Millions still worship at the feet of Mao Zedong, his body preserved, for all to view in Beijing. As new leaders settle in at the helm of the world’s most populous country, Jackie Cameron reflects on why Mao remains ‘god’ in China.
Few can deny that China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was a human catastrophe of astonishing proportions. Accounts of the number of deaths as a result of Chairman Mao Zedong’s grand plan range from 30m to 70m, depending on who is counting and whether you include human error-induced mass starvation as well as all the brutal killings.
Putting that into perspective, Germany’s Adolf Hitler was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 17m civilians, including at least 6m Jews. Looking at the blood on his hands alone, Chairman Mao is without doubt right up there with Hitler as ranking among the most vicious human beings ever to spend time on this planet.
Yet, while Hitler is reviled by just about everyone everywhere these days, including in Germany, Mao is held in high regard in many quarters. In China his face is a national symbol, branding just about every personal item imaginable — from watches and lighters to cups and clothes.
Mao, Mao everywhere
Many people have pictures of Mao on their walls and Mao trinkets in their cars. You can buy the little red book of Mao’s sayings at just about any bric-a-brac market anywhere in the country, as many foreign tourists do.
Chairman Mao caps are a popular dress-up accessory among little boys; Mao t-shirts are ubiquitous in clothing stores. One can’t imagine your average westerner even contemplating allowing his or her child to wear Hitler’s uniform as fancy dress or using cards with Hitler’s face on them at the bridge or poker table.
Recently it was brought home to me that not only is Chairman Mao revered in China, he is indeed worshipped. I saw this as I shuffled through his mausoleum in Beijing, along with thousands of people from around China who had come to pay their once-in-a-life time respects to the founder of communist China.
The pilgrims kissed and then laid flowers at the feet of a statue of Mao, who was seated in a big chair. They bowed and knelt in prayer before him, just as they do at the many Buddhist temples dotted around China.
The only differences were: the offerings were single, white chrysanthemums rather than smoking incense sticks; and, this was super-size Mao they were paying homage to, not a gold-painted Buddha statue.
Many of the visitors had tears welling in their eyes as they placed their flowers before the altar of Mao. Some were visibly overcome with emotion; some needed to be held, and looked close to fainting, as they moved into the next room to get a fleeting view of Chairman Mao in his transparent coffin.
Preserved for posterity
Chairman Mao died for health-related reasons in 1976 and was embalmed after he died. His body rests on a mechanised sarcophagus and is apparently raised from his subterranean resting place every morning, six days a week, Tuesdays to Sundays, for three hours.
Then, it is lowered back into the cool depths under the mausoleum, which is a huge marble-pillared building on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, China’s power centre. Word is that, every afternoon, Mao is examined for signs of shrinkage, discolouration, desiccation or decomposition.
When I saw him through thick glass walls and a glass coffin case, surrounded by fake flowers and greenery, and heavily guarded by military men, there weren’t any of these signs that Mao the mummy was deteriorating. In fact, I wondered whether I was looking at a preserved human or a wax dummy.
But, I didn’t have time to come to a firm conclusion. Armed guards kept the single-file lines moving on either side of Mao’s glass enclosure, two motioning aggressively to me to move out of the room when they spotted me pausing to stare at Mao’s head.
Presumably the guards thought I wasn’t paying enough respect to Chairman Mao by trying to scrutinise the details. We were, after all, instructed to behave in a reverential manner by the voice that boomed its message over and over to us through speakers surrounding the mausoleum perimeter earlier as we waited to enter.
What I did see inside was strange. Chairman Mao’s preserved head, puffed out as though there is a lot of cotton wool shoved into his cheeks, glows like a super-size, pink-orange light bulb.
He is luminescent and the hair lining his octogenarian bald pate is as dark black as it must have been in his 20s. His skin looks like it could easily have the texture of the skin covering a fine Dutch cheese.
Mao’s head seems a lot larger than an ordinary person’s in real life. But, that may be an optical illusion enhanced by the hammer-and-sickle cover up to his chin — if there is, of course, anything left of him underneath that cloth.
Many of the pilgrims were very old people. They would have undoubtedly seen the hardship, and may even have been victims, of the worst of Mao’s policies.
There were many young adults, too, including some with children. Most in the queue were men, many of them smartly dressed and some wearing ties. Paying homage to this man is clearly important to a lot of people across the generations.
Mao worship: why it endures
When you are in a queue for an hour-and-a-half, you get talking to those around you. Why were my neighbours going to visit? The answers I got all went along the lines of these: “I love Chairman Mao”; “He is the founder of our country”; “He is the number one leader in China”; “Before Chairman Mao, we were poor”; “If it wasn’t for Chairman Mao we would still be poor”.
It was the comments about being rescued from financial dire straits that really intrigued me. After all, it was only after Chairman Mao’s death that the wheel of fortune turned for China.
Deng Xiaoping started implementing major reforms from 1980, including China’s “opening up” policies that enabled it to generate enormous wealth for many of its citizens as the world’s factory. His successors developed these plans, which look a lot like capitalism even though the country is still run by a party that goes under the banner of communism.
Clearly a lot of Chinese people are giving credit to the wrong person for their ever-improving living standards. New generations of political leaders haven’t disabused the masses of their collective notion, suggesting they don’t seem to mind.
On reflection, that is not surprising. Keeping the Chairman Mao proverbial flame burning is, surely, all part of the government effort to maintain some semblance of legitimacy.
The Mao memorabilia, the famous poster of Mao looking onto Tiananmen Square from the entrance of the Forbidden City palace precinct and the Mao slogans are about as close as China gets to communism these days.
Keeping a direct link between the hearts, minds and wallets of citizens, on the one hand, and the man who brought their party to power, on the other, is a cunning political tactic to maintain the status quo and keep the crowd under control in a huge country where there is no political freedom.
This article was first published at www.moneyweb.co.za.
*Jackie Cameron is a freelance journalist who recently settled near Edinburgh and Glasgow with her family after working as a correspondent in Asia and Africa. Contact her at email@example.com and read more of her recently published work here.
New leaders for China
Xi Jinping, as the new Communist Party general secretary, took up the most powerful office in China in November. He will take over from Hu Jintao as President in the spring.The country is controlled by the Communist Party, which changes its leaders every 10 years. China is not a democracy.
- Books: ‘Wild Swans’ author takes on Mao (time.com)