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2021-05-20 08:57:53

SHANXI, North China — At the entrance to the village, a huge red sign looms over the parking lot. “Learn from Dazhai in Agriculture! Mao Zedong,” the banner reads.

It’s an unusual slogan to find at a tourist site, but this is the kind of cognitive dissonance visitors often feel when arriving at Dazhai — a small settlement perched high in the Taihang Mountains.

Dazhai is one of a handful of “collective villages” that are attempting to straddle two periods of Chinese history. Though they have adapted to today’s market-driven economy, they’ve also tried to preserve the collectivist ethos espoused by Chairman Mao.

Dazhai’s nostalgia for the Mao period is a product of its history. Like other collective villages, there’s a feeling it has been left behind amid China’s rapid modernization.

During Mao’s time, Dazhai was impoverished, but locals felt it was at least respected. In 1963, as China was recovering from the Great Leap Forward, the village attracted national attention by building a reservoir and terraced fields in an effort to grow more food. Chairman Mao himself praised the village’s initiative, and urged the entire country to “learn from Dazhai in agriculture.” It became one of the most famous campaigns of the period.

But after Mao’s death in 1976, Dazhai’s star quickly faded. Through the ’80s, China implemented a series of pro-market reforms. The country’s cities — especially those in the densely populated southern coastal provinces — began to develop rapidly, but remote areas like Dazhai struggled to find a place in the new economy.

Students stand in the square at the entrance to Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, Nov. 17, 2018. The banner behind them bears a famous slogan used by Mao Zedong. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Students stand in the square at the entrance to Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, Nov. 17, 2018. The banner behind them bears a famous slogan used by Mao Zedong. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

So the village decided to take a radical change of course. In 1991, a new party secretary took control of Dazhai and implemented a new economic strategy that drew heavily on ideas left over from the Mao period.

The goal was to succeed in the market economy, but to do so via village cooperatives in which locals split the work and profits equally. The village-run enterprises were managed in a similar style to Mao-era “work units.” 

Since 2009, locals have focused in particular on developing “red tourism” — trying to attract visitors also hankering for a return to the Mao era. Most households now work in these collectively owned tourist businesses, operating souvenir stores, restaurants, and hotels in traditional cave dwellings. Mao memorabilia can be seen all over the village.

The story of Dazhai has long fascinated me. It says so much about China’s complex relationship with its past, and the tension between the individual and the collective in today’s hybrid economic system. 

It’s also far from a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. Dazhai residents’ nostalgia for the planned economy echoes the attitudes of many in the former Soviet Union, as Svetlana Alexievich documents in her oral history “Secondhand Time: Last of the Soviets.”

Over the past three years, I have traveled to several Chinese “collective villages,” interviewing local residents and trying to understand why Maoism still has such a strong appeal to them. Last month, I returned to Dazhai again with my camera.

There, I met Zhao Mingxing. He was born in the ’80s, after the death of Mao, yet he has inherited his family’s fierce devotion to the Chairman. He now runs the “Chinese Dream Red-Themed Museum,” a small establishment that displays propaganda posters and other artifacts from the Mao period.

Sitting outside the museum’s entrance, Zhao told me about his family’s history, and how it has shaped his outlook. This is his story, edited for brevity and clarity.

Zhao Mingxing poses for a photo with a Mao statue at his museum in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, Nov. 17, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Zhao Mingxing poses for a photo with a Mao statue at his museum in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, Nov. 17, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

My name is Zhao Mingxing. I was born in Dazhai Village in 1984, and people in the village call me Mingming. I grew up here and dropped out of school after middle school. Unlike now, it was common back then for young people (in rural areas) to end their education after middle school.

After school, I worked as a waiter in the village hotel. Then, I went to the Dazhai Village Forest Park for three years, working as a ticket checker. After that, I went to the local winery. I’ve always worked in village-run enterprises. The jobs are stable, but the salaries aren’t high.

My grandfather used to be our village’s director of public security. He died during the “learn from Dazhai in agriculture” campaign. At the time, the villagers were building terraces on the mountainside. A stone happened to fall and hit him. When he died, my father was only about 8, and my uncle was only 8 months old.

My dad liked calligraphy and painting. He’d worked in the local cultural institute for many years. Whenever the village held Lunar New Year, wedding, or funeral events, he did all the paper-cuttings and calligraphy. He influenced me a lot. Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved the visual arts.

As I got older, I also started collecting visual materials from the Mao era. In 2017, I decided to rent this old house and convert it into a museum. A friend and I invested around 600,000 yuan (then $89,000), and started to create the Chinese Dream Red-Themed Museum.

Normally, the museum attracts over 20,000 visitors a year, but most of them are elderly people. I offer free tickets to people over 60. I think only the elderly have this nostalgia for the Mao period today.

My grandfather and my father were steeped in Mao Zedong Thought, and I was influenced by it as well. Honestly, I think it has positive aspects. At that time, locals in Dazhai really didn’t lock their doors at night. It was very safe. When the persimmon and walnut trees by the roadside ripened, no one picked the fruit for themselves.

In the past, our lives were bitter, but everyone was on the same level and people were spiritually satisfied. Today, the gap between the rich and poor is widening. The rich are getting richer, and people without money find it more difficult to live.

The lease on the house runs for another five years. In 2019, the museum’s income was around 60,000 yuan, which was enough to cover the operating costs. But last year, due to the impact of COVID-19, the income was only around 10,000 yuan.

The good thing is that we live simply in the countryside. My family has our own vegetable garden. As long as we’re diligent, we can live self-sufficiently. My mother also runs a small store next to the parking lot, and my wife remodeled a cave dwelling on the mountain, turning it into a homestay for tourists.

My wife complains that I don’t earn any money, but the museum is very personal to me. I hope it can survive. These objects are witnesses to the history my grandfather and father lived through. As this year is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, I hope it’ll give the red tourism industry a boost.

An exhibition of objects from the Mao era at the Chinese Dream Red-Themed Museum, in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 18, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

An exhibition of objects from the Mao era at the Chinese Dream Red-Themed Museum, in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 18, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Li Yanxiao sits with his collection of Chairman Mao badges from the “learn from Dazhai in agriculture” campaign, in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 19, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Li Yanxiao sits with his collection of Chairman Mao badges from the “learn from Dazhai in agriculture” campaign, in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 19, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

An exhibition of objects from the Mao era at the Chinese Dream Red-Themed Museum, in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 18, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

An exhibition of objects from the Mao era at the Chinese Dream Red-Themed Museum, in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 18, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

An abandoned building stands near Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 20, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

An abandoned building stands near Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 20, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

A view of a forest park in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 20, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

A view of a forest park in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 20, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

An exhibition showing stones collected from the forest park in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 19, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

An exhibition showing stones collected from the forest park in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 19, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Zhao Mei works as a tour guide in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 20, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Zhao Mei works as a tour guide in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 20, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

A statue of a white horse, in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 19, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

A statue of a white horse, in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 19, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

A view of the terraced fields in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 19, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

A view of the terraced fields in Dazhai Village, Shanxi province, April 19, 2021. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone

Editor: Dominic Morgan.