Married to Mao’s Shadow

Despite suffering under Mao’s rule, some of his victims are still fond of the Chairman.

By Yifu Dong


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y paternal grandfather, 86, plays songs on his computer every day. The playlist consists of his favorite “red songs”— classics extolling the glories of the Communist Party and Chairman Mao Zedong. Yet, in the meantime, the songs echo the craze and terror experienced under the Great Helmsman. Such a hobby is common among the Chinese elderly population—a generation of loyal, likely innocent, advocates of Mao’s brutal political campaigns, such as the infamous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. My grandfather was on the receiving end of those campaigns’ excesses.

My grandfather is not the only such victim who fondly reminisces about the rule of an authoritarian dictator. Many in his generation who barely survived Mao’s terror ended up as Mao’s vocal apologists. Similar attitudes were also present among some Soviet and Eastern European survivors of Stalin’s purges. Why is there an apparent yet jarring discrepancy between their experience and their attitude?

These victims are usually educated communist elites with reasonable judgment on many issues, so we cannot simply label them as “illogical” or “insane”. The real reason behind this paradox is a clash between their belief in communist ideals and the course of history under communist regimes. A closer look at my grandfather’s story may offer clues to understand similar cases elsewhere.

Communist ideals are easier to sketch out in textbooks than in people’s minds. In theory, communist ideals in China’s Mao era consisted of a number of universal values, such as equality and truth-telling, some communist-specific goals, such as “revolution” and “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and, most importantly, loyalty to the Communist Party. My grandfather pushed for equality and honesty through his work as an educator and always declared his loyalty to the Party, but he did not have control over the direction of the “revolution” or the decisions of the Party. In reality, the Party defaulted on these alluring universal values. Despite his loyalty to the Party, my grandfather, like so many others in his generation, was persecuted for sticking to the values that were part of the original package of communist ideals.

For my grandfather’s generation, history is a heavy burden. Every time I think about what he has gone through since the 1930s, I am amazed by how China has experienced one seismic transformation after another in the past eighty years. My grandfather, however, never opens up to me about his beliefs. When I interviewed him for a middle school history assignment, his answers were scripted, just like state propaganda. Whenever I visit him, I listen to his favorite “red songs” and marvel at his collection of dozens of volumes of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, curiously placed alongside hundreds of translated copies of bourgeois western novels on his bookshelves.

Fortunately, my grandfather keeps a blog that records his recollections and personal history. He is somewhat uncritical about some of the major events that took place under Mao’s rule and is unable to clarify his own inconsistencies, but his writing is clear and powerful. While it is hard for my generation of Chinese youth to imagine unswerving obedience to the Party, his blogs suggest that the Party played the role of savior for his generation. In the era of war and mass death, my grandfather spent his early years fleeing the Japanese invasion, losing his mother, his younger sister and many young classmates along the way. Mao’s communist regime promised peace, stability and a communist utopia. In retrospect, it was almost inevitable that he would eventually win over the masses.

As soon as the regime took over, however, in the name of “revolution” and constructing a communist society, Mao consolidated the Party’s supremacy and his own power through nationalizing industries and private enterprises, collectivizing agriculture and purging various groups of political enemies. The regime practiced realpolitik but insisted on its idealistic nature. This contradiction remains my grandfather’s biggest confusion.

In one blog entry, my grandfather recounts his experience during the Cultural Revolution, when he was beaten, humiliated and sent to work dangerous jobs as an “enemy.” “Even today I still do not understand,” he writes, “why the Red Guards and paramilitary groups during the Cultural Revolution would violate the Party’s disciplines and use the inhumane methods of the Japanese and the Nationalists to mistreat their prisoners.”

Although the torturers carried out Mao’s brutal policies against him, my grandfather still stood by the Party and the Chairman. A telling episode sheds light on the reason for this persistence. Once, a Red Guard grabbed him viciously and asked: “Can the ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ be viewed from two sides?”

A “yes” would suggest seeing the Chairman’s thought in a negative light, while a “no” would go against Mao’s unassailable teaching that everything should be viewed from two sides. My grandfather, with little hesitation, said “yes”—choosing his belief in certain tenets of Maoism over his veneration for Mao as a human being. For him, Mao was no longer just a person, but also a symbol for communist ideals. The irony, of course, is that Mao hardly ever embodied those ideals after taking power in 1949.

China’s disastrous social experiments in the name of communism ended in 1976, shortly after Mao’s death. In the end, collectivization of agriculture resulted in famines, planned economy made China significantly poorer than other East Asian countries, political campaigns broke the backbone of a whole generation of independent intellectuals, and the Cultural Revolution destroyed traditional Chinese culture and values.

The regime soon moved on after 1976,  and the economic reform that spurred high growth for the next three decades was no more than the next step in salvaging the Party’s legitimacy. Although the Party did not openly denounce Mao, post-Mao reforms were a total rejection of Mao’s radical experiments.

The same communist officials who pushed for collectivization were now advocating for a “household-responsibility” system. The same Army officers who “liberated” parts of China in 1949 and helped confiscate private property found themselves opening up “Special Economic Zones” — a euphemism for experimentations with capitalism. For my grandfather’s generation, the most valuable and productive three decades of their lives were wasted supporting Mao’s policies, which turned out to be all wrong. In this sense, this failure was also their personal failure, so it was imperative that they address and justify this mistake of their own.

Now forty years out of Mao’s shadow, people like my grandfather have found their way of self-justification. As the post-Mao economic reforms brought about more problems, namely rampant corruption and growing inequality, they are seeing Mao as the embodiment for communist ideals and are looking to Maoism as the cure for the ills of modern China.

Besides recalling his suffering and remembering his friends in his blog, my grandfather also spends quite a lot of time blasting his city’s education bureau for their incompetence. A devoted idealist and educator all his life, my grandfather now ventures out of his seventh floor apartment (with no elevator) every day, sending letters to officials and petitioning the local government for better preschool education and teacher training. Despite his persistent advocacy in the past two decades, the city government hardly ever responds to him. My grandfather believes that wrongdoings in the government are the officials’ fault and a sign of their failure to follow the Communist Party’s leadership. In the minds of many in his generation, Mao and the Party can never be wrong, but they have yet to experience what is right.


Yifu Dong is a junior history major in Branford College. You can contact him at