Taking a great leap backward to Mao’s birth 120 years ago
Mao Zedong’s hometown is gearing up for a big celebration, but Beijing is more wary
Tang Ruiren, the great-aunt of Mao Zedong, poses in front of a photograph of her family. “Everybody learns Mao’s ideology,” she says. “The situation changes continuously, but socialism keeps moving forward.”
Grandma Tang Ruiren is gearing up for a major celebration to mark the 120th anniversary of chairman Mao Zedong’s birth in his hometown of Shaoshan on December 26th. But the central government in Beijing is keen to tone down the festivities.
The local government is planning to spend hundreds of millions of yuan on the celebration, but Chinese president Xi Jinping has called for a “pragmatic” event to mark the Great Helmsman’s anniversary.
The founder of modern China is a controversial figure, at home and overseas, because of the disastrous agricultural collectivisation reforms of the Great Leap Forward and the destructive ideological zealotry of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In Shaoshan, however, he is revered.
“We have everything ready for our 120th anniversary, lots of red food, peppers, and the bosses of our chain of 300 Mao Jia restaurants are getting ready,” says Tang.
“We will have noodles to celebrate long life for free, and discounts on other food. We invite everybody from China and all over the world to eat long-life noodles that day.”
Tang (83) met Mao back in 1959 and proudly displays a photograph of her holding her son during the visit. Although many years younger than him, she is Mao’s great-aunt.
The baby she is holding in her arms in the picture went in his early teens to fight in China’s war against Vietnam. He was Mao’s uncle. Her husband was a soldier too, as was her father.
Tang is a fierce ideologue, steeped in communist tradition, even while enjoying the fruits of capitalism with Chinese characteristics, such as her chain of restaurants with its signature dish of Chairman Mao’s Favourite Pork, her private art gallery and the waxwork figure of herself she has installed in a shrine to her achievements.
“Chairman Xi is the same as chairman Mao. He is making a great dream for Chinese people. Everybody learns Mao’s ideology. The situation changes continuously, but socialism keeps moving forward and is great,” she says.
“Changes happen all the time, so the Communist Party can’t always stay the same. Chinese people will not forget history. Mao has said that only people are the driving force of the world history.”
Dealing with Mao is a delicate balancing act for Xi, who was installed in March and whose father Xi Zhongxun was a key figure in Mao’s army during the Civil War and subsequent 1949 revolution.
Mao’s face adorns every banknote and his portrait gazes out over Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Xi is keen to harness “Mao Zedong Thought” to bolster his campaign to reduce growing inequality and combat corruption.
Xi has at times adopted a neo-Maoist approach to assuage the traditionalist side of the Communist Party, but he is keen to establish himself as a reformer and has been careful to keep some distance between himself and Mao.
Mao as an ‘idol’
Zhang Lifan’s father, Zhang Naiqi, was a key figure in the founding of the People’s Republic and suffered during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the 1950s and again in Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.