Mao turns Buddhist for Tibet

by Jane Macartney, The Times (UK), March 31, 2006

Changsha, China -- CHAIRMAN MAO’S stern features are to gaze out over Tibet for the first time. A huge statue of Mao Zedong, whose Red Armies entered the deeply Buddhist Himalayan region in 1951 to extend Communist Party rule, is to stand in a newly built square in the town of Gongga.

The 7.5m (24½ft) figure, weighing 35 tonnes, is a gift to the small Tibetan town just south of the regional capital, Lhasa, from the central Chinese city of Changsha, where Mao was born.

One government official explained the gift, worth 6.5 million yuan (£465,000): "Tibet does not need only material development, it must also meet the more spiritual needs of its people."

The statue was designed by Zhu Weijing, president of the Changsha Sculpture Institute. He has created a whole new image of the late chairman that will be unique to Tibet, with his features made to look more like those of Buddha.

Mao’s newest statue wears a traditional Mao suit. However, Mr Zhu has changed his posture. "I noticed that he liked standing with both hands behind his back. It made him look more intimate and more easygoing." His features, too, have been altered to suit his Tibetan audience. Mr Zhu said: "I tried to understand how Tibetans feel towards Mao. Because they have deep feelings about Buddha, I tried to make Mao more like that, with a plumper face."

Earlier statues of Mao, born in Shaoshan village in the countryside outside Changsha in 1893, depicted him to fall into line with the needs of the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, when he was worshipped almost as a god across China. "Chairman Mao either waved his hand to lead us forward or stood to receive the Red Guards. But now the times are different and this statue is especially for Tibet."

The statue, which took nine months to complete, is en route to Tibet by road. It left Changsha this week aboard a huge lorry and in a special convoy that will take about ten days to reach its destination in the Himalayas. The figure is carved from local granite.

Mr Zhu was inspired by the changing times to change Mao. He said that he had created countless figures of the late leader — all the same. Greater freedom of expression had given him the opportunity to try something new, he said.

Mao will stand in the Changsha Square in Gongga. Tibetans have had a love-hate relationship with the late chairman. Many still revere photos of Mao that are pasted on to the walls of their homes. Others remember with distress the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards rampaged through temples, destroying thousands of ancient artefacts and blowing up monasteries and temples.

Today many temples have been repaired, although many still stand in ruins.

Officials said that the Mao statue had been donated as a gift at the request of the Tibetans. One Changsha official said: "It is a gift from Changsha, but it was approved by both sides."