Memories of Mao: The cultural revolutionary

The Great Helmsman, who died 30 years ago, is recalled fondly in much of China despite his brutal rule - and nowhere more so than in his birthplace.Clifford Coonan reports from Shaoshan
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Chairman Mao's Favourite Pork is a hot-pot of fatty pig's knuckle in a spicy red soup with a sweet aftertaste. It's the house specialty at a restaurant dedicated to China's former supreme leader in his home town of Shaoshan in Hunan Province, and the owner of the restaurant is a sprightly 77-year-old woman, Tang Ruiren, who met Mao back in 1959 and is an unapologetic supporter of the Great Helmsman.

Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Mao Tse-tung, who is seen abroad as a dictator responsible for the deaths of millions in the disastrous agricultural collectivisation reforms of the Great Leap Forward, and the terrible purges of the Cultural Revolution.

But in the Great Helmsman's home town, and in large areas of China, widespread affection remains for Mao.

Tang is busy sharing her experiences with Communist Party faithful and local media, but she still finds time to tell the story of how she met Mao back in 1959, when he came on a secret visit to his home town. The photograph of her and her family meeting Mao is on prominent display, and visitors are given a laminated version to keep.

"We were the first family he saw when he came home. Mao Tse-tung asked if my husband was at home, and I told him my husband was a soldier, just like my father and just like my son was going to be. He told me I was a model citizen," says Tang.

Tang is Mao's great-aunt, even though she was decades younger than the Chinese leader, who was 64 when he made his trip home. The baby who she is holding in her arms in the picture went in his early teens to fight in China's war against Vietnam. He was Mao's uncle.

"I was holding my son in my arms, and his name was 'Little Mao'. Mao told me that he should have a grown-up name, and we should call him Mao Jingjun," says Tang.

Tang barks out orders to the waiting staff as they serve up "All of China is Red" fish heads, an equally piquant dish that looks like a map of China in 1949, with the self-ruled Taiwan boldly marked out at the dish's edge.

She is moved to tears when asked what she was doing when the news came through in 1976 that the Great Helmsman was dead.

"I was at a meeting discussing how to implement the one-child policy when we heard the funeral march music on the radio. I sat down and lost conciousness, and when I came around I cried for hours. I dreamt about him many times, I saw him in the sky and said to him: 'Why did you leave us?'" she says tearfully. "He said: 'It'll be fine. And you have a son ahead of you." For Tang, it has indeed worked out very nicely. She prayed for him and his ancestors at a Buddhist temple. And when the economy began to open up in the 1980s, she set up a restaurant with peppercorn capital of 1.70 yuan, 11 pence in today's currency.

And now she has a chain of 120 restaurants, with 18,000 employees, and she pays tax equivalent to £4m a year, most of which she says she gives to a foundation supporting the education of 500 orphans.

"It's not my money, it belongs to the people of China. I just distribute it to the people," she says. She is now walking with a cane since she fell and broke her hip but otherwise remains incredibly spry.

"Mao is the pride of Shaoshan. He went from this poor town to the Forbidden City and became one of the 10 most famous people in the world. Everyone here idolises him.

"His diplomatic work made him famous with foreigners and I welcome every guest here as a guest of Chairman Mao," she says, still a fiery ideologue.

Down the hill, Mao's childhood home - a completely renovated courtyard house, solid and ringed by bamboo, and with soldiers posted in every room - is a place of pilgrimage now thronged with tourists.

In the kitchen, you can see where he gathered the whole family for meetings "to devote themselves to the cause of the liberation of the Chinese people". You learn that Mao's father was a "hardworking, thrifty, smart and crackajack man", while his mother "delighted in Buddhism and to help others".

This would have been a rough and ready, if reasonably prosperous, farmhouse, shared with another family and numerous livestock. Now the whole area has been landscaped and there are loudspeakers blaring out tales of the Chairman's diplomatic triumphs, meetings with world leaders, the respect in which he was held by Chou En-lai, and how much he loved reading.

Further up the hill, stalls are set up with a bewildering array of Mao memorabilia, mass produced statues, portraits, cigarette lighters, magnets and, at one scenic spot, you can have your picture taken with a cardboard cutout of Mao, sitting in his favourite armchair.

Mao came back to Shaoshan in 1966 in secret, and the villa he stayed in has also been transformed into a shrine.

The wooded walkway up to the villa is lined with calligraphy by Chinese leaders, including poems and epigrams. In the villa, there is a nuclear bunker built for the Chairman's short two-week stay, and an earthquake-proof room which is now lined with medals.

The villa also has a table-tennis table, testament to the ping-pong diplomacy which signalled the start of China's slow opening up to the world.

"Mao was a great man, I admire him," says Jian Jun, a 23-year-old television promotions executive. "I've take a lot of friends up here to Shaoshan - once people hear I come from here, they always ask me about him first thing. I learnt about all the great things he did from my textbooks at school."

Published last month, Mao's Last Revolution by Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, is an eloquent and damning description of the destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution, while Jung Chang and Jon Halliday blasted Mao as a power-crazed despot in their recent biography, Mao: The Unknown Story. But Chinese people are much more ambiguous about Mao's legacy.

The Communist leadership describes the Cultural Revolution as a catastrophe for China, and has reassessed the Great Helmsman, saying he was 70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad.

But Chinese textbooks only briefly mention the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward. Many taxis have Mao statues on the dashboard, and his political legacy is still enormous - his face is on the banknotes, a portrait of this shrewd son of Shaoshan still gazes out over Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and there are still statues being erected in his memory, including in Tibet.

Nearly every room in the villa has hundreds of photographs of Mao's allies, although significantly there are no photographs of Deng Xiaoping, Mao's successor and the man credited with opening up China after Mao's death. Deng was exiled during the Cultural Revolution and his son was paralysed after Red Guards threw him from a window during interrogation. Deng worked hard to end the cult of personality around Mao, and his name is mentioned with disdain in Shaoshan.

"As someone born in the 1980s, I have only a vague impression of Mao, his era is a bit remote. I don't have the direct experience that my parents have," says We Feihong, who runs a hotel management training business.

"I respect Mao and I don't like to hear negative things about him. He's like an idol. And if it weren't for Mao, I probably wouldn't be here - I'm the fourth girl in our family and he always encouraged people to have lots of children," she says.

Gao Bin's father was moved to Shaoshan from Changsha, capital of Hunan province where Mao later studied and set up early Communist Party cells, as a a soldier in 1965. Gao was eight when Mao died.

"It seemed the whole town was crying. Chou En-lai had died earlier that year. I remember my father getting out of the car and stumbling with grief," says Gao.

Standing in front of a huge Mao statue opposite a museum to Mao, Gao tells how people gather at Spring Festival to let off firecrackers and place flowers in Mao's memory.

Shortly before leaving Hunan, we again sample some of Chairman Mao's favourite dishes in a swish designer restaurant in a shopping mall in Changsha, which looks like it was outfitted by Terence Conran, and has a chef from Hong Kong. It's the kind of place that could not existed during Mao's lifetime.

And yet, on every table, there is a complimentary copy of the famous Little Red Book containing the "Thoughts of Chairman Mao". Even in this bastion of boomtown New China, some things never change.