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A Short March through Tonggu

China seems to have moved on. The legacy of Mao Zedong was nowhere to be found in Tonggu, a village in the province of Jiangxi, where there is an impressive museum dedicated to the memory of the Great Helmsman who was once in the village amongst the peasants in 1927.




A Short March through Tonggu

Rajashri Dasgupta

it was defeated and forced to flee to the famous Chingkang mountains in west Jiangxi. During this period, Mao was s upposed to have spent several days in nearby Tonggu among the peasants to

China seems to have moved on. The legacy of Mao Zedong was nowhere to be found in Tonggu, a village in the province of Jiangxi, where there is an impressive museum dedicated to the memory of the Great Helmsman who was once in the village amongst the peasants in 1927.

Rajashri Dasgupta (rajashri_dasgupta@yahoo. com) is a journalist based in Kolkata and an activist in the women’s peace movements.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 21, 2009

onouring the past by erecting memorials is a time-tested device to create a sense of pride and belonging for a generation now ready to move on. The efforts of the Cultural Bureau, a pivotal department of the C hinese Communist Party (CCP), in a remote Tonggu village in China’s Jiangxi province, is focused precisely on that – to remind its young inhabitants of the “revolutionary days” 80 years ago when the Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong, lived amongst them. Walking through Tonggu’s well-planned museum dedicated to Mao, I was stirred by the historical photographs and oil paintings that captured the then young Mao, lanky and handsome, urging and organising the poor peasants of Tonggu to join the armed uprising of August 1927 in Nanchang, Jiangxi’s provincial headquarter in southwest China.

The uprising, in fact, was the first major war under the CCP, when thousands of troops rebelled against the ruling Kuomintang. The Red Army had fiercely held on to Nanchang for three days before

vol XLIV No 8

mobilise support.

To establish a pride of place for Tonggu, a nondescript village five hours by road from the bustling industrial Nanchang, the local Cultural Bureau asserts that for 20 days in 1927 Chairman Mao lived in the village. Later a museum official unwittingly admitted it was only for two days, if not for a few hours, that he took rest in the beautiful Shiao temple in Tonggu. Whatever the truth, the desperate effort of the Party bosses in juggling figures and facts demonstrates its need to cling on to a revolutionary past that is fast dying out across China. Understandably so, the museum was empty of visitors, young or old. Outside on the pavement, two ageing soothsayers sat with their prayer beads and cards to tell the fortunes of passersby.

Repository of Hope

Whether Chairman Mao lived for a while in Tonggu or merely passed through the region during his whirlwind meetings to garner support for the uprising is for historians to determine. What is obvious today is that Tonggu is trapped in a bizarre


p aradox. On the one hand, there are the conspicuous and glamorous symbols of western culture all over Tonggu, while on the other, its people are still steeped in ancient traditions and social customs that date way back before Mao’s visit. In this c onfusing scenario, the party bureaucrats we met continue to insist, Delphi-like, about the “harmonious society”.

My desire to be in China was born out of our radical student days of the 1970s. China was then the symbol of American imperialist anxiety and the red repository of hope for the wretched of the earth. It was the time when Mao Zedong was revered beyond China’s borders, and students in Calcutta, in the spirit of internationalism, had passionately chanted, Chiner Chairman, amader Chairman; Chiner path, amader path (“China’s Chairman is our Chairman; China’s path is our path”). This was inspired by, among many events, the historic Long March under the command of the intrepid Mao in 1934 from the Chingkang to escape the deadly e ncirclement of the Kuomintang. Later, in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution in China, Mao’s clarion call to “Bombard the Headquarters” was heard by student communities spread across Asia as a rallying cry to rebel and leave the cities and u niversities in hordes for the countryside to integrate with the peasants. It found resonance in the armed uprising of p easants in Naxalbari, West Bengal and in other parts of India.

It took us some time to register that Tonggu was supposed to be a “remote and backward” area. It was only when crowds of curious young people repeatedly flocked to see and touch us that we realised we were the first foreigners to step into the village. We were impressed that a village could boast such wide, paved and clean roads that could put any city road in India to shame. The government-run motel where we stayed three nights, though considered modest, had extremely comfortable rooms and baths with running hot water, its cleanliness and neatness comparable to any five-star hotel in India.

