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.

Cultural officials in Hunan province say that some five hundred new books have appeared to exploit the market for the anniversary. China’s new tabloid ‘weekend magazines’ (tolerated by the Government as a substitute for more critical journalism) are now carrying long articles on ‘The Hidden History of Jiang Qing’ and ‘The Sadness of the Chairman’s Last Years’ as well as their usual mixture of film, crime and popular medicine. Some of the more lurid material – particularly a book claiming to tell the story of Mao’s longlost son from his first marriage – has provoked Mao’s daughter-in-law Shao Hua to demand official censorship. (Perhaps not coincidentally, she is writing her own book about the Chairman.) Much of this new material is cribbed from other sources, including large chunks from Edgar Snow’s classic Red Star Over China (published in 1936), and from two Western biographies of Jiang Qing. But some of it has begun to break the restrictions imposed by Deng Xiaoping, using personal anecdote quite subtly to convey political judgment. This was the material that I spread out on Mao’s desk as it rained outside in Shaoshan.

Shaoshan used to be shown on Chinese maps with a large red star, a place of pilgrimage for Red Guards and foreign friends. In the peak year of 1966, there were nearly three million visitors and a one-way pedestrian system had to be devised. It circled the village, tunnelling through the hillside in the process. Perhaps a million Chinese (all but a few foreign friends have long since disappeared) will still visit this year, to buy fountain pens, medallions, towels, shoulder bags, brooches, laser images, and be photographed outside his family home.

I had been there a whole day before a simple but significant truth dawned on me: in Shaoshan, Mao was a visitor too. After the 1949 revolution, he only returned to Shaoshan twice – in June 1959 and again in June 1966, both visits coming at a critical time for him. Going back home is a peculiarly intense experience in China, where people cling to provincial habits and tastes decades after they have moved away; and I wondered whether Mao would reveal a different aspect of himself on his own ground.

He had last seen his old home in 1927, swearing not to return till the revolution was successful, ‘even if it takes thirty years’. His June 1959 visit came ten years after victory over Chiang Kai-shek, but with China now plunged into another revolution. At first there was real enthusiasm for the Great Leap Forward. ‘If the sky had a handle to hold it by,’ went a Hunanese peasant poem, ‘we would lift it up with ease. / We could pick up the earth if only it had a ring to seize. / Whatever the task Chairman Mao gives us to do, / we shall victoriously carry it through!’ The new people’s communes were supposed to lead to rural plenty, to level the differences between countryside and town. Millions of pots and pans were hurled into primitive furnaces to make ‘backyard steel’. But by mid-1959 it was clear to many of Mao’s colleagues that the Leap had stumbled badly: a combination of waste, incompetence and attempts by local officials to enforce wildly unrealistic targets. Mao had already sent members of his entourage to study the situation in other rural areas: now he came in person to the Hunanese countryside where, in the Twenties, he had researched the peasant revolution.

Before leaving Changsha, Mao instructed the Public Security Minister Lo Ruiqing that no soldiers or police should be sent to Shaoshan while he was there and that he should be free to go wherever he chose. On the first morning he was out in the village before 5 a.m. with officials rushing to keep pace. ‘First,’ he said, ‘we shall visit my parent’s tomb.’ They struggled up the wooded slope. There was no paved path then and the site was overgrown. Some villagers hastily made a wreath out of pine branches and wild azaleas, knotted together with long grass. Mao bowed deeply as the sun rose through the trees. ‘Life was hard for our parents. It will be happy for our children.’ he told the local people.

Mao’s filial visit would later bring great misfortune to the Hunanese writers Zhou Libo, best known for his novel Great Changes in a Mountain Village, with its sympathetic and humorous description of the rural revolution of the mid-Fifties. (It even has a rare love scene, modest but tender, between two young people in the open air.) In 1965, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou wrote a rather pedestrian account of Mao’s 1959 visit to Shaoshan for a provincial newspaper, which included a one-line reference to mao’s parental tomb. A year later the article was denounced by the national secret police chief Kang Sheng as a Great Poisonous Weed which Slandered the Brilliant Image of our Great Proletarian Leader. Tormented by the Red Guards, Zhou defended himself calmly. ‘Don’t Communists have parents too?’ he asked his persecutors.

Much of the recent Chinese material dwells banally on Mao’s affable chats with relatives and neighbours in Shaoshan, purveying the familiar image of the caring father who, like the mythological Emperor Yu, famous for having tamed the floods, takes a few minutes off from affairs of state to visit his home. Yet on the margins of hagiography, some writers have touched on the really interesting question raised by the 1959 visit. Did Mao learn the truth about the failure of his Great Leap policies from his fellow villagers, and if so did he admit it to himself?

