A Kinder, Gentler Mao Zedong

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This from our colleague Jodi Xu:

A 23-episode TV series featuring a young Mao Zedong, the founder of People’s Republic of China, has received an unexpectedly favorable reception from young Chinese. The show, QiaTongxue Shaonian (恰同学少年) or “Those Student Days” (it sounds better in Chinese, being a phrase from one of Mao’s poems), is set in an idyllic, Western style campus featuring ivy-covered buildings and marble arches. Mao appears as a hormone-driven teenager who is starting his first semester at the school. His fellow students are a dapper, good looking bunch, many of whom later become key figures in China’s 20th century history. The show portrays Mao struggling with poor grades, falling in love for the first time and meeting one of his earliest mentors. In one scene, Mao is so embarrassed after a meeting with his love interest in a bookstore that he slams into a counter, then runs off when he realizes he has not brought enough money to pay for the book he picked. It is rare in China to see revolutionary leaders portrayed in such an up close and personal way. The costumes were also unusual: Instead of the Mao era’s drab-is-beautiful unisex boiler suits, the cast are adorned with chic suits and dresses, bowties and evening gowns. Even though some critics argued that the costumes were way too modern for that time, most of the audience thought it as a pleasant modification, if not totally factual. The show garnered high ratings almost from its debut, and by the time the concluding episode was broadcast it had been China’s top rated series for two years. Sina.com, the biggest Chinese news portal, reported the show was particularly popular among young viewers. Unlike their parents, many of whom still revere Mao as the founding father of modern China, the younger generation has mixed feelings about things like the Cultural Revolution and the constant turmoil of the Mao years.

I came across an early episode while I was flipping through channels one night. I was surprised but attracted by its casual tone and Mao’s good looks. It seemed clear the producer was trying a novel approach to familiarizing younger people with the country’s founding fathers. It is certainly completely different from the old, reverential approach we used to get when I was in school in the 1980s. Then, Mao used to be presented as a flawless giant who founded modern China almost single-handed. But this show tells us a different story, presenting a more human, sympathetic Mao who had to struggle with grades and his emotions. Like everyone else, it seems, China’s propaganda machine must keep up with the rapidly changing times. So far, the new, vulnerable but noble Mao has been a hit with the MTV generation. But given their notoriously short attention spans we’ll have to wait and see whether that popularity translates into anything more than just a passing fad between music videos.