Chairman Mao is one of the most iconic people in the narrative of modern China. Mao Zedong, known more commonly as Chairman Mao, is central to the perception of China in the world’s eyes.
These days, as China continues to move towards reclaiming its position as a great power, what Chinese people think of Chairman Mao and what the world thinks are different things. The Chinese people definitely don’t agree when it comes to Chairman Mao’s legacy.
Disagreement About Chairman Mao
There is a wide range of views about Mao. At the two extremes there are the supporters of Chairman Mao who think he was a hero and want to bring back the Cultural Revolution and others who view him as a murderous monster and perfect villain.
In many Chinese people’s eyes, Chairman Mao was like a combination of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson: a founding father, political philosopher, sage leader and war hero. In Chinese history, Chairman Mao is compared with the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang. Both these figures were dictatorial and ruthless. Both these leaders had major run-ins with scholars, but they did unify the country.
In the West, the standard narrative is that the first thirty years of the People’s Republic of China under Mao’s leadership was a disaster. And that the party-state saved itself by debunking his ideological rule and leading the country in the opposite direction. This is not really the whole story as it only focuses on Chairman Mao’s glaring failures and does little to highlight his contribution to China’s self-realization.
Today, Chairman Mao’s legacy still divides China. To most Chinese people, Chairman Mao is China’s eternal father and his supporters always repeat the mantra, ‘No Mao, No China’. But people who are critical of Chairman Mao are in the minority. According to research by Sino, 82 percent of Chinese have positive views about Mao. For them, Chairman Mao was the man who pushed out the imperial powers and gave China its rightful place in the world.
Chairman Mao as a Potent Symbol
At the gate of Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City, Chairman Mao’s portrait hangs like an emperor’s. In villages across China, his image is found everywhere: in houses, restaurants and taxis. Thousands of people queue up every day to see Chairman Mao’s embalmed body at the Mao mausoleum found in Tian’anmen.
For these believers, Chairman Mao remains a potent symbol even 30 years after his death. Lately Mao has also reemerged as the face of defiance and resistance.
Many younger people have started carrying his portrait to protest against Japan regarding the region’s disputed islands. One of these women from Hunan province, and Chairman Mao’s home village, who complained about China’s current leadership. She believed if Chairman Mao was still alive then China would have the islands.
Chairman Mao is a national hero mainly because he stood up to foreign aggression. Each time Chinese people feel anti-western for some reason, searches for Mao slow the internet. For instance, in 1999 when there was the NATO bombing at the Chinese embassy in Belgrade many Chinese people would have said, ‘if Mao was still alive, he would have taught the imperialists a lesson’. Even China’s current President, though not publicly a Maoist, tends to use Mao’s ideas.
But Chairman Mao’s legacy remains torn.
For others his name conjures up paranoia, revolution, the remembrance of millions of deaths, famine and brutality. For example, during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (a campaign introduced by Chairman Mao), millions of people died of starvation. Also between 1958 and 1961 during the modernization of China, people were persecuted under his instruction. The other big disastrous time was in 1966, during the ‘Cultural Revolution’, when he tried to revive Communism. Over the next ten years young people were forced out of the cities so they could learn from the peasants. Chairman Mao’s idea was that peasants were ideal role models, but this strategy caused massive economic and social upheaval.
Then are the Chinese internationalists. They believe Chairman Mao was too extreme in his anti-imperialism and they prefer for people to connect China with the rest of the international community. For them, China has come a long way and it’s no longer a land of bicycles and grey suits. It is a land of Audi cars and Armani suits.
After so many years, Mao’s shadow divides the Chinese community. The most important thing for China now is to learn from his mistakes. Three of his plans that went wrong were: overtaking Britain, catching up with America during the ‘Great Leap Forward Campaign’ getting rid of people who wanted changed during the ‘Cultural Revolution’.
These were, in a way, failures that affected his leadership.
China can only become a modern society with democratic values if Chairman Mao is stood down as an idol. Historians all over the world will still study Chairman Mao’s role and Chinese people will always have strong opinions about him. In other words, the value of Mao Zedong’s legacy is a debate that will not end any time in the near future.
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