After a week of reading, site visits and poetry writing, the journey ended and students and teachers returned to Shanghai—but not before one last thought pulling it all together from Lina:
“It’s one thing to read about Mao’s Long March. It’s another thing to trudge through the caves of Yan’An during a cold rainy day, leaving soggy footprints in the orange dirt roads comprised of a thousand years of yellow dust sifted from the Gobi Desert. Though I have lived in China for quite a few years and have studied a bit of its revolutionary history, I have always felt detached from the facts and figures. But going on this trip changed that. After sleeping on a brick bed in a cave like the one Mao stayed in, walking through the orange dirt courtyard where Mao and Jiang Qing said their marriage vows, and listening to old Mrs. Tan reminisce about her grandmother helping to deliver Mao during his birth, I feel like I’ve gained a more layered understanding of this country’s recent history. It’s not just that I’ve picked up more facts on this trip, either. What I found most inspiring and enriching about this whole experience was that I could make a connection between actual historical sites and my historical imagination, which is hard to do in the classroom. In a sense, I was able to relive the history, and that has been extremely rewarding.
One interesting thing I learned during this trip was how Chinese people today view Mao. From interviewing current university students and random Chinese tourists we happened to encounter, we obtained several general conclusions. The younger Chinese still seem to respect Mao as a symbolic head of modern China, but their respect is distant, and does not have much direct application to their daily lives. As one of the younger interviewees put it, happiness in China today is much more defined by material wealth than by ideals. To them, Mao is not directly relevant to their lives. The older Chinese, on the other hand, seem to continue believing much more strongly in the ideal of Mao, and feel closer to him, which can be attributed to the stronger “patriotic education” they received.
All in all, however, the status quo in China leans toward maintaining a kind of myth of Mao. His good points are exaggerated; he is worshipped as a god; and his flaws and mistakes are glossed over. One can only wonder how many generations it will take before the myth wears off, and China finally becomes willing to acknowledge Mao’s full complexities. “ –Lina