China and the Memory of Mao

I found a very interesting article in the New York Times that brings focus on the strange relationship that China and Chinese culture still share with their long dead leader, Mao Zedong.  I say long dead, but truth of the matter is that it has been thirty five years.  Depending on how you look at it, these three and a half decades can seem both long and very short at the same time.  Didi Kirsten Tatlow has written a nice article, ‘Mao’s legacy Still Divides China’, that displays the peculiar balance between the opinions that different portions of the Chinese public hold toward the relevance of Mao at present.

If you were to ask members of the older generation, namely those who were born between 1930 and the mid-50s how long, about their memories of Mao and his time, those thirty five year would not be seen as all that long.  The disaster of the Great Leap Forward along with the horrors of the cultural revolution will never disappear from the mind of many of those who witnessed the events firsthand.  For many of these people, as well as many politicians of similar age, Mao is just as relevant today as he was 35 years prior.  At the same time, if you were to ask a current youth, anyone between 15 and 25, on their thoughts about Mao, their answer would be quite different;  For many of them, Mao is a section of history held by their parents and their grandparents.

I occasionally hear people mention the ‘Mao Years’, a mysterious a block of time that can be hard to label.  Are they in the early 20s through the 40s, when Mao was a young leader working to gain power?  Or perhaps they are the years that he spent as the foremost figure in the political scene of the newly founded People’s Republic.  Then again, if Mao still holds such sway within the minds and the actions of the Chinese people and the government, I think it is just as appropriate to consider the period between 1976 and the present as part of the Mao years as well.  I also read an article by   I do not believe that there will be a modern China without the memory of Mao, at least not in this century.  He was brutal, he was decisive, and his erratic policies threw his nation into turmoil on more than one occasion.  The memory of Mao, however, is built on more than just terror; He was a leader like none other, charismatic to the point that it was difficult not to follow his lead.  China, at the time that Mao arrived on the political scene, was at the lowest point it could reach, in terms of societal moral, infrastructure, economy, you name it.  Years of invasion on the part of Western nations had left the Chinese crushed.  Mao come into the picture with a new direction, a plan for a new China, and people were ready to follow.  He grabbed hold of the rural masses and brought them forth through a civil and international war.  For the first time in hundreds of years, China was united under one leader, and this is no small thing to forget.

Mao masterfully pushed his weight around, and happened upon a time that was perfect for his arrival.  The Great Leap Forward, mentioned by Tatlow in her article, was only able to gain the momentum that it did because people were excited. China was thrown into a fervor as Mao pushed to have the nation on par with the United States in as little as 30 years.  The GLF was a complete disaster, collapsing into a famine that killed (by some estimates) as many as 15 million people.  And yet, the crippled nation moved on.  Mao’s launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the most revered and potentially most difficult to understand of his ideological campaigns, marks a great point in the history of modern China.  The Cult of Mao, a group of eccentric followers with an almost evangelical worship of the Chairman, pushed eager masses into a complete chaos.  Millions of students were displaced as their schools were closed; they were not only allowed, but encouraged to change their nation through destruction.  Politicians and young adults alike were sent (by Mao) down to the rural regions where it was hoped that they would be “re-educated” by working alongside the rural masses.  For some, this period of rural exile lasted all the way into the late 70s, following Mao’s death in 1976.

Such a legacy cannot end with a death.  The ideas that Mao propagated during his time, the ‘Maoist Utopia’ that he envisioned, a place where individuals would all receive equal rights and social status, were incredibly powerful ideas to say the least.  And yet, despite the great surge of energy that his presence created, China never came to realize everything that he declared would come in the new age.  Mao was, to say the least, at fault in many of the disasters that occurred during his course as chairman.  China of today is heading in a very different direction than what had been laid out by its original founders.  The changes implemented by Deng Xiaoping in the early 80s drastically shifted the political and economic scene; China immediately following Mao had a severely stagnant economy, and something had to be done.  Even if there were a document, as Tatlow mentions, with the intention of removing Mao Zedong thought from party workings, I do not think it would have much effect.

Though China is doing well in many respects, it is difficult to picture that this nation would every find itself without strong elements of Mao present in its culture.  Mao Zedong reshaped Chinese society in a way that has greatly influenced the country’s current position in the world.  He may be gone, but the power that he wielded is still quite strong, even if only in memory.

This is a rather difficult topic to cover in short space, but if you are interested in gaining a better understanding of Mao and his effect on Modern China, these two books are excellent:

Rebecce E. Carl, “Mao Zedong and China in the 20th Century World”
Phillip P. Pan “Out of Mao’s Shadow”

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