by Xinhua writers Wang Jiaquan, Li Huaiyan
XISHUANGBANNA, Yunnan, Dec. 25 (Xinhua) -- Chairman Mao is another God in the largely Buddhist hamlet of Man'en, where most ethnic Dai villagers enshrine the founding father of New China at home, though the "great helmsman" was de-deified after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
A large portrait of Mao Zedong hangs high in the living room of Ai Pa, with a smaller image of a senior Myanmar monk by its side. This arrangement was a suggestion from the Buddhist clergyman, who presided over a prayer service for Ai's new house in 2000.
When Ai requested a portrait from the monk to be used as a "home guardian" after the ceremony, the monk insisted his image be placed in a subordinate position to that of Mao, saying that Mao was a real savior and guardian of the ethnic Dai people.
Loving almost all Mao things, from his quotations to the passionate red songs, Ai Pa remains a loyal Mao fan even though his family suffered during the Mao era.
Ai's family was classified as a landlord during the land reform in the 1950s, and his father fled to neighboring Myanmar only a few days after Ai's birth in 1957 in fear of penalties as denouncement campaigns against landlords swept Menghai County in Xishuangbanna, southwest China's Yunnan Province.
As the descendant of a landlord, Ai Pa had to face discrimination when he grew up. He was rejected when he registered to join the People's Liberation Army.
Indeed, Ai does think his family was wronged. "My ancestors were all poor peasants. It was not until my grandpa reclaimed some wasteland that our family began to own some paddy fields and hire a few laborers," he says.
However, all the adversities have not resulted in a resentful Ai Pa. "A Buddhist should not return grudge for grievance," says the 56-year-old man.
In addition, he says, he admires Chairman Mao because the late leader was a man who truly wanted to do good for the people, and he appreciates the value of equality that emerged in the Mao era.
Most villagers owned no land before the land reform in Xishuangbanna, where the feudal lord claimed ownership of all land and peasants had to shoulder the heavy and inescapable burden of taxation, according to He Ming, an ethnic studies professor at Yunnan University in Kunming.
Ai Pa recalls that when he was a child, old people in the village told him that Chairman Mao was like the Monkey King in the traditional Chinese fairy tale of the Pilgrimage to the West, who was invincible and was commissioned by the Heaven to bring fairness and equality to the world.
WHY NOT MAO?
Three decades into China's reform and opening-up drive, Man'en, as well as many other remote villages, has witnessed drastic economic and social transformation.
Satellite television broadcasts, mobile phones, motorcycles, cars, highways and the Internet have shortened the distance between them and the outside world. And yet Mao has remained an icon in the hamlet that has more than 6,000 villagers.
A Mao portrait bought in Beijing is always regarded as a very precious souvenir for local villagers, while Mao's mausoleum is usually a must-go for their maiden trips to the national capital, says Ai, who is also chief of Man'en village.
Like Ai Pa and his fellow villagers, the ethnic Blang people in Jiliang, another village with a population of over 2,000 in Menghai, are also Mao worshipers. They have his images printed on glazed bricks on the outside walls of their new homes.
However, these ethnic minority hamlets are not isolated cases. A survey by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group in 2008 in 40 Chinese cities and towns, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, showed that 11.2 percent of respondents enshrine Mao Zedong at home, way ahead of those that worship the Buddha, God of Wealth, and other gods.
In the words of Huang Jisu, a sociologist, playwright and cultural critic, Mao worship is a quite complicated phenomenon and has a strong social background, and is also related to personal experiences.
However, Huang doesn't believe there is a geographical, age or social class division in regard to people's attitude toward Mao.
For example, Huang says, there are also Mao fans in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, while some young people in universities also admire him. Huang also notes that it is not rare for entrepreneurs and millionaires to admire Mao.
However, Huang stresses that admiration for Mao does not necessarily mean the admirers want to go back to the Mao era.
"It's quite natural for Mao, such a great man, to have admirers. Just as pop stars can have so many fans, why not Mao?" says 58-year-old Huang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
As for Mao fans, Huang says, ordinary people psychologically need a great person to hold in high esteem, and Mao has filled - and fills - that need.
In Huang's view, the greatest good that Mao did for the nation was the Chinese revolution he led, which ended the nation's survival crisis that had lasted a century.
PASSION IN LENS
Both Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-shek failed to lead the nation out of that crisis, and Mao was an unrivaled great man of his century, Huang says.
Sun Dahong, a photographer who has published an album featuring ethnic Mao fans, argues that the modern passion for Mao has nothing to do with a personality cult.
"It's never a political fervor that creates blind followers like those during the Cultural Revolution, but a kind of spontaneous affection or emotion that has sprouted at the grassroots and passed from generation to generation," says Sun, a former provincial deputy police chief of Yunnan.
Sun cites for example an ethnic Hani herb store owner in Kunming he met when working on the album. The middle-aged man has kept a Mao portrait for 30 years, a heritage from his grandfather, previously a headman who was invited to Beijing and met Mao after liberation.
The man moved to Kunming from Pu'er for business18 years ago, and now the Mao portrait hangs in his herb store. "I always take it with me wherever I go," the man told Sun.
Sun says he has witnessed much Mao worship among ethnic minorities. As a police officer, he has been to many areas of Yunnan, home to 25 ethnic minority groups, where he could often see Mao's images at local people's home, sometimes alongside their ancestors' shrines.
An idea of shooting an album of Mao fans occurred to Sun when, during the Lantern Festival in February 2011, his lens captured three old women in Chengjiang County of Yunnan talking merrily under a portrait of Mao.
His collection of more than 90 photos were exhibited in Beijing from Dec. 22 to 28 to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Mao's birth. He says that through his photos he would like to share with people of all ethnic groups a feeling of affection, respect and admiration for Chairman Mao.
Sun spent nearly three years traveling across Yunnan and other parts of the country to make up his collection of images, which cover Mao's admirers from all the 56 ethnic groups, including the originally fishing and hunting tribe of Hezhens in the northernmost Heilongjiang Province and the Muslim Tatars in far-flung Xinjiang in the west.
Sun reveals that it was more than a journey for art but also a process of soul searching.
"There have always been concerns that today's society is one without belief, but I have rediscovered it among the ordinary people. Mao worship is an instinctive expression of their emotion and perhaps even reflects a higher level of spiritual need," Sun says.
"To his worshipers, Chairman Mao stands for auspice and victory, represents social justice and is a man that leads them to common wealth. So they believe in, respect and love Chairman Mao," Sun says.
Also a Mao fan, Sun actually shares some similarities with Ai Pa. Sun's mother, a provincial cadre in Yunnan, was persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution when Sun and his younger brother were both in Shanxi Province receiving reeducation from local peasants.
His mother's death has been a lingering anguish but Sun has never blamed or hated Chairman Mao. After all, he says, blames for personal grievances should not all go to a policy maker.
As for Mao's errors, a controversial topic, Sun would like to quote a man he met in Dehong, an autonomous prefecture of ethnic Dai and Jingpo, when shooting his album:
"Chairman Mao's contributions and merits are like a majestic mountain, but his faults can be measured in just a handful of earth."
Huang Jisu agrees that Mao's mistakes should be put under critical analysis, but he argues that criticism should be based on facts instead of rumors or even slanders.
"For such an epoch-making man, he is always a giant, no matter what the comments are, be it praise or censure," Huang says.