’s recounted tales from a former bodyguard.

Entitled, Mao Zedong, Man not God, it painted a more human side to the man - dwelling on his personal fallibilities.

Idolisation

Most foreign works, such as Mao’s former doctor Li Zhisui’s revealing biography on the man's personal and political machinations is not on sale although its contents, including Mao’s apparently unquenchable sex drive are sometimes the stuff of local jokes.

“Take into account,” explains Li Da, an organiser of cultural study activities in Beijing, “that the current leadership all grew up idolizing him, there is simply not the climate, either politically or academically for a full and open revision of him".

In popular society, though, there have been interesting signs of remembrance.

“In many ways he was a prodigy, one that only appears every 1000 years”

Audrey Li,
Communist Party member

In the 1990’s, drivers began hanging Mao icons in their vehicles as talisman while artists used his image as a form of pop art. His face even adorned tacky little cigarette lighters that are still popular with tourists.

One obsessive sculptor, Wang Wenhai has created over 1300 renditions of the man. With the largest standing at around three metres tall, Wang is unrepentant about his choice of muse.

Nostalgia

"Mao was an impressive man whose speeches still have resonance today. ‘Serve the people’ (one of Mao’s slogans) has as much relevance to society as it did in the 1950’s. People should still be listening to what he had to say,” he said.

For one artist and former Tiananmen Square activist who preferred not to be named, recent cultural trends that appear to romanticise Mao should not be taken too serious.

“On one hand this is just about making money off foreigners, on the other it is indicative of how important Mao is to modern China, we cannot escape him. This does not mean though that people idolise him; just that his presence is part of our lives.”

Looking forward, talk about reassessing his legacy have reportedly been raised in government circles but there have not been any public declarations made alluding to future historiographies.

Now, with the Communist Party facing enough domestic problems of its own trying to maintain credibility it appears unlikely a potentially unsettling revision of the Party’s history will be in the cards.