Most important, there was hope and health written on the faces of the people of Tonggu. It was a population well-fed and rosy-cheeked and no longer starving as was the case even barely a few decades ago (“Our people were so poor, they had nothing to eat. They starved,” recalled the Secretary of Culture). We saw young women move around freely late at night laughing and having fun, many alone; crimes against women are practically nonexistent in the village, we were told. The government-run hospital opposite the Mao museum, well-managed and pleasant, did not evoke the horrifying scenes of medical neglect so familiar in the Indian subcontinent. In the morning, we watched in delight children running eagerly and happily to school; state education is provided free until class 9.

Tao Sculptors

What brought us to Tonggu is an absorbing story, intricately linked to the history of the people of the region. Our host in Beijing was a French professor of Taoism, one of the three major religions of China, that embodies the harmony of opposites (there is no love without hate, no male without female) and veneration of ancestors. According to the Tao custom, the various rituals performed for the dead and the information about the dead person are written on a piece of paper; the paper is then inserted through a tiny hole made in the back of the wooden statue that is carved in memory of the dead person. Since Tao statue-making is a family trade, the French professor was intrigued when he chanced upon scripts for the dead; though written by a father-and-son duo, the scripts not only differed widely but also contained mistakes. Also the scripts with mistakes were written in pencil and not the usual Chinese ink and brush. His search finally led him to Tonggu where the Tao sculptors of those particular scripts he was researching resided. For me it was a decades-old dream to revisit the places once treaded by Mao.

Over cups of hot tea and loads of bonhomie, we met grandfather Ren Wei Jung, the 11th generation of Tao sculptor. Ren Wei told us that he and his son, 59 years old Gheng Rui Chun are both popular “master of rituals” and are in great demand among the villagers, especially when there are births, deaths and marriages among the local families. Ren Wei was even hopeful about his sculptor business “improving” after a severe slump during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s when such ancient customs were severely frowned upon. He said that Tao statues were back in demand, that he now receives orders from families to make at least 30 statues a month. To the immense relief of the professor, Ren Wei identified the scripts written by him and his son. The pencil scripts that were “different” had been written by Gheng Rui.

We drove down to Ren Wei’s ancestral village, an hour’s drive from Tonggu, to meet his son Gheng Rui who lives with his large family on the family farm. Gheng Rui narrated how, during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, many precious documents on Taoism, considered “decadent culture”, were seized and destroyed by party cadres. Ten years later, he clandestinely tried to jot down in pencil some of the Tao rituals from memory, but having no scriptures to fall back upon, committed glaring mistakes in the process. The rituals written surreptitiously by Gheng Rui naturally did not match the scripts written by his father Ren Wei. The good professor

EPW Archives (1966-1998)

EPW is pleased to offer to its readers digitised pages of the journal from the years 1966-98. The archives are hosted at the EPW web site. Please see “Archives 1966-1998” on the home page. The address is: These archives are available to all subscribers of EPW. They are hosted on a separate page and in a format different from the post-1999 archives.

The pages for all the volumes for 1978-98 are now available.

Gradually, working backwards pages of all issues from 1966 onwards will be accessible by 31 March 2009.

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february 21, 2009 vol XLIV No 8

Economic & Political Weekly


had finally solved the mystery of the irregular scripts that had plagued his research for a long time.

Ghen Rui narrated how his father, Ren Wei and other members were censured during the revolution by the Communist Party. A family of former big landlords, Ren Wei once owned large tracts of agricultural and forest land. In 1952, the revolutionaries seized his land and burnt down his two-storied ancestral home and distributed his property among the poor peasants in the region. Many years later, Gheng Rui got back a small portion of the agricultural land to till and rebuilt his wooden house. The pride of place in his home today is the courtyard with a c entral pedestal that proudly displays pictures of a smiling Mao Zedong and Chou En Lai along with a row of family deities surrounded by smoke of burning incense sticks.

