It was the fall of 2009. I remember the trip crystal clear. It was one of two field trips that we would take with our small international school. It was the experience that would show me a side of China I will never forget. It was the time we went to Shaoshan, Hunan, Mao Zedong’s hometown.
The day was beautiful. Sunny. Bright blue skies. A perfect day for tourism. As I looked around me, the village was packed. Hundreds of Chinese had come that day (as every day) to pay their respects to Mao Zedong. Together with the other tourists, my classmates and I peered into the little mud house Mao Zedong grew up in. Well, that is, we were looking into the mud hut—most of the Chinese were examining us waiguoren (foreigners) viewing Mao’s home. Together with the crowds, we walked down the block to see the statue of Mao Zedong. Together with them, we stood shoulder to shoulder looking up at the massive shiny statue. And as we all stood there sweating in the midday sun, I looked around me. It was then that it suddenly hit me!
Growing up as a Westerner, the story of Mao Zedong I was familiar with told of a narcissistic leader who was responsible for single-handedly destroying much of Chinese society. Under his rule, millions of people died. He destroyed the economy and the social structure. He uprooted whole villages. He turned father against son, daughter against mother. His rule and reign, as vividly described in Jung Chang’s Mao: The Unknown Story, was insanity. That’s the story primarily told in the West. For this reason, in the minds of many Westerners, Mao Zedong is not a persona to esteem. Rather he is a dark chapter in world history.
Yet, that day in Shaoshan, as I looked around myself, I saw something else. I saw hundreds of Chinese looking up at that statue and not with anger or disappointment. They were gazing with respect and reverence, perhaps even a sense of worship. And I realized, there is another side to the story.
Can’t Afford Not to Understand
To work with a nation or a people-group, we must understand their history. In America, their fight for independence, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War are all important events that have shaped the country and the people. In the Netherlands, the rise of Hitler, the tragedy of World War II, the Holocaust, and the fall of the German Reich are known and remembered. In each of these countries, these events are important to know and not only for history’s sake. To understand these periods in history (and more importantly the tone surrounding these events) is to understand the people and the events that formed the countries.
This same principle holds for China as well. In China, it is the history and impact of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s regime that must be studied and considered. In this, we must become aware not only of our own perspective, but also of the Chinese narrative.
Following Mao’s death, the Chinese Communist Party did not deny the tragedy that had taken place. In publishing their first official statement of Mao Zedong’s era, they stated that the Cultural Revolution “was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the state, and the people.”1 In 1982 the CCP supplemented in an additional statement that the religious persecution of the Cultural Revolution was “completely wrong and extremely harmful.”2
Yet, at the same time, they emphasized in their evaluation that Mao had been 70 percent right and merely 30 percent wrong. At the end of the day, Mao’s “contributions to the Chinese revolution far outweigh his mistakes. His merits are primary and his errors secondary.”3 This was the state narrative. This was taught. This was upheld. (This was and still is not really known in the West.)
From a Western perspective, having heard of the suffering, the persecution, the ruination of a country, it is hard to understand how the Chinese government could think to make such a statement. Was this simply an example of Communist propaganda? Perhaps an attempt from the party not to lose face? No, not completely. As Chinese children are taught in school, Mao empowered China.
For all the bad that took place, his actions also set the Chinese on the world stage again. Whereas before Mao’s reign, the old imperial system had been failing, following Mao, the government came out strong. Whereas the old regime had suffered under the thumb of foreign powers, Mao secured China’s autonomy from Japan and colonial powers, ending China’s humiliation. He introduced simplified Chinese characters and standardized the language, creating a certain unity in China. These actions among others cleared the way for the Chinese to regain their pride and rebuild their nation in the years following. Yes, Mao left much destruction in his wake. However, ultimately, because of Mao, the founding father of the new China, “The Chinese have stood up!”4
Growing up as a Westerner, I was taught an overall disapproval of Mao Zedong. Growing up in China, however, I also realized early on that this was not the only view of him. Yes, we had Chinese friends who recognized and had experienced the suffering of the Cultural Revolution.
However, I also visited Chinese colleagues who, in the center of their living room, had a huge poster of Mao Zedong hanging on the wall. I remember standing in our living room, daydreaming out the window of our apartment, and gazing across the courtyard. On the neighbor’s balcony, complete with altar and incense in front of it, hung a massive poster of Mao Zedong. I remember some of the old generation talking of “the good ol’ days” when Mao was still in charge. Life had been better then.
But most of all I remember that day in Shaoshan, sweaty, hot, uncomfortable, looking around myself and realizing: these people remember Mao in a different way—in a glorious way. For these people, Mao is a national hero.
Today, more than ever before, the importance of understanding the Mao era is growing (and not just our own perspective on it). The current Chinese government is uplifting Mao Zedong even more than their predecessors. Next to emphasizing the positive results of Mao’s reign, they are now saying that the Mao Zedong decades were equally valuable in China’s development as the reform-and-open decades that followed. As numerous China experts and researchers are observing, traits from those decades are also increasingly appearing. It has become a season to be remembered, to be respected, and (it would now seem) to be repeated. As such, whether we approve of the events or not, whether we agree with existing evaluations or not, it is a season more pertinent than ever before to study and understand if we are to work with and in China.
Anderlini, Jamil. “The Return of Mao: A New Threat to China’s Politics.” Financial Times, September 29, 2016, accessed July 20, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/63a5a9b2-85cd-11e6-8897-2359a58ac7a5.
Chen, Jing. “The Chinese Church May Be More Complex than You Thought.” ChinaSource Blog. September 28, 2020. Accessed July 20, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/the-chinese-church-may-be-more-complex-than-you-thought/.
Lambert, Tony. The Resurrection of the Chinese Church. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991.
- Jamil Anderlini, “The Return of Mao: A New Threat to China’s Politics,” Financial Times, September 29, 2016, accessed July 20, 2022, https://www.ft.com/content/63a5a9b2-85cd-11e6-8897-2359a58ac7a5.
- Tony Lambert, The Resurrection of the Chinese Church (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991), 25.
- See Jamil Anderlini.
- Anton van der Laak, interview by the author, December 28, 2016; Finn Torjesen, interview by the author, November 16, 2016; Jing Chen, “The Chinese Church May Be More Complex than You Thought,” ChinaSource Blog, September 28, 2020, accessed July 20, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/blog-entries/the-chinese-church-may-be-more-complex-than-you-thought/.
Image Credit: Michael Lusk via Flickr
Laura de Ruiter
Laura de Ruiter grew up in China (1997–2010). She completed her BA in Biblical exposition at Moody Bible Institute in Spokane, US in 2016, then earned her master’s degree in strategic leadership and change management in 2017. From 2018 to 2019 she worked as a pastor in Frankfurt with a …View Full Bio
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