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Mao Zedong and All That

A telling battle over China’s history curriculum.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Hu Jintao on occasion dons a Mao tunic, cast aside years ago by most top Chinese leaders in favor of Western suit and tie, as if to draw a line between China and the “troubled” West. Someone (probably Hu) this year pushed Mao’s grandson, a man of few gifts and less charisma, to the rank of general in the military. Bo Xilai, the Communist party boss of Chongqing, a huge city in the southwest, seeking to crack down on crime and corruption, promoted what he called a “Red Storm” in Mao’s name. This ambitious young politician, whose father, Bo Yibo, was a senior figure in Chinese politics during the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps with an eye on the power struggles in Beijing, uses Mao songs and quotations to whip up public opinion against crooked cops and judges.

At the grassroots, Mao endures in abstract art galleries and sentimental pictures in farmers’ living rooms. Tourists to Mao’s former guerrilla war base of Jinggangshan toss unlit cigarettes onto Mao’s old wooden bed in remembrance of one who loved to smoke. Some taxi drivers still hang a Mao portrait as a talisman on their steering wheel or stick it to a window to ward off accidents and traffic cops. In a Shanghai department store window I saw Mao serving as a mannequin for green silk pajamas. But all this trivializes evil. Germany has dealt seriously with Hitler, while China pushes Mao into folklore.

Debate over Mao and whether China’s current rise is a “Chinese story” or a “world historical story” involves the future as well as the past. If the 21st century is China’s under continuing Communist party rule (not very likely), Mao may endure in Chinese textbooks as a successful warrior and unifier, his failed social engineering glossed over. A six-year-old might say to his mother, “We heard about Mao in school today. Was he China’s George Washington?”

Should China continue to flourish but renounce Marxism (quite likely), Mao might be blamed for the entire Communist experiment on Chinese soil. China, with its rich tradition of political ideas, would declare it did not need to import Marx and Lenin in the first place. Europe’s Enlightenment philosophy and America’s technology were superior imports missed by Mao. World Expo-type events would draw the millions, not Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing. “Mao was a narrow man,” a boy might chirp in class.

If China encounters severe adversity—not to be ruled out—Mao could be summoned, along with other Chinese authoritarians, to justify even tighter rule than today in the name of unity and cultural nationalism. The 21st century would be not Professor Zhou’s international “battle of the talents” but a battle of frustrated China against a still-dominant West. 

History moves on, and society changes. In 19th-century Britain, the utopian socialist and designer William Morris wrote in the novel A Dream of John Ball, “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” Morris saw the limits of politics as well as its promise. Mao achieved one of his goals for China: national strength. But the economic policies fueling China’s current rise canceled his top-down utopianism. In fact, China turned to American-driven values of free markets, free trade, and scientific inquiry for its present phase of catching up and trying to become number one. The American left is equivocal about these values, but Chinese education reformers love them.

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of Mao (currently a bestseller in China), The New Chinese Empire, and Madam Mao.

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