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China 50 years of communism Tuesday, 9 November, 1999, 16:27 GMT
Mao's legacy
Mao film poster
Mao's image still has iconic status
By regional analyst Kate Liang

China: 50 years of communism / Revolution Glossary
Chairman Mao - the "Great Helmsman" of the Chinese revolution - still holds a dominant position at the heart of China's capital, Beijing - at least symbolically.

His portrait stares out over Tiananmen Square, the place where, in 1949, he declared to ecstatic crowds that the Chinese people had "stood up" after years of corrupt rule, civil war, and foreign oppression.

Exactly 50 years on, it is not hard to find other evidence that Mao lives on in the minds of Chinese people.

From the lucky talisman which hangs from a Beijing taxi driver's windscreen, to books, badges, cigarette lighters - even Chairman Mao yo-yos - the Mao memorabilia industry is alive and well.

Every year, Chinese in their millions visit Mao's birthplace, Shaoshan, and file past his embalmbed body in the Mao Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.

Mao badge
Memory or memorabilia?
Their motives are varied: from simple curiousity, to nationalistic pride, to nostalgia for a past which seemed to have a greater sense of moral certainty than the materialistic and commercially-driven China of today.

Indeed, there is something ironic in the commercialism which surrounds much of Mao's memory.

Dealers in trinkets and lucky knick-knacks - from cheap to exorbitant - would not have been approved of in politically purer days.

Just as Mao's life was full of contradictions - autocrat and revolutionary, saviour of the peasants and architect of the disastrous Great Leap Forward policies which led to their deaths in millions - there is an element of contradiction in the way he is remembered.

Mao Zedong
His official legacy includes mistakes
Those in the Party who most praise his memory are also those who are working most busily to undo his political legacy.

Since Mao's death in 1976, the emphasis among China's Party planners has been on economic reform and the gradual dismantling of state-run enterprises - all, of course, in the name of preserving Mao's communism.

But Mao's legacy - even his official one - is not untainted. It is perfectly acceptable in official quarters to speak of Mao's mistakes: the political upheaval of the Cultural Revolution, during which intellectuals and suspected "capitalist roaders" in the party were tormented, hounded from office, and exiled, being the most prominent, and painful, example.

China 50th anniversary celebration sign
Still a source of pride, 50 years on
But even in the case of the Cultural Revolution, it is Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and the other members of the notorious "Gang of Four", who are the focus of blame, not the man himself.

This despite the fact that during their trial, angry Beijingers were in the habit of surreptitiously holding up five fingers, indicating that Mao was the fifth member of the hated gang.

However, such is the potency of Mao's image that even his mistakes seem to be endowed with a certain dramatic quality: "the mistakes of a great revolutionary and a great Marxist", according to China's present leader, Jiang Zemin.

By comparison, the technocrats who run China today seem grey and featureless.

Mao once said that the Chinese people were a blank canvas.

It was one on which his erratic and dominating personality was writ large.

Amongst ordinary Chinese, his legend is so woven into the fabric of society that he has gained something of the status of a popular cult.

A restaurant owner intent on making money will see no contradiction in putting up a poster of the Chairman for good luck.

For all Mao's mistakes, it is more than just nostalgia which underpins his status.

Woman looking at poster
To older generations Mao's era symbolised clearer moral values
Although many Chinese may be richer than they ever were under the Chairman, they also complain of corruption and greed at the heart of government.

The recent popularity of the quasi-religious Falun Gong sect speaks of a wider sense of spiritual drift in China.

For many, Mao's era symbolised a kind of higher purpose, and moral clarity, which is missing today.

While many of China's dynamic entrepreneurs are too young for the Cultural Revolution to carry much meaning, Mao represents for them a fierce nationalism and pride at a time when China - after the bitter humiliations of the past - is becoming increasingly confident on the world stage.

Hong Kong has been returned to the motherland, and Macau is to follow later this year. Mao would have been pleased.

From the archive: Mao Zedong declares the People's Republic of China, Tiananmen Square, 1 October 1949
See also:

06 Jan 98 | World
26 Nov 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
26 Dec 98 | Asia-Pacific
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