Mao had stopped off at a peasant house on the way down from his parents’ tomb. Mao Xiasheng, then a barefoot peasant in his thirties, rushed back from the paddy field to be photographed with the Chairman. The same photograph now hangs outside the small restaurant where his daughter serves meals to the tourists. It is called, simply, the Mao Xiasheng Restaurant. When he is not watching his neighbours play mahjong, Xiasheng sells post-cards to the diners. Once a sale has been made, he will agree to answer questions about the past. Though the details have clouded, he recalls complaining to the Chairman about the public mess-halls where the villagers were compelled to eat. One of the new books published locally reveals a lot more. ‘Chairman,’ Xiasheng is supposed to have said, ‘please tell our cadres not to oppress the common people, not to beat us. My auntie was denounced in public last year because she told the truth. These days those who speak honestly come to grief; those who tell lies get promoted. I’m afraid what I say won’t please the leaders.’ Mao assured him that he would be safe. He had to repeat the assurance again that same evening.

Mao had planned, as the highpoint of his return, a dinner with relatives, army veterans, village cadres and elders. ‘I’ve been away for more than thirty years,’ he told his guests when he met them for the traditional chat before the meal. ‘Please let me know what you think about life today, about the Government and even about me!’ After some polite muttering that everything was fine, the complaints spilled out so fast that the old men interrupted one another. ‘Chairman, did you really order that we should plant our crops so close together that they died?’ ‘Chairman, did you really say that women and men should eat separately in public mess-halls?’ Mao answered defensively: policies which were not suitable should be changed. He would make sure of that. ‘Chairman,’ said one old man, puffing furiously on a long-stemmed pipe, ‘they call us “Old Conservatives” when we say these things.’ ‘Chairman, if you didn’t come to Shaoshan,’ said another, ‘we would all die soon of hunger!’

Mao wound up the session with some reassuring words. When he got back to Beijing he would personally issue a document to settle the question of public mess-halls. If there were problems, he was responsible. He told the local cadres to make sure that life went well for the people of Shaoshan. It was time to eat. Mao was in affable host, toasting the elders over their protests. But he could not fail to notice that some of his guests fell upon their food so fast that they choked on it. He himself drank and ate very little before leaving the table. At the end he put on a smile to pose for photographs, then went back to his room. Late at night he was still pacing his room and only slept when it was dawn.

During those sleepless hours Mao wrote a poem which defiantly celebrated the spirit of the Great Leap Forward as it should have been:

Like a dim dream recalled, I curse the long-fled past –
My native soil two and thirty years gone by.
The red flags roused the serf, halberds in hand,
While the despot’s black talons held the whip aloft.
Bitter sacrifice strengthens bold resolve
Which dares to make sun and moon shine in new skies.
Happy I see wave upon wave of paddy and corn,
And all around heroes home bound in the evening mist.

The next day he left Shaoshan abruptly. Two weeks later, at the Lushan Party Plenum, he turned on the critics of the Great Leap, forcing the resignation of the Defence Minister Peng Dehuai. The peasants had spoken and Mao had listened but, in the end, he refused to hear.

Mao’s second visit to Shaoshan was very different. In 1959 he had suggested to the provincial party boss, Zhou Xiaozhou, that they should build ‘a simple retreat’ in the hills where officials could relax and meetings be held. ‘When I’m old, I’ll come back and live there!’ he added. The result was the secret guesthouse at Dishuidong, invisible from the road below and guarded by soldiers. Today tourist minibuses tout for custom at the entrance next to a long line of souvenir stalls. The soldiers are still there, but they now sell computer-generated instant photographs and nostalgic tapes of Mao-songs. On the roadside up to the house, inscriptions in the calligraphy of senior Chinese leaders have been carved in the rock. The messages in poetry or prose tell how deeply moved their authors were by visiting where once the Chairman had stayed. The mood among the Chinese tourists is less reverential. They are impressed by the size of Mao’s bed – there is some speculation about his sleeping arrangements – and particularly by the enormous stand-up urinal in the bathroom next door.

Mao arrived on 18 June 1966 in three cars with his bodyguards from the élite 8341 Unit. They were disguised in plain clothes and carried accordion cases to conceal their weapons. Mao looked at the wooded slopes and remarked: ‘This is a nice place. When I was young I used to herd buffaloes here, cut firewood and grass, and sometimes fight with the other kids.’ A young girl who was gathering fuel on the hillside ran home to tell her father that Chairman Mao had returned. The rumour spread and security guards soon visited to warn that she had been ‘mistaken’. Hearing the story, Mao’s brother-in-law went up to the gate but was turned away by the guards. During ten days at Dishuidong Mao never left the compound. He only surveyed the peasants’ fields – badly affected by drought that year – from a viewpoint high above the valley. He was dissuaded from visiting his grandparents’ tomb (they had lived close by) with the argument that there was no path. This time he would not push through the undergrowth.

Chinese accounts of this ten-day visit are thin by Comparison with the descriptions of Mao’s two days in 1959. Minister Lo of Public Security, who accompanied him on the previous visit, had already been condemned as a ‘bourgeois individual ambitionist’. Soon he would be paraded by Red Guards with his leg in plaster after an attempt to commit suicide. Since Mao never met the local peasants they have nothing to recall. Some attempt has been made to suggest that he chafed at his isolation and even objected to the new Mao Zedong Memorial Hall in the village below. The narrative has had to be padded with slender recollections by bodyguards and guesthouse staff. These mostly dwell on the familiar hagiographic theme of Mao’s simple tastes in food and clothing. It was simplicity with no expense spared: giant blocks of ice were brought daily by truck from Changsha and placed in a wooden tub with a fan behind to cool the air.

