An iron maiden in the village of lies

Dazhai was once China's model village, Guo Fenglian its most powerful woman. Teresa Poole tells the extraordinary tale of a propaganda war
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There is a story that the elderly residents of Dazhai village tell about Madame Mao. It was 1975, and the high priestess of the Cultural Revolution was visiting China's "model village" for the first time. "She worked in the fields a little and planted some flowers," remembers 68- year-old Liang Bianliang. "Then she dug a trench in the field, and had her photograph taken. She said there should be a trench in every field, as a preparation for war." Liang and his fellow villagers were unimpressed. After the stately entourage had sped on its way, they laughed off the idea, filled in Madame Mao's trench, and used the site for a new pig-farm. But next year, Madame Mao unexpectedly returned. "She lost her temper, she cursed at Guo Fenglian, and she wanted to know why the trench was filled in," recalls Liang.

At that time, Guo Fenglian was the most famous "iron maiden" in post- revolutionary Chinese history, and head of Dazhai's renowned "iron maiden brigade". She found Madame Mao's wrath terrifying: "She cursed us, said it was a political issue, and that the account should be settled. I felt really worried and could not eat for days." With hindsight, she adds: "When she dug the trench, I suppose she was simply trying to build a monument to herself. But at the time we did not understand this."

Twenty years on, it is Dazhai itself that stands as a monument to the grand deceptions of Chairman Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution (1966- 76). There is the 1,600-seat auditorium where visiting Red Guards once gathered for revolutionary performances, derelict but with Mao's faded calligraphy still visible by the entrance. There are the rows of identical arch-fronted, one-room "cave" homes built into the hillsides according to a master plan for communal living. There is the aqueduct to bring much- needed water to this parched, impoverished, corner of Shanxi province in northern China. Ms Guo is not the only villager who has found it difficult to come to terms with Dazhai's extraordinary past.

From 1964 to 1978, Dazhai (population 500) was the most famous village in China, launched by Mao's edict - "In Agriculture Learn from Dazhai" - as a shrine to the Great Helmsman's prescription for socialist regeneration. China's faithful came in droves to pay their respects - up to 20,000 a day, and 7 million in total. They came to marvel at terraced fields and bountiful harvests, at splendid irrigation systems and fine stone buildings. Such was Dazhai's propaganda importance that, on Mao's orders, the village head and architect of this agricultural miracle, Chen Yonggui, was even promoted to the Politburo and made a vice-prime minister.

Dazhai seemed to be on everyone's itinerary. In the one-room village museum, black and white photographs still record the village's place in Chinese Communist mythology. Guo's girlish face and toothy grin beam out from many old pictures. In one, she grasps the right arm of the visiting prime minister, Chou En-lai. In another, she stands, her hands clasped together, next to Deng Xiaoping, the two of them wearing identical, wide- brimmed, white cotton sun-hats as they surveyed the fields. As chief iron maiden, she also escorted the 170 friendly foreign delegations who made the trek to Dazhai. It was a varied bunch: in 1976 she is shown guiding Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew; the next year she was photographed with a smiling Pol Pot, whose Khmer Rouge was terrorising Cambodia.

The only problem was that the Dazhai myth was a fraud, with the villagers cast as bit players in an epic theatre scripted by Mao. The stupendous grain yields were fake and much of the impressive construction had been carried out by the People's Liberation Army. So when the excesses of the Cultural Revolution were finally repudiated, Dazhai became an embarrassment for a country rushing down the road of Deng's new economic reforms. The villagers were confused and bitter, and felt betrayed. As the standard- bearers for Mao's commune system, they were ill-prepared for the "socialist market economy".

Dazhai has made a painful transition from the old to the new ideology; the village and its "iron maiden" have reinvented themselves in the mould of modern China. These days, Guo is circumspect about Dazhai's history, and optimistic about the future. Now 48, she says: "Let the past be the past." Wearing a smart brown sweater and black trousers, she looks just the part of a rural Chinese businesswoman, with facts and figures at her fingertips about the village's new cement and clothing factories. Dazhai even has a new slogan, she explains: "To continue to carry out the spirit of self-reliance and hard work, stick to reform and opening up, and present a totally new Dazhai before the people."

It has not been easy. When Dazhai was toppled from its pillar at the end of the Seventies, career prospects for former iron maidens were not promising. In 1980, Guo was removed from the village and sent by the local government to work on fruit tree research and then highway administration. It was a decade, she admits, of soul-searching. Meanwhile, Dazhai - once again forced to fend for itself - saw standards of living fall sharply.

