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November 7, 2011

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Mao's hometown the ultimate in red tourism

IF it had not been the hometown of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, Shaoshan City in central China's Hunan Province would still be a small, unknown mountain town where residents tilled the land, raised livestock and earned a poor living.

But that all changed with the cult of Chairman Mao.

It became a pilgrimage site for worshippers of Chairman Mao. Today Shaoshan is a famous scenic spot and "red tourism" destination, packed with people who are curious about where Mao was born and grew up.

The town of 100,000 has erected a 6-meter-high bronze statue of Mao and the town is loaded with Mao memorabilia, souvenirs and kitsch.

Shaoshan is around 130 kilometers from Changsha, Hunan's capital city.

It was my first visit there and I felt as though I had stepped into another world. On both sides of the road are many restaurants either named Mao or related to the leader, such as Mao Family's Restaurant or Red Sun Restaurant (Mao was known as the "red sun").

The driver placed a bronze statue of Mao on dashboard for good luck, explaining that it's a popular practice among locals who pray to Mao in their homes, seeking his blessings.

Shaoshan locals also wear Chairman Mao badges.

A famous local dish is "Mao's Red-braised Pork," said to be the chairman's favorite dish. It's simmered for hours in soy sauce and a little sugar, until it's tender, juicy and jelly-like.

Mao's residence

The first chairman of the People's Republic of China spent his childhood and teen years in Shaoshan. Mao's residence has been restored and the Mao ancestral home has also been rebuilt; it's now part of a large memorial hall.

When I arrived at the residence in the morning, I was overwhelmed by the many visitors; queues stretched more than 100 meters and I waited at least 30 minutes to get inside. The setting is pleasing, there are mountains nearby and a pond. It's typical rural Hunan and beautiful as the autumn leaves turn color.

The residence is a very large, simple tile-roof cottage with 13 rooms. Mao and two brothers were born there, Mao in 1893.

The desks, wooden benches, beds, wardrobes and other furnishings are the real items once used by Mao and his family.

Mao's great grandfather Mao Zuren bought the property in 1878 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and it was enlarged by the later-generations.

The house was rebuilt and opened to tourists in 1950; the tourist rush began.

Mao is famous not only for his political and military ideas, but also his poetry that reflects his ideas. Near the residence, 50 of Mao's poems are inscribed on marble and represent another tourist attraction.


The Dishuidong (Water Dripping Cave) scenic spot, about 3km from Mao's residence is not a cave but a canyon filled with lush greenery and autumn colors. It's secluded and tranquil and fortunately there are not many tourists.

At Dishuidong, visitors can tour the villa where Mao once stayed for 11 days in 1966. His office, sitting room, bedroom and conference room are preserved. The furniture is authentic and arranged as it was in Mao's time. Visitors can see the bed where Mao once slept, his wicker chair and main items of daily use. In the conference room, Mao's chair is spotlighted. Walls of the villa are lined with photos of Mao. The grounds contain an air-raid shelter.

The low mountains are no higher than 270 meters. Once there was a small natural cave containing a spring that gurgled and made melodious sounds. Legend has it that the spring water was the saliva of the Dragon King; the taste is light and sweet.

After the Shaoshan Reservoir was constructed in 1957, the cave was submerged, but in 1990s local authorities constructed another cave in the scenic site.

Mao once swam in Shaoshan Reservoir in 1959. Swimming and playing table tennis were among his favorite activities.

Nearby are two mountains, Huxie (Tiger Dwelling) Peak and Longtou (Dragon's Head) Mountain.

Mao's great-grandfather was buried on Longtou Mountain for its good feng shui.

Mao called Dishuidong a "cave in the west" in one of his letters. The area used to be heavily guarded and remained a mysterious place for a long time, until it was opened to the public in 1986.

The Mao Zedong Square, containing a 6-meter-high bronze statue of Mao, is always packed with visitors who bow three times to pay tribute to the founder of New China. They also whisper prayers, asking Mao to bless them and their family members.

I joined them, bowing three times and walking around the statue. The expression, hairstyle, facial and body features, costume and posture reflect Mao's real appearance, therefore, the statue was the model of many souvenirs.

Red tourism

Mao left the people of Shaoshan not only with a sense of pride but also wealth. Because it was the chairman's home, it received more funding than other towns.

Today, Shaoshan earns almost 80 percent of its revenue from tourism.

During the past seven-day National Day holiday, Shaoshan received 320,000 visitors, earning about 2.3 million yuan (US$353,800) in tourist revenue. In 2010, it recorded 7.03 million visitors, soaring 40.36 percent from a year earlier, and raking in 1.8 billion yuan, up 16.4 percent compared with 2009.

The Shaoshan souvenir market reported sales of 124 million yuan in 2009, 70 percent of it from Mao statues.

I wandered around markets and supermarkets, finding that almost all items are linked with the "great helmsman" or bear his image.

Most locals are involved in tourism, many running restaurants or selling souvenirs. The badges and statues are the best-selling items.

Shaoshan's urban residents' per capita disposable income reached 19,353 yuan last year, up 12 percent from year 2009; the per capita disposable income of farmers in the village was 10,086 yuan, up 14.8 percent year on year.

How to get there:

There are daily direct trains from Changsha to Shaoshan. Shaoshan is 130 kilometers from Changsha, the provincial capital. It's also easy to drive there on the Shaoshan Expressway.


March to November is a good time to visit. Dishuidong is a pleasant summer resort for cool refuge from the heat.

Admission to Mao's former residence and the Mao Zedong Square is free. A ticket to Dishuidong costs 52 yuan.


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