|Despite his officially acknowledged “mistakes”, Mao remains a powerful political icon [EPA]|
Keeping a watchful gaze on Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing, the giant oil painting portrait of Mao Zedong is one of the most enduring images of 20th century China.
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Mao has been dead for more than 30 years but his image is everywhere: on every Chinese banknote, in countless city squares and emblazoned across t-shirts, kitsch cigarette lighters, posters, bags and mugs.
Beijing even boasts a grungy music bar, Mao Livehouse, whose logo is the hairline of the “Great Helmsman” himself.
During his two and a half decades as China’s supreme leader, Mao enjoyed a fanatical following among millions of young Chinese.
But today, 60 years since he proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, he has become more or less irrelevant to young people more enthralled by a growing economy and increasing materialism.
“He was just an ordinary man, like you and me,” says a young fashion student from the southern city of Wuhan who gave her name as Camille.
“So many people have elevated him into a god, but the time of Mao has gone now. That’s history. Personally, I don’t believe he was a god.”
|Many Chinese grow up with little understanding of Mao’s legacy [Reuters]|
Officially, Mao lost his godlike status when, in 1981, Deng Xiaoping, then China’s leader, announced Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong.
It was an effort by Deng, say commentators, to abolish Mao’s cult-like status and to draw a line under a brutal and turbulent episode in China’s history.
More than 30 million people are thought to have died as a result of Mao’s policies, including the Great Leap Forward, a radical economic plan in the late 1950s that resulted in mass famine.
That was accompanied at the same time by the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in which Mao launched a vicious nationwide purge of party critics.
In the mid-1960s Mao then announced the start of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long drive to weed out what was considered “old thinking” led by ranks of fanatical Red Guards.
|Mao and me|
“He was just an ordinary man just like you and me. So many people have elevated him into a god, but the time of Mao has gone now, that’s history. I don’t believe he was a god.”
Camille, Fashion student
“He was truly a great man. That’s all I have to say.”
Qing Ru, Model
“Mao Zedong was a great man. He led the revolution that destroyed the old feudal system of Imperial China and all its superstitions.”
Mr Kong, Accountant
“Mao enforced his will rather than served the people. He was one of those rotten emperors.”
Ai Weiwei, Artist and architect
But Deng’s 70:30 statement did not give the green light to an honest appraisal of Mao’s rule. Until this day, Mao’s mistakes have never been publicly debated in China.
Young Chinese views on Mao are shaped early on through school history textbooks, which refer to Mao’s mistakes but gloss over the bloody details.
Mao is portrayed as a great revolutionary figure who made some errors but who is still revered as the founder of the nation.
Mao is not explicitly implicated in the Cultural Revolution, for example. Instead, the official line goes, he is guilty merely of bad judgement and of allowing himself to be hoodwinked by his wife, Jiang Qing, and her cronies.
Teachers are unlikely to fill in the gaps, say commentators.
Indeed, in some parts of the country, Mao is now hardly mentioned in text books. In Shanghai in 2006, Mao was virtually dropped from the city’s high school history books except for one sentence on etiquette.
So it is no surprise then that the majority of Chinese youth grow up with little understanding of, and even indifference to, Mao’s legacy.
“Parents are not interested in talking about it, the textbooks don’t talk about it, their teachers don’t want to talk about it and students are not interested in finding out about it,” says David Moser, a professor of Chinese studies and an academic director at Capital Normal University in Beijing.
“They don’t really care and they are not being pushed to find out.”
While the mainstream view of Mao is indifference tinged with respect, there are minority groups who do hold strong opinions on the former Chairman.
The more nationalistic youth tend to idolise Mao. The most obvious example are the “fenqing” (angry youth), who use the internet to vent their fury against countries, organisations or people they feel threaten China’s rise.
In retaliation for protests that disrupted China’s Olympic torch relay last year, a Chinese university student posted a six-minute nationalistic homemade video on Youtube.
The opening shots are of Mao with sunbeams emanating out of his head. In the first 10 days it attracted more than a million hits.
“Some of the younger kids are nationalistic so many look at Mao as a great leader,” says Moser.
|Mao impersonators are seen more as homage than parody [Reuters]|
“They don’t like foreigners finding fault with him. They hate the foreign press that lumps Mao in with Stalin and Hitler. That really makes them mad.”
But there are also some young Chinese who have grown to despise Mao for the cruelty of his rule.
One 30-year-old interpreter from Beijing says that whenever she thinks of Mao it makes her sick because it reminds her of the Cultural Revolution.
She declined to give her name because she was worried about publicly expressing this opinion.
But while Mao’s mistakes have officially been acknowledged it is not acceptable to criticize him in public. Likewise, it is never fair game to parody Mao in the media.
“There is, in fact, no political satire at all in China,” notes Moser.
Take the business of Mao impersonators, for example. These are men who make a living looking and acting like Mao for television skits and functions. These men never make fun of Mao, he says. The fun is in the re-creation.
“You can’t do parodies of any leaders and the Mao impersonators just use his famous quotes and mimic his actions. It’s more homage to him.”
Similarly, in the movie world, filmmakers always depict Mao as a revolutionary hero.
The two propaganda blockbusters put out for the October 1 celebrations – Tiananmen and The Founding of a Republic – are good examples.
“What we do get are revolutionary history films that depict his glorious achievements. The private life, the mistakes and the declining years are unseen,” says Chris Berry, a professor of film studies at the University of London’s Goldsmiths College.
And it’s not just because vilifying Mao would be taboo, he argues.
‘Mao the hero’
“While I doubt the government would permit anything like that, I also think that most Chinese viewers are not very interested in a critical perspective on Mao. They want Mao the hero.”
A film that portrayed Mao as a dictator who caused millions of people to die would he says be seen not merely as a mistake, “but as a crime – an attack on the state”.
There is one area, though, where there is some scope for playing with Mao’s image and that is the art world.
“Artists are able to do these sacrilegious images of Mao that go well beyond the Andy Warhol images of him wearing lipstick,” says Moser. “There’s almost total freedom to parody him in modern art.”
It’s a niche market, which is only seen by foreigners and the arts community and so the government “has given up”, he says.
One of the more outspoken artists is Ai Weiwei who is not shy of sharing his opinion.
Ai holds no fond memories of Mao.
“Mao enforced his will rather than served the people,” he says. “He was one of those rotten emperors.”