Communists have parents too

John Gittings in Shaoshan

I arrived by bus at a dusty crossroads outside Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao Zedong, in a fine mist which stippled the dark water of the paddy fields. An out-of-work student with a motorbike for hire drove me to the Shaoshan Guesthouse. It was damp and empty except for a group of civil servants visiting at official expense. In the village square, some workers were desultorily clearing the ground where a statue of Mao is to be erected – the first in nearly twenty years. On 26 December, China will commemorate the l00th anniversary of his birth. At the Guesthouse the choice was between a tourist room with three single beds and dirty sheets, or Mao Zedong’s old suite, which had a double bed with a wooden canopy and a bath almost as large, at five times the price. I chose the suite, less for the clean sheets than for the opportunity to sit at his desk, listen to the wind in the bamboos outside, study the ink spots on the worn leather, and think about the Chairman.

I first came to China in 1971 when the air stewardesses still sang Mao-songs in the aisle, and people waved goodbye at railway stations with Little Red Books. Ten years later, the Cultural Revolution had been repudiated, the People’s Communes abandoned, and Mao judged to have ‘made mistakes’ from the Great Leap Forward onwards. Mao’s image has lost not only its shine but most of its sharpness since the years of adoration. Then at least we could see him clearly in one light or another, whether as an innovative Marxist-Leninist or as a Stalinist dictator. Since then the picture has been revised but without achieving anything like the same degree of definition. In China the reason is mostly political: early on in the post-Mao reforms Deng Xiaoping drew the line at any advance on the ‘he made mistakes’ formula. ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ became one of Deng’s Four Principles, which could not be abandoned without threatening the survival of the Party and of Socialism. Even without these official constraints, most Chinese, including many intellectuals who had suffered grievously from his policies, would probably have hesitated to reject the Chairman outright: had they done so they would also have had to reject a large chunk of their own history or myth (the distinction is rarely clear in China). At the popular level there was even a Maoist revival – the ‘Mao fever’ – in the late Eighties, marked by a good deal of nostalgia for the simple certainties of the past. Pictures of Mao became talismans for taxi and bus drivers, and the souvenir stalls at Shaoshan started to do good business. (There are now more than two thousand of them in the village and nearby town.)

Perhaps exhausted by the effort of trying to understand Mao when alive, Western scholarship has also advanced remarkably little since he died, though we have become more sceptical about his powers as a political theorist. His brief allusions to the persistence of ‘contradictions’ in a socialist society, and to the danger of ‘vested interests’ within the Party, are now seen as too elliptical and inconsistent with what he tolerated in real life to constitute a sustained innovation. The distinguished Maoologist Stuart Schram discusses this in his essay in the final volume of the Cambridge History of China, while still taking Mao’s ideological legacy very seriously. The irony is that no one in China, neither the party leaders nor the masses, would regard the discussion of Mao’s theory as anything other than a waste of time better devoted to making money.

An alternative view of Mao, which I expect we shall hear much more about during this 100th-anniversary year, focuses on his ‘traditional’ role as emperor-tyrant. The Communists, W.J.F. Jenner writes in The Tyranny of History, ‘had to have their own Son of Heaven, who would hold the system together by imposing his will on its component parts ... and as [Mao] was far better acquainted with Chinese than with foreign history and literature, he thought like the founder of a dynasty’. Jung Chang, in Wild Swans, provides a sharper critique: Mao was a megalomaniac who ruled by exploiting the ugliest human instincts and created ‘a moral wasteland and a land of hatred’. In The New Emperors, Harrison Salisbury included over a dozen index references to ‘Mao as emperor’. Mr Salisbury made the most of Mao’s half-mocking comparisons between himself and the first Qin emperor (221-210 BC) who ‘burnt the books and killed the scholars’; and claimed that Mao had a plan to destroy the Forbidden City and replace it with a brand-new Mao Zedong City. He also retailed some familiar élite gossip about the ageing Mao’s alleged weakness for young female attendants.

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