Mao business

By Zhang Yu in Shaoshan Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/8 19:18:39

Blessing his hometown with red money, leader holds sway over locals’ lives 40 years after death

Manufacturers of statues of Mao Zedong in Shaoshan, the leader's birthplace, have seen their businesses slow down. While many of them benefitted from the red tourism boom over the past decades, now they must face the fact that demand for their statues - which some believe have magical powers - is shrinking due to anti-corruption campaigns and a weak economy.

Visitors examine a mural showing Chairman Mao meeting a variety of Chinese ethnic minorities in Shaoshan, Central China's Hunan Province. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Taxi drivers place small busts of Chairman Mao on their cars' dashboard to protect them on their journey.

Small business owners enshrine Mao in their homes and in their shops, hoping it could bring in more profits and good luck, despite the lifelong anti-capitalist efforts of the late leader.

Local government officials offer memorial wreaths to Mao's bronze statue during Chinese New Year, in the hope that they would be promoted. In supermarkets, Mao's statues are placed alongside groceries and other daily essentials and sold as if they are a necessity.

Four decades after the leader's death, Mao Zedong is still omnipresent - in the form of statues - in the city of Shaoshan, his birthplace about one hour's drive from Changsha, capital of Central China's Hunan Province.

"Want to buy and enshrine a Chairman Mao statue?" Ou Xinhe, owner of the Wangda Crafts Factory, asks tourists who visit her shop, located near her factory in the east of Shaoshan.

As Shaoshan has become a popular site for red tourism in the past two decades, Chairman Mao statues from the city are in hot demand, favored not only by locals but also tourists. According to the local government, the city, with a population of 118,000, produces over 30,000 Mao Zedong statues every year.

But as the effect of the economic downturn starts to show, the Mao statue industry is having a hard time.

Ou Xinhe, owner of a crafts factory, displays the Mao Zedong statues she makes. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Rags to riches

People buy Mao Zedong's statues not only because they have affection for the revolutionary, but also because of the widespread superstition that his statues can bless and protect people. And as Shaoshan is Mao's birthplace, statues from Shaoshan are considered more efficacious - in terms of their supernatural effect - than the same statues manufactured elsewhere.

Ou and her husband Liu Bin were one of the first entrepreneurs in Shaoshan who spotted and took advantage of the growing demand for statues of Mao about 20 years ago. Previously farmers, and now millionaires, their success is the typical rags-to-riches story.

Twenty years ago, the couple, like most farmers in Shaoshan, made a living by working in a factory.

Now they are millionaires who own a factory over 2,000 square meters in area and employ over 10 workers. The couple has three cars - a minivan, a Buick, and a BMW X5 which they bought last year.

In 2000, the couple, tired of working for others, opened their own courtyard factory, making plaster Mao Zedong statues. In the beginning, they only had three moulds, and it was a small business at first. They still had to do part-time jobs to pay for the running costs of the factory.

As Shaoshan continued to promote red tourism over the next few years, and as the number of visitors to Shaoshan increased, Mao Zedong statues were in high demand. Many factories started to make Mao statues, and the variety of products on offer also grew. There are bronze statues of Mao depicting him receiving red guards, resin statues of him waving and busts of him wearing a Sun Yat Sen-style suit, all in different sizes.

The couple are grateful to Chairman Mao. "If it hadn't been for him, we'd never have been able to afford these cars," Liu told the Global Times. Every year during Mao's birthday, which falls on December 26, and on the first day of the Chinese New Year, they go to Bronze Statue Square in the center of Shaoshan's scenic area and pay their respect.

Ou is a firm believer in the power of Mao Zedong. "Every year before Mao's birthday, no matter how heavy the snow or the rain has been, it will always become sunny the next day, on Mao's birthday," she said.

As making Mao statues has become a lucrative industry worth over 100 million yuan ($15 million), more and more people have joined in.

The local government had to issue a set of regulations on the quality standards of Mao statues in 2010. According to the regulations, each model of Mao should be reviewed by five to nine experts, who will examine the statue's expression, hairstyle, face shape, body shape, gesture and outfit according to historical photos of Mao. Only items which pass the review can enter the market.

Ou boasts that the Mao statues they manufacture meet all the regulations, and even received a favorable review from Mao's only grandson, Mao Xinyu, now a major general in the PLA. "Mao Xinyu reviewed several statues during one of his visits to Shaoshan. During the review, he pointed at one of our statues and said, 'this is my grandpa,'" she said, and points to a bronze bust of Mao, depicting him in old age.

Two people pay their respects to Chairman Mao in Bronze Statue Square in Shaoshan. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Hit by reality

Ou thinks manufacturing Mao statues is a business that will never go out of style. "For people in Shaoshan, Mao Zedong is a god. People will never stop remembering him," she said.

But reality isn't always what people wish it to be. Starting last year, business started to slump, and Liu said the number of orders they received last year and this year is at least 50 percent smaller than the years before.

Liu said the anti-corruption campaign in the past years, for one thing, has made some people refrain from buying the statues, as many of his best customers are government employees. He also attributed the slump to the current economic downturn.

The factory's bronze statues of Mao, which are the most expensive types of statues they make, have seen their sales figures hit the hardest. Bronze statues worth several million yuan are piled behind a bar in the couple's factory.

During its peak, the city had eight factories manufacturing Mao statues. Now, at least three have folded due to the slump in business.

Some factories turned to other products in order to survive the slump. Fengyuan, the biggest factory in Shaoshan which used to specialize in manufacturing Mao statues, started to divert part of its production line to Buddhist and folk statues in 2014 to weather the industry's winter.

Frozen in time

Apart from several brand new museums showcasing objects which once belonged to Mao Zedong and his personal stories, many parts of Shaoshan feels like a place frozen in time.

The mountain city's downtown area is about 5 kilometers from the scenic area. Most of the buildings here are old, shabby and badly maintained. The train station, built in 1967, a year into the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), with its pastel blue facade and a huge portrait of Chairman Mao hanging in a golden frame above its entrance, still looks the same as it did 50 years ago. Back then, the station, along with the railway, was built to meet the need of the overwhelming number of people who come to visit the birthplace of their revolutionary leader.

Now, in the evening, middle-aged women take over the square, dancing to disco music blaring from a loudspeaker. Apart from these revelers, the city looks dark and dull, and you can wait up to half an hour for a taxi to ride past.

As Mao has no tomb - his body was embalmed and is now on display in Beijing's Mausoleum of Mao Zedong - the Bronze Statue Square, at the center of Shaoshan's scenic area, has become the place where people remember and worship their great leader.

Wreaths and bouquets crowd under a huge bronze statue of Mao. It's the place where most activities in the city take place - people wearing Red Army uniforms visit it and take snaps with the huge bronze statue. Loyal Maoists, traveling all the way from faraway provinces, kneel down in front of the statue in gratitude and remembrance. Mao Zedong impersonators sit around, taking photographs with visitors. Even newlyweds come here, dressed in wedding gowns and suits, as part of their weddings - a local custom.

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