Yenan Journal: The Mao Myth Thrives, but Don’t Mention Its Dark Side

Yenan Journal: The Mao Myth Thrives, but Don’t Mention Its Dark Side
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: July 1, 2005 Copyright The New York Times
Click to see Yanan photos
YENAN, China – Horribly outnumbered, poorly armed and constantly under attack, 80,000 Communist fighters set out on foot from a base in China’s southeastern Jiangxi Province in October 1934 hoping above all to avoid getting wiped out by their Nationalist enemies.
A visitor in a Communist uniform from the 1940’s in the Central Great Auditorium in Yenan, where the paintings of Mao Zedong are exhibited.
One year and 5,000 miles later, after countless acts of extraordinary courage along the way, the 6,000 survivors of the Long March, led by Mao Zedong, limped into this dusty town in the arid yellow hills of northern Shaanxi Province.
Last year, nearly four million Chinese, from backpacking college students to busloads of middle-aged workers on company excursions, followed in their wake – as tourists, not revolutionaries. Without much else to work with, this modest city, all but bypassed by the industrial revolution sweeping China, enthusiastically promotes some of the most resonant founding myths of the country’s Communist republic.
These days, eager visitors crowd the revolutionary museum here to look admiringly at large black and white photographs of the last stages of the Long March, to buy Mao trinkets or to pose for pictures in front of the rustic cave dwellings that served as residences for Mao and other top leaders from 1935 to 1947, when this city was the Communists’ main base.
Marxist ideology is said to have little relevance in today’s China. But all over this city, people can be overheard trading admiring stories about the heroism of Mao’s army or celebrating the spirit of Yenan, as much a name for that 12-year period as for the city itself.
Whether they lived through it, or more likely know of it through popular culture, many Chinese still recall the era fondly as a time of great idealism, of selfless volunteers arriving by the tens of thousands to join the movement, and of Mao’s supposedly enlightened leadership before such well-known and monumental tragedies as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which killed tens of millions of people.
“We have always loved Mao,” said Zhao Shiwei, 43, a provincial trade official who had come from far away Guangdong Province and was posing merrily with a group of colleagues in gray People’s Liberation Army uniforms from the era. “He led the nation to success and founded the new China, and he will always occupy a great place in our hearts.”
Chinese historians in the academy, like their counterparts abroad, have steadily chipped away at Mao’s myth, and the falling chunks have inevitably included many details about Yenan. Far from the idyll celebrated here, the historians say, Mao waged a campaign of political terror against youthful dissenters, perfecting methods of purging real and imagined foes that would be used on a vast scale later. He sold opium to raise money for his army, and it was here that he created his suffocating cult of personality.
“Mao: The Unknown Story,” a heavily researched book published recently by Jung Chang, a Chinese writer who lives in Britain, goes so far as to say that the most legendary act of bravery of the entire Long March, the crossing of the Dadu bridge, while enemy gunners took aim from the opposite bank, was fiction. In China, that is the equivalent of saying Washington never led his troops across the Delaware.
That is not all. Far from committed Communists, Ms. Chang writes, many of the marchers were press-ganged captives, and Mao is said to have been carried throughout much of the Long March on a litter by porters, as he read at his leisure. And although Mao’s troops were decimated, not a single senior party member was killed or even seriously wounded. “You can’t say the Long March was a military victory,” said Yang Kuisong, a historian at Beijing University. “It was not about fighting battles. It was a process of running away.”
Ordinary Chinese have been carefully shielded from views like this of their late leader, however. Mao’s importance to the party he founded remains paramount, even as the founding ideology, Marxism, fades.
For ordinary Chinese, history textbooks emphasize the devotion to the common man and heroism of the early Communists, even teaching that Mao’s armies, not the Americans, defeated the Japanese invaders. The television and film industries have cranked out hundreds of movies reinforcing the Mao legend. Writing that strongly challenges the chairman or his place in history simply cannot be published in China.
Sitting outside the town’s Revolutionary Museum, where a huge bronze of Mao looms over a parking lot filling with tour buses, a 33-year-old man named Chen affected boredom when approached by a stranger, saying Mao’s history was most relevant to people over 40. “We didn’t have to suffer the same difficulties that they did,” Mr. Chen said. “You always hear about the great sacrifices that Mao’s generation made in all the movies and TV shows. It’s got to be true, right?”
In the date tree garden by the old Revolutionary Headquarters, where Mao presided over early meetings of the Central Committee, a group of fresh college graduates from Xian were curious about a foreigner’s impression of Mao.
“In China, nobody hates Mao Zedong,” one of the students said in prelude. “This trip is like a souvenir for us. We could have gone anywhere, but we chose here.”
Told of the dark side of Mao’s record known to historians but not to most Chinese, some of the students grew defensive. “What do you expect us to do, drag him from his grave and flog him,” one asked. “The emperors of the past are regarded as great if they moved the country forward, no matter how much the people suffered. With Mao it is the same.”
Others, however, grew pensive. “You might say that China is a very different country in the way it deals with history,” said one young woman. “But you must understand, foreigners have much more information than we do. There’s no real freedom to discuss these kinds of things here.”

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