Shaoshan could be any other sleepy, provincial village, set in the rolling green hills and fertile rice paddies of Hunan Province. No longer the destination of fervent Red Guards who used their simplistic ideology as a weapon against Mao Tse-tung's real and imagined enemies, Shaoshan is now a tourist spot fallen on lean times.
``I welcome you as guests of Chairman Mao and the [Communist] Party,'' said Tan Ruiyin.
The words were uttered instinctively, with the peculiar enthusiasm of a local resident who has become as much a fixture as the historic sites here in the village of Mao's birth.
``The Red Guards visited me to shake the hand that shook the hand of Mao,'' Mrs. Tan said, recalling the 4 million youths who made a pilgrimage here in 1966 and 1967, at the start of Mao's Cultural Revolution.
Her house is across the lily pond from Mao's and her father was one of Mao's comrades-in-arms, she said, chatting freely in her sitting room under a portrait of Mao. When Tan is not welcoming tourists to her house for tea and a spicy Hunan snack made of mashed red peppers and salty fruit pulp, she's selling Mao buttons and other trinkets nearby. If she takes a liking to someone, she may offer a small black-and-white photo showing Mao visiting her home in 1959.
That was when the ``Great Helmsman,'' as Mao was often called, returned to Shaoshan to see the effects of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), his disastrous attempt to bring instant communism to China. Mao also paid an 11-day secret visit here in 1966 just before launching the decade-long Cultural Revolution.
Although visitors still come by bus or on the daily train from Changsha to Mao's boyhood home, the numbers are fewer than 1,000 a day. Tourism reached a low point in 1981, the year the Communist Party issued a resolution blaming Mao for 20 years of mistakes, including the Cultural Revolution. But the numbers are increasing again, local officials say, and could reach 500,000 by the end of this year.
``People's living standards are improving, so they can afford to travel,'' said Wen Huikang, deputy party secretary for the district. Many are retired workers and schoolchildren and workers who come for an ``education in China's revolutionary traditions,'' he added.
The sites include the 13-room mud-brick house where Mao was born and raised and the nearby lily pond where he used to swim and where he once threatened to commit suicide in a successful challenge to his father's authority. The crude interior is much like that of early settlers' cabins in America.
As a former tour guide here, party official Wen recalled his work during the heyday of Shaoshan's popularity.
``Standing in the bedroom of Mao's parents, I called out: `This is the place where Mao was born, and this is the place where the sun rises.' I repeated this continuously for eight hours. If I faltered, the Red Guards would accuse me of not having the right attitude toward Chairman Mao,'' he said amiably.
Now, local officials are eager to offer historical details on Mao's family, which are sometimes ironic in view of his radical brand of Marxism and his heroic image as a peasant leader. It is well known, for instance, that Mao's family was prosperous and that his father was a small landowner. But Mao was loath to do farm work, and it is said he ``invited'' friends to do family chores for him.
Later, when he tried to persuade his younger brother to join the party and the revolution, his brother protested that since theirs was one of the few rich families in the village, someone should stay behind and take care of the property. Both Mao's brothers finally did join the party in the early 1920s.
Besides a parking lot that can accommodate dozens of tour buses, Shaoshan features a Mao Memorial Hall.
Many of the rooms are closed and empty, but there are six devoted to Mao's political and military achievements up to 1949. Two more rooms, reopened last year, cover the post-'49 period. The room focusing on the years 1956-76 presents Mao as a great leader without mentioning his domestic policies during the period. Pictures abound, including one of Mao shaking hands with former President Nixon next to a photo of China's first nuclear weapon test in 1964.
``After 1956, Mao began to make mistakes,'' said an official, ``so the museum as a memorial to him should concentrate on his good accomplishments, not on his failures.''
Less than an hour's drive from Shaoshan is the birthplace of communist China's first president, Liu Shaoqi. A Marxist intellectual and talented administrator who was once Mao's designated successor, Liu was labeled in 1966 as the ``top party person in authority taking the capitalist road.''
He died ignominiously in a bank vault in 1969. Ten years later, he was the first of several hundred thousand people to be rehabilitated posthumously. His house was torn down by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, but has been rebuilt and opened to visitors. A Liu memorial museum comparable in size to Mao's is under construction and scheduled to be opened by year's end.
Second of four articles on the 10th anniversary of Mao's death. Tomorrow: a ``ghost made flesh.''