The teachings of Mao

December 16, 2013

Sitong, China

By Carlos Barria

In a remote farming area of China’s central province of Henan, kids are roused from their warm beds at 5 a.m. as revolutionary songs play over the loudspeaker system. In the freezing morning they gather around a cement courtyard for their morning exercises.

Mr. Xia Zuhai, principal of the Democracy Elementary and Middle school — where the curriculum stresses the teachings of China’s late Chairman Mao Zedong — blows his whistle and encourages the students while they run around in the darkness for 20 minutes.

Then, the children enter a cold classroom where a big portrait of Chairman Mao is seen on the wall, decked out with colorful balloons in preparation for the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth on Dec. 26.

Teacher’s aide Xia Jingjing starts the two-hour lecture reciting quotations from Mao Zedong’s famed ‘Little Red Book’ before breakfast.

The school was founded by Mr. Xia, a farmer-turned-educator, in 1994. At its peak in 2005, the school had close to 600 students. The students, who come from poor farming families, receive standard curriculum such as math, chemistry and English. They also have long and intensive classes that involve reciting from Mao’s book and watching movies about Mao’s life. Xia said he emphasizes Mao’s lesson of ‘serving the people’ above all else.

“Mao is the person who grew the tree, and when the tree produced fruit he was already dead, but we are enjoying the fruits of this tree today,” Xia said.

For many in modern China, Mao’s ideas and legacy remain sensitive topics. While the ruling Communist Party embraces him as the ultimate leader of Chinese Communist revolution, his radical and controversial policies are seen by many as far removed from today’s pro-market economy that has transformed China into the second biggest economy in the world.

But Mr. Xia is a firm believer. “From the basic level, Mao Zedong Thought is for uprightness, kindness, and greatness… Mao Zedong Thought is, in reality, about taking people and liberating them from material desires so they can be free and natural people. This was Chairman Mao’s greatest educational point,” he said.

In the kitchen, Xia’s wife Wang Hui prepares lunch for the students and teachers — a bowl of vegetable broth and a fat white bread bun. Conditions are hard in the Democracy Elementary and Middle school, especially in winter. There is no heating and no indoor plumbing.

But for many of the children, who spend periods of 11 days at the school and three days with their families, this might represent the most affordable schooling option.

Gallery: Teaching Mao

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