LIANG VILLAGE, China -- Thirty years ago, during one of the most brutal upheavals in Chinese history, Communist zealots inspired by Mao Tse-tung rampaged through this dusty town, killing scores of innocent people and destroying places of worship.
But when locals recently erected a new Taoist temple, it wasn't consecrated to the victims of the decade of mob rule known as the Cultural Revolution. Instead, villagers and local Communist Party leaders chose to honor Mao, worshiping the very man responsible for the havoc in their community three decades earlier.
"We often treat great men in history as Taoist gods," said a local worshiper, standing before a huge plaster likeness of the Communist Party chairman. "Why not treat Mao as a god, too?"
The seemingly obvious answer is buried in secrecy and ignorance.
Even as the 30th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution approaches this week, public discussion is forbidden. Censors have stopped newspapers from printing articles, and publishing houses are not allowed to print the research that scholars have produced. The facts of what happened have been distorted.
The Cultural Revolution began on May 16, 1966, when Mao's suspicions of his fellow leaders turned a minor campaign against elitist culture into a power struggle that tore up the country. It ended only after Mao's death in 1976.
In the intervening decade, up to a million people died and several million more were displaced. A generation lost its education. Cultural treasures were obliterated. Even current strongman Deng Xiaoping, then one of Mao's lieutenants, was purged, rehabilitated and purged again.
The decade is now seen as an embarrassing moment, best forgotten and hushed up. Mao remains modern China's heroic founder and has become -- for some at least -- a deity.
The Cultural Revolution, however, refuses to go away so easily.
As China rushes forward economically and stakes its claim as the world's next superpower, the decade of terror and destruction remains a repressed trauma, hobbling China as it strives to find its place in the world.
"There's a blocked memory that is so great that until that can be opened up, it's hard to see how that society can gel, how it can find a sense of identity," said political scientist Lucian Pye of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"The reason why China can't talk about the Cultural Revolution is that unlike Germany after the Holocaust, China is still run by the same party that committed the crimes," said a Communist Party historian, who asked not to be identified. "Reassessing the Cultural Revolution would mean reassessing the party's right to rule, and that will never take place as long as the party is in power."
When the Cultural Revolution started with a purge of Beijing's mayor on May 16, 1966, few could have imagined that China could survive more turmoil.
Mao's rule had already seen millions perish in campaigns against landlords, capitalists and other "rightists" during the 1950s. Drought and Maoist economics had caused one of the worst famines in history, with upward of 20 million deaths by 1961.
By 1966, Mao thought China was drifting away from communism and needed its biggest dose of radical policies yet.
Paranoid about many of his top lieutenants, Mao and his radical proteges exhorted the country's young people -- the "Red Guards" -- to rebel against authority.
Millions of young people took up Mao's slogans with gusto.
They rounded up and often beat to death any remaining landlords and capitalists, later turning their pent-up anger on Communist Party officials who weren't considered Maoist enough.
Almost anyone with an education or in any position of authority was targeted for abuse, torture or execution. Schools closed for years, leaving a large part of today's middle-aged population with incomplete educations.
Chinese culture also suffered irreparable losses, as Mao's order to "destroy the old" was taken literally. Almost every temple in the country seems to have been looted.
For a while after Mao died in 1976, people were encouraged to speak of the Cultural Revolution's horrors.
New strongman Deng Xiaoping, who emerged successfully from a power struggle shortly after Mao's death, was able to use the ordinary person's desire for stability and sanity to consolidate power, which he did in 1978.
The party closed the book on the Cultural Revolution in 1981, when it passed a resolution that decreed how one should interpret the past.
Serious errors in old age
Realizing that discarding Mao, its founding father, would mean discrediting itself, the party declared that Mao had made some serious errors in his old age but was basically a heroic figure.
Since then, little research has been permitted on that era. Recently, the party sent a memo to heads of the government-controlled media prohibiting them from commemorating the 30th anniversary.
Emphasis, the memo said, is instead to focus on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Long March, the extraordinary feat in which Communist rebels led by Mao marched 6,000 miles in two years.
Historical work has also suffered. Some researchers have obtained documents through friends and connections, but few of their works have passed the censors to publication.
