great leaps forward and back

Its hard to get around two thousand plus years of imperial tradition in sixty odd years of the People’s Republic of China. Even Mao Zedong was somewhat indebted to the weight of the past…

—The picture on this page was taken by a People’s Pictorial photographer in 1953. The sixty-year-old Mao Zedong had just finished writing a calligraphic inscription that read “Celebrate the successful completion of the Guanting Reservoir Project.” The man sitting next to him was my father-in-law, Wang Sen, the project manager for the dam.
The photograph was probably published in some newspaper or other around that time. Even if I’d seen it, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to it. I certainly never imagined that fifteen years later I’d marry the project manager’s son, Wang Dejia, thereby becoming the daughter-in-law of a man once shown relaxing on the bank of the dam, chatting and laughing with the “Great Leader.”—Read More:

For Mao Zedong the major public rituals were the May Day Parade celebrating the international Socialist brotherhood, and the October 1 parade, anniversary of the establishment of Communist rule over all of China. On these two days his moon face gazed serenely down on the massed ranks of the lucky men and women who march past the dais at T’ien An Men, the Gate of Heavenly Palace, in the center of Beijing. Mao may have lacked the five thousand elephants that Marco Polo described at the New Year procession of the emperor Kublai Khan- “covered with housings of cloth, fancifully and richly worked with gold and silk”- but Mao had tanks and modern weapons instead. In the 1950’s these were as proudly rolled out as the Great Khans’s caparisoned elephants.

Brian Brake. 1957. Read More:

After such parades Mao retired to his residence in the Small Palace of the Fragrant Concubine, a modest dwelling, by imperial standards, near the shore of the South Lake at the eastern edge of the Forbidden City. Built by the emperor Yung Lo in the fifteenth century, this building, along with others in the same area, became the official residence of the president of the republic in the years following Pu Yi’s abdication. But like so many of his imperial predecessors, Mao found the buildings of the Forbidden City suffocating in summer, and adjourns to a tent near the lake.

Chairman Mao outside his residence in the Forbidden City. 1957. Brian Brake. Read More:

Through the centuries the Chinese people have acquired a deeply ingrained respect for authority. Conversely, they believe that government is not the creature of one man, nor the instrument for the strongest will or personality of the day regardless of administrative capability. rather, government is an integral part of the cosmic order. Sun Yat-sen celebrated his installation as president by taking his cabinet to the tomb of Hung Wu, the first Ming emperor, to make ritual food offerings, light candles and burn incense- and to assure the imperial ghost of China had been won back from the Manchu foreigners.

There is no record of  mao Zedong having made a similar pilgrimage. But Mao is undoubtedly conscious of the similarity between the task he had set himself, of modernizing a gigantic nation, and the work of some of the great emperors. One of his most famous poems was written after the heady experience of flying for the first time. Seeing his native China from a godlike vantage point, Mao was moved to muse on its majesty as well as on the great men who had served it in the past:

…Is stilled from end to end. The mountains dance like silver snakes And the highlands charge like wax-hued elephants, Vying with heaven in stature. On a fine day, the land, Clad in white, adorned in red, Grows more enchanting….
This land so rich in beauty
Has made countless heroes bow in homage.
But alas! Chin Shih-Huang and Han Wu-Ti
Were lacking in literary grace;
And Tang Tai-Tsung and Sung Tai-Tsu
Had little poetry in their souls;
And Genghis Khan,
Proud Son of Heaven for a day,
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched.
All are past and gone!
For truly great men,
Look to this age alone.Read More:

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