Now That's What I Call Chairman Mao

Lushan in Jiangxi Province is the location of one of the most crucial conferences in post-war Chinese history, condemning China to several more years of famine and setting the scene for the disastrous Cultural Revolution five years later. By now, it is one of destinations on China's so-called "red tourism" trail, but how long will it take the Chinese government to come to terms with its past?

Under the watchful eyes of the Great Chairman: A soldier of the Chinese PLA guards the Tiananmen in Beijing.

Under the watchful eyes of the Great Chairman: A soldier of the Chinese PLA guards the Tiananmen in Beijing. Photo © 2005 Hauke Neddermann.

ON THE way to Lushan in Jiangxi Province on a wet April weekend, you can see almost nothing. Driving up the precipitous mountain lanes, which were built to serve Chairman Mao's famous conference at Lushan in 1959, you head face-first into a lingering, all-encompassing white mist. The invisibility is pierced only on occasion by the headlamps of cars shooting down too quickly from the peak of the mountain. The swerves are hair-raising.

We were wedged in the back of an old Santana and watching the rain ripple across the windscreen in slow, fat waves as we travelled to Lushan from the stagnant but quaint city of Jiujiang. We passed an optimistic little island of ceramic flowers that greets visitors as they enter the city from the highway. We swept through the flooded highways and surveyed the typical row of old, crumbling buildings that even in their prime were nothing more than functional.

Lushan was the scene of Chairman Mao's tempestuous victory over General Peng Dehuai in 1959, which marked the further triumph of pipedream over pragmatism and plunged China ever deeper into a devastating famine. Peng was the only leader who dared to stand up to Mao and criticize the folly of the Great Leap Forward, where local cadres pretended to meet unrealistic output targets, causing the central government to raise the targets still further. The agricultural miracle turned out to be a mirage, and something like 30 million people perished throughout China's barren countryside.

The conference hall itself stands in the higher folds of the cliffs, and serves as the centrepiece of a resort that also includes the villa of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the summer retreats of various foreign missionaries, all of whom are celebrated equally by a holiday industry that has, over the years, become curiously non-judgmental. Still, if Chairman Mao himself can become the focal attraction for tourists, why not Chiang?

The Three Folds Fountain in Lushan is a massive waterfall rendered even fiercer by the weekend's torrential rain. The steps leading to the waterfall descend ever deeper into the crevices of the mountain. The trek isn't for the faint-hearted. One slip or stumble and you fall forward, and your correspondent couldn't help noticing the way the fellow tourists were stacked like dominoes on the descending steps and makeshift verandas. They hobbled forward in their pink or lime-green tour group-issued cagoules, clinging on to the balustrade, ducking under trees as the clouds burst once more. The rain at least created a kind of shared adversity, an esprit de corps.

Exhaustion quickly sets in. On the way down, one notices the teams of little men carrying women up the steep steps in frail-looking sedan chairs, and one feels nothing but disdain. But by the time one tries to make one's way back, however, the rickshaw temptation is all too obvious. The view is daunting, looking up from the depths of the valley at the steps snaking up the harsh cliff face, looking at the rainwater lashing down on the pathways, looking at the agony of fellow travellers as they contemplate the precipitous 60-degree angle of the slope.

For some reason, you start to wonder whether Mao ever made the trek to the Three Folds Fountain, and how many servants it took to carry him across the two-kilometre descent and back again.

Mao's bust was in the entrance to the conference hall, and his portrait hung, as was to be expected, in the hall itself. The corridors and staircases are decked out in photographs from a very different era, and the accompanying text struggles painstakingly to render the official formulations of Communist Party history, stressing that the famine of the early 1960s was caused by an unfortunate mixture of human error, natural disaster and the withdrawal of aid by the Soviet Union. The "struggle meetings" against Peng Dehuai - officially rehabilitated in the late 1970s, a few years after his death at the hands of the Red Guards - are documented in a series of images and newspaper clippings. Policy documents are annotated in Mao's own hand.

And so, as the sagging skies break once more, hundreds of tourists surge into the conference hall and spill up the stairs, where they are afforded a view of the very spot where Mao denounced Peng. Some gathered around a TV screen in the corner to watch archive footage of the Chairman. A group of three tourists put their hands behind their backs and stand motionless and silent, occasionally whispering the names of Mao, Peng, Lin Biao or Liu Shaoqi as the TV cameras scan the front rows of the meeting hall. Awe and silent reverence seemed to combine with the sort of nervous good humour one would normally use when viewing a caged and declawed bear. Mao turns his head, Mao masticates, Mao lifts his hand, Mao allows himself a sly little smile. Mao himself is a picture of Caligulan decadence. As he talks, motioning delegates to sit down or cease clapping, there is only a slash of darkness where his teeth should be.

Peng Dehuai was purged and exiled to the countryside after the 1959 conference, but Mao was, in his own peculiar fashion, forced to admit defeat at the second Lushan meeting in 1961. It took a disaster of the magnitude of the Great Leap Forward for Mao finally to be sidelined. Liu Shaoqi, together with Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun and other pragmatists, would embark on a period of reconstruction. Mao, rumours suggest, had a minor nervous breakdown but returned to plot the thoroughly disastrous Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966.

"Red tourism" - which is being promoted by the central government - is a curious phenomenon, especially for foreigners, who cannot understand why a man so demonized in the west can still be lauded and lionized in China. The Communist Party's aim, it seems, is to cling on for long enough to make a "reversal of verdicts" against Mao unnecessary, to continue to hedge and fudge its historical legacy with formulas like "Mao Zedong was 70% correct and 30% incorrect," to balance precariously for as long as possible on the fact that, well, at least Chairman Mao unified the country and marked the end of at least 50 years of turmoil, twenty years of civil war and fifteen years or so of foreign occupation.

Sooner or later, the authorities seem to assume, the people purged and persecuted during the Mao era will die out, and Mao will be judged in much the same way as Qin Shihuang, the country's tyrannical first emperor more than 2,000 years ago, or Genghis Khan, who overran and brutalized China in the thirteenth century. Bad circumstances produce bad leaders, of course, and only the ruthless can rise to the summit and turn anarchy in their favour. But how long can China go on without coming to terms with this past? The awkwardness of the encounter with Mao, and the anxious smiles on the faces of many of the visitors, suggests that some sort of reappraisal is in order, but like it or not, the Chairman still plays a massive role in the myths and "unifying fictions" of the nation.

Descending from Lushan towards the bus station in Jiujiang, with visibility still at zero, the driver - a jocose little bullfrog of a man - swerves past buses and trucks at full speed, races headfirst into the lights of ascending vehicles. At some point, he puts on what seemed to be his only tape, a collection of songs about Chairman Mao, including the likes of "Long Live Chairman Mao," "Long Live the Chinese Communist Party" and variants thereof, all performed in a mixture of styles – Chinese opera, Xinjiang folk song, mock rock, slow ballad. Now That's What I Call Chairman Mao Volume 31, one presumes.

David Stanway is a Shanghai-based journalist.

Copyright © 2007 David Stanway