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Changsha: Welcome to Mao Town

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Statue of Mao Zedong, Juzi Island, Changsha

Not on many people’s travel list

Changsha. It’s not exactly the kind of place you would choose to spend three days. Perhaps the best you could say about the city is that it doesn’t promise anything it doesn’t deliver. The fact that it doesn’t promise all that much to begin with, therefore, leaves plenty of scope to be pleasantly surprised.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell described Changsha as being “just like a medieval town” when he passed through in the early 1920s. And while compared to London during that time, Changsha, with its city walls, narrow streets, and rickshaws darting all over the place, must have seemed a little underdeveloped by Western standards, it’s got a subway now, which surely counts for something.

It’s not that Changsha is boring. It isn’t. A university town with a lively shopping and nightlife district centred around Wuyi Square, it can be a fun place to spend a couple of nights sampling the famously spicy Hunan cuisine, trying the stink tofu, and generally enjoying a damn good time in the bars and eateries around Taiping Street. If you arrive in Changsha looking for the traditional long list of “things to do”, however, you’ll probably leave just as disappointed as old Bertrand did way back when.

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Even at those places you’re not expecting him, don’t be surprised if he makes an appearance.

Got Mao?

Still, what it lacks in Lonely Planet recommendations, Changsha more than makes up for in the one thing that has made it name. As the capital city of Mao Zedong’s home province, most of Changsha’s main “sights”, or at least the ones where you’ll find the tourists, are Mao or Communist-related. Mao’s birthplace of Shaoshan is just 130 km south west of the city, while it was in Changsha that the young Mao began his political career, setting up the Changsha branch of the recently established Communist Party of China and becoming its party secretary for Hunan.

Amongst Changsha’s Mao pilgrimage sights are the former headquarters of the Hunan Communist Party Central Committee where Mao once lived, where you can check out his living quarters, copies of his poems and various other Mao-related items. There is also the Hunan Number 1 Teachers’ Training School which Mao attended and where he later taught, as well numerous statues of him, erected with varying degrees of reverence over the past fifty years, dotted about the city.

When it comes to statues though, there’s one in particular that has made itself pretty hard to miss. Constructed in 2009 at the southern tip of Orange Island (橘子洲), this 100 foot tall bust of a youthful looking Mao gazing out at the Xiang River (湘江), may teeter on the brink of the utterly tasteless, but in the scramble for numbers in the midst of China’s domestic tourism boom, you can’t say that it doesn’t do its job.

Mao statue Huanan university, changsha

The Mao we are used to seeing, outside Hunan University

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“Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan”. A young Mao depicted in one of the most reproduced portraits ever painted.

The project took two years to complete at a quite appalling cost of 300 million RMB, with the 8000 granite bricks from which it is constructed having being transported from Fujian province where they were mined all the way to Changsha for their final assemblage. Instead of the long-coated, hand-aloft Mao of his later years, here we have a Mao that you could almost describe as looking positively rakish. With his long hair blowing in the wind, complete with carefully sculpted chin mole, it’s Mao the romantic poet rather than Mao the senile dictator. Indeed, it’s an entirely fitting depiction given that this is the spot where the 32 year old Mao Zedong is said to have written what is probably his best regarded poem Changsha in 1925.

In the poem, the young Mao describes himself standing alone “in the autumn cold on the tip of Orange Island” as the waters of the Xiang River flowed past. He speaks of “setting people afire” with his and his comrades words, wondering “who rules over man’s destiny” amid the chaos of his youthful China. It’s all very romantic, for sure, run through with his own early revolutionary musings. Yet one can’t help but wonder what Mao himself would have thought about the extravagance of spending so much on a project of such questionable worth.

Still, as he looks out over at the riverside skyscrapers and the burgeoning city beyond, the arch anti-Capitalist’s worth to Changsha as a historical commodity is clearly something that has been earmarked for milking. He may have been almost single-handedly responsible for stunting China’s progress for the best part of his time at the top, but when his image or philosophy suits a purpose, he’s still the go-to guy for any patriotic provincial government looking to cash in.

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An artist’s impression of Mao, the young revolutionary, overlooking the Xiang River

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