We visit Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace, at the end of a long day of driving. We’re late and the site is closed, but once again guanxi work their magic and a pair of dour-looking army men let us in. We’re not allowed to take photos, so I have to paraphrase some of the signage from memory. ‘Here is the fireplace where Mao would gather his family and enlighten them to the struggle of the Chinese workers.’ I picture a rustic Mao, before his middle-aged paunch, lecturing his little brother as he blithely picks his nose. ‘Here is where the Mao family keeps pigs.’ It’s a big pen inside the handsome house. The Mao family was clearly not poor.
The day is spitting rain. Tourists who do not share our guanxi huddle in little groups, staring. The army men stand at attention like the guards in front of Buckingham palace, who stoically allow tourists to give them bunny ears and snap their picture. No one tries to do the same with the Chinese army guards.
Nearby, a monumental statue of Mao is attended by a group of middle-aged Chinese tourists. There is a small red mat in front and people are taking turns prostrating, touching their foreheads to the damp concrete. It’s fascinating to me that Mao has managed to escape all culpability for the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, at least in the popular imagination. His wife and three other Communist party leaders, known as the Gang of Four, were put on trial, and found guilty of more or less everything that went wrong in China between 1956 and 1978. A quartet of villains for a quarter century of ills. If only all history were so easy to reduce.