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The China Diaries

Discovering the new China along the trail of the Long March

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This is the house where Mao Tsetung was born in Shaoshan, Hunan Province, China. The photo was taken in November, 1982. (Stanley Oziewicz/The Globe and Mail)
This is the house where Mao Tsetung was born in Shaoshan, Hunan Province, China. The photo was taken in November, 1982. (Stanley Oziewicz/The Globe and Mail)

Mao home a fading shrine; curiosity, not zeal, brought pilgrims in 1982 Add to ...

Former foreign correspondent and current news editor for globeandmail.com Stan Oziewicz was The Globe and Mail’s man in China 30 years ago. In 1982, he filed this story from Shaoshan, Mao Zedong’s hometown. Last week, current China correspondent Mark MacKinnon visited Shaoshan as part of The Globe’s China Diaries.

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At the height of the Cultural Revolution as many as 70,000 Red Guards, their little red books held high and their banners waving, swarmed through this village, the birthplace of the Great Helmsman.

Mao Tsetung was their great leader and teacher, and even well into 1971 up to 4,000 people daily would troop through the mud-brick peasant house where he was born. They were there to pay obeisance, to seek inspiration, to proclaim their revolutionary ardor.

Now, on a good day, fewer than 500 make the pilgrimage – one that to an outsider seems undertaken more out of historical curiosity than any lingering fanatical devotion.

For China’s current rulers, eager to throw off the albatross of Mao Tsetung though, that’s just as well. Reached after much soul-searching, the official line is that the former Communist Party chairman “made gross mistakes during the Cultural Revolution but, if we judge his activities as a whole, his contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes.” Disabusing people of Mao’s infallibility and his radical notions has not been easy, especially here in Hunan province where his revolutionary vehemence was nurtured.

Mao has been dead more than six years now and the official verdict is more than a year old. But it wasn’t until this fall that the leaders of the Hunan party branch were sufficiently cowed by pressure from Peking to criticize themselves for adhering to the personality cult and leftist ideas.

Articles are now published claiming that Shaoshan peasants sing the praises of Deng Xiaoping and company rather than the old Maoist songs. “Thanks to Deng Xiaoping, everybody is happy,” one favorite ditty goes. “Thanks to (Party General Secretary) Hu Yaobang, every family is building granaries. Thanks to (Premier) Zhao Ziyang, every household has more than enough grain.”

Indeed, Tang Ruiyin, who with her husband, a demobilized soldier, now works the rice fields of the old Mao homestead, lauds the new agricultural responsibility system which has brought unprecedented prosperity to the area.

During the busy harvest time, she even employs a worker. He is fed and paid the equivalent of $1.20 and a pack of cigarets daily.

Such a practice was not permitted while Mao was alive. “But this is different from the exploitation of the old society,” Tang insisted during an interview. “Sometimes the landlord paid nothing at all. People are now willing, want to work and feel so happy to help others. Besides, they are not forced to. “From my point of view Mao Tsetung paved the new way for a socialist China. But now he’s dead and his successors are following his path with variations.”

Tang’s house, with its packed-mud floor and roosting chickens in the “living room,” is far less spacious than the house where Mao was born. Both are nestled in a pastoral valley where bare-legged peasants work in paddy fields.

At the entrance of the house is a placard listing rules for visitors: ŕ. Maintain calmness and seriousness. No smoking or spitting. 2. No touching or moving furniture and farm tools on show. 3. Love and protect trees, flowers and grass. No climbing or cutting wood or bamboo.” As 17-year-old guide Fu Chang-min tells it, Mao’s early home was that of a typical farmer. He obviously has not read Red Star Over China, in which Mao described his father to U.S. writer Edgar Snow as someone having a more comfortable status.

Mao’s father may have started out life as a poor peasant but he later became a rich grain merchant. His 13 1/2-room house attests to that: today it would be the envy of many Peking residents who live in concrete matchboxes.

Down the path is the Shaoshan Primary School where Mao studied the classics until he was obliged, at the age of 13, to work full-time on the land and aid his authoritarian father with the accounts.

At a museum nearby, nine rooms record in chronological order Mao’s achievements, ending Oct. 1, 1949, the day he stood at a rostrum in Peking’s Tiananmen Square to proclaim the People’s Republic of China.

There used to be a tenth room, a memorialization of the post-1949 period. Among other things, it recounted the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Leap Forward.

How to present these tortuous events in public displays – if at all – is now being considered by the historiographers. “There has to be some rewriting, some revisions,” Duan Xinhua, a senior staff member of Shaoshan’s foreign affairs office, acknowledged hesitantly. She gave no inkling when the room might open.

The China Diaries

Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail’s China correspondent, and staff photojournalist John Lehmann are exploring China at a defining moment in its modern history. Travelling mainly by rail, they will roughly retrace the path of Mao Zedong’s Long March to look at the challenges facing Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping.

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