"Watered by the Yangtze and the Han, Chu is a land of lakes and rivers, of well-forested mountains. . . . The people live on fish and rice. Because there is always enough to eat, they are a lazy and improvident folk. . . . They believe in the power of shamans and spirits and are much addicted to lewd religious rites." -1st-century historian Ban Gu concluding his survey of Chu history.

Shao Shan

In 1893, Mao Zedong was born in this village 98km (60 miles) south of Changsha. Beginning with the frenzied early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and continuing into the early 1990s, Shao Shan was a mecca of sorts to millions of Chinese who made the pilgrimage here for reasons that changed over the years -- from revolutionary zeal to coercion to, finally, nostalgia. Today the crowds have thinned out considerably, though they increase on holidays and on Mao's birthday, December 26. The sights include the house Mao grew up in, a memorial exhibition, the Mao Library, and the family ancestral home, but the latter two will be of little interest without knowledge of written Chinese. This is an easy day trip from Changsha.


Mao's Roots -- Mao's father was a poor peasant compelled out of poverty to join the army. Years later he returned to Shao Shan with ambitions of bettering his lot. When Mao was born, his father owned 15 hectares (37 acres) of land and was a "middle peasant." By the time Mao was a teenager, his father had 22 hectares (55 acres) and the status of "rich peasant." Mao spent his childhood in Shao Shan working in his father's rice paddies and, from age 8, studying the Confucian Analects and The Five Classics -- meaning the most modern of his textbooks (the Analects) was from the 3rd century B.C.

In his interviews with Edgar Snow, Mao described a strict upbringing by a father he perceived as oppressive. What isn't often mentioned is that his mother was a devout Buddhist who raised her children in the religion. It wasn't until Mao broadened his reading that he lost his religious faith. Though Mao's family never went hungry, it was in Shao Shan that he witnessed famine and the oppression of the poor. He claimed that such incidents and a natural rebelliousness inclined him toward revolution.


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