Chairman Mao wore lavender socks.

         Of course, they may not have started out lavender. If they were washed as many times as one of his bathrobes was patched (73, to make it last 20 years), they could have faded considerably.

           That Chairman Mao was notoriously — and commendably! — frugal is just one of his many virtues enshrined at the Museum of Comrade Mao in Shaoshan, the town in rural Hunan where he was born. Shaoshan is quite the tourist attraction, though the well-appointed buses that pass through town are filled with Chinese. Few Westerners go there, as indeed few pass through this part of Hunan. In my afternoon there I saw only one Western couple, who looked either American or Canadian.

           Being based in Xiangtan, only 20 miles or so away, I thought it would be negligent not to go – and it’s not as if Xiangtan were overflowing with weekend cultural opportunities. Stevie Nicks, my assistant in the postgrad class, had warned me that it would take four buses to get to Shaoshan from campus; Pam suggested taking a car. The other foreign teachers had either been to Shaoshan or were busy that weekend, so on Sunday morning I went down to the end of my street and, improbably, hailed a cab on the first try. “Shaoshan,” I told the driver, then pointed out the words on a computer printout to be sure he understood. “Shaoshan?” He needed a moment to take it in. He held up two fingers, which I interpreted as meaning 200 yuan (about $30) – the off-meter fare he was asking for the long trip. “OK,” I said, and took the front passenger seat. Down the main road, he briefly picked up two students, one of whom could speak a little English, to make sure I was clear about the price. “He says it costs 200 yuan,” one explained, and again I said a cheerful “Yes!” The students went on their way.

           I could see why the driver was charging what, to the Chinese, seems an exorbitant amount to spend on a day trip. (As a point of comparison, 200 yuan was the amount of a coveted runner-up prize in a speech competition I helped judge.) Off the highway, the road to Shaoshan, mostly through farm country, is long, dusty and incredibly bumpy, and could have done serious damage to his cab. At one spot all the paving had been torn up for half a kilometer. The 40 to 50 minutes I had been told to expect stretched to more than an hour before we saw big brown “Tourist Center” signs overhead and, with a confident “Deng yi xia!” I told the driver to stop. The building to which the sign pointed was no tourist center, though it may have ambitions of being one someday, and it took some exploring on foot, a roadside map and finally a 5-yuan ride offered by two young women in a car to carry me a few more miles to the museum.

          The Relics Hall, built in 1967, is filled with, basically, Mao’s stuff – more than 800 pieces of it, including his hair-grooming case (he liked to relax by having someone comb his hair), his uniforms, underwear, the formal fur-trimmed black coat he wore to the Soviet Union, chocolate tins, even his used chopsticks. His bright red Speedo-equivalents are enormous, even folded in half; Mao was a big man, 6 foot 2 in a country where I’m tall. On display upstairs is his extensive record and tape collection, which takes up several rooms, as well as two temporary exhibitions: porcelain he used in his later years, decades after the metal flasks of the Long March, and 1,291 army watches, collected from veterans nationwide to celebrate Mao’s 116th birthday. Also on that floor is the most tasteful gift shop in the vicinity.

           The running theme of the wall labels, as rendered in English, is blatant hagiography: Mao as secular saint. (The museum was built at the height of the Cultural Revolution.) Mao worked ceaselessly and tirelessly to create a “harmonious socialist society,” so much so that he often forgot to eat or sleep. From an early age, he loved manual labor (does anybody?) and laborers. He loved his family, friends and staff members, even helping them out of financial jams, but warned them not to expect preferential treatment. The message reminded me of the annual promotion ceremony in the Lutheran Sunday school of my childhood: one of the questions was “Did Baby Jesus ever cry?” The correct answer was a chorus of “No-o-o-o-o!” Judging from the Relics Hall, Baby Zedong never did, either.

             I heard “Ex-cuse me!” only once in my hour or so in the museum, from a young man who said — I think — he was a theological student. “What is your feeling here?” he asked. I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I explained why I had come. “I’m old enough to remember when Chairman Mao was alive, and he was always in the news,” I said. “So I wanted to see the museum and learn more about him.” He seemed satisfied, and after a few brief exchanges I lost him in the crowd.

             That was too bad, because I had little to no idea how I was going to get back to Xiangtan. Outside the museum, I found no indication where to go next. No buses or taxis seemed to be stopping outside the gate. But a path parallel to the road looked promising, and I followed it to the wide-open Memorial Park, where a large statue of Chairman Mao stands amid wreaths of yellow flowers against a mountain backdrop. I walked for a bit past the Memorial Hall (a giant white statue of Mao resting in an armchair – think Lincoln Memorial); the Mao family’s Ancestral Hall (closed) and Ancestral Temple (also closed). I couldn’t find the birthplace, and the one woman who spoke a little English in the Tourist Services building, a k a gift shop, could tell me only vaguely how to get a bus to Xiangtan. I was contemplating my next move when, behind me, I heard those familiar words: “Ex-cuse me!”

            Oh, no.

            “Are you a teacher at the Hunan University of Science and Technology?”

            Oh, yes!

            “We’ve seen you around. We are students there – English majors. Do you know Pam? She’s our foreign teacher.”

             Saved.

            Jenny, Meg and Catherine were my new best friends. Yes, they were going back by bus, and yes, I could ride with them. They had just come from Mao’s birthplace and pointed in its direction. “But it will take you a long time. There’s a long queue.” They wanted to take pictures with the statues, and I wanted at least a peek at the birthplace, so we agreed to meet at the park entrance in 45 minutes.

             The 10-minute walk to the Mao family manse followed a pleasant closed-off drive, past a field of irises in full bloom. The girls were right: the queue at the entrance was too long for me, so I settled for a stroll around the grounds. Mao’s birthplace is no peasant hut but a substantial building with several wings, the roof partly thatched and partly tiled; his father was, after all, a merchant who could afford a university education for his son. The green landscape surrounding it, where the future Chairman would have played and learned to love manual labor, didn’t look so very different from the fields of my Pennsylvania childhood, except that some of them were rice paddies. I inspected a long corridor of kiosks selling souvenirs, foolishly passing up a Thermos-like container made of bamboo (if I see another one, I’ll buy it) and, maybe not so foolishly, a small khaki messenger bag with a portrait of Mao smiling and a red star. It might have made a nice gift, except that the likely recipient may have issues with, say, the Cultural Revolution.

             Which, by the way, none of the students here seem to have heard of. (Nor have they heard the news from Tienanmen Square in 1989, just about the time they were busy being born.) Jenny, Meg and Catherine apparently haven’t; on the bus back to Xiangtan, they proudly showed me the gold statuettes of Chairman Mao they had bought, the kind that almost every car here displays on its dashboard like a St. Christopher. Meg became violently carsick, and the homeopathic spray that works for me didn’t seem to help. At the Western bus station in Xiangtan, I insisted on treating us all to a cab back to campus instead of taking two buses, thinking it would be faster and help Meg feel better. It didn’t. “I’m a crazy driver!” the cabbie declared, and he wasn’t exaggerating. He was delighted to hear we’d just come from Shaoshan: “That’s my home!” If only he’d been the one to pick me at the beginning of the day.

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