More Than One Mao

Left: Mao's Birthday Celebration (AP Photo), Right: Artist Ai Wei Wei's 'Fuck Off!'

There is a common understanding in the west that Mao in China is highly revered, exalted even. That the trappings of the cult of Mao persist—his body remains on display in People’s Square, his face is on almost every bill, college students are obliged to take classes on ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, and it’s still not uncommon in rural areas to find temples adorned with his image—certainly buttresses this view. But, behind the startling factoids lies a much more nuanced, if not completely open and honest, general public understanding.

The official line on Mao is 70% good, 30% bad. The good parts were uniting the country, evicting the occupying Japanese, and setting the country on the road to modernity—the bad: the cultural revolution. So while that isn’t perhaps the most forthcoming reassessment of a man considered in the west to be responsible for bad policies leading to the deaths of millions, it opens the door. Imagine if they went with 60/40. That would almost sound like an apology for 50/50, which is pretty shaky ground for the founding myth of a country.

That 30% is a big space, especially in a country known for not giving an inch. Just the other day a Chinese colleague told me he thought much of Mao’s policy was misguided, but that his ability as a military and popular leader was essential to provide the opportunity for a strong, united China.

As is to be expected of a central figure in a countries recent history, Mao is a common source of debate. There are a fistfull of academic and popular books reflecting on Mao’s legacy that cover the ideological map from apologist to revisionist. Reappraisals of Mao certainly must tread carefully, but it would be a mistake to assume that the general view of Mao is unquestioning reverence.

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