The other houses in Gheng Rui’s village are also well-built with stone and wood (all have a picture of Mao), packed with bursting sacks of grains and crowded with chickens and geese. Our only discomfiture was when we were forced to share the pigsty with disgruntled pigs as a bathroom. This absence of modern sanitation, given that other facilities like roads, drinking water and transport had visibly changed the face of this remote hamlet, struck us as strange. The family of Gheng Rui also generously shared with us a most sumptuous six-course meal cooked by his teenage daughter. Coming from a status-conscious and caste-ridden society, we were pleasantly surprised that Gheng Rui’s two farmhands and the driver of our car sat together at the table and ate with the family, though they remained conspicuous by their silence during the discussions.

But if Ren Wei was hopeful about his flagging statue trade picking up, his grandson and his friends were uncertain of their future. Jiangxi district was economically poor, and could barely generate work based on the local resources of wood and bamboo. As a result, we were told, young able-bodied people were leaving and more than 30,000 had migrated from Tonggu to rich Guangdong’s Canton city to work in multinational companies. Among the aspiring migrants are the three children of the former Cultural Secretary of Tonggu, Li Wenfeng, who had initiated the Mao museum in the village. Sixtyyear-old Li expressed no rancour when he spoke of how the Communist Party, despite his dedication, once considered him an “enemy of the people” and penalised him because he defied party diktat and the one-child policy of 1995. But the situation was “different and changing”, he said. Ren Wei’s grandson has two children and was not castigated by the party. This is because his eldest child is a daughter and in a son-preference society, the birth of a daughter was apparently adequate grounds for violating state policy.

Rampant Consumerism

Times are a-changing in Tonggu, surely and rapidly. We were dumbstruck by the rampant consumerism that had all but consumed this remote village. Rows of well-stocked departmental stores lined the central village street selling packaged food, a range of snacks and fizzy drinks, many manufactured in the US. In the restaurants, diners left behind shocking heaps of food uneaten on the table; neither was the food packed to be carried home in doggy bags nor was there any sign of a society practising restraint given its painful history of struggle with hunger and starvation.

The most popular crowded stores were the ones selling cosmetics and clothes that displayed models in outlandish western garments, bizarre hairdos and freaky make-up. Young women shoppers in micro-mini skirts, hair streaked pink and purple and in smart high boots thronged the shelves trying out outfits and clinching bargains. The photo studio next to the museum was another popular destination among the locals, well-equipped with costumes for photo shoots, ranging from the western white bridal gowns to slit gowns and strapless blouses. Close to the government motel was a sex shop, where old men with toothless grins loitered through the items. In the evening, repeated announcements on a microphone attracted us to the village square where we discovered that a film show was about to take place. In front of the cinema hall thronged people gaping at the large film posters displaying women in skimpy clothes and seductive poses.

As we left Tonggu and drove towards the magnificent Lushan mountain, made immortal by innumerable painters and poets, we fell silent before its spectacular beauty. But the silence also echoed the deep disquiet we felt as we grappled with our conflicting experiences to understand the real Tonggu. Did Tonggu reflect what is happening in the rest of China? We had found the Tao masters. But the legacy of the great revolutionary Mao Zedong who had once lived in Tonggu (did he?) was nowhere to be found.

Prof. G. S. Ghurye Book Award 2008

The University of Mumbai is pleased to invite nominations for the Prof. G. S. Ghurye Book Award. Books in the fields of Sociology and Anthropology written by an Indian author(s) and first published in India or abroad between Jan 1 and Dec 31, 2008 are eligible. The winner, to be decided by a Selection Committee, will receive a cash award and citation.

Past recipients include Veena Das, M. S. Gore, Ratna Naidu,

T. K. Oommen, M. S. A. Rao, K. S. Singh and M. N. Srinivas.

Nominations should come from persons other than the author and should include the names of author, book and publisher. They should be submitted by March 31, 2009, by post or email to

Kamala Ganesh, Head, Dept. of Sociology, University of Mumbai, Kalina, Santa Cruz (E), Mumbai 400098.


Economic & Political Weekly

february 21, 2009 vol XLIV No 8

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