07 January 2016

Statues and symbolism in Tongxu

In Tongxu County in northeast Henan Province, China (right outside Kaifeng), local businessmen and villagers have completed an immense, 37-metre-tall golden statue of the Great Helmsman, construction of which began in March this past year. The erection of this statue – admittedly, rather an eyesore – has met with all of the opprobrium one might expect, both domestic and foreign. Naturally, there has been something of a cottage industry springing up, especially of erudite Western journalists, expats and China-watchers reverting to true imperial form and condescending to inform the silly and forgetful simple rustic village folk of Henan that Chairman Mao had, in fact, starved to death millions of their forefathers. (As though they all forgot their own history.)

As to the rationale for why it actually went up, that’s still not yet known, because the local businessmen who funded the statue haven’t yet come forward for comment. But one academic quoted in The Guardian made the point that ‘Mao Zedong represents the embodiment of fairness and justice’ for many people in China, in the absence of fairness and justice being represented broadly in any other quarter of the society. And as many of these articles themselves point out, Henan has for most of modern history been one of the poorest provinces in China – having gotten struck more than once by horrific famines – and though that poverty has been ameliorated somewhat by the strong national economic growth of recent years, it is still considered incredibly poor. In addition, Henan and her people have been stuck with a rather bad reputation. These stereotypes of Henanese people are largely unmerited and which is a considerable source of resentment among people who have lived and grown up there. (Full disclosure: my wife is Henanese, as are our kids. I’ve seen and heard first-hand some of the truly ugly bigotry which Henanese face from other parts of the country.) If there are any folks of China who still truly long for ‘fairness and justice’ in a tangible, visible and sensible way, the good people of Henan Province would rank fairly high among them.

To a certain extent, I have to wonder whether erecting a huge statue of Mao Zedong like this is an expression of frustration with the direction of the broader society. I’m sure the people who set it up do have a genuine affection for Mao, but part of me suspects that the project is instead something of a thumb in the eye of the sorts of sophisticated, ‘liberal’ coastal urbanites who are eager to criticise Mao and make self-serving displays of denigrating him to people on the ‘outside’. The same sort of sophisticated ‘liberal’ urbanites who despise and look down on Henanese people and others from China’s impoverished interior while pretending to be broad-minded and cosmopolitan. It’s hardly a secret by this point that the cultural and political divides in China tend to be between a wealthy, individualist and ideologically-libertarian coast and a less-wealthy, family-centric and ideologically-populist interior. And though there are and will be no end of problems with placing him front and centre of China’s politics, there is no symbol readier to hand for China’s populists and socialists than the Great Helmsman himself.

As ought to be clear by this point, I’m very far from being a fan of Mao Zedong. In fact, I do have something of a grudge – my favourite Chinese ‘Communist’ intellectual, China’s first sociologist Fei Xiaotong, got sent to work cleaning lavatories during the Cultural Revolution, for the ghastly crime of saying sensible things about the value of social education, which Mao didn’t like. But it ought to be clear by now that this statue, like so great a proportion of the modern discourse around Mao generally, has very little to do with the man himself and much more to do with the symbolic politics for which he and his legacy are continually conscripted. And I can’t help but sympathise on a personal level with the folks who put up the statue, even if I don’t side with its subject.

EDIT: Well, that didn’t last long.

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