Mao's reputation, in eclipse for a decade, shines again

August 02, 1991|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Every nook and cranny of Chen Zhengfan's tiny two-room house down a twisting alleyway in the eastern part of this city is chock-full of artifacts reflecting Mao Tse-tung's life.

Every cupboard, bookcase, drawer and suitcase opens to reveal the fruits of a more than three-decade-long obsession: hundreds of posters dating to the 1950s, buttons and bookmarks from the Great Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, paper-cuts and poems, statues and photos of the Great Helmsman -- even copies of Mao's calligraphy.

Mr. Chen, 58, also claims to be able to recite virtually every line from every poem Mao ever wrote. And he can recount in detail the 13 times he saw Communist China's founding father in person.

Through thick and thin -- from the 1950s, when Mao was a godlike figure in China, through the 1980s, when his legacy was criticized -- the middle-school teacher has stuck by his hero because of one simple truth: "Mao liberated China, and I am Chinese so I love him."

These days Mr. Chen can take heart that Mao, nearly 15 years after his death, is back in fashion. His life story and image are almost everywhere, it seems, serving a multitude of sometimes conflicting purposes.

Teen-agers sport T-shirts bearing Mao's portrait and his prediction about the ultimate victory of Chinese communism: "A single spark can start a prairie fire."

College students gather in discussion groups to study Mao's interpretations of Marxism.

Shopkeepers, bus drivers and rural peasants post his picture prominently in their shops, vehicles and homes for good luck.

And the Communist Party, not to miss out on a trend that might shore up its diminished respect, also has jumped on the bandwagon.

In recent months, there has been a rash of official releases of new collections of Mao's writings and of new books, films and television shows that personalize the chairman's once-distant image. Even Mao's preserved corpse, rumored to have deteriorated drastically while on display in his Tiananmen Square tomb, was reported recently to be in superb condition.

During the party's 70th anniversary celebrations last month, it took great pains to stress Mao's historical contributions. And authorities invited 2,000 swimmers to mark the 30th anniversary of one of the more celebrated moments of Mao's life, when the then-73-year-old leader was reported to have swum nine miles across the Yangtze River in the record time of 65 minutes.

The Mao revival contrasts markedly with his treatment over the past decade following the ascent to power of China's current leaders, many of whom were persecuted by Mao during the political wars behind the Cultural Revolution.

As recently as 1988, two large statues of Mao at China's foremost school, Beijing University, were quietly taken down by officials, while large reproductions of his slogans were removed from sites around the capital. Criticism of Mao from senior leaders was not only open but sometimes sharp.

Now, factions within China's leadership have begun pushing the virtues of Mao's thought at every turn -- in an apparent attempt to control and take advantage of an initial grass-roots resurgence of interest in the Great Helmsman that, ironically, appeared to gather steam with the pro-democracy protests of 1989.

During those demonstrations, many protesters wore Mao buttons as a typically indirect, Chinese way of delivering the mocking message that, as a 23-year-old science student recently put it, "China's present leaders are not up to Mao's standards."

Among the chief complaints of those who supported the protests were the rapid increase in corruption in Chinese public life and the re-emergence of disparities in incomes among workers, and so the rebirth of interest in Mao at that time also reflected a certain nostalgia for the perhaps simpler times of the 1950s -- for a time when a common ideology held sway in China.

"Peasants and workers worship Mao because they think he was a fair player," explained a 31-year-old Beijing academic turned private entrepreneur. "Society is not equitable anymore, and they believe that Mao's days were just.

"There's a saying," he added, "Mao Tse-tung's cadres were upright and honest. . . . Deng Xiaoping's cadres are millionaires."

For college students, the new Mao cult appears less ideological and more in line with their often-thwarted personal ambitions in the face of strict government controls on their lives.

Students read books about Mao's life in the same way that biographies of former President Richard M. Nixon and Chrysler Chairman Lee A. Iacocca were popular in China a few years ago -- as guides on how to persevere against long odds.

Many university students say they consider Mao a hero because he rebelled, because he boldly fought for his lofty ambitions and achieved them -- even if students' ambitions these days are decidedly more materially oriented than Mao's.

However unintentionally, this unorthodox view of Mao has been enhanced in recent months with the release of new films and books portraying the personal side of his life, most notably a tear-jerker movie about Mao and his oldest son, who died in the Korean War.

"With Mao's personalized image," said the science student, "his credibility has improved. He was a god -- now he is a man, and his achievements loom even larger."

For Mr. Chen, such sentiments have spawned new hope that his lifelong pursuit of Mao memorabilia will culminate in a public exhibition of his collection to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his hero's birth Dec. 26, 1993.

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