Changing attitudes towards Mao Zedong in the PRC and his religious cults
The paper outlines changing attitudes towards Mao since 1976 up to 2015, as an important part of political and ideological transformations in the PRC. The study is based on the author’s personal talks with numerous Chinese of different social standing during these years. Some essential party documents, interesting research by other scholars and internet sources have been employed here as well. The point of departure constitutes a comparison of Mao and Stalin and their political and social roles respectively in the PRC and in the Soviet Union. The author puts an emphasis on cultural differences between the two societies.
The author points out that the political and ideological cult of Mao as a Great Helmsman and Great Teacher started to fade away before his death (September 9, 1976). The turning point constituted the death of Zhou Enlai in January 1976. Then, during mass celebrations commemorating him at the Tiananmen Square, Maoist “revolutionary” policy had been criticised in public for the first time and the new myth of the Prime Minister as “great patriot taking care of the state and of the people” was born. The new nationalistic spirit was manifested in opposition to “internationally minded” revolutionary policy, which caused suffering of the Chinese people.
Immediately after the funeral of Mao, in the beginning of October, the radical Maoists, who predominated at that time, were arrested in a particular coup d’etat, and the so-called Gang of Four lost power. The moderate Maoists, who ruled the country, tried to preserve the cult of Mao, but within the ruling elite and the society critical attitudes to the Maoist policy were on the rise. It was combined with increasing nationalism and the cult of Zhou at the grass root level.
In 1978, a new period started; both the people and the cadres on the grass root level initiated reforms, even those dismantling of the Maoist system (including the people’s communes at the countryside). The “walls of democracy” appeared in the cities, and the critical evaluation of the past concerned the Maoist heritage. The new leaders including Deng Xiaoping led a “silent de-maoisation”: the destruction of Mao monuments, his quotations in public places, etc. Moreover, they presented Mao as a great politician, who committed serious mistakes, and whose heritage could be analysed and criticised under the heading “Mao was a man not a god”. On the other hand, they struggled against “excessive criticism” towards Mao as harmful to the state and destabilising the society.
At the end of the 1980s, new tendencies started to appear. The new market economy already changed life of the ordinary Chinese. On the one hand, new super-rich, and on the other the “new poor” appeared side by side with sharp economic differences between cities, villages, and regions. The new “money first” mentality prevailed, whereas moral values and human attitudes faded away. Under the new system of “wild capitalism”, the interest in the Maoist heritage could be seen among the older people and youngsters as well in opposition to the new official “market and motherland” ideology. Mao at this stage had been imagined first of all as a great “national leader”.
The paper also analyses the evolution of Mao Zedong Mausoleum towards an “Ancestral Hall of Revolution”. The author analyses various religious and mystical aspects of the cults of Mao in the framework of the “folk religion”, starting with his veneration as a God of Safe Travel up to the Tutelary God Granting Prosperity to the Nation and Tranquillity to the People.
Chinese authorities have to take under consideration such phenomena and adapt their policies to new social expectations. In this field, one could see the fundamental contradiction between the ruling elite educated in the tradition of the Western Enlightenment and the Chinese people much more bounded by their civilisation.