Deng Xiaoping was a teen-ager when he last traveled the 100 miles from his home village of Pai Fang to the city of Chongqing. The year was 1920, and Deng, ambitious son of a wealthy peasant, was on his way to prep school, then to study in France. It was the first of many bold decisions in his eventful career. But China's paramount leader has never returned to this place.
In no respect has Deng Xiaoping differed more radically from Mao Tse-tung than in his complete rejection of the ``cult of personality'' Mao developed. In the 1960s, Mao approved his own deification and sanctioned the development of personal shrines in his home town of Shaoshan in Hunan Province.
During the first year of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when snippets of Mao's ``invincible'' thought were often memorized backwards as well as forwards, almost 3 million people streamed into Shaoshan to pay homage. They took home as souvenirs countless buttons, plastic busts, and ``tablets of loyalty'' praising Mao. They still come to Shaoshan, though the stream is now a trickle.
By contrast, Deng's origins are obscured, and his home village of about 600 households has none of the trappings of political religion. In fact, there is little to see here.
``Who would know that a great man was born here?'' a student wrote in the visitors' book in Deng's family home. The student may have been disappointed after spending hours riding the bus along bumpy dirt roads -- only to arrive in this unremarkable place where not a single souvenir can be found.
``Tell him we'd welcome him back,'' said Liu Guoxing, head of the county government. ``Tell him that living standards here have improved a lot, and we'll do our work even better to make Guangan [County] more prosperous.''
With an average peasant income of 400 yuan ($125) a year, Guangan's income level is well below the national average. But local incomes are much higher than in 1978, and tens of thousands of laborers who were not fully employed in agriculture have found high-paying jobs in the county's newly established enterprises.
Once, in 1975, when Deng was in Chengdu, the provincial capital, he invited the county's representatives to the National People's Congress in Peking to meet with him.
``Deng then said that when the county's agricultural production reached the level of 1,000 jin per mou [660 pounds of grain an acre], he would return to Guangan,'' Liu recalled.
Productivity did reach that level in 1983, and the county reported its achievement to the provincial government. But, so far, the nation's master strategist apparently has not felt moved to come back. Even during his extended visit to Sichuan Province during the Chinese New Year this month, Deng and his wife only cabled greetings to his home town from Chengdu.
Three generations of Deng's family lived in his house, a traditional rural courtyard residence. Deng's grandparents settled here in the mid-19th century, probably migrating from southern China, and took up cotton weaving, according to village leader Chen Xiansong. Deng's father became a relatively wealthy peasant and also ran a small silk factory and manufactured noodles. From the appearance of the house, now in poor repair, it was a prosperous family.
When Deng said goodbye to his father some 66 years ago, he also parted company with the stepmother who helped raise him, an older sister, and two younger brothers. The family gave the house to the village in the early 1950s, when Deng's stepmother joined him in Chongqing, where he was serving in a top party post.
Today, Deng's family home is owned by a village production team, and some nine families live in its 14 rooms. (The house may be larger than when Deng last saw it, since his father probably added rooms after having four more children by a third wife.)
Three of the original rooms have been set aside for visitors. In the main room, several dozen official photos show Deng meeting with various world leaders, including Presidents Nixon and Carter. Another room contains only a Ching dynasty bed that officials say once belonged to the family. A third room displays inscriptions by top Chinese leaders praising Lei Feng, a model soldier whose name has been used often in party propaganda.
In all, it is an unimpressive monument to a man whose leadership has transformed the lives of a quarter of the world's population and whose accomplishments are increasingly compared with Mao's.
Some 14,000 visitors came here in 1984, and more than 20,000 in 1985. Most come by bus, but officials tell of two peasants from Gansu Province who walked more than 1,000 miles to see the house. Others have come by bike over hundreds of miles to pay their respects. A notebook reveals the sentiments of some visitors.
``Comrade Deng Xiaoping is our example. May he live forever,'' a railroad worker from Chongqing wrote a few months ago. Another peasant wrote simply that Deng ``is the most distinguished person of his generation.''
When local people renovated a small park in front of his house, Deng heard about it and criticized the county government for wasting their money. ``Deng permits no museum or anything that would look like the return of a personality cult,'' said another county official, who may have been referring to Deng's firm refusal last year to let the country repair the house and make it a museum.
In what may be an attempt to draw a veil over Deng's background, local officials claim that the village has no surviving records of Deng's family and that no current residents knew the family, although Deng's stepmother left the village only a little over 30 years ago. Deng's youngest brother paid a return visit in the early 1960s.
Citizens of Guangan County are clearly proud of their favorite son, but they also like to point out that, despite Guangan's economic backwardness, it has produced talented individuals and top leaders for over 1,000 years. Officials quickly named at least a dozen examples, including leading court officials in the Yuan, Ming, and Ching dynasties.
Deng has often described himself as ``just a simple peasant boy,'' although he was the son of a ``rich peasant,'' a class label that was as close as the communists could get to identifying China's rural bourgeoisie. During the Cultural Revolution, Deng's detractors said he had been a ``protected child,'' implying he had been spared the hardships of rural life.
Even so, life for the son of a rich peasant in Pai Fang in the first two decades of the 20th century could not have been easy. Even today, bicycles are rare, and bare-backed peasants walk the dirt roads carrying vegetables or animal fodder. Everybody, it seems, shares some of the drudgery of manual labor in their daily routine. Next: Impact of Deng's reforms on rural areas.