Mao-style Pork, Mao-style Protest

This week I got to spend a bit less time studying and more time sleeping, which was good. I also got a chance to talk to 3 Chinese people about their views on politics and history. Two of them are my teachers, and one is a driver (someone's private chauffeur). In one of my one-on-one discussion classes, my teacher asked me what I wanted to talk about. I said, “Chairman Mao. What do Chinese people think about him?”

She told me that in school she learned that Mao was 70% good, 30% bad. I've heard this breakdown before, and I find it hilariously simple (simplistic?) and straightforward. He unified the country, kept it from being torn apart by Europeans, the Americans, and the Japanese, and thus ended “the most difficult and painful part of Chinese history”. He also put women on equal footing with men. She said that before the Nationalist government took over from the last imperial dynasty, women couldn't attend university. Once the Nationalist government took over, they were allowed to attend universities, but they weren't allowed to get very many jobs once they graduated. Women just went to school to find husbands, she said. Once Mao came to power, women could get any job that men could get, so without Mao, she wouldn't have been able the job she currently has (aka, my teacher). “What do you study about him in school?”, she asked me.

“Oh, we don't really study him in school very much at all. But I read one book on Chinese history, and the author described a lot of terrible things that he did, especially during the Great Cultural Revolution.”

“Yes, everybody in China thinks that was a mistake,” she said. When I asked another teacher about the GCR, he said “It was a terrible mistake. Before then and after then, China was developing, but those 10 years we fell farther behind in our development”. I was surprised that he viewed it as a mistake because of the economic consequences, and not because of what I can only call insane crimes against human decency, such as the imprisonment, public humiliation, “re-education”, and killing of some of China's most educated, and often clearly patriotic citizens. But I suppose if there are hundreds of millions of people whose poverty was prolonged during the same time, that was a pretty important consequence, too.

Returning to the first conversation, I then offered this: “I also read that after he came to power, the economy did very poorly and very many Chinese people died of hunger.”

And I was given yet another surprising reply: “Chinese people have been dying of hunger for thousands of years. It's part of our history. Before the Mao, people died of hunger all the time, so we don't see it as anything out of the ordinary.”

“Today the economy is doing much better, but the economic policies are completely different from what Mao had put in place,” I offered once more.

“Well, yes, but he was beginning to put in place some of the same policies we have today, slowly,” she replied. She further went on to describe how it's fairly common to see taxi drivers with portraits of Mao on their dashboards. Seeing as Mao's face is on every single bill of currency worth 1 RMB or more, I figured that this show of adulation by taxi drivers was a leftover of the Cult of Mao, and that every truly loyal Chinese person would have Mao on the dash at least, and possibly also hanging over the bed and maybe even in the wallet. But according to my teacher, putting Mao's pudgy face on the dashboard is a subtle sign of political dissent. Apparently the message is “We want Mao back, because this current government is too corrupt.” According to my teacher, there are many Chinese people today who are upset with the corruption (corruption = fǔbài. fǔ = rotten, decay. bài = failure, defeat. I love decomposing Chinese words). According to my teacher, there was no corruption when Mao was in charge. If anybody was found to be corrupt, he simply had him or her killed, even if the crook was a his friend or relative.

“What's the difference today? Is the government just not as strict as Mao anymore?”, I asked. 

“Right,” she replied. Everybody's corrupt today. In 1989, she said, one of the big reasons students were upset enough to rally in Tiānānmén Square was because Dēng Xiǎopíng's son, also a government official, was corrupt, but Dēng refused to have him brought to justice.

When I was being driven by the above-mentioned chauffeur, I noticed that he had a little portrait of Mao on his dashboard, just as my teacher had predicted. I asked him about it, and he said it means exactly what my teacher said. “So you think the government's corrupt?”, I asked him.

“Extremely corrupt! Not a little corrupt, extremely corrupt!”, was his emphatic reply.

This driver also had some rather anti-establishment views on the olympics. Trying to make small-talk and practice my Chinese, I asked “Are you interested in the Olympic Games?”

“Not at all. It's a burden on the people. In the name of the Olympics, the common people have to bear more and more restrictions”. One example of a restriction we discussed was that during the olympics, the government has decreed that any one car can only be on the road every other day, depending on the last digit of the license plate number. Seeing as he's drives for a living, I could see how this particular restriction might be vexing.

I also learned something else about Mao last night. I had dinner at a restaurant that serves  Húnán cuisine. Apparently, Mao was from Húnán, and this restaurant was his daughter's favorite. Besides the space taken up by the chairman's portrait, the walls are covered with pictures of her and the owners, and the restaurant is even named in her honor. Their signature dish is called “Mao-style red-cooked meat” (Máoshì hóngshāo ròu). Upon observing the ratio of fat to meat on the little morsels of deliciousness, I felt I had discovered the reason that that iconic face is such a chubby one. Eating that delicious fatty pork made me feel connected in a very human way to a man who is very often so much more.