IN THE EARLY 1990s, A STORY CIRCULATED among Chinese taxi drivers about an eight-car traffic accident in Guangzhou that resulted in injuries to seven of the drivers involved; the eighth, unscathed, had a Mao portrait attached to his windshield as a talisman. The story fueled Mao fever (Mao re) in China, with shopkeepers offering busts of Mao that glowed in the dark and alarm clocks with Red Guards waving Mao's little red book at each tick of the clock. Mao temples appeared in some villages, with a serene portrait of the Chairman on the altar. Transmuted uses of Mao continue today. Nightclub singers in Beijing croon songs that cite Mao's words. Youths dine in "Cultural Revolution-style" cards off rough-hewn tables with Mao quotations on the wall, eating basic peasant fare as they answer their cell phones and chat about love or the stock market.
This nonpolitical treatment of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) is an escape that fits a Chinese tradition. When floods hit the Yangzi valley and farmers clutch Mao memorabilia to ward off the rushing waters, it is reminiscent of Chinese Buddhists over the centuries clutching images or statues of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, to keep them safe and make them prosperous.
Following the eclectic nature of Chinese popular beliefs, Mao is added to the panoply of faith.
But where is Mao the totalitarian? Each of the major nations that experienced an authoritarian regime in the 20th century emerged in its own way from the trauma. Japan, Germany, Italy, even Russia departed politically from systems that brought massive war and repression. China, still ruled by a communist party, has been ambiguous about Mao. Although Mao's portrait and tomb dominate Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, Mao himself--unlike Stalin in Russia or Hitler in Germany--has floated benignly into a nether zone as if somehow he was not a political figure at all, let alone the architect of China's communist state.
The cab drivers, farmers, pop singers, and shopkeepers are really only following the lead of the Chinese Communist Party, which does not quite know how to handle Mao's legacy. New history textbooks approved for initial use in Shanghai have largely brushed Mao out of Chinas 20th-century story. China has abandoned Mao's policies but not faced the structural and philosophical issues involved in Maoism--and probably won't until the Party's monopoly on political power comes to an end. Yet unless China gets the Mao story correct, it may not have a happy political future.
The moral compass of the Mao era has gone, unregretted. But moneymaking, national glory, and a veil over the past in the name of "good feelings" are not enough to replace it. Can a society that lived by the ideas of Confucianism for two millennia, and later by Mao's political athleticism, be content with amnesia about the Mao era and the absence of a believed public philosophy?
In a recent biography; Mao: The Unknown Story (2006), Jung Chang and Jon Halliday pile up evidence that Mao was a monster to eclipse Stalin and probably Hitler and Lenin as well. "Absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao's outlook" from his teens to his dotage, say the authors. In a second influential volume, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (1995), Mao's physician Li Zhisui portrays the Chairman as exceedingly selfish, jealous, and promiscuous. Soon after his book came out, Dr. Li came to speak at Harvard, and I showed him around the campus. "Three words did not exist for Mao," the gentle doctor remarked as we strolled. "Regret, love, mercy." These two books--both written from outside China--explain the Mao era in China as essentially the consequence of having an evil man at the helm.
Certainly Mao's rule was destructive. Tens of millions of Chinese died in the forced collectivization of the Great Leap For ward of 1958-59, victims of Mao's willful utopianism and cruelty. Millions more …