Mao Stirs Mixed Feelings in Modern China

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Thirty years after his death, Mao's image is everywhere in China. But a new high school history book refers to him only briefly, in a chapter on etiquette. His communist views are in contrast with the nation's new economic direction.


Thirty years ago today the death of Chairman Mao Zedong marked the end of an epic. The Great Helmsman steered China through much of the 20th century, along the way causing the death of tens of millions from famine and from brutal political campaigns. NPR's Louisa Lim joins us from Shanghai to tell us how the country remembers the man whose little red book of Communist Party slogans once was in the pockets of hundreds of millions of people. So Louisa, are the Chinese marking this anniversary?

LOUISA LIM: Well, interestingly there haven't really been any official ceremonies. It's largely been passed over by the official media, except for the China Daily, which had a front page article but used quotes mainly by foreign scholars to validate Mao's legacy. And we did see a large concert at the Great Hall of the People last night. And we also hear in the news that a new museum costing 35 million dollars will be built in his hometown, Shaoshan.

But still it's being passed in a very low key way indeed, which is interesting because it really shows how much the government relies on, yet fears, his very mixed legacy. I think they're worried that bringing too much attention to Chairman Mao could bring back memories of the hardships people suffered under his era for some, but could also bring back nostalgia for the Mao era for others. So they're really trying to downplay it as much as possible.

WERTHEIMER: Well, how has that reputation fared over the years? Is he seen as a benevolent leader or a brutal despot or both?

LIM: Well, really it's a bit of both. The official verdict on Mao that the party came to in 1981 was that he was 70% good and 30% bad. And their mythology about Mao was really that he was a great national hero who unified the country. He sort of threw off the yoke of Japanese imperialism and freed people from poverty, and that any later mistakes were made when he was older and should be weighed up against his great contributions to China.

And they are using that mythology about Mao to shore up the legitimacy of the Communist Party nowadays, that people don't really believe in communism anymore. So they're really trying to keep that mythology going. And it's interesting that even today his body is in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square in the middle of Beijing. His face is on every bank note in China still.

WERTHEIMER: Are children taught about Mao in school?

LIM: Well, yes. I mean up until now the lessons they've learned have really reinforced the government line and really washed over things like the Cultural Revolution, the ten years of turmoil that cost millions of lives and led to many, many millions of intellectuals being persecuted; it's really whitewashed in history books. But interestingly, new schoolbooks that are about to be introduced here in Shanghai are moving a bit further away from the traditional communist ideology. And in them Mao's actually only mentioned once, and very fleetingly, as part of a lesson on the custom of lowering flags to half mast at state funerals. So perhaps they feel that it's simply too difficult as well to reconcile his ideas about communism and the evils of capitalism with the reality of life here today in China's money hungry society.

So while his views are becoming irrelevant, his symbolism isn't.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Louisa Lim speaking to us from Shanghai on the 30th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong. Louisa, thanks.

LIM: Thank you.

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