Just five years after his death, the C.C.P. officially blamed the “mistaken leadership of Mao Zedong” for the “serious disaster and turmoil” of the Cultural Revolution, and the garishly consumerist and inegalitarian China of today seems to mock Mao’s fantasies of a Communist paradise. Nevertheless, China’s leaders today continue to invoke “Mao Zedong Thought.” Taiwan, now rowdily democratic, has begun to dismantle the personality cult of Chiang Kai-shek, removing his statues and erasing his name from major monuments. But Mao still gazes across Tiananmen Square from the large portrait hanging on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Visitors from the countryside often line up all day for a fleeting glimpse of his embalmed corpse south of the square, and in folk religions throughout China Mao is revered as a god.
This persistence of Mao in official discourse and popular imagination may seem an instance of ideological pathology—the same kind that makes some Russian nationalists get misty-eyed about Stalin. Indeed, the Communist state’s vast propaganda apparatus first exalted Mao to divine status. But then a non-ideological view of Mao has rarely been available in the West, even as he has gone from being a largely benign revolutionary and Third Worldist icon to, more recently, sadistic monster. This is largely due to China’s ever shifting place in the Western imagination. Three new books—Patrick Wright’s “Passport to Peking” (Oxford; $34.95), Frank Dikötter’s “Mao’s Great Famine” (Walker & Co.; $30), and Timothy Cheek’s anthology “A Critical Introduction to Mao” (Cambridge; $27.99)—attest to the difficulty of definitively fixing Mao’s image, a project that amounts to writing a history of China’s present.