Mao's Hometown

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Chairman Mao's birthplace of Shaoshan is a powerful draw for anyone interested in Chinese history. Just don't expect to find too much history there. The town in China's central Hunan province has a museum, library and ersatz 1960s communal farm all dedicated to the founder of the People's Republic. His family home, cattle barn, shed, cattle pen and the family tomb have all been carefully preserved for the millions of tourists, many of them student groups on school-sanctioned "red tours," who visit Shaoshan each year. Newly built shrines — resembling the sort that might have been demolished as feudal relics in Mao's day — surround a central square with a surprisingly modest bronze statue of the Great Helmsman.

But amid all the memorials there are surprisingly few details about some of the most pivotal periods of Mao's life. The museum focuses on the early days of the Communist Party, the Long March, resistance against the Japanese and the defeat of the Nationalists. As might be expected in a country whose founding father's image is rigorously managed, there is little mention of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, a period of forced collectivization that led to famine and the deaths of millions, or the Cultural Revolution and the persecution of millions more labeled as counterrevolutionaries.

Luckily, one doesn't have to travel far from Shaoshan and its blaring patriotic songs and armies of hawkers to find a more nuanced and interesting look at modern China. The birthplace of Liu Shaoqi, another communist leader and Mao's contemporary, lies an hour's drive from Shaoshan in Ningxiang county. Liu's memorial is quiet and forested. Once you pass through the entry gates there are no touts or trinket stands, and noticeably fewer visitors. Liu was known as a practical, down-to-earth official. During an inspection tour of the region in 1961, he learned of the suffering of farmers under the Great Leap Forward, and recommended more pragmatic economic policies. That earned him the enmity of Mao, whose followers persecuted Liu during the Cultural Revolution. Denied medicine for conditions including diabetes, he died in a prison cell in 1969.

Liu's role during that turbulent era is detailed at the museum in his village. During a recent visit, I saw a man bow his head before a Liu memorial, showing the sort of genuine reverence that's wasn't apparent in Mao's hometown. As I walked through the museum, a tour guide announced that his statue was supposedly gazing toward the bronze of Mao some 30 miles (50 km) away. But as to what Liu was thinking, she didn't venture a guess.

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