Fireworks explode above a square as nearly 100,000 people gathered in 2014 to celebrate the 121st birthday of China's former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong in his hometown of Shaoshan. REUTERS (China Stringer Network/Reuters)

On a sunny, just-spring morning, clusters of families line up in front of Mao Zedong’s butter-yellow childhood home.

An octogenarian fan of the former dictator shuffles in front of a velvet rope and fixes his teary eyes on the camera: Click. Sisters in matching Red Star caps tilt their heads and purse their lips. Click. A rosy-cheeked toddler waves a Chinese flag.

Here in the knitted hills of Hunan province, in central China, in the town where China’s Great Helmsman was born and raised, is the heart of the Red Tourism trade, a sector that peddles nostalgia and amnesia both.

Fifty years after the start of the Cultural Revolution, pilgrims arrive by bus, train or
car to trail megaphone-toting guides through refurbished ­relics and restaurants serving local dishes a la Mao. Over the course of this year’s Lunar New Year holiday, a reported half-million people made the trip.

Shaoshan’s sites are heavy on details about Mao’s childhood, his preferred cuts of pork, and the trials and triumphs of the Communist Party’s early days. The famine that killed tens of millions is scarcely mentioned; the ravages of the Cultural Revolution don’t rate.

It’s not, as many imagine, that visitors don’t know about the upheaval of the era — they do. But the extended clans who flock to Shaoshan see those awful times as part of a larger, still-unfolding story.

“Chairman Mao brought the country together,” said Li Ermin, 29, the cap-clad woman posing for a selfie with her sister. “He is why we’re here.”

Shaoshan, like Mao, means different things to different people — and different things in different times.

Jude Blanchette, author of a forthcoming book on Mao’s influence on contemporary China, to be published by Oxford University Press, said the town is, and has long been, a “proxy” for the political climate of the country — a place to “take the nation’s pulse.”

When the New York Times visited Shaoshan in 1982, just a year after the party ruled that Mao bore “chief responsibility” for the Cultural Revolution, the flow of tourists had gone from thousands to a few hundred a day. Then, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Beijing marshaled Maoism to unite the fractured nation, sending “work units” on study trips to Shaoshan.

In 1993, The Washington Post’s Lena H. Sun found evidence of the economic transformation underway. “Shaoshan now has 2,240 private entrepreneurs, the highest percentage of any county or city in the province,” she noted. People sold Mao tie clips and “Rolexes” on the street.

A man looks at souvenir plates bearing images of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and late Chinese leader Mao Zedong on display at a shop near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, March 1, 2016. (Andy Wong/AP)

In the years before Xi Jinping took power, Maoism enjoyed another revival thanks, in no small part, to former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai. But Bo was purged, and months later the police crashed a Maoist gathering in Shaoshan, a sign that the party was worried, still, about things getting too Red.

Blanchette likens the challenge of marshaling Mao’s legacy to a “Goldilocks problem.”

“You need to get the right amount and the right kind of Maoism: too cold and the party loses part of its legitimizing story, too hot and you get permanent revolution,” he said.

Today’s Shaoshan shows this dynamic at play.

Since assuming office in 2012, President Xi has quickly consolidated power, becoming what some scholars have called “the most powerful leader since Mao.”

To do so, he has leaned heavily, if selectively, on the former leader, showing reverence as required, picking out the parts of history that resonate with his vision for the present and playing down the rest.

One of Xi’s signature projects is an anti-corruption campaign that has seen thousands of officials arrested. In Shaoshan, a museum recently opened an exhibit on Mao’s anti-corruption efforts.

As part of the nation’s “great rejuvenation” — one of Xi’s favorite buzzwords — the Communist Party “forged iron discipline, and built a steel great wall of anti-corruption,” reads the display.

But even as the party draws a line from Mao to Xi, it can’t afford to let the former shine too bright. The current chairman of the Communist Party wants absolute loyalty. Neo-Maoism is seen as a threat.

Of course, most people who make the trip to Shaoshan don’t come to ponder rectification campaigns or debate Xi’s evocation of “socialist core values.”

Visitors here said touring Mao’s old stomping grounds was simply a chance to think about how far they had come and to reflect on what they
hope to achieve. In addition to Little Red Book selfie sticks, the gift shop sells tomes such as “Mao Zedong Teaches Networking.”

Some came looking for a way back to a more egalitarian and spiritually fulfilling time. China’s economy may have grown by leaps and bounds over the past 30 years, said Wen Shuchao, 45, but “spiritual culture” has not kept up.

Wen, who stopped by Shao­shan on his way from his home in Henan to the southern city of Guangzhou, where he works, said he worries about the country’s growing wealth gap. Mao’s era may have been poor, he said, “but everyone was poor.”

Over a meal of Mao’s favorite dishes, the Bai family said they came to Shaoshan because, for the first time, they could. Seven members of the family packed into an SUV and drove from China’s far northeast to the south, stopping at points of interest along the way.

The matriarch, Bo Shurong, was a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution and still loves Mao. Her younger son, Bai Jinyuan, 45, said he liked the central Chinese scenery. The kids seemed to enjoy the food.

For Bai, Shaoshan is a lesson in how far a life can take you. “Mao did not grow up in the big house I imagined,” he said. “Our chairman came from an ordinary family, too.”

Liu Liu reported from Shaoshan.

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