The long shadow of Mao

The long shadow of Mao

On 1 October 1959, I took part in a parade for the 10th anniversary of the Communist revolution that led to the founding of the People’s Republic of China. I was a middle-school student in the central city of Xian, and my classmates and I gathered at school before dawn. We marched into the city’s main square, where senior party leaders would review the parade.

As members of the Young Pioneers, a Communist youth organization, we were all in uniform—we boys in crisp white shirts tucked into navy slacks, and the girls in white shirts and blue pleated skirts that swayed in the brisk morning breeze. Each of us had a red scarf neatly tied around the neck. We were like meticulously arranged flowers, waiting for inspection.

The senior party leaders showed up late, as usual. By the time they delivered their slogan-filled speeches and initiated the flag-raising ceremony, we had already been standing like statues for several hours, our feet planted to the ground. Nobody was allowed to make a noise or leave the group, even though I badly needed to answer the call of nature. Instead, I raised my arms repeatedly and joined the crowd in shouting: “Long live the Chinese Communist Party! Long live chairman Mao!"

Standing next to me was a student who seemed to share my anxiety. She was pretty, with closely cropped hair. Her eyes darted around impatiently. We waved our arms, chanting slogans like everyone else.

Suddenly, I saw a trail of tears rolling down her cheeks. I first thought she had been caught up in the revolutionary euphoria, but then I noticed that she seemed to be embarrassed by something. She kept adjusting her skirt with her hands. I looked closer and saw that she had wet herself. I untied my red scarf and tucked it into her hands.

Our political instructor used to tell us that the red colour of our national flag symbolized the blood shed by Communists who had sacrificed their lives for the country. We were told to treat our scarves like parts of the flag. So, as I quietly tossed away my stained scarf at the end of the ceremony, a vague sense of fear flashed through my mind.

In 1963, I entered college. All freshmen had to undergo a month of intensive training to prepare for the anniversary parade. On the morning of 1 October, we goose-stepped in unison, passing the podium and saluting the leaders. Once again, there were red flags everywhere. Colourful floats depicted another bumper harvest. People shouted slogans at the top of their lungs, touting the so-called accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward campaign.

I later heard that at least 20 million Chinese had starved to death as a result of that disastrous programme.

It was on the eve of another National Day, in 1968, that the security police suddenly arrested me and put me in a detention centre without any explanation. During interrogation, I found out that my “crime" was related to a letter I had written a year before to the Moscow university library, requesting a copy of Dr Zhivago, which was banned in China as counter-revolutionary. The police had intercepted the letter and had been monitoring me for quite some time.

I was sentenced to three years of re-education at a labour camp, where I spent two National Days behind bars. On those days, prisoners were granted a reprieve from working in the fields. National Day was a holiday for the guards, who simply locked us inside while they went home. We were able to enjoy a day without supervision. More important, every prisoner would get a few morsels of pork in his meal, which normally featured half-rotten vegetables, thin corn gruel and steamed corn buns.

So, while the whole country was involved in the 1 October celebration, we huddled together inside our cells, chatting and playing cards, a rare break from the daily grind of hard labour. The parade, the fireworks and the slogan shouting seemed as remote as a half-forgotten dream.

In September 1971, I was released from jail and arrived home a few days before National Day, which was unusually quiet. Later, through the rumour mill, people learnt that the plane of defence minister Lin Biao had mysteriously crashed in Mongolia (Lin, once seen as a possible successor to Mao, had fallen from favour). The authorities scrambled for an appropriate public explanation. Lin’s absence at major public events could certainly fuel speculation that could damage Mao’s reputation. To buy time, the government cancelled the parades that were supposed to glorify the great leader and his successor.

Mao soon grew ill and was no longer in the mood to go to Tiananmen and wave to the adoring masses. Red October lost its lustre and we were finally free to celebrate National Day at home.

This 1 October, the elaborate parades—and tight control—returned. I watched from the US as China’s leadership orchestrated a huge celebration to showcase its wealth and military prowess— while the familiar red flags flew over the capital.

Tens of thousands of policemen and volunteers were sent in to maintain security. The party tried to control the weather and even regulate the movement of pigeons. Dissidents were under surveillance or in jail.

I couldn’t help but think that while China has made great material progress over the last 30 years, Mao is still clearly the patriarch of the Communist Party.


Kang Zhengguo is the author of Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China (2008). This article was translated by Xiaoxuan Li from the Chinese. Comment at