Mao's March

The chairman's journey of a thousand miles began in a village and ended in a revolution

May 11, 2008|By Susan Spano | Susan Spano,Los Angeles Times

SHAOSHAN, China // Like visitors at George Washington's estate in Mount Vernon, Va., people come to Shaoshan village deep in the heart of China to remember and teach their children about their national hero.

He launched the Long March, an estimated 3,750-mile epic exploit as central to the story of China as the Boston Tea Party is to America. He fought warlords, the Japanese and the U.S.-supported Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. On Oct. 1, 1949, he stood in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the birth of a new China.

He was Mao Zedong.

In the West, however, he is remembered as the instigator of bloody purges, disastrous agrarian reforms and that heinous episode of national self-violation known as the Cultural Revolution.

There is no hint of this at his immaculately preserved birthplace in Shaoshan, the first stop on a trip across China I took last spring to try to resolve in my own mind the apparently irreconcilable contradictions that surround Mao's legacy and modern China. If I were ever to understand why the Communist government acts as it does in matters as consequential as press freedom, the recent crackdown on protesters in Tibet and its vilification of the Dalai Lama, it seemed necessary to me, as a foreigner, to try to see China's recent past as the Chinese might see it.

Historians and political scientists have been analyzing these questions since Mao died in 1976. But travelers can also study politics and history by visiting places where important -- and, in this case, still debated -- events occurred that changed history in China and in the world.

The Chinese tourism administration encourages travelers to visit revolutionary war-era memorials. In 2005, museums opened all along the route of the Long March, which ended in 1935. The arduous trek took the Red Army from compromised Communist strongholds in the south to the dusty town of Yanan in northeast-central China.

But few foreign visitors add these places to their China itineraries, partly because many of the landmarks are in remote regions. Then, too, Westerners might know little about China's long, bitter and -- some would claim, continuing -- struggle for freedom.

Mao's idyllic-looking childhood home, nestled in a narrow green valley shouldered by rice paddies, is a two-hour drive southwest of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province.

A winding path leads to a tidy, 13-room farmhouse, where Mao and his two younger brothers worked under the sharp eyes of their father, a well-off farmer. A steady stream of visitors -- mostly old people and students -- crowded into the room where Mao, the first surviving son, was born in 1893 on a now-

fragile-looking canopy bed to a mother who practiced Buddhism and did housework on bound feet.

One of China's countless heroic statues of the chairman stands at the center of a pavilion outside Shaoshan. Nearby is his clan's peak-roofed ancestral temple, where Mao started a night school for farmers in 1917, an early effort to mobilize China's rural poor whose hard, hopeless lives were dramatized in Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1931 novel, The Good Earth.

At a time when the Moscow-educated bosses of the fledgling Chinese Communist Party were trying to start the revolution in Shanghai, Beijing and other big cities, Mao saw that real change could come only from the countryside, supported by millions of Chinese peasants.

When I asked my guide what she thought about Mao, she repeated the official assessment rendered by the Communist Party five years after his death. Mao was 30 percent wrong and 70 percent right, a stunning moral quantification taught to schoolchildren and parroted by the Chinese media.

In Changsha, a burgeoning city with a population of about 6 million, I caught glimpses of the as-

yet-unquantified Mao, an unusually tall youth who loved to eat fermented bean curd, composed poetry and, according to local lore, mastered the neat trick of reading history books while swimming in the Xiang River.

A few days later, I traveled by car to one of the most renowned battle sites in the long, gruesome civil war that raged intermittently across China from 1927 to 1950. My guide -- a charming, funny young university graduate in Chengdu -- told me that all Chinese schoolchildren know what happened at Luding Bridge.

Scholars, however, still contest the events of May 29, 1935, when the hungry, sick, cold and weary Communists, a little more than halfway through the Long March, made a last-ditch attempt to escape annihilation by the better-armed Nationalists. Early that morning, an advance Red Army unit reached Luding, in a Himalayan mountain valley not far from the Sichuan-Tibet border. There, a 120-yard-long chain-link footbridge spans a deep chasm over the cold, raging Dadu River.

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