New China’s founding father enshrined by ethnic villagers
Chairman Mao Zedong is another God in the largely Buddhist village of Man’en, where most residents belonging to the Dai ethnic group enshrine the founding father of New China at home, although he was no longer deified after the end of the “cultural revolution” (196676).
A large portrait of Mao hangs high in the living room of Ai Pa, with a smaller image of a senior Myanmar monk by its side. This arrangement was a suggestion from the Buddhist clergyman, who presided over a prayer service for Ai’s new house in 2000.
When Ai requested a portrait from the monk to be used as a “home guardian” after the ceremony, the monk insisted his image be placed in a subordinate position to that of Mao, saying that Mao was a real savior and guardian of the Dai people.
Loving almost all things related to Mao, from his quotations to the passionate red songs, Ai remains a loyal Mao fan even though his family suffered during the Mao era.
Ai’s family was classified as a landlord during the land reform in the 1950s, and his father fled to neighboring Myanmar only a few days after Ai’s birth in 1957 in fear of penalties as denouncement campaigns against landlords swept Menghai, a county in Xishuangbanna.
As the descendant of a landlord, Ai faced discrimination. He was rejected when he registered to join the People’s Liberation Army.
Ai does think his family was wronged. “My ancestors were all poor peasants. It was not until my grandpa reclaimed some wasteland that our family began to own some paddy fields and hire a few laborers,” he said.
Despite the adversity he faced when he was younger, Ai is not resentful. “A Buddhist should not return grudge for grievance,” the 56-year-old said.
In addition, he said, he admires Chairman Mao because the late leader was a man who truly wanted to do good for the people, and he appreciates the value of equality that emerged in the Mao era.
Most villagers owned no land before the land reform in Xishuangbanna, where the feudal lord claimed ownership of all land and peasants had to shoulder the heavy and inescapable burden of taxation, according to He Ming, an ethnic studies professor at Yunnan University in Kunming.
Ai recalls that when he was a child, old people in the village told him that Chairman Mao was like the Monkey King in the traditional Chinese novel Journey to the West, who was invincible and was commissioned by Heaven to bring fairness and equality to the world.
More than three decades into China’s reform and opening-up drive, Man’en, as well as many other remote villages, have witnessed dramatic economic and social transformation.
Satellite television broadcasts, cellphones, motorcycles, cars, highways and the Internet have shortened the distance between them and the outside world. And yet Mao has remained an icon in the hamlet, which has more than 6,000 residents.
A Mao portrait bought in Beijing is always regarded as a very precious souvenir for villagers, while Mao’s mausoleum is usually a must-see for their maiden trips to the capital, said Ai, who is also chief of Man’en village.
Like Ai and his fellow villagers, members of the Blang ethnic group in Jiliang, another village with a population of more than 2,000 in Menghai, are also Mao worshipers. They have his image printed on glazed bricks on the outside walls of their new homes.
However, these villages are not isolated cases. A survey by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group in 2008 in 40 Chinese cities and towns, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, showed that 11.2 percent of respondents enshrine Mao Zedong at home, far more than those who worship Buddha, the God of Wealth and other gods.
In the words of Huang Jisu, a sociologist, playwright and cultural critic, Mao worship is a complicated phenomenon and has a strong social background, and is also related to personal experiences.
However, Huang doesn’t believe there is a geographical, age or social class division regarding people’s attitudes toward Mao.
For example, Huang said, there are also Mao fans in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, while some young people in universities also admire him. Huang added that it is not rare for entrepreneurs and millionaires to admire Mao.
However, Huang stresses that admiration for Mao does not necessarily mean the admirers want to return to the Mao era.
“It’s quite natural for Mao, such a great man, to have admirers. Just as pop stars can have so many fans, why not Mao?” said Huang a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
As for Mao fans, Huang said, ordinary people need a great person to hold in high esteem, and Mao has filled — and fills — that need.
In Huang’s view, the greatest good that Mao did for the nation was the revolution he led, which ended the nation’s survival crisis that had lasted a century.
Both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek failed to lead the nation out of that crisis, and Mao was an unrivaled great man of his century, Huang said.
Sun Dahong, a photographer who has published an album featuring ethnic Mao fans, argues that the modern passion for Mao has nothing to do with a personality cult.
“It’s never a political fervor that creates blind followers like those during the ‘cultural revolution’, but a kind of spontaneous affection or emotion that has sprouted at the grassroots and passed from generation to generation,” said Sun, a former provincial deputy police chief in Yunnan.
For example, Sun cites an ethnic Hani herb store owner in Kunming he met while working on the album. The middle-aged man has kept a Mao portrait for 30 years, which he inherited from his grandfather, previously a headman who was invited to Beijing and met Mao after liberation.
The man moved to Kunming from Pu’er for business 18 years ago, and the Mao portrait now hangs in his herb store. “I always take it with me wherever I go,” the man told Sun.
Sun said he has witnessed much Mao worship among members of ethnic groups. As a police officer, he has been to many areas of Yunnan, home to 25 ethnic groups, where he could often see Mao’s images in local people’s homes, sometimes alongside their ancestors’ shrines.
The idea of shooting an album of Mao fans occurred to Sun when, during the Lantern Festival in February 2011, he took pictures of three elderly women in Chengjiang, a county in Yunnan, talking under a portrait of Mao.
His collection of more than 90 photos was exhibited in Beijing from Dec 22-28 to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth. He said that through his photos he wants to share with people of all ethnic groups a feeling of affection, respect and admiration for Mao.