There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Images of Mao

Although the Communist Party remains very much in control, China today is Communist in name only. Unlike the Russians, who have never really embraced capitalism and will often express nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the Chinese are natural entrepreneurs and too busy prospering to ever glance backwards. Most Russian towns still have a Lenin Street and a Karl Marx Street, and their statues are easy to find, but for the Chinese, Mao Zedong is more problematic.

Jung Chang and Jon Holliday’s lengthy biography Mao: The Untold Story presents a man without ideology, without vision and without charisma.  It is easy to accept that Mao’s attitude to his people was inhumanly callous, and he was indifferent to the mass starvation caused in the 1950’s by his Great Leap Forward, but it is hard to believe that a man with absolutely no personal qualities beyond a certain low cunning could have attained the pre-eminence he did.

The Chinese do not readily talk politics with foreigners, but anyone will happily tell you that the Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Mao in 1966, was a disaster. The current leadership has no truck with personality cults and are perhaps conscious of Mao’s shortcomings, but they cannot bring themselves to ditch him completely. Officially he is not even to blame for the Cultural Revolution, the aging leader was led astray by the Gang of Four.

Image of Chairman Mao on banknotes

Nobody in China brandishes Mao’s Little Red Book any more, but everybody carries his portrait with them, indeed several portraits, as his face appears on every banknote from 1 Yuan up.

Mao on the 100 Yuan note
Image of Chairman Mao outside the Forbidden City, Beijing

He also smiles down on Tiananmen Square from the entrance to the Forbidden City – no longer forbidden, provided you can afford the entrance fee. I have no idea who the other man in this photograph is, but he is in my holiday picture, and I am in his. Good luck to him.

Mao, me and another bloke, Tiananmen Square, Beijing

At the other end of the square Mao lies embalmed in his mausoleum and we paid him a visit in 2004. Since then we have seen Lenin in Moscow and plan to visit Ho Chi Minh next month [Update: We saw Ho, read about it here. And in 2013 Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in North Korea]. I will produce a single ‘Three Embalmed Leaders’ post in due course [still waiting for that one].

The queue for Mao's Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square

China is a huge country and there are large parts of it we are unfamiliar with, but in our Chinese travels we have encountered three statues of Mao.

Statue of Chairman Mao, Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

Kashgar is as far west as you can go and still be in China; it is due north of Pakistan and as near to Beirut as it is to Beijing. Kashgar is in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region where the inhabitants, are largely Uighurs, a Turkic people of Central Asia. They do not look Chinese, they do not eat Chinese and they do not speak or read Chinese - the Uighur language is written in Arabic script. The purpose of the colossal statue is to remind the often rebellious Uighurs exactly who is in charge. His clothing might be appropriate for the harsh Kashgar winter, but we were there in July when the temperature was nearer 30, and he looked distinctly overdressed. As a sculpture it seems crude (and why is he staring at his hand?) but the message is obvious.

Chairman Mao, Kashi, Xinjiang Uigher Autonomous Region
Mao in Kashgar, wrapped up warm and staring at his hand

Statue of Chairman Mao and Kurban Tulum, Hotan, Xinjiang Uigher Autinomous Region

Driving a couple of hundred kilometres east with the Taklamakan desert to our north and the foothills of the Tibetan plateau to our south, brought us to the ancient silk making city of Hotan. Much of the old Uighur city was redeveloped in 2004 but its centrepiece remains this statue of Mao with a man called Kurban Tulum.

Mao and Kurban Tulum, Khotan, Hetian, Hotan
Mao, Kurban Tulum and me, Hotan
Born near Hotan in 1883 Kurban Tulum had lived his life under the yoke of the Qing emperors and then under a series of warlords, so was delighted when Mao won the civil war and established communist rule. To show his pleasure he loaded his donkey cart with fruit as a gift for the Chairman and set off for Beijing. Only at Urumqi, 1500 km later, did he encounter his first paved road. His efforts so impressed the local party chief that he wired head office and Kurban was promptly flown to Beijing to meet Mao. Whether they forwarded what must by then have been his rather wilted fruit is not recorded.

To the Chinese Kurban Tulum is the model Uighur, to the Uighurs he is a model traitor. To a neutral, anybody from Hotan who sets off for Beijing with a donkey cart full of fruit sounds a sandwich short of a picnic.

This statue in Hotan, and a smaller replica in Kurban Tulum’s home village, are, reputedly, the only statues in China where Mao ever shared a plinth with another human being.

Statue of Chairman Mao, Chengdu, Sichuan Province

The statue in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is the only one we have encountered in a Han dominated city. It was retained when the city centre was remodelled and Mao stands rather aloof, ignoring and being ignored by the circling traffic. He is probably being eaten away by pollution, which may be symbolic, but I am sure he will stand there for many years yet.

Mao in Chengdu

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