BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: From Our Own Correspondent
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Saturday, 9 December, 2000, 12:13 GMT
Tourist trade banks on Mao's legend
Mao Tse Tung
Chairman Mao is making a comeback
By Iain Simpson in Shaoshan

In the trendy bars of modern China, the late Chairman Mao is back in fashion. This time, though, it doesn't mean millions of Chinese people are once again identically dressed in blue cotton suits and carrying the famous Little Red Book.

Instead, it's the image of the Great Helmsman - as he was known - plastered on T-shirts, watches and billboards. It's an irreverent acknowledgement of the power his memory still has in the People's Republic.

But among the older generation of Chinese, respect for Mao is alive and completely lacking in irony.

Mao Tse Tung poster
Mao casts a long shadow over modern China
At first glance, Shaoshan seems like any other medium sized village in the Chinese countryside.

It's surrounded by paddy fields, there are a few ancient graves on the hillsides, and the houses are the usual combination of brick-walled huts and solid, concrete blocks.

But the approach to the village reveals that this is no ordinary rural settlement. The road is much too good for one thing, wide, tree-lined and well looked after.

Visitors also have to pass through a security barrier just on the outskirts - although precisely what or who it is designed to keep out is not clear.

Famous son

Beyond the barrier, it is immediately apparent that this is a village with a single purpose - making money out of the memory of its spectacularly famous son.

Mao swims in the Yangtse, 1966
Mao swims in the Yangtse in 1966
Mao Tse-tung was born in Shaoshan in 1893 - and no visitor is allowed to forget it.

Every corner of the village is carefully labelled to highlight its association with Chairman Mao - here is the pond where he swam, an early preparation for his famous plunge into the Yangtse; there the lane he walked along to school.

The highlight of any visit is the house where Mao was born. And everywhere, souvenir stalls - of which more in a moment.

The Mao family house is surprisingly big - a solid building with a tiled roof, rooms laid out around a small courtyard behind which is a barn and sheds for pigs and cattle.

Aflluent roots

It's easy to forget that for all the rhetoric, Mao was not born into a peasant family.

House of the late former Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung
Mao's house betrays his affluent roots
His father was a relatively wealthy farmer and landowner who - to his son's later horror - added to his own land by buying out neighbours who had fallen behind with their mortgage payments.

Here, too, the labelling is thorough and thoroughly bizarre.

In the kitchen the visitor is told, not how food was prepared, but that this was where the young revolutionary gathered his family together and lectured them about what was wrong with their feudalistic society.

'Glorious deaths'

Elsewhere, his brothers are celebrated for their glorious deaths in the cause of Mao's revolution.

Directly across from the house is Tang Ruiren's restaurant. Like everything else in the village, this lunch stop has benefited hugely from its association with the Great Helmsman.

It's even called the Mao's House Restaurant and the centre piece in the dining room is a bronze statue of Mrs Tang's former neighbour looking implacably into the middle distance.

The dining room is full of Mao Memorabilia - Mao badges, as worn by just about everyone in the country in the 1960s; photos of Mao visiting farmers, workers and soldiers, banners proclaiming his good works for the country.

Proudly displayed on one side of the room is a large photograph showing Mrs Tang with Mao himself, on the day he visited his home village in 1959.

Revered leader

Mrs Tang runs the restaurant with an eagle eye and caustic tongue - but is happy to pause and reflect on the man she still reveres.

Crowd gathers to hear Mao Tse Tung speak
Mao was revered by millions of people during his life
Mao, she says, her voice rising in emotion as she echoes his most famous speech, showed the Chinese people they could stand up.

During the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 70s, millions of people came from across China on the pilgrimage to Shaoshan.

Special trains were laid on and guest houses and restaurants were opened in the village to cope with the flood.

Then, everything was owned and controlled by the local government - long before Mao's successors sanctioned the return of private enterprise.

Entrepreneurs out in force

Today, the entrepreneurs have moved in in force. Walk out of the back door of Mao's house and you are soon accosted by young salesmen and women.

The entrepreneurial capitalism that has taken hold of his home village would have appalled him.

On sale are statues of Mao, medals that can be engraved with the date of your visit and toys that play a terrible electronic version of "The East is Red."

Other things have changed too. The average age of visitors to Shaoshan has gone up sharply since the teenage millions of 30 years ago.

The day we went, there were a few young people - clearly wondering what all the fuss was about.

Most of the visitors were middle aged or older - many from nearby factories or work units, but a few had travelled from hundreds of kilometres away.

Sad fate

So what role does Mao play in today's China? No doubt, the entrepreneurial capitalism that has taken hold of his home village would have appalled him.

Chinese banknote
Market forces have caused sweeping change in China
And it's not just the pictures of him on T-shirts and watches. As we were driving back from the village, I noticed a small good luck charm hanging in the minibus. On it was a picture of Mao.

I asked the driver about it. Yes, he said, we believe that Chairman Mao will protect us from danger.

A sad fate for a man who spent his life trying to rid his country of its traditional superstitions.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

09 Nov 99 | China 50 years of communism
Mao's legacy
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more From Our Own Correspondent stories