'Chairman Mao will bless you': Why tourists flock to Mao's birthplace

Ten million people are expected to visit Mao's birthplace this year, making it the second most popular tourist destination in the world. 

Peter Ford
Tourists visit a statue of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in his home village in December 2013. Many bow to the image in hope of blessings; Mao has entered the pantheon of popular Chinese gods.

On a cold and blustery December afternoon, groups of tourists cluster in front of a giant statue of Mao Zedong to have their pictures taken with the founder of modern China. “Bow three times,” a tour guide encourages her clients, “and Chairman Mao will bless you.”

Now, 120 years after he was born in this small hillside village in central China, many pilgrims here see Mao not just as the first president of the People’s Republic, but as a member of the pantheon of Chinese gods, with supernatural powers to affect their lives.

In Beijing, meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has also taken recently to invoking Mao, and to using Maoist rhetoric. He calls his campaign against official corruption a “rectification” movement, and his drive to re-instill the ruling Communist party with traditional values a “mass line” campaign.

That suits Mao Chunshan, Communist party chief of Shaoshan (pop. 1,438) and a very distant relative of the former Chairman, just fine. Since Mr. Xi “has put more emphasis on Chairman Mao’s spirit,” he says, “his prestige has increased” and visitor numbers here are up.

By the time the 100,000 tourists expected here for the Dec. 26 birthday celebrations have come and gone, about 10 million visitors will have been to Shaoshan this year. That makes it the most popular tourist destination in the world outside Disneyland.

Shaoshan’s farmer-residents have profited handsomely from the influx, setting up restaurants and stalls selling an astonishing variety of Mao-related kitsch in the vicinity of the substantial, ochre mudbrick farmhouse where Mao grew up.

You can buy metal busts and statues of Mao in every size; or you can choose replicas of the Mao portrait that hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing, gold and red enamel lapel pins, paperweights, key rings, posters, liquor bottles, and medallions to hang from your car’s rear-view mirror, all bearing his image.

And you can choose the image you like best on your trinket – Mao as a romantic young man, dressed in poet’s robes, his hair blowing in the mountain wind; in revolutionary soldier’s uniform, gazing enthusiastically into the future; as an impassive statesman; or avuncular father of the nation.

Or perhaps you would prefer a CD of the “red songs” that everyone had to learn by heart 50 years ago, or a DVD of a hagiographic documentary about Mao’s life, or even a vintage Cultural Revolution edition of the “Little Red Book,” the pocket-sized compilation of Mao’s sayings.

“Business is good,” smiles Shen Hui, who runs a stall selling Mao busts draped with red scarves. “More and more visitors are coming here because there are more holidays nowadays and people are better off so they travel more,” she explains. “And lots of people love Chairman Mao.”

All sorts of tourists from all over China come here; on a recent morning a steady stream of them filed into the Mao family home despite the cold rain that was falling steadily: four middle-aged farmers, neighbors who had sat on a train for two days to get here, taking advantage of the slow season in agriculture; a local man taking his father out for an 80th birthday treat; a group of employees from a seed firm, visiting Hunan for a training program, enjoying the opportunity to do some tourism; five classmates from university, doing an internship at a nearby railway station, on their day off; gaggles of package tourists following guides brandishing pennants with slogans such as “The East is Red”; and Tong Lingui, an antiques store owner who had come 230 miles to buy a Mao statue.

“I adore Chairman Mao, she says, echoing the sentiments that most visitors express. “He will bring luck to my business.”

It is, perhaps, ironic that Ms. Tong should expect an image of Mao to be good for business when the real man abolished private business in China.

But there is no trace of irony in Shaoshan. The mood is one of unadulterated hero-worship. “It’s because of Chairman Mao that we have a happy life today,” says student Cheng Jianghua, who attributes China’s current prosperity to Mao, rather than to his successor, Deng Xiaoping, who reversed Maoist economic policy.

“Mao also wanted reform and opening. He would have supported Deng,” suggests Mao Chunshan, the local party leader, conveniently glossing over the fact that Mao in fact purged Deng from the Chinese leadership for being a “capitalist roader.”

'Everybody makes mistakes'

Chinese citizens’ ignorance of their own past is unsurprising when you look at the history books they study in school. They focus heavily on Mao’s life as a revolutionary and skim rapidly over disasters such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward – policies that killed tens of millions of people and caused untold suffering.

“During the process of exploring socialist development, he also made leftist mistakes,” is how one high school textbook puts it.

That makes many Chinese indulgent towards the founder of “New China” even if they are aware of the sometimes catastrophic impact of his rule. “Nobody’s perfect,” says Mo Mo, a young woman who works as a tour guide. “Everybody makes mistakes, and Mao’s achievements were greater than his errors.”

That kind of talk horrifies those with a more detailed understanding of Mao’s legacy, and especially those with personal experience of suffering at his hands.

“Calling them ‘mistakes’ is pretty mild,” says one Beijing musician whose father was purged by Mao and whose family spent years in a remote village. “To my mind they were crimes against humanity.”

Tellingly, she is unwilling to give her name for fear of the consequences in a country where Mao’s portrait still hangs on Tiananmen Square, and where the ruling Communist party has never separated Mao’s record from its own record. “If you criticize Mao you are seen as criticizing the party,” she says.

Now, she worries, the party “appears to be fusing itself even more” to Mao’s memory. “It is not the right climate for these issues to be discussed publicly.” 

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