On a train in southeast England last week I listened to Peasants' Memory, a CD from China sung by a group of women in a gentle rhythm and with deep feeling. The sleeve notes said: "In the Chinese countryside, this song sold very well."
I learned how much some of those peasants and farmers still liked this old 1950s song about Mao Zedong's (
They were moved by the song because it voiced Mao's concern for them. But had he ever given them more than just words? I tried to find out during those years, when I was a radio talk-show host in China.
I was surprised in 1989 when a woman in Shaaxi said missed Mao because "He was such a kind person who understood us poor peasants." She lived with her deaf-mute husband and three young daughters in a poor, empty, muddled house with a hole in the roof covered by a sheet of plastic, but she had Mao's picture on the wall.
My father told me it was only Mao who rescued us from a war that lasted years, and said that otherwise China could have lost more lives in the fighting. I don't know much about that period. But I know that when I was little sometimes we had a poor harvest, and then Mao would send food. But now who cares about the poor peasants?
I couldn't understand why such a large number of people followed Chairman Mao, but in such a short time this had changed, and no one showed such kindness to our peasants. I couldn't tell this woman my thoughts, and maybe I couldn't have any, because my thoughts were limited by a different time and experience.
In 1992, I was quite shocked by another woman in her 40s called Xie Dong, meaning "Thanks Mao," named by her mother in the 1950s. She said her mother gave her this name because it was the first time women in that area had the right to name their children and keep their own names after marriage.
I asked her, "Do you believe Chairman Mao liberated women?"
"No question about that!" Her voice was so determined.
"But why do you still live in such poor conditions, still no electricity or running water more than 30 years after his rule?" I pointed to her unbelievably poor house.
"This is not his fault. This is because of those corrupt officials! He didn't know. He was so old and sick... " she sighed.
She was partly right. Since the 1990s, the Chinese had been encouraged to give alms to poor peasants at every traditional festival and national holiday, but most of their contributions were taken only to those officers' relatives' pockets; very little reached the poor in the countryside.
This kind of conversation helped me understand a little bit more than before why Mao -- who in many people's eyes, especially in the West, is seen as a bad man who made fools of his people, killed millions and let China fall into poverty -- is still revered by many Chinese, not only peasants and farmers. They say he brought peace to China after 40 years of war (1910-1949), and that he understood and gave what those peasants and farmers (more than 90 percent of the population then) needed.
In 1995, I asked a woman who lived near Mao's hometown of Shaoshan, "If you had a choice of three things, which one you would take: money and land, husband and children, or democracy and freedom?"
She said, "Money and land? That always belongs to men; husband and children are women's life, my god and duty. What was the last thing you said? Some oil and pigs? How much per kilo is it?" she asked. (In Chinese, "oil" is pronounced the same as part of the word for "freedom," and "pig" sounds the same as part of the word for "democracy.")