LIANG VILLAGE, China -- Thirty years ago, during one of the most brutal upheavals in Chinese history, Communist zealots inspired by Mao Tse-tung rampaged through this dusty town, killing scores of innocent people and destroying places of worship.
But when locals recently erected a new Taoist temple, it wasn't consecrated to the victims of the decade of mob rule known as the Cultural Revolution. Instead, villagers and local Communist Party leaders chose to honor Mao, worshiping the very man responsible for the havoc in their community three decades earlier.
"We often treat great men in history as Taoist gods," said a local worshiper, standing before a huge plaster likeness of the Communist Party chairman. "Why not treat Mao as a god, too?"
The seemingly obvious answer is buried in secrecy and ignorance.
Even as the 30th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution approaches this week, public discussion is forbidden. Censors have stopped newspapers from printing articles, and publishing houses are not allowed to print the research that scholars have produced. The facts of what happened have been distorted.
The Cultural Revolution began on May 16, 1966, when Mao's suspicions of his fellow leaders turned a minor campaign against elitist culture into a power struggle that tore up the country. It ended only after Mao's death in 1976.
In the intervening decade, up to a million people died and several million more were displaced. A generation lost its education. Cultural treasures were obliterated. Even current strongman Deng Xiaoping, then one of Mao's lieutenants, was purged, rehabilitated and purged again.
The decade is now seen as an embarrassing moment, best forgotten and hushed up. Mao remains modern China's heroic founder and has become -- for some at least -- a deity.
The Cultural Revolution, however, refuses to go away so easily.
As China rushes forward economically and stakes its claim as the world's next superpower, the decade of terror and destruction remains a repressed trauma, hobbling China as it strives to find its place in the world.
"There's a blocked memory that is so great that until that can be opened up, it's hard to see how that society can gel, how it can find a sense of identity," said political scientist Lucian Pye of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"The reason why China can't talk about the Cultural Revolution is that unlike Germany after the Holocaust, China is still run by the same party that committed the crimes," said a Communist Party historian, who asked not to be identified. "Reassessing the Cultural Revolution would mean reassessing the party's right to rule, and that will never take place as long as the party is in power."
When the Cultural Revolution started with a purge of Beijing's mayor on May 16, 1966, few could have imagined that China could survive more turmoil.
Mao's rule had already seen millions perish in campaigns against landlords, capitalists and other "rightists" during the 1950s. Drought and Maoist economics had caused one of the worst famines in history, with upward of 20 million deaths by 1961.
By 1966, Mao thought China was drifting away from communism and needed its biggest dose of radical policies yet.
Paranoid about many of his top lieutenants, Mao and his radical proteges exhorted the country's young people -- the "Red Guards" -- to rebel against authority.
Millions of young people took up Mao's slogans with gusto.
They rounded up and often beat to death any remaining landlords and capitalists, later turning their pent-up anger on Communist Party officials who weren't considered Maoist enough.
Almost anyone with an education or in any position of authority was targeted for abuse, torture or execution. Schools closed for years, leaving a large part of today's middle-aged population with incomplete educations.
Chinese culture also suffered irreparable losses, as Mao's order to "destroy the old" was taken literally. Almost every temple in the country seems to have been looted.
For a while after Mao died in 1976, people were encouraged to speak of the Cultural Revolution's horrors.
New strongman Deng Xiaoping, who emerged successfully from a power struggle shortly after Mao's death, was able to use the ordinary person's desire for stability and sanity to consolidate power, which he did in 1978.
The party closed the book on the Cultural Revolution in 1981, when it passed a resolution that decreed how one should interpret the past.
Serious errors in old age
Realizing that discarding Mao, its founding father, would mean discrediting itself, the party declared that Mao had made some serious errors in his old age but was basically a heroic figure.
Since then, little research has been permitted on that era. Recently, the party sent a memo to heads of the government-controlled media prohibiting them from commemorating the 30th anniversary.