Then in November 1991, local Communist officials sent Guo back to Dazhai as village party chief. She remembers her return: "Dazhai was in a really poor state. The environment was terrible, dirty, filthy, every one looked shabby, miserable. I should not devalue the achievements of the villagers, but the general situation was not good." Annual per capita income was just 730 yuan (pounds 55).

Dazhai could not adjust to China's economic revolution. Many of the new directives contradicted everything Dazhai had once symbolised. Mao's Dazhai had been built on the fable of an efficient communal system; but in the Eighties, Deng said the land should be divided between individual families. "It took me three to five years to understand the new policies," says Guo. For others who resented the changes, it took even longer. Liang admits: "In the beginning I could not accept it. Many people had doubts."

Over the past four years, Guo has laboured to drag Dazhai into China's modern era. The cement factory is a joint venture with a Hong Kong company, the garment company makes woollen sweaters and shirts under the "Dazhai" logo, the deer farm produces resin, the coal mine is busy, and an apple orchard grows fruit for sale. Most of the new enterprises operate under the Dazhai Economic Development Company, jointly owned by the village and the local government, with Guo as general manager. Dazhai's households no longer must rely wholly on farming to survive. Average annual per capita earnings have now doubled to 1,500 yuan (pounds 115). Dazhai, until a year ago closed to foreigners, now also welcomes foreign investment.

In an irony not lost on Guo, Dazhai's history is a commercial asset. "It seems that the name is a help. When people buy a Dazhai-brand product they still cherish old memories of the past," says Guo. Ask Guo to name the best time of her life, and she says: "When I was head of the iron- maiden team. At that time our minds were really pure. We just worked hard day and night, and felt really energetic. We hoped that Dazhai could change."

Yet she freely agrees that "some of the facts about Dazhai were real, some were false". So does she feel she was used by the Maoists? "Used is not the proper word. Time always goes by and everything changes. I don't feel regret, though I feel there are lessons in life that should be learned," she replies.

Older villagers are defensive about the famed "spirit of Dazhai", pointing out that its origins lay in real events. In 1963 the village suffered a catastrophic flood. "It rained for seven days and seven nights," says Liang. Fields and homes were washed away, but the village head, Chen Yonggui, bullied and cajoled people to rebuild their lives, shunning outside help. "Ask for no shelter. Ask for no grain. Ask for no money," was his slogan. And rebuild they did, carving fields from the hillside, and restoring each other's homes. Only then did Mao appropriate Dazhai's spirit of self- reliance, and turn the village into a politically correct human zoo.

"At the very beginning, Dazhai people took the road of hard work and self-reliance. Later, I can't deny that there were some ultra-leftist practices," says Guo. Jia Xinwen, 50, agrees: "Although they used some fake figures, the spirit of Dazhai was good and inspired many people."

The villagers remain loyal to Chen's memory. Song Leiying, 66, says: "People still think of him as a hero. Every man can have shortcomings, but he was a good man." His main weakness? "He had a bad temper. He often severely criticised villagers when they couldn't finish their tasks." After 1980, when Chen lost his job as vice-prime minister, he did not return to Dazhai, and died in Peking in 1986 from lung cancer. But the following year, his ashes were brought back and scattered on Tiger Head Hill, where a memorial stone now looks down on the village.

Today Dazhai remains poor and drought-stricken. Homes lack running water, and it is bitterly cold in winter. But there is a new school and, in 1993, Guo introduced a basic welfare system including pensions, medical and property insurance, and scholarships for college students.

Ask Dazhai's older residents, and they insist Deng's reforms are a big improvement. Lei Youlu, 55, a sheep farmer says: "It is better now because you are free." Jia Xinwen adds: "We should not forget about the past, but should take advantage of the good times now." He and seven friends are doing just that and have invested 100,000 yuan (pounds 7,700) of their own savings in the Lonesome Heart restaurant and karaoke bar on Tiger Head Hill.

They are catering for the visitors who are once again coming to see Dazhai. Many first visited during the "Learn from Dazhai" era. "The Dazhai spirit is good," says a man from Hebei province, impressed by the changes. One 64-year-old recalls his previous visit in 1967. "I feel a bit nostalgic. When I came here before, I had my photo taken with Chen Yonggui and Miss Guo. Miss Guo was quite young," he smiles. "When she was an iron maiden, her job was to work hard. Now what she does will really need some pioneering spirit."