- History, Contradiction, and the Apotheosis of Mao Zedong
The English aphorism "Time waits for no man" might be translated into Chinese as Jijie bu rang ren, or "The seasons wait for no one." The Chinese peasant has always known that planting must take place in accordance with the seasonal calendar. Although a considerable amount of time has elapsed since Mao's death in 1976, and studies of Mao continue to produce a lively and more disciplinarily diverse literature, it seems that the time is still not right for the definitive interpretation of Mao's place in modern Chinese history.
Mao himself had something to say on the subject of his own posterity. He too easily protested that he was waiting to see God. As a casual Daoist philosopher he cheerfully welcomed the flux of the universe. At times he seemed not to care about history. There were also times when he manipulated history on the self-conscious basis of "taking the past to serve the present" (yi gu wei jin), but, as a revolutionary, Mao was not interested in "disparaging the present by extolling the past" (yi gu fei jin). Perhaps one of the most intriguing questions of modern Chinese politics is how Mao, as one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century, could rationalize his own personality cult since it was rooted in a presumably reactionary tradition of emperor worship. [End Page 1]
In a January 9, 1965, interview with Edgar Snow, Mao claimed that Khrushchev fell "because he had no cult at all."1 Apparently, Khrushchev should have benefited from some element of cult—but not too much. In one of the more tragic paradoxes of modern Chinese history, Mao, in the Cultural Revolution, made extensive use of such a cult even though he was most concerned about the integrity of China's revolution in the face of a three-thousand-year-old tradition of worshipping Chinese emperors. To save his own revolution from alleged counterrevolutionaries, Mao was, at least for a time, prepared to condone his own personality cult.
Philosophically, however, Mao claimed that he was not overly concerned about history's verdict. Preparing himself for inevitable value change, Mao recognized that future generations would determine future events and that they would prevail on any question as to the final disposition of the revolution. He said: "The youth of today and those who come after them would assess the work of the revolution in accordance with values of their own."2 As for the inexorable march of time, he expected that he and his generation would inevitably be overtaken by ridicule: "a thousand years from now all of us, Marx, Engels and Lenin, would probably appear rather ridiculous."3 Still, Mao might not have anticipated his present iconic status as a "Kitchen God" or as a bobbing doll attached to the rearview mirrors of today's big-city taxis.
For Mao, cold, hard politics trumped the abstract reading of philosophy. In the early 1970s he blamed others for overdoing his own personality cult, attacking his heir apparent Lin Biao and the senior Party theoretician Chen Boda. Apparently they had used Mao and concocted a "genius theory" at the expense of the revolutionary mass line based on his thought.
Mao's rediscovery of his own modesty may have been politically opportune, but he told Snow in 1970 that the...