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Zhang Hang, an employee with Beijing hair salon company MuBei, walks through Ma Lan Village, a former Communist military base west of Beijing that is now a red tourism site.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

On a bright morning in late September, Zhang Hang slipped on the slate-blue fatigues of the Eighth Route Army, a long-ago Communist force led by Mao Zedong, and paused a moment to savour the feeling.

“Putting on these clothes, I felt surrounded by a solemn air,” he said, looking down at the decades-old garment design, including the pockmarked wooden stock of an old rifle he held slung from a shoulder. “I feel like it’s something sacred.”

Mr. Zhang works for Chinese hair salon company MuBei and had come to Ma Lan, a village tucked into the mountains on the western flank of Beijing, with a group of colleagues, all similarly attired. Ma Lan was once a key base for the Eighth Route Army and, this May, opened to the public as a renovated site for “red tourists” – those seeking to touch the days of Communist suffering and victory.

“We need to understand and appreciate what happened in the past,” said Mr. Zhang, who organized the trip. His interest in history isn’t merely personal, nor is it his interest alone. “The atmosphere in this country right now makes learning history something quite necessary,” he said.

On Oct. 1, China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, an event that will be marked with a massive military parade featuring China’s most sophisticated warfare hardware, proceeding along a route decorated with icons of the country’s technological prowess, including floral renditions of a bullet train and 5G mobile service. Red propaganda banners proclaim the “new era.”

But not far away, other banners carry a less avant-garde message. “Don’t forget the original intention, keep the mission in mind,” they declare. It’s a quote from Chinese President Xi Jinping that has been posted across the country, including in Ma Lan Village, as the Communist Party approaches the 70th anniversary of its rule.

China is in the midst of a great look backward, one that encompasses not just tourism, but propaganda, museums, the entertainment industry, schools and the rhetoric of Mr. Xi, who has aligned himself with some of the most symbol-laden elements of the Communist past.

This Sept. 9, 2019 photo shows propaganda materials at a restaurant in Beijing.NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, he travelled to the departure point of the Long March in Jiangxi province – a lengthy Communist retreat that is a seminal period of historic duress – building on a 2016 speech in which he encouraged pursuit of “a new Long March,” saying: “A nation that forgets its origins will find itself in a blind alley.” Mr. Xi has also paid homage to Lei Feng, a quasi-mythical Chinese hero lionized as a paragon of selfless socialist devotion.

Those visits have come amid a darkening economic environment for China, which has been buffeted by declining domestic growth, the trade war with the U.S. and an outbreak of a virus that has killed large numbers of pigs, a critical food source.

“Returning to the memories of the founding of the Republic, the associations are of national peril and heroic sacrifice,” said David Moser, a Chinese cultural observer who is author of A Billion Voices: China’s Search for a Common Language. “Xi Jinping has already sent the message that tough times are ahead, and the people will again be expected to sacrifice for the greater good and survival of the nation.”

In China, he said, “nationalism is always equated with the struggle for cultural survival, since the memories of that struggle are still within living memory.”

On Thursday, the party leadership unveiled the country’s “most beautiful strugglers,” building on Mr. Xi’s own increasingly frequent use of the word “struggle.” It’s a term freighted with historical meaning in a country whose founding chairman made the idea of struggle a centrepiece of the foundation of modern China.

Mr. Xi has fashioned himself as a powerful core leader in the mould of China’s most luminous past Communist figures, Mao Zedong among them, explicitly seizing the potent symbols of Communist Revolution-era China to buttress his rule – one that has been marked by new confidence abroad, and a heavier hand domestically.

This Sept. 7, 2019 photo shows a vendor of books and souvenirs - some featuring Mao Zedong - waiting for customers at the Panjiayuan Antique Market in Beijing.NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

“The Communists are deeply steeped in that notion of the stages of history leading to something great and grand,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. Mr. Xi ”wants to very much make himself the apogee of the almost inevitable and glorious evolution of the country, the state and the party – and that goes back 70 years.”

Indeed, Mr. Xi has done much to earn the label “little Mao,” a modern leader who has mimicked the Great Helmsman in language and governance, and who “loves the propaganda style, the movies and music of Mao era,” said Qiao Mu, a Chinese journalism scholar who was squeezed out of his position in Beijing for his critical views, and now lives in the U.S.

“Xi is the person who follows Mao. Mao represented new China, and Xi the new era.”

It’s a historical turn that has never been more manifest than in the 70th anniversary preparations, as a country in thrall of capitalist wealth has smeared itself in revolutionary red.

