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House of Mao

Capitalism, religion, and patriotism in the Chairman’s hometown


Vendors shout the names and prices of trinkets they are selling, tour guides take bourgeois families enjoying unproductive leisure time through attractions, and vendors charge upwards of five RMB for a two RMB bottle of water in the scorching mid-July heat of Hunan.

It’s not exactly what one might expect from the home of the Communist Party icon who wanted to wipe capitalism from the face of the earth, but then again, China today isn’t exactly what it looked like in Chairman Mao’s day. Shaoshan (韶山), the hometown of the founder of the People’s Republic, is an apt metaphor for modern-day China. Merchants shouting unrestrained sales pitches laud the quality of overpriced communist-themed memorabilia, and business people make offerings to the god of the red sun.


Mao’s ancestral home and the pond he once swam in as a child

Like many others, I declined my first opportunity to visit because I didn’t really want to see a patriotic tourism destination brimming, I imagined, with extreme ardor and zealotry. A classmate of mine, Tan Chao, recommended Shaoshan to me and spurned me onto Zhuzhou (株洲), a place I would return to several times. Her family owns and operates about a dozen hotels in the area south of Changsha, and this year Chao was in charge of launching the Love Hotel, with themed rooms based on love stories.


Mao’s parents’ bedroom

While in Zhuzhou with Chao, boredom got the better of us, so we decided to go off to Shaoshan about two hours to the west. By the time we got there, Mao’s ancestral home and museum were closed, but there were still a lot of people in Mao Zedong Bronze Statue Square admiring the statue of the nation’s founder, taking photos and praying.

Visitors stand in front of the 10-meter-tall (a four-meter base and a six-meter figure) statue, located up two short staircases in front of a display of 15 Chinese flags, and bow their heads. Some walk around it three times. In the throngs of visitors, commotion breaks out as a tour guide berates customers chattering in front of Mao.


Mao family kitchen

“Can you understand Chinese?” the guide yelled, after unsuccessfully telling them to quiet down. “We are going to worship Mao.” On the count of three, they all bowed their heads in unison.

Hao and I took our obligatory photos in front of the statue, and then Chao, formerly a business student, did the same thing as the other visitors; she stood on the red carpet, closed her eyes, clasped her hands in front of her heart, and then bowed her head.


A field the young Chairman cultivated when he was a boy

When I asked what she was praying for, she replied that she prayed for the financial success of the Love Hotel.

This quasi-religious scene repeats itself every day. As the flowers gifted by private companies at the base of the statue can attest: everybody loves Mao, even capitalists.

Mao’s legacy has indeed been good for the local businesses of Shaoshan. Mao was born there, about 120 kilometers southwest of the provincial capital Changsha, in 1893. At age 33 he led the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hunan. While his life took him away from his hometown, his legacy remains stronger there than almost anywhere else.


Mao Family Restaurant, one of the many Mao-themed restaurants in Shaoshan

He put the small city of 100,000 people (with 15,000 in Shaoshan Village) on the map, attracting millions of tourists each year. In the first five months of 2013, about 3.5 million tourists came to Shaoshan, adding 788 million RMB to the economy (36 million USD), according to the China Tourism Post. Hotels and restaurants abound, with names like Mao’s Four Wives Restaurant, Every Day is Red Countryside Food, Red Sister Country Restaurant, and Red Flag Restaurant.

Intrigued by my previous short trip, I returned in July to take a closer look. Arriving at the bus station after a one-hour ride from Xiangtan (湘潭), I didn’t notice anything special, because I got off the bus into the parking lot, but if I had gone inside the station, as I did when I left Shaoshan, I would have seen a large white statue of Mao and a painting of Mao being embraced by peasants. If you took the train instead of the bus, never fear; there is a large painting of Mao’s face outside the Shaoshan Train Station. Beneath the facade of tourist-friendly attractions, the city itself shares the charm of any other small Chinese city: old damas dance in parks, street vendors sell snacks, parents eagerly corral their children to practice their English with passing foreigners.


Mao-themed tourism memorabilia in a Shaoshan market

If you really want to get in the spirit of all the Mao-style tourism, there is perhaps no better way than with the Chairman’s favorite food, hongshaorou (红烧肉, red cooked pork). The dish consists of chunks of fatty pork cooking in a savory caramelized star anise sauce. The Shaoshan people claim that it’s delicious and nutritious, but while I can’t deny its deliciousness, almost every bite is at least half fat. As I poured some rice onto the meat, a waitresses pointed out how oily the rice would be, soaking it all up from the dish. I started “washing” the pork in water, a practice I had seen some of my health-conscious friends do in China to get rid of excess oil. Soon the bowl of water was dark brown, and the waitress had to bring me a new one. One big bowl of red cooked pork costs about 70 RMB at the Mao Palace Holiday Hotel (毛府假日大酒店), at which you can find the ubiquitous Mao statues and T-shirts on sale in the lobby.

“House of Mao” is a story from our issue, “Military”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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