BEIJING, DEC. 3 -- Once revered as almost a god, the late Communist Party chairman Mao Tse-tung is presented as a human being with human imperfections in a new Chinese play that premiered this week.
"The Huaihai Campaign" deals with the 1948-49 Red Army battle against the Chinese Nationalists. The play marks another step in the gradual reduction of the superhuman image of Mao that developed during his rule of China from 1949 until his death in 1976.
At a decisive point in the drama, Mao proposes a faulty plan of action to his men at the front. The commanders there, led by the country's current senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, disagree with him.
Mao loses his temper and slams his hand on a table, actions that are frowned upon in Chinese culture. But in the end, the chairman yields to the views of his field commanders.
The drama reflects a reassessment of Mao that has continued since his death. His leading role in the devastating Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 and the success China has enjoyed as a result of Deng's departures from the Maoist road have combined to shrink Mao's once heroic image.
The play was produced by a drama troupe of the People's Liberation Army, where pro-Mao sentiment traditionally has been strong.
Presenting Mao's human side may be daring for the Army, but the production does not deal with Mao's most controversial years. Instead, the play focuses on his wartime experience, which most Chinese consider the high point of his career.
The play is also notable for its treatment of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Although it dramatizes the sharp contrast between Chiang's lavish life style and the asceticism of Communist leaders, Chiang is, for the first time in Communist China, presented as a human being capable of doubts and compassion.
Also notable is the depiction of Deng, who is presented for the first time as a main character in a play. Deng was political commissar of the 2nd Field Army in 1948-49.
Che Yuzheng, who plays the role of Mao, said he felt nervous at first trying to portray the country's controversial revolutionary leader.
The play is only the second acting experience for Che, a former police official who bears a remarkable resemblance to Mao. Two years ago, as a favor for a friend, he delivered a circus ticket to an actor known for his portrayal of former premier Chou En-lai. The actor immediately noticed Che's resemblance and the rest is theater history.
In a brief interview following a performance this week, Che said the play showed that while Mao made a "historic contribution," he had to rely on collective leadership. In the play, Mao is successful because he consults with other leaders, in contrast to the arbitrary behavior of his later years.
Collective leadership is the approach favored by the current party leadership.
The official Communist Party judgment on Mao, delivered in 1981, concludes that while he committed "serious mistakes" in his later years, the essence of his thought should continue to guide the party.
Most of Mao's policies, including the commune system, have been dismantled through Deng's reforms, but there are limits to how far Deng and others can reduce his heroic image. To destroy that image altogether would raise questions about the party's legitimacy.
Deng has shunned the kind of personality cult that was created around Mao.