As China nears the 122-year anniversary of Mao Zedong’s birthday in December, attention is once again being drawn to the contrasting and divided views of Mao Zedong and his policies.
Despite a controversial legacy, the founding father of modern China is immortalized in a large self-portrait on Tian’anmen in Beijing and over 2,000 statues in and around China, many of which are standing guard at the entrances to China’s finest universities.
“Setting up statues of Mao Zedong has been a university campus tradition for decades”, said a spokesperson for the Beijing Morning Post. “The purpose of the statute is to encourage and give confidence to our teachers and instill national character and patriotism in our students.”
The tradition of Mao statues on university campuses started at Tsinghua University in 1967, though the Tsinghua statue was not the first Mao statue made. The first outdoor Mao statue was erected on Mount Yamalike in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. However, it was the Tsinghua statue that started the massive 10-year wave of statue-building that took place during the Cultural Revolution, spanning from 1966 until 1976.
Moving consistently with changing domestic public opinion, the 1980s, under Deng Xiaoping and widespread economic reforms, saw many of the Mao statues quietly removed. A large number of the statues were even removed at night so as to not draw attention, including the famous Tsinghua University statue.
Currently, the city of Beijing has about 20 Mao Zedong statues left standing, while in other other cities, such as Tianjin or Guangzhou, it is nearly impossible to find a statue of the former Chairman. Photographer Cheng Wenjun, who dedicated his life to photographing and uncovering Mao statues, says that any of the surviving Mao Zedong statues are “modern historical relics”.
The memory of Chairman Mao in China is a paradox, as the image of “Great Leader” has marginally faded since his death in 1976. During the large celebrations in 2013 for the 120-year anniversary for Mao Zedong, Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted saying that celebrations should be “solemn, simple, and pragmatic”.
However, it is not uncommon, even today, to witness people paying tribute to the late chairman by bowing, lighting firecrackers, or even praying to him in front of his statues or pictures. “For some people, praying for the blessing of Chairman Mao is equivalent of asking for blessings from God”, said Cheng Wenjun.
Mao Zedong’s legacy means many different things to different people, with opinions ranging from reverence, to being unimpressed, to outright hatred. However, Mao’s fading image continues to endure the test of time in his statues as both a semblance of glue holding the Chinese nation together and a legacy of policies and leadership that shaped modern China.
For more on the paradox of Mao’s reign, check out our Confession Controversy series that discusses the Cultural Revolution!
Cover image from Wikimedia commons.