I’ve always had a fascination with modern Chinese history because I am Chinese-American. I’ve grown up hearing stories from my parents and my grandparents about what it’s like to grow up under a Communist regime, especially under the regime of Mao Zedong. I began to wonder what people think about Mao in China today. I wanted to find out their perceptions across ethnic lines and geographical demarcations. When I say ethnic, I mean ethnic minority perceptions. In China today we have 56 ethnicities, and the majority is Hun, which makes up 91.6% of the population. The remaining 55 ethnicities make up only 8.4% of the population. I thought it would be really interesting to hear what these underrepresented people think.
I structured my research so that it took place over a six-week period, and I relied a lot upon existing literature including articles on Mao. Beyond existing academic sources I relied heavily on interviews with individuals. I went to 12 different places. I visited a lot of Red tourist sites, Shaoshan, for example, in addition to big cities, like Beijing and Xianggang. I thought it was also interesting to explore the visual aspect of the people visiting these tourist sites. What kinds of people are visiting and what’s the frequency?
I saw that, overwhelmingly, people who went to visit sites associated with Mao were rural people. You very rarely see city folk. Most of the time you see farmers. That has to do with the fact that Mao’s policies primarily impacted peasants who made up the bulk of the Chinese population in the 1950s. I think that China’s population today is largely rural, something like 50-60% still live in the country. Back then it was more like 90%. When Mao said, “I want to improve the life of Chinese people,” he was talking about the majority who were rural people. I thought it was interesting to contrast that with people from an intellectual background and the middle and upper classes versus these rural farmers who were overwhelmingly poor. I found that many intellectuals strongly dislike Mao. In my research, the major dividing lines were socioeconomics, and a large part of that distinction has to do with where your family was from. If your family was from a rural area, you love Mao, you think well of him. His policies positively impacted the way your family lived their lives. But if you were from an intellectual class, a landowning middle class, then you don’t think very well of Mao.
Another interesting thing I noticed was a generational divide. I noticed that people born after the 1980s do not relate to Mao in China. Since Deng Xiaoping came to power in the 1980s, he shifted China’s economy towards capitalism, and Mao Zedong has been lost as a central figure in the Chinese mindset. When I ask my friends in China if they have learned about Mao, they say, “Oh, yeah, we read a couple paragraphs about him in our history book.” It’s such a contrast to when my mom was in school, when they had to recite the Red Book by heart. People of my generation don’t know about Mao, and they couldn’t care less.
The traveling alone helped me grow enormously. I had never traveled alone before that experience. There were many times that I was scared, in Shaoshan, for example. You would not believe how rural that place is. You have never seen such a broken down bus. It was absolutely third world…in China! Sometimes you look at a map and the signs don’t match up with what you’re supposed to see. It was frustrating, but I learned a lot about myself and about how to deal with situations in which you’re not sure where you’re going or what you’re doing. I pushed my boundaries.
I’m also really aware of how lucky I was to be able to do this research, to be given this inter-disciplinary opportunity. I’m majoring in Chemistry with a double minor in French and Entrepreneurship, but I did a History project and it taught me so much about the world around me.