A sign of disaffection, rural worship of Chairman Mao is treated with caution

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-28 21:46:34

Mao Zedong worshippers from around the country gather to remember him in Xiangtan, Central China’s Hunan Province, on December 25. Photo: CFP

Today, many villagers in China’s rural areas nostalgic for the era of people’s communes and collective farming regard Mao Zedong as their god and spiritual leader. Such Maolovers seek to establish December 26, Mao’s birthday, as a public festival to celebrate the former leader. But as China drifts ever further away from Maoism, these voices, while persistent, are complaining of becoming increasingly marginalized. 

The trumpets blared, the drums were beat, and firecrackers exploded. Days before Mao Zedong's 122th birthday, a Taoist temple in Jingyuan county, Northwest China's Gansu Province welcomed a new statue for people to worship: a statue of the leader. 

As red Chinese flags fluttered in the temple, revolutionary nostalgia and folk religion mixed in this remote northern village. According to the video uploaded to the Internet, a consecration ceremony was held, attended by a procession of Taoist priests clad in blue robes and villagers dressed in Mao suits, in front of some curious onlookers. 

Six old men wearing red scarves worshipped the bronze statue through an ecstatic dance while singing "The East is Red," a socialist song, accompanied by music played by a brass band. Then an otherworldly, Shaman-like figure, donning a colorful sacred robe and holding a sword, chanted a long incantation to the figure of the smiling atheist leader.

This is just the latest temple that features a statue of Mao. According to media reports, temples dedicated to the former leader have been seen in many rural areas in the past decades, especially in Shaanxi, Guangdong, and Hunan provinces.

The founder of the People's Republic of China, who asked his people to break old traditions and fight against superstition and religion during his lifetime, is now worshipped alongside other folk deities like the Jade Emperor and the God of Wealth. People pray to Mao to help them rid of ill fortune, bear a baby boy or get rich quick.

Idolizing Mao

Building Mao temples is not encouraged by the central government or local authorities. In 2013, on Mao's 120th birthday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a public speech that "we cannot worship [revolutionary leaders] as gods just because they are great people, not allowing others to point out and correct their errors and mistakes."

When a temple dedicated to Mao in a village in Jiangmen, South China's Guangdong Province, was under construction in the 2000s, local government ordered it to be demolished because "Mao didn't believe in god and wasn't superstitious, and there shouldn't be a temple dedicated to him," Southern Weekly reported. 

But that didn't stop villagers from building a temple to a man that wielded total power in China when he was alive. Believers managed to rebuild it in 2003, albeit in secret. The village Party chief, after he learned the temple had been built, reportedly went to the temple himself to pray for victory in the next Party chief election.

Song Guiwu, economics professor at Gansu's Provincial Party School who researched Mao idolization in rural Gansu, said such a phenomenon is inevitable when China's contemporary history and folk religion is concerned. "One reason is a lack of faith in rural areas, and farmers can only look for any people in history they can worship. Mao is an inevitable choice because farmers who are relatively lower in literacy rate and lacking in independent thinking are more susceptible to the ubiquitous ideological propaganda during Mao's era," he told the Global Times.

During his research trips to Jingyuan, Yuzhong and other Gansu counties, Song saw the idolization of Mao was a common practice among farmers in the northern province. About a third of them would put Mao's portraits alongside those of the God of Wealth or Guan Yu - a figure from the ancient Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms who has been deified - in their homes as a means of protection or a blessing.

And it's not just old people who worship Mao, but also young couples who did not experience the Mao era. "This has more or less become a custom in rural areas," Song said.

Farmers' nostalgia about Mao's era is also because of their discontent with the current situation. While the economy grew rapidly in the past thirty years, many farmers have not become any better off.  

Although after the reform and opening up, marketization and the household contract system brought farmers more freedom, rising inequality and the growing wealth gap has made farmers an increasingly underprivileged and weak class in China. "This is another basis for their yearning for an authoritative leader who could change their fate," Song told the Global Times. During his trips, he even got the impression that the less developed an area is, the more people would idolize Mao.

"Farmers miss people's communes, which offered them a sense of belonging and stability. In Mao's era, people were poor - but everyone was poor, and at least farmers, along with workers, had a high social status," he said.

People's Day

While not every Mao-lover will worship a Mao statue, demands to give Mao some sort of recognition are shared by many. On Saturday, despite official obstruction, tens of thousands of people gathered together in Shaoshan, Central China's Hunan Province, Mao's hometown, to celebrate the man's birthday. In a middle school in Luan county, North China's Hebei Province, thousands of students and teachers gathered to eat longevity noodles to remember him.

Maoists in China have long been seeking for the establishment of a People's Day, which falls on Mao's birthday, to celebrate the leader and his legacy. This year, they drafted a petition that asks the Communist Party of China Central Committee and Chinese legislators to officially designate the day as a public festival.

"A great Party needs a soul, an undefeatable army needs a soul, a rising country needs a soul, and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people needs a soul. Mao Zedong is that soul!" reads the petition, which circulated on social media sites.

"Mao has stamped everything in China with 'people' - people's government, people's army, people's courts … even our currency is called the renminbi, or people's currency…. Mao should forever be remembered in history as the people's leader," it reads.

Thousands of people have signed the petition. The most prominent names who signed on the list include sons and daughters of former officials, party leaders and generals, as well as some leftist scholars.

Leftist scholars tend to attribute many of China's current problems, including the exploitation of migrant workers, corrupt officials, lack of social welfare and drug problems to the fact that China adopted a capitalist path after reform and opening up, ignoring his negative contribution to Chinese history. "If Mao was still alive, will people dare to make these mistakes? … Chinese people remember Mao because it meets their personal interest," Sima Nan, a famous far-left scholar, said in a recent blog post.

Guo Songmin, a leftist and Maoist ideologue, who also signed the petition, said, "China's reform and opening up was fruitful. But it also spawned many problems - wealth gaps, inequality and people living in poverty. There is high demand from many people that want to return to the socialist era. And Mao is the symbol of that era."

Leftists' outcry

While many liberals complain leftist ideology is regaining lost ground now, leftist scholars, however, say they are not satisfied. “Rightists dominate most media outlets, websites, university classrooms and publishing houses. Although Xi tightened ideology, the leftists are still given a very small space for public speech,” Guo told the Global Times.

Guo Songming thinks Mao was a great man, and that the media, controlled by the rightists, have been demonizing Mao and exaggerating the harm he has done. “But this will not stop people from loving him. The more Mao is vilified, the more people will strike back and love him even more,” he said.

On social media, whether or not to pay tribute to Mao on his birthday is the subject of debate. When famous actor Wang Baoqiang, who comes from a poor rural background, published a blog post on Mao’s birthday, saying he always prayed to “grandpa Mao” and thanked him for making his dream come true, he received hundreds of scornful critical comments about the harm that Mao did to China, forcing him to delete the post.

“If Mao was still alive, you will be nothing but a poor jobless farmer, and be forced to wear a hat and paraded around; and just think about what life your father lived, and what life you’re now living?” one comment read, referring to how people were brutally interrogated and publicly criticized during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Sima Pingbang, a leftist cultural critic, think this is unfair. “Many people who hold respect for Mao are attacked as maozuo, a derogative term for Mao ideologues, which is insulting. This isn’t supposed to happen in a rational society,” he told the Global Times.

Posted in: In-Depth

blog comments powered by Disqus