Chinese town capitalizes on Mao connection

You can’t help but wonder whether Mao Tse-tung would be rolling over in his mausoleum if he could hear the ka-ching! of cash registers ringing up the amazing array of tchotchkes, from snow globes to glow-in-the-dark figurines, with his likeness.

Or if the founder of Communist China, who fretted about “the serious tendency toward capitalism among the well-to-do peasants,” could hear this blithe assertion by a visitor here: “I think that what Chairman Mao really intended was for Chinese people to get rich.”

A wave of Mao nostalgia is sweeping through China, and it crests here in his birthplace, the village of Shaoshan (pop. 1,387). The Hunan province town, a cross between Bethlehem and Mount Vernon, is expected to draw a record 3.5 million visitors this year, most of them Chinese paying homage to their late leader.


Even on a weekday, the queue to get into the mud-brick farmhouse where Mao was born in 1893 is three-wide and snakes around to the front lawn. Tourists elbow for space to get their photos snapped in front of the many statues and fill their shopping bags with Mao memorabilia.

“Business is better than ever,” said sales clerk Mao Juxiang, 36, who stands behind a glass counter stocked with bronze busts ($85), snow globes ($7) and key chains ($4.25).

Like many of the villagers, she claims common lineage with Mao, whom she credits for China’s current prosperity: “We have a brilliant life because of Chairman Mao’s ideas.”

The Shaoshan where Mao grew up was a nondescript rice farming village where residents grappled with poverty and hunger. Today, not only have living standards improved dramatically throughout rural China, but Shaoshan has the additional stimulus of the Mao connection.

No matter that Mao expressed no great love for his hometown and visited only twice after he became China’s leader, the village boasts a dozen hotels, a history museum and the headquarters of Mao’s Family Restaurants, a chain run by a distant relative that serves up some of Mao’s favorite dishes, such as hong shao rou, red braised pork.

Business has ebbed and flowed along with the political tides. During the 1980s, Mao’s legacy was reexamined in light of the brutal 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and of the tens of millions of deaths from starvation during the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-61. Former Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping blamed Mao’s cult of personality for the excesses, and even a leading party newspaper editorialized that Mao had brought “great disaster” to the Chinese people.

Throughout China, Mao was knocked from his pedestal, as statues were removed on government orders.

“There was a time that the Chinese people lost faith in the system,” said Mao Yushi, chairman of the Communist Party in Shaoshan and a party member for three decades. “But this year, the Chinese people have seen the way that Western governments were not able to protect their people from the recession, and that gives them more faith in the decisions made by the Communist Party.”

Mao’s rehabilitation appears to have official sanction. In September, a film commissioned by the Communist Party to mark the republic’s 60th anniversary depicted Mao as a jovial man of the people whose flaws (in one scene he gets drunk after a battle victory) made him more lovable.

“The Communist Party’s propaganda office is promoting him like he is a god to give the younger generation something to believe in,” said a prominent Beijing sociologist who asked not to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the subject. “That’s why people go to Shaoshan, because they take Mao as their god.”

Whether it is merely because Mao is the favorite son, or because so many people here make their living from Mao memorabilia, Shaoshan residents frequently use quasi-religious honorifics to refer to Mao.

“I definitely believe that he will bless me,” said Shen Yong, 21, a taxi driver with a plastic Mao figurine affixed to his dashboard.

The number of visitors to Shaoshan has risen about 10% annually over the last few years and is expected to hit a record this year, Mao Yushi said. And the number of party members in Shaoshan has risen to 90 from 50 over the last six years, reflecting a nationwide resurgence of interest in the party.

“I really have come to appreciate him over time,” said Zhou Tian, an 18-year-old student at a military academy in Wuhan and an aspiring party member.

Her father, Zhou Tiejiang, 42, offered up his own history as evidence of Mao’s contribution to China: The son of an illiterate peasant, he is a veterinarian who owns his own home and drove to Shaoshan in his own car.

The vendors selling Mao memorabilia shrug off ideological questions of communism versus capitalism.

“From everything I’ve seen in his writings, I think he was an open-minded and tolerant person,” said a Shaoshan businessman named Liu who sells Mao souvenirs on Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of EBay. “I don’t think he would have minded people making a little bit of money.”