The pilgrimage to Mao’s home town
Sanne van Oosten
Deep in the communist heartland of China lays a small town called Shaoshan. Nobody would think anything special of this town if it wasn’t for one small fact: it is the home town of Mao, The Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao. It is now a place where millions of Chinese tourists flock to, to pay tribute to the political leader they think they owe all of the success of China to.
We visit Shaoshan with mixed feelings. On the one hand we understand the historical value of the home town of one of the most famous political leaders in history, on the other hand we are deeply critical towards the megalomaniac whose policies starved millions and gave way to torture of millions more.
We find a person on Couchsurfing.org to go with us to Shaoshan. Our host lives in the relatively small town of Xiangtan, about an hour away from Shaoshan. He invites us to stay at his sister’s house. They don’t live in the centre of Xiangtan but a way outside of town. We walk through dark alleyways to get to his house. When peeking into the windows we see people playing Mah-jongg, probably China’s favorite pastime. Some windows emit a pinkish light, “that is so people know there is a prostitute there” our host explains. A child starts screaming when he sees our faces, “it’s because you are foreigners” he points out. His sister lives in a dilapidated flat, amongst rows and rows of flats just ilke it. Every window is caged so people can’t jump/fall out and the furniture is simple. They cleaned out a room especially for us. We are so thankful that we can stay at their house.
The next morning we get up early. Our host prepared some noodles for us in the kitchen. We walk over a dusty overgrown path and, to our great surprise, a train station materializes in front of us. Well, train station, it’s more like a abandoned building next to the train tracks with a crumbling concrete slab for a platform. We wait for the train to arrive while our host offers us some local chewing tobacco. Even though it isn’t even as gross as we expect, we spit it out quickly. Then the train arrives and we head towards Shaoshan.
The first thing to do in Shaoshan is visit the birth home of the man himself. We queue up in the long line. Before we know it, some people are trying to cut in front of us, they are actively practicing the Chinese art form of pushing and shoving. Then I endanger my political career by posing for a picture in front of Mao’s house, just because I can. Whilst following the long line you are brought from room to room, rooms where he lived, worked, played. “This is where Mao helped his mother with the housework.” Is our favorite explanation of the whole house.
When exiting the house, we are greeted by a long line of souvenir stalls. The capitalists! The Chinese would be crazy to let this money making opportunity pass by, all of the visitors of Shaoshan are keen on getting a small statue of Mao, a pin with his head on it, or a picture where it is photoshopped to look like you are shacking Mao’s hand. In front of us a few people get into a real live fist fight. Our friend explains that a tourist started bargaining a price and decided not to buy. Of course the sales person has the right to get angry!
One of the things every Chinese tourist does when he/she is in Shaoshan is eat Mao’s favorite dish. Mao didn’t have very complicated taste, rightfully so. He loved eating a beef dish with big chunks of fat. Mao especially liked the chunks of fat, but as a real capitalist I like to leave those on my plate.
Visiting the newly opened Mao Zedong museum gives an interesting insight into the life of the Great Helmsman. Even though Mao exalted a frugal lifestyle with limited belongings in sparse living quarters, he hardly had a life like that himself. The museum proudly shows a large collection of his robes and pajamas. It also showed the large suitcases he lugged around whenever he traveled across the country. However, one of the captions did tell us that whenever he had worn a shirt out he would tell his servants to adjust them to a smaller size so someone else could wear them, yes, that is what it said.
Then there was Mao’s book collection. Even though he encouraged Red Guards to burn as many non-Maoist or Marxist books they could find, he had quite a collection. But wait, didn’t Mao call for his Red Guards to burn as many books they could put their hands on? Notwithstanding Mao’s little red book of course.
But the weirdest thing of all was a showcase of Mao’s beautiful Mah-jongg sets. Mao loved to play Mah-jongg, the caption helpfully explains. But wait, didn’t Mao declare playing Mah-jongg illegal as it was a bourgeois habit and would distract the peasants from their hard work on the land?
One of the old ways Mao was out to abolish was kowtowing, bowing deeply to those who are of higher status than you. Nevertheless, we saw this happen all over the place in Shaoshan. As we have seen, there are so many old practices that Mao abolished, that are now being openly practiced in Shaoshan, the place people go to honour Mao himself. But we were more amused by this than shocked. What we think is actually really wrong about how many people make the pilgrimage to Shaoshan is that Mao is still seen as the great hero of China. Even though millions died of hunger due to his mismanagement of the country during the Great Leap Forward and millions more were tortured by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. A popular Chinese historian once suggested that visiting Mao’s birth town in Shaoshan is like visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine and we don’t think that comparison is all that off.
But people still love Mao in China. They say he was the person who made the current economic boom of China possible. Without him, they say, China would still be stuck in a prolonged “Century of Humiliation.” Even though Mao’s rise did mean an end of humiliation by outside powers and a beginning of national sovereignty, Mao’s time still signified more standstill than development. Meanwhile, people who are traumatized by the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution still don’t have anyone they can talk to. Their generation will soon die out, leaving their children with only positive stories about Mao’s time.