Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Inexplicable Cult of Chairman Mao

The Chinese seem to have an ambivalent relationship with Mao Zedong. This is curious, given Mao's record as a mass murderer. Nonetheless, even skeptical academics, who seem on the whole glad for Mao to be gone, every so often like to quote on of his aphorisms (it has happened several times so far on this trip). Kitsch with Mao's visage is all over the cluttered market stalls in the alleyways of the huton (I think I am using that phrase right, thought the huton might be the alleyways themselves). One woman tried to sell me a "Mao bag" (a kind of messenger bag the style of which I was enamored) with the old man's picture and one of his pronouncements and when I demurred, she apparently thought my problem was not with Mao but rather with the bag, so she tried to seell me a Mao t-shirt. I told her that I try to limit my clothing depicting rapacious murdering thugs. She tried to sell me a Mao watch. And so forth.

One of my professors back in graduate school had a bust of Stalin in his office. It was for ironic effect. I could not pull the same off with a Mao bag (or t-shirt or watch) largely because I think some things might be beyond ironic kitschiness. Somehow I doubt that the same folks who think Mao was on to something but just went too far (yes, I've heard that assessment in recent days) would be quite so sanguine if I walked in wearing, say, board shoirts with Hitler across the ass and "work will set you free" beneath his picture. One man's irony is another country's very real symbol of the crushing of millions. Call me humorless, but I can do without that sort of irony.

From all that I can tell, the real hero for most people here is Deng Xiaoping, the leader who carried China into an era of reform and away from Mao's Great Leap into the Chasm and the Cultural Revolution. Deng was not exactly Franklin Roosevelt, but he undeniably allowed for an openness that China desperately needed and laid the groundowrk for today's China which, while still autocratic, is far from what it once was. If anyone might warrant a healthily skeptical ambivalence and a place at the table, one would think it would be Deng and not Mao.

So why is Mao not a universally hated figure throughout China? After all, even the Soviets, who continued Stalin's draconioan system with some modification, turned Stalin into a model from which to flee after the despot's death. The short answer is that I don't know. A longer answer is that the Chinese tend to think of history in far longer cycles than much of the rest of the world does, and that many still have not gotten to grips with just what Mao meant. I hinted yesterday that one of my colleagues -- a very sharp Australian professor who is a China experts, whose language skills carried me through a wonderful afternoon and evening shopping, people watching, wandering, eating, and chatting with a couple of other Aussies -- has, if not defended Mao, at least has consciously minimized his atrocities (she argues that he could only have killed ten million, an awful figure, she acknowledges. I am highly skeptical of this assertion). Some of the Chinese speakers we have encountered seem to speak of Mao in the sorts of hushed, swooning tones that one might mention a religious figure or dreamy rock star even while celebrating market reforms, openness, a spirit of debate, and improved relations with the west that would have been anathema to the humble old constipated despot (That same Aussie professor had a rather interesting story about Mao involving his almost chronic bowel blockages, a pair of chopsticks, and a lackey with a very, very unpleasant job).

I dig kitsch. Maybe a messenger bag with Deng, or, better yet, Yao Ming, would do the job. I'd definitely buy and wear a watch with Yao staring out at me with that goofy smile. But I still believe that Mao was directly responsible for the death of tens of millions, ruined the lives of exponentially more, and set China's development back by decades. As a consequence, I don't find him cute, funny, or ironic. I don't find his aphorisms worth repeating, his example worth citing, or his "excesses" worth diminishing. A China I am quite coming to like but will never get to know is a far worse place because of his influence. Lady, you can keep the messenger bag, t-shirt, and watch.


Anonymous said...

that Mao bag was a bargain!
Anyway, this is really the challenge of China - how to move beyond some preconceived ideas about politics and develop a much more nuanced view of the situation. This does require not only listening to what the locals have to say but also suspending judegement of Chinese as brainwashed communists. A tough taks for brainwashed capitalists perhaps? No, Im being extreme, I retract that. What I really want to say is that there is no doubt Mao was an amazing leader who tried to avoid the mistakes of the USSR and tried to value the farming people of China more than any socialist leader. His method of solving new problems such as a developing bureaucrat class may have been extreme (re-education camps, struggle sessions, Cult Rev) but he did diagnose some of the problems that are plaguing China today - eg the development of a self-satisfied exploiting bunch of middle bureaucrats with little sympathy for the poor people who grow the food and build the cities.
History is written by the winners and there is no doubt that many of Mao's so-called excesses were actually the result of group decisions and practices - soemthing the current leadership want to avoid as they are implicated. This was specially the case for Deng Xiaoping who was certainly no angel or friend of the workers.
What's most disturbing about China is the tendency to see everyhting in extreme terms - Mao as splendid or monster, Deng as capitalist roader or as hero.
Nothing is that clear!

dcat said...

. . . a bargain I could not afford under the circumstances.
Since I am 99% certain of who this is, I am going to preface my response by acknowledging that you know 1,000,000,000 times more about Chinese history than i could ever hope to know. And I fully agree with your argument about complexity -- turning historical actors, however bad, into cartoon characters does no one any good. Mao's atrocities might have been overstated, or at least his direct connection and power over atrocities that happened under his watch may be, but at the same time, when you are head of a regime that is despotic, autocratic, what have you, some of the culpability still rests with you. Indeed the best dictators maintain plausible denial. Stalin and Hitler probably killed almost no one by their own hands, which to me hardly takes them off the hook.
That's my take, in any case.


Jean Valjean said...

bags and teeshirts seem to be the vogue on campus here at Cornell

i do like the messenger bags though

dcat said...

I dig the style of the bags, but not Mao's murderous mug.

The ultimate irony is Mao's, and especially Che's, countenance being used in the service of the most naked capitalism by chic semi-politically aware sophomores oftentimes too cool and all-knowing (a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, the very premise behind the conception of "sophomore") actually to be challenged on their positions.