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Shaoshan, Hometown of Mao

Photographer: How Hwee Young

 

Shaoshan is the hometown of former Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong, popularly known as Chairman Mao. Thousands of visitors descend on this small town burrowed in the hills of Central China's Hunan province to pay homage to the ‘Great Helmsman’ every day. It is one of the core sites of the 'Red Tourism' industry, where communist party cadres and ordinary Chinese tourists alike seek to relive the experiences and rekindle the spirit of the revolutionaries.

 

While often mentioned in the same breath alongside history's worst dictators outside of China, Mao is hailed in this town as nothing but a great hero and leader.

 

Pilgrims arrive in bus loads even on normal weekdays. They come to lay flowers and bow at his giant statue on the Mao Zedong Bronze Statue Square. Some worship him as they would a deity. Huge crowds queue to view the house where he was born and raised, as well as museums showcasing his former belongings. A massive outdoor theater production dedicated to his life story titled 'Mao Zedong Comes from China' is shown to sold-out audiences almost every night.

 

As the fiftieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution quietly approaches on 16 May 2016, there is however scant mention of the revolution where millions of intellectuals were persecuted and tortured in a bid to purge critics. Nor the tens of millions of deaths from the tragic famine that resulted from the 'Great Leap Forward', Mao's attempt to modernize the country.

 

For the people of Shaoshan and its visitors, the criticism was brushed aside. Some defend Mao as a mere mortal blindsided by his deputies. To many, he continues to be a beloved figure whose achievements more than make up for his mistakes. Mao Tihuang, a former Red Army soldier and teacher who came from Jinggangshan, another stronghold of Red Tourism says, "I idolize Chairman Mao, he freed China and made our lives better."