The country’s televisions have been taken over by a list of 86 programs preapproved to “show the great struggle of the Chinese nation as its people have stood up and become richer and stronger.” Museums across the country have devoted themselves to displaying propaganda from the years around 1949, when the Communists took power. And the streets themselves are being decorated with nostalgic images.

Zhang Lei paints a wall in Beijing with nostalgic 1970s-era propaganda art.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

In Caochangdi, an art district in a northeast corner of Beijing, Zhang Lei has been painting cherub-faced schoolchildren on a wall. Pictures like it were a common theme of party propaganda in the 1970s and 80s. One child holds a red flag painted with the word “peace.” Doves flit in the background. “It lets people remember happy times,” said Yang Jingyu, Mr. Zhang’s wife.

The couple run a small art company whose employees have been at work across the city for recent weeks, painting similar scenes in a flurry of new work. “It’s exactly like what it was in 1970,” said Ms. Yang. “The only difference is that in the past, these were mostly drawn on paper. Now we draw them on the wall.”

Not far away, the Taikang Art Museum has devoted its walls to a display of 1949-era art, including photos of Communist tanks rolling through Beijing, portraits of Mao, an image of a farming couple standing proud with a sickle and Chinese flag and cartoon images of big-cheeked children pointing bayoneted rifles at red-nosed soldiers with “U.S.” berets.

One of the centrepieces of the exhibit is footage from Mao’s Oct. 1, 1949, speech, inaugurating the nation – among the most celebrated moments in the history of modern China, but one seen only in black and white until Russia recently gifted China colour video shot by a team of Soviet documentarists. The full-colour images have, in vivid fashion, breathed new life into images from seven decades ago.

“You may think that 70 years is a long time. But if you see these images, you will realize that there haven’t been many changes,” said Su Wenxiang, the exhibit’s curator. “The spirit and happiness of the people remains the same. The clothes, facial expressions, attitudes and hairstyles – no big change really takes place. The only thing is that our economy has expanded.”

China has long maintained a keen interest in its own history. At the museum of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, a new exhibition covers 70 years of sculpture history. Among the items is a detailed examination of the creation of the Monument to the People's Heroes, which was completed on Tiananmen Square in 1958, and makes reference to seminal pre-Communist events, including the First Opium War, the Taiping Revolution and what China calls the War of Resistance Against Japan, part of which overlapped with the Second World War.

“Looking back is nothing new,” said Yang Qirui, a celebrated Chinese sculptor who is also a scholar at the China Academy of Art, and whose work is featured in the exhibition. “What Xi has done is to put more emphasis on it. Revolutionary history is the core of the New China, and the cornerstone of our country. So this history is constantly maintained and scrutinized.”

Still, the changes under Mr. Xi constitute a “180-degree” pivot, one particularly visible in schools, said Jiang Xueqin, a scholar who studies Chinese education. In Chinese public schools, teachers that once studied how to instill creativity are now spending ”their time rehearsing songs to commemorate the 70th anniversary, to celebrate the glorious past of the Communist Party,” he said. He expects that trend to continue long past Oct. 1. “Teachers don’t have the time to think about pedagogy any more. Now it’s about indoctrination. Having the right ideas. Making sure students understand the world properly,” he said.

“China’s economic prognosis is not good. So political stability is a huge concern now.”

In Ma Lan Village, too, local officials expect the trend to continue. They hope as many as 3,000 tourists a day will come here to gaze at rusting bullets, listen to stories of local heroism and immerse themselves in a past that, under Mr. Xi, no longer seems so distant. Before Communist forces took Beijing, as many as 20,000 gathered in this area, ensconced in steep topography that provided cover, even though it made daily life difficult.

”We need to remind people that they should not take for granted everything have today. Because behind their happiness, millions of people and struggled,” said Ma Fuchao, an organizer with the company that runs red tours through the village. A middle-school dropout who spent two years in the military and was an actor in a recent Red Army film, Mr. Ma is a fervent believer in the importance of the education this kind of village can provide to modern China.

Ma Fuchao, an organizer of red tourism, visits Ma Lan Village, a former Communist military base west of Beijing.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

He himself would willingly transplant to 1949, particularly the month just before the Communist victory. “Because that was the time when people experienced the most painful and hardest time of their lives,” he said.

That’s not anachronistic thinking, he said. It is, rather, the new mainstream.

“If the country wants to walk the red road,” he said, “then we will do the same."

With reporting by Alexandra Li

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