`WHEN I was a child, I loved Chairman Mao,'' said a young man in his mid-20s. ``Now I try not to think about him.'' Popular attitudes toward Mao Tse-tung, first chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, have cooled sharply since his death 10 years ago today. Much credit for deflating his image and picking up the pieces of a fragmented and demoralized society must go to China's ``venture communist,'' senior leader Deng Xiaoping.
He has pried the Chinese people's attention away from politics toward economic development and defined national salvation largely in terms of material prosperity.
Attacking the communal-mindedness Mao preached and exploited, Deng has asked his people to look more within themselves. He has wrenched the country away from expecting so much from its leaders and promised results from adapting Western economic theories and management practices to Chinese circumstances.
Driven to worship a communist emperor during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), many Chinese have tried to put behind them the terrible cost of those years, when Mao's personality cult reached grotesque proportions. It was a phenomenon that inspired some of the most bizarre forms of political warfare and human cruelty a sovereign nation has voluntarily inflicted upon itself.
There will be no official commemoration of Mao's passing, though a new edition of his selected works goes on sale today. The two-volume edition includes articles written from 1921 to 1965, including some never before published. The editors have added detailed footnotes to show Mao's contradictions in the post-1965 period.
Although he too came from peasant roots, Deng was alert to the pitfalls of exalting one man's accomplishments above all others. He attended the 1956 Moscow meeting in which Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin's personality cult, and reported favorably to Peking on Khrushchev's move.
In 1966, Deng was attacked for his views by the Red Guards, who correctly judged him opposed to Mao's glorification.
Deng commented in 1980 that the mausoleum erected by Mao's immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, should never have been built. But the building remains a rude intrusion in Peking's Tian An Men Square and attracts thousands of visitors each week.
The hours for visiting the mausoleum have recently been extended and the lines are longer this summer, though observers say this is mainly because prosperous peasants from the provinces are visiting Peking in larger numbers than ever before (almost a million travelers a day pass through the city).
The lines of Chinese tourists hint at just how different people's attitudes are toward Mao across Chinese society. Although his picture has been removed from most peasant homes (replaced with glossy calendars showing movie stars and pop singers), reverence for Mao appears to linger in the countryside.
One foreign traveler, who recently spent several months in remote rural areas of central China, returned to Peking quite sure that Mao's image as a national hero remains strong.
``If Deng's reforms begin to falter seriously after he leaves and his policies are discredited, a Maoist revival could fill the vacuum,'' the traveler commented.
Such speculation cannot be discounted, but it seems far from the realities of urban life, where Mao seems all but forgotten. Most of the statues of Mao have been pulled down and, while his picture still looks out over Tian An Men Square, it is rarely found anywhere else, in public or in private.
``The personality cult is not dead, but it's cyclical,'' said a Peking newspaper editor. ``Partly it's a benefit, partly a shortcoming. China doesn't have a religion, and we need a secular substitute.''
The editor added that perhaps someday communism would displace such thinking, which is labeled ``feudal'' by the official press. In the meantime, the editor said, people need to feel some measure of personal devotion to their leader. ``Deng deserves praise for keeping a low profile,'' the editor said.
The standard view of Mao has been publicized since 1981, when the Communist Party's Central Committee adopted a resolution: ``Chairman Mao was a great Marxist-Leninist and a great leader. He made some mistakes, but his contributions outweigh his mistakes.''
The resolution, which is echoed in comments by Chinese workers, farmers, government leaders, students, and even newspaper editors throughout China, ultimately affirmed that Mao's ``revolutionary'' role outweighed the misjudgments and ideological errors of the last two decades of his life.
The list of his ``mistakes,'' however, would ruin the reputation of a lesser man.
``For party propaganda officials, Mao is a headache,'' said another Peking newspaperman. There is little else to do except make the best of his achievements and denounce his mistakes without dwelling on them, he added.
Many urban intellectuals who suffered personally under Mao feel he betrayed them. But their hostility has been suppressed as they try to make up for lost time and apply their energies to fulfilling personal economic goals.
For Chinese who have the more scholarly task of thinking through China's recent history, there is a tendency to give Mao more space.
``Academics and researchers at recent social science seminars don't so much blame Mao personally for the Cultural Revolution, but tend to blame the system that corrupted him,'' said one Peking intellectual. ``They take him as a victim of the kind of corrupt environment once found in almost any Chinese imperial court.''
The principals in Mao's court were his wife Jiang Qing who along with her three closest associates made up the so-called ``gang of four.'' All received public trials six years ago, and Jiang Qing's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1983.
For the younger generation with limited memory of the Cultural Revolution, there are hints of a renewed respect for Mao.
It is an attitude that appears linked to a newly discovered national pride and is sometimes manifest as defensiveness when foreigners criticize him, though it is impossible to tell how widespread it is.
Among such people there appears to be no interest in reviving the personality cult, and certainly not Mao's radical politics. But there is acknowledgment of his role as the national leader who brought China to its feet and set it on an independent path, however tortuous, toward modern economic development.
First of four articles on the 10th anniversary of Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution. Tomorrow: a visit to Mao's birthplace.