During the Cultural Revolution in China, a red guard grabbed my grandfather and ferociously demanded an answer. “Can the ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ be viewed from both the positive and negative sides?” he asked.
Obviously, it was a trick question: a “Yes” would signal dissatisfaction with the beloved Chairman, while a “No” would go against Mao’s unassailable teaching that everything should be judged from two sides.
Being suspected of thinking negatively of Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution landed my grandfather in hot water, but he, an intellectual and educator, always worshipped Chairman Mao. Amid thousands of copies of Western, “reactionary” and “capitalistic” literature, the full collections of Lenin, Stalin and Mao have a distinct place on his bookshelf.
Things have changed dramatically in China since Mao’s passing, but Mao’s place in history is becoming more and more unchallengeable in official propaganda and Chinese education.
One of the most distressing incidents of cultural shock for many Chinese students in America is the wildly different interpretations of history in China and the West, particularly on the difficult topic of Mao Zedong, the first President of the People’s Republic of China. On the one hand, many Chinese students are often surprised and indignant at the seemingly unbalanced, negative portrayals of the beloved leader. On the other hand, the firm defense of Mao from many Chinese students never fails to shock Americans.
What American professors and students don’t usually know is the propaganda that Chinese students, even those who seem intelligent and rational, are taught back home.
December 26, 2013, the day after Christmas, was Mao’s 120th birthday. I turned on the television to watch President Xi give a speech before his comrades, lauding the achievements of the Founding Father. He then led the delegation of other top Chinese officials into the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, known in the West as the “Maosoleum,” located in Tiananmen Square. Top government and military officials bowed thrice — the gesture of utmost respect — before a marble statue of Chairman Mao. Then they proceeded to pay respect before his body, without showing any television footage.
Many people across the country commemorated Chairman Mao’s birthday by singing “red songs” and many organizations, controlled and monitored by the government’s recent anti-waste and anti-corruption campaign, staged celebrations. Chinese Central Television began airing an “epic” TV series called “Mao Zedong” in prime time beginning December 26.
Unlike Westerners who perceive Mao as a devilish autocrat comparable to Hitler and Stalin, most Chinese people approve of him. This natural fondness of the great Chairman burgeons in early education, and is ubiquitous in children’s books and songs: “I love Beijing’s Tiananmen, over which the sun rises. Great leader Chairman Mao leads us forward.” As soon as schoolchildren begin reading, they read propaganda stories, some true but some exaggerated or fabricated, in Chinese classes. The stories teach important life lessons on values in a socialist society and the virtues of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party.
In the fifth grade, I was assigned a research project on Chairman Mao. I looked up “Mao Zedong” in the Chinese dictionary and spent the next two hours copying the thousand-character “definition” on a piece of A4 paper, using multicolored pens. It was one of the hardest A’s I earned in elementary school, but I did manage to remember one thing from the “definition”: “He mistakenly started the Cultural Revolution.” But Chairman Mao never makes mistakes!
In middle school and high school, I would find out that this mistake, often exaggerated by “bitter and calculating enemies” in the West, was covered in history textbooks in one brief sentence. According to the correct answers on history and politics exams, the Cultural Revolution was a somewhat necessary lesson and sacrifice towards a better society.
Last May, I visited Mao’s hometown in Shaoshan, Hunan Province. Official propaganda emphasized the poverty that Mao’s family experienced — and so, even after seeing Mao’s many rooms and his considerable amount of land, the hundreds of pilgrims to Mao’s old home still believed in his hardships. Western scholars contend that Mao’s family belonged to the kulak, or rich peasantry, a social class he later decimated in the hopes of bringing prosperity to China. A museum nearby displayed the items Mao had used in office. The Chairman’s frugality is also widely known to Chinese people through words in textbooks and the media, but some visitors were surprised by the wide variety, high quality and decent quantity of the Chairman’s belongings decades ago. Maybe frugality is defined differently for the great Chairman, and his virtues remain indisputable.
Having learned all this, Chinese students, especially those in Yale classrooms, have come a long way. Unlike my grandfather, we are blessed with an open atmosphere and are able to talk about the many sides of the Chairman without immediate consequences.
Yifu Dong is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.