The unpublished books include "Inspiration from the Grassland," which tells of a hushed-up incident in which scores of young people sent to do forced labor in the countryside burned to death in a wildfire.
Another unpublished book is "A Dictionary of the Cultural Revolution," which is actually more like a small encyclopedia in 12 volumes of historical documents from the period.
"The reason they can't allow research on it is that it portrays the party as totally unfit to rule, as being in the grips of a megalomaniac," said Roderick MacFarquhar, a Harvard University political scientist who has just completed the final volume of his three-part "Origins of the Cultural Revolution."
The party's grip on history goes beyond the country's elite research institutions.
The standard middle school textbook used throughout China -- including the villages where Mao has become a god -- devotes little space to the period.
The period is described as a "calamity" but one in which the country moved forward, firing its first satellite and gaining its seat in the United Nations.
The textbook does not criticize Mao directly. Most of the blame is heaped on the "Gang of Four," a group of radicals allied with Mao, including his wife Jiang Qing, who tried to seize power after Mao's death. The four, described as devils who led Mao astray, were tried in 1980 and found guilty of treason.
The textbook chapter tells nothing of the mass disillusionment that took place after Mao finally died in 1976, when many people realized how they had been manipulated.
In the ensuing spiritual vacuum, millions have turned to nationalism as a salve.
"The Cultural Revolution left people's ideals destroyed," said Anne F. Thurston, a scholar who has written about the period. "When you have a situation like that, nationalism becomes something to grasp onto, something to rally around."
Forgetfulness has been another way of dealing with the trauma.
Feng Jicai, a 54-year-old writer and painter, has tried to put together an oral history of the Cultural Revolution. His plan was to publish four volumes, each with 25 people's stories.
But since the first volume was published 10 years ago -- published in English by Pantheon Press as "Voices from the Whirlwind" -- Feng has found that he can't gather any more material. Almost no one is willing to recall the horrific events.
"People think: 'It's over. It's history,' " Feng said. "They're more interested now in economics than in remembering the past."
Feng sees the lingering effects of the Cultural Revolution in his countrymen's disregard for laws, their yearning for a great man to solve their problems and, especially, their ignorance of their own culture.
The latter is manifest in his hometown of Tianjin, China's fourth-largest city, where the 600-year-old downtown was recently razed to make way for a shopping center.
Feng and a group of 30 photographers, architects and art historians combed through the old town shortly before it was leveled last year, making meticulous notes and sketches.
The book they published is now the only record of the city's Chinese past; not even the Tianjin Museum of History has saved the stone friezes that once adorned the old buildings.
"Sure, the Cultural Revolution is history, but spiritually it's alive," Feng said. "The soil that allows this kind of thinking to flourish is still there."
That soil can also be found in the arid plateaus and hills of northwestern China, where ignorance of the past has led to Mao's deification.
In Liang Village, a group of retired party leaders took the lead in building a temple for Mao. "He was a great leader," said a local party member. "He deserves a temple."
Finding support among the local population, they built a one-story square structure with the new trinity -- Mao, his premier Zhou Enlai and famous Communist Gen. Zhu De -- seated behind the altar.
The $12,000 cost was paid from donations ($2,500), contributions from local businesses ($3,500), and a loan ($6,000) that the impoverished village has yet to pay back.
Liang village's Mao temple is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Farther east lies the village of Gushui, where village party secretary Wu Hanjin, 60, was approached a few years ago by a higher-level Communist Party official.
Gushui's villagers were spending too much time rebuilding temples destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the official told Wu. Instead, why not channel the villagers' energy into building a temple to Mao? Wu agreed and approached the community.
"Secretary Wu told us that we'd already built so many temples. Mao is our great savior. We should remember him," a village elder recalled. "We thought, 'Why not?' We all knew that Mao was good."
Gushui's temple is a two-story stone building, with a statue of Mao on the first floor and plaster likenesses of Mao, Zhou and Zhu on the second.
Incense sticks are still a bit too decadent for the local party branch to accept, so peasants are encouraged to light cigarettes and stick them in Mao's plaster fingers, or plant the cigarette butt into a sand-filled censer.
"We pray to Chairman Mao for all the usual things," a temple custodian said, "for wealth, for children and for peace. He is the greatest emperor we ever had."
Pub Date: 5/12/96