You would imagine that it is easier for Chinese to discuss Mao Zedong and do so in a productive manner, now that over thirty years have passed since the death of the man and there is enough perspective for retrospection. After all, the look of China is so far removed from Mao’s era, Chinese from all walks of life are travelling all over the world studying, sightseeing, working and living, and new and abundant information has shed such light on the man as never before.
No, it is not.
Earlier this year, the Chinese economist Mao Yushi (茅于轼) wrote an article entitled “Turning Mao Zedong Back to a Human Being” (《把毛泽东还原为人》 ), calling for just that: To turn Mao from a god back to a person. In the article, Mao Yushi sketched an unflattering, if not downright evil, man based on what we had already known as well as the newly available information. Without finesse, the economist called Mao Zedong “the enemy of the people.” Mr. Mao Yushi is in his 70s, lived through the entire spectrum of Mao’s reign, and I can only assume that he is not just speaking from his head, but also from his heart.
The ensuing vitriol against Mr. Mao was, to me, both expected and surprising. Expected because, in China, there are many people—people you would think would know better—are more than ready to leap to Mao’s defense; surprising because their show of force, both verbally and visually, was a walking ghost of the Cultural Revolution, stupid to the point of being a joke. They branded Mr. Mao a “traitor of the Hans” (汉奸，or traitor of the Chinese people, because the Chinese proper are ethnically Hans).
I know why they called him that name, but it’s better to use their own words: “Mao Yushi viciously attacked and slandered Chairman Mao, and [his attack] signaled yet another round of attacks from the west against the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party since the so-and-so-flower revolution had broken out.” Yet, they didn’t seem to feel awkward at all about not being able to utter the word “jasmine.”
So, Mr. Mao is a traitor because his “attack” on Mao Zedong is part of the west’s plan to overthrow the Party. To its credit, the Party didn’t say that about Mr. Mao, at least not directly, as far as I am aware. That said, the accusation is very much in keeping with the Party’s general pattern of argument for as long as I can remember, despite the fact that China and the US have grown so entwined in so many ways these days.
Talking about Mao Zedong among ordinary Chinese doesn’t normally rise to this pitch. It runs more or less like the one I had recently. I was at a party with a few people I went to college with, along with their spouses and kids. I don’t remember how it started, but all of a sudden, the man sitting next to me and I were in a tug of war over what good Mao Zedong did for China and for its people.
“Nothing,” I said, going through in my mind the one hundredth time the purges in the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward, the famine, the Cultural Revolution, and many more smaller but nonetheless atrocious things that should not be lost in the picture.
“No!” the man objected vigorously. “I disagree!”
So I stuck out one hand and asked him to give me five—only five—things that Mao did that were good for China.
Him: “He united China!”
Me: “Ok. Number two?”
The man paused, thinking.
Me: “Just one? Come on!”
Him: “Oh, he liberated women, encouraging equality between men and women!”
Me: “Great! I really appreciate that. What else?”
Already, the guy was racking his brains.
Me: “That’s only two. Come on, my fingers are getting sore.”
Him: “Well, he made China a nation standing on its own feet, not becoming anyone’s colony.”
Me: “North Korea is standing on its own feet too, and it’s nobody’s colony either. Isn’t that great!”
That’s how our conversation about Mao went. Ineptly, if not stupidly.
Later, when I brought up the topic of the famine, the same guy, who came from Zhejiang Province, an area with natural abundance and a rich cultural tradition, recounted how, during the famine in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, their food was taken away as soon as it was harvested and how one of his older sisters, eight years old at the time, died of hunger. I was glad we were finally onto something concrete and meaningful, but instead of reflecting on Mao’s disastrous actions and the system that allowed this to happen, he railed, “The city people took everything away from us!”
The man, by the way, has lived in the US longer than I have, and is a university researcher on climate change, hardworking and honest. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that Mao must be kicking and laughing in his crystal casket at night because he had so successfully stunted generations of Chinese and might even have altered our DNA.
In April 1997, all of my siblings and I gathered, as we rarely had done because the seven of us were scattered all over the places in China and beyond, in our ancestral village to “sweep” the grave of our parents. In the evening we filled the old house with the din of voices and laughter. Again, I don’t remember how, but my eldest sister and I started arguing whether Mao Zedong was a great man or not. She is sixteen years my senior and, at the time, the chief engineer of a manufacturer of TV set in Beijing, and she took good care of me whenever I visited. The argument didn’t go well and tension quickly grew between us. My sister insisted that, because Mao had beaten all his rivals and established the new China, he was necessarily a great man; while I said, how could a man be considered great when, because of him, so many people had died, so many families had been crushed into pieces, and so many others—every one of us indeed—had suffered one way or the other. My sister and I went back and forth like that for a while, and suddenly, my sister screamed at me, “You got all of your ideas from the Americans!”
Our argument ended there abruptly, and tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t remember when had been the last time I felt so insulted. I left the room to hide.
That night, standing on the village’s thrashing ground, where grains—wheat, corn, millet, and occasionally rice—were thrashed, dried and bagged when harvested, I saw Comet Hale-Bopp in the northwestern sky just beyond the hill on the edge of the village. It was bright and beautiful, an arresting sight, but it did little to alleviate my sadness.