It has been interesting to witness the way in which our students’ thinking about Mao evolved since we began our journey last week. Their understanding of Mao changed from reverence to realistic assessment. At first, after studying the younger Mao and first half of his leadership, our students seemed to be a bit awestruck. But as we read, watched documentaries and examined sources, the students began to recognize that the Chinese have given Mao mythic status.
“Throughout history, the legacy of great men is often exaggerated by people to reinforce the significant impact of each individual. Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, was no exception. The people granted Mao a god-like status, celebrating his every achievement, remembering every little detail of his life, as well as creating mythical circumstances surrounding his life.
Similarly, the magnification of status is also applied to men from ancient Chinese history. One individual is held above all, a man even Mao paid his respects—the Yellow Emperor.
Living a suggested 5,000 years ago, the Yellow Emperor’s actual existence is often debated by historians. Though his legacy may not be factual, the idea he embodies serves a greater importance. Many aspects of daily life were said to have been granted to them by the Yellow Emperor—such as agriculture and hunting. The physique of the Emperor is over exaggerated, with so-called large footprints imprinted on the ground and his height is indicated to have been a staggering two meters. His rode a dragon to Heaven when he died.
The ideals surrounding the mythical Yellow Emperor earn him the respect of the people and serves as an influential figure to those who wished to rule over China. Chairman Mao himself held the Emperor in high regard due to the unity the Emperor represents. Even in modern times, families attempt to trace their heritage back to the Yellow Emperor. The root of China and his existence strengthens the connection throughout China.”
“Every leader, no matter how great, will eventually make mistakes; these mistakes are bound to be projected on a larger scale due to the power of the leader. Although Mao made many serious mistakes, only a few Chinese openly acknowledge this fact. An air of discomfort and uneasiness still lingers when talking about the failures of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. People know that the suffering and famine of these two events were caused by Mao’s poor decisions, but no one brings this up—there is still that mentality that Mao will somehow hear about your criticisms and punish you. Chinese youth seem to be more outspoken, but for the most part, the failures of Chairman Mao are seldom brought up. Because of this, our group could only watch foreign interpretations of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and Mao (as a person in general) in the privacy of our hotel rooms; we could only discuss the flaws of Mao’s leadership quietly among ourselves. This may be because these events are still fairly recent and it is hard for a country to fairly and objectively analyze its faults when the wound is still fresh. Give it a few years and China may open up more.
However, we also learned how far China has come from being a closed-off, secret nation. Some museums are starting to recognize and introduce the mistakes made during the reign of Mao. For example, the Yan’an revolutionary Museum compares Mao in a lesser light to other revolutionary leaders (e.g. Zhou Enlai). This is a step forward in China’s growth, as it is slowly opening up its past to the rest of the world. Also, more and more of China’s youth are willing to look at Mao objectively, as our tour guide and other university students demonstrated. With this, China’s past will soon be more fully revealed, and this allows foreigners a deeper understanding of China. China is one step closer to being completely connected with the rest of the planet.