Review: The Great Helmsman

We catch up with Ruben Terlou’s journey along the Yangtze River in the city of Wuhan, on the 1st of October. There we meet a ten-year old girl, who’s preparing herself for school for China’s National Day. Ruben asks her whether she actually knows who he is, but of course she knows: he used to be president and was, like Xi Jinping now, the chairman of the country. His legend is as alive as forty years ago, when chairman Mao Zedong died, and Xi Jinping and his government are keen on keeping it like that.

It’s no elementary school like any other in China, but a so-called Red Army school. Here, at least on National Day, students wear grey-and-red uniforms, hats included. The day starts by the teacher praising the country and later on all children talk in groups about how they can contribute to their country. Health, strength, discipline, thankfulness and hygiene seem to be the keywords in order to be a good citizen and even a pillar in Chinese society. Most importantly, one should love and live for his or her country and as such the Chinese flag is hoisted high. Nonetheless, there is also room for entertainment and the children sing songs and perform on stage and it seems, all patriotism aside, a fun day after all.

Back in the days of Mao, he did everything he could to show his authority. He even wanted to prove to overcome nature by swimming across the Yangtze River several times. The Chinese current politicians have great interest in keeping the legend of Mao alive in order to avoid a collapse of the Chinese People’s Republic, similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to China, the Soviets biggest mistake was undermining Stalin and emphasising his mistakes more than his triumphs after his death. When Mao Zedong died, it was officially declared that 70% of what the chairman had done was good and the remaining 30% was bad. Among his bad mistakes, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are commonly known as his worst.

However, even forty years later not many people dare criticising the great helmsman. The way in which Mao indoctrinated the country with his philosophies can be observed in national museum about recent Chinese history, which exhibits the largest collection worldwide. The thousands of mirrors, engraved with propaganda texts, are one of the most remarkable items that are part of this collection: even when brushing their hair, people literally faced Mao’s philopshies. In this museum, Ruben Terlou gets permission to watch some video captures of the most turbulent times in China’s recent history.

The Great Leap Forward in the late 50’s was a campaign to strengthen China’s economy through agriculture and industry. Therefore, no less than four plagues had to be eradicated: mosquitoes, rats, flies and sparrows. As soon as people began to wipe out the sparrow, the famine worsened and Mao’s intentions turned out rather counter-productive. It was not until the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s and early 70s when Mao could regain his credits as China’s political leader. The Cultural Revolution was a campaign to modernize and equalize Chinese society. Therefore, many old traditional buildings were destroyed by the Red Army and much cultural heritage got lost. Millions of people found their death in this chaos caused by destroying the foundations of society and opponents of Mao with other policital or cultural convictions were arrested and to transported to re-education working camps.

Even forty years after his death and despite his political mistakes, Mao’s is still worshipped and his presence is not limited to museums. On the contrary, he can be seen everywhere in China, even on all the currency bills. Mao imitators are worshipped as if the real Mao passes by. We meet an imitator who has won a Mao imitators contest, who is on his way to a company that wants to hire him as a spokesmen. The fact that this capitalist company trading in jade diamond crafts, which were strictly forbidden in the days of Mao to such an extent that children declared against their parents, shows how little historical consciousness there is about Mao and that people rather believe in his legend as a divine chairman who swam across the Yangtze River, rather than what he actually stood for…

“De Grote Roerganger.” Langs de oevers van de Yangtze. VPRO. 21 feb. 2016.

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