On the 24th, Mao went swimming in the small artificial lake which was part of the grounds. The author of one of the most popular books now on sale, Mao Zedong and Shaoshan, is driven to a rare editorial comment:

We may remember that when Mao went swimming in 1959, a sea of spectators covered the hills in a great hubbub of welcoming cries, refusing to go even when it was dusk, so that Mao could appreciate the affection of his fellow villagers. This time the hillside was covered by security guards, Mao was only accompanied by a few attendants and lifeguards, and the atmosphere was cold and cheerless. We may wonder what Mao’s feelings really were on this occasion.

The popular magazines on sale in Shaoshan indulge in a different sort of speculation. They claim that Mao was joined in the pool by his faithful ‘secretary’, the former railway car attendant Zhang Yufeng who served him personally for most of his last years. One magazine with a montage of Zhang and Mao on its front cover describes her personal appearance in a clumsy parody of the classical style of The Dream of the Red Chamber: ‘She was well-developed in physique with a graceful carriage, agile in her movements ... sporting in the water around the Chairman like a lovable mermaid.’

We are now at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s last and most destructive political struggle. On 1 June he had approved the first ‘big-character poster’ attacking the academic staff at Beijing University. On the 13th exams were cancelled throughout China. Mao Worked late into the night in Dishuidong, receiving piles of documents every day by plane from Beijing. He was brooding on matters which had increasingly preoccupied him since the disaster of the Great Leap Forward. The path to socialism, he decided, was blocked by the Soviet revisionists and the domestic ‘capitalist-roaders’ who had frustrated his plans. Recurring bouts of class struggle were not only probable but essential to the dialectic of forward advance. Mao would write in a letter to Jiang Qing soon after leaving Dishuidong that ‘chaos on earth gives way to order but in seven or eight years it returns, and evil spirits spring up again.’

On the occasion of his second return to his roots at Shaoshan Mao was playing the part of a bandit hero in the Tales of the Water Margin, seeking a safe retreat from which to launch a new attack on his enemies: his former colleagues in Beijing, Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and the others, who had been reluctant to carry out his orders to launch the Cultural Revolution, and who had thereby given him the weapon he needed. He had stayed away from the capital for over half a year and they had no way of telling where he would strike next. It was exactly seven years since his last visit to Shaoshan, after which he had been assailed by the ‘evil spirits’ of his Great Leap critics. Brooding in Dishuidong (he called it his ‘western cave’), he must have derived some comfort from the familiar surroundings of his childhood. But this time he did not consult the peasants on whether or not to precipitate more ‘chaos’ – so there was no advice for him to reject.

Three weeks after leaving Shaoshan Mao returned to Beijing to denounce his colleagues for their ‘serious mistakes’. Within a month Liu Shaoqi had been demoted and the purge of the leadership had begun. Mao performed his famous swim in the Yangzi River on his way back to the capital. This coup de théâtre conveyed the message that the Chairman was in charge, with photographs on the front page of the People’s Daily driving the point home. But we now know from the Shaoshan material that at least one of the pictures was not taken in the Yangzi but in the pool at Dishuidong. If one piece of evidence for the celebrated swim was forged, could the others have been too?

In 1976, when he was dying of Parkinson’s disease, Mao would try several times to return again to Shaoshan. The staff at Dishuidong were alerted but he never arrived. In August, for example, we are told that ‘the Party Politburo would not give its consent.’ The leadership was already bitterly divided after the April 1976 anti-Gang of Four demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, which had caused Deng Xiaoping’s second dismissal. (Liu Shaoqi by this time had been driven to his death.) Each side must have feared that if Mao were removed to the countryside, the other faction might find it easier to get at him. Finally, at the beginning of September, Mao got the goahead, but too late: he died on the ninth in Beijing. Whether or not he wished to be buried in Shaoshan, he was embalmed in the bare mausoleum which now disfigures Tiananmen Square.

There Mao remains, remote from his native home. Perhaps it is an appropriate end, for the story of his later life is one of growing remoteness from the people of Shaoshan and eventually of China. The present government has decreed that Mao’s 100th anniversary should be celebrated ‘warmly, solemnly and economically’. Local shopkeepers in Shaoshan, who are being asked to contribute to the cost, are complaining that the anniversary has come too late: ‘Mao fever’ started to wane last year when China was swept by a new fever of ‘doing business’. Some day, say Chinese dissident exiles, China will have to reach a final verdict on Mao, but it won’t be easy, even when the records are opened, for Mao was as full of contradictions as his theory of the same name. Perhaps Mao-the-feudal-emperor will in time be the stock revisionist judgment within China as it is now outside. It is a convenient label with a measure of historical truth, but the Shaoshan story shows that he was also a stubborn and, in the end, very lonely old man.

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