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JISHOU, HUNAN — This weekend’s trip to Shaoshan was great during the daytime, but interesting (in the alleged Chinese proverbial sense*) during the night.

Shaoshan (韶山), a county near Xiangtan, south of the provincial capital of Changsha (长沙), is the ancestral home of Mao Zedong’s family. Mao (毛泽东) was born and raised there, and spent his final decade there in a specially constructed compound for the founder and first Chairman of the People’s Republic of China. As you can probably guess, there are all kinds of touristy places to visit.

The area also lays claim to Mao’s successor, Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇), who hailed from Ningxiang county, near Changsha. Liu was at one point a darling of the great leader, then he fell out of favor during the Cultural Revolution, only to be posthumously rehabilitated as a national hero in the 1980s.

So, we visited museums dedicated to Liu and to Mao, the statue of Mao and a mountaintop garden dedicated to Mao. It was an “all Mao, all the time” weekend, with some unexpected features.

(It was a lot like any version of Windows.)

On Saturday night, our hotel lost power — for the entire night — just after we finished dinner. I am still not clear whether the entire neighborhood went dark, or if it was just our place. (Blue screen of death)

On Sunday afternoon, before we left for Jishou, our tour guide took us to hear a high pressure sales pitch for super-sharp, indestructible tungsten steel kitchen knives. It was like Vince, the Shamwow guy, but in Chinese — though our presenter was much better looking. (Pop-up windows and adware)

On Sunday night, our bus threw a U-joint on the expressway, stranding us for three hours while our driver and two roadside mechanics repaired the driveshaft. (Device driver malfunction)

Other than that, it was a great weekend.

But wait, there’s more!

Last Tuesday, my dean asked if I wanted to join the rest of the faculty on a weekend trip to Shaoshan. This meant it was free, so naturally I accepted. We were to leave early Saturday morning on board a school bus. (Not a Big Yellow, Americans. This is a rather comfy coach with reclining seats and a TV/DVD player … and some maintenance issues, as we discovered later.)

Eighteen of us, including five faculty children, left promptly at 7 am that Saturday, and arrived in Shaoshan in time for lunch. We picked up our tour guide, an energetic young woman in a robin’s egg blue winter coat, just before we stopped for lunch.

Now, I thought lunch was pretty good, but Frank, our assistant dean, said it reminded him of the food in the university eating hall — in other words, not so good. Maybe eating almost every day at the eating hall has ruined my palate, or maybe I just like free food, any kind of free food.

Anyways, from there we went to the Liu Shaoqi Memorial Park.

Liu Shaoqi

Liu Shaoqi

Liu was one of Mao’s closest companions in the early days of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and served as a national leader in the 1960s. Later in that decade, he and Mao had a falling out along political and philosophical lines. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, Liu was labeled a traitor to the cause and effectively sidelined. Deng Xiao Ping declared Liu rehabilitated in the 1980s, which led eventually to the creation of this memorial park in 1988.

Most Chinese parks have an imposing entrance gate and a long, broad stone walkway to a central monument. In this case, the walk leads to a 7.1-meter-tall bronze statue of Liu, apparently deep in thought while holding a pipe. A bilingual plaque notes that the height of the statue corresponds to Liu’s age when he died and to the July 1 anniversary of the founding of the CPC.

Liu and Mao met in 1922, at a regional meeting of the CPC. The memorial hall includes bronze statues of the men meeting at that time, as well as statues, photographs and documents of Liu as a wartime leader and as an important architect of the fledgling Chinese government and economy of the mid-1940s. Many of Liu’s ideas were adopted in the 1970s when China “opened up” China, and are still in practice today.

The park also includes the earth-walled home of Liu, though it was not clear to me whether it is a reconstruction — Liu grew up in Ningxiang, not Shaoshan. Ostensibly, the 21-room house dates from 1871. In addition, a Soviet-made turboprop airplane that Liu used for official state business was installed in the park in 2003, leading me to wonder how they got the thing there. It’s about the size of a DC-9!

Liu Shaoqi's official aircraft

Liu Shaoqi's official aircraft

After touring Liu’s park, we headed for the ancestral farm home of Mao. Born Dec. 26, 1893, Mao grew up in Shaoshan, but left in 1910 for further education. He returned in 1921 to begin his involvement in the CPC.

Having walked through the Mao family home, complete with pig and cattle pens, but no livestock, we then left for dinner at our guesthouse in town and a good rest. Having spent the day walking in chilly weather, I was looking forward to a hot shower and warm air in a hotel room. Alas, it was not to be; around 8 pm, as I settled down to mark a pile of vocabulary tests, poof! the lights went out.

Tired as I was, I shelved plans to mark the tests and just went to sleep. I was warm enough under the blankets that I didn’t miss the forced-air heat.

So, the next morning, after breakfast at the hotel (here I agreed with Frank — the food was … eh), we visited the Statue Square of Mao Zedong, where our college leaders left a wreath of flowers at the base of the statue.

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

Then, we got on the bus and rode to ShaoFeng, a mountain park in which there is an ancient Buddhist temple at the peak and at the base, a poetry garden featuring Mao’s poems. My colleagues and our guide stood by one stele and recited in unison one of Mao’s more famous poems, or so I reckon, since they all seemed to know it pretty well.

[Linguistic sidebar: One of the CPC’s changes was to simplify the Chinese characters bu reducing the number of strokes, but this happened after Mao wrote the poems. So many young Chinese have as hard a time reading traditional characters as we have reading Chaucer.]

Then we toured DiShui Dong (“Dripping Water Cave,” but there is no cave — what?), where in the ’60s, the government built for the aging Mao his own countryside retreat, complete with an air raid shelter and an earthquake-proof situation room.

Well, I bet George Washington would have had them, too, if there were airplanes and earthquakes in post-colonial Virginia.

Come to think of it, imagine what our memorials to our Founding Fathers would have been like had photography been invented, say, around 1700 or so. Instead of a few choice paintings, we would see endless photos of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and their buddies standing, sitting, eating, smoking, talking, drinking, signing documents, addressing huge assemblies, riding their horses, sitting in carriages, and so on and so on. You get the idea — boring with a capital B.

I love history, but after about the 50th photo of Mao (or anyone, really), the whole documentation-of-every-waking-hour gets a little tedious. Throw in lots of important looking documents and the occasional video, and all-Mao, all-the-time wears thin pretty quickly.

Back in the day, such a flippant criticism of the great leader probably would have resulted in my immediate deportation. Now, while most Chinese respect Mao for the changes he enabled, they no longer worship him as a demigod. Three decades after his death, Mao is now respected as a mere mortal with flaws.

Lunchtime passed, with another passably good meal, then our energetic guide directed our driver to a building in Shaoshan where we were subjected to a sales pitch.

Those of you in the States who have unwisely agreed to a “free” visit to a timeshare place will recognize the scheme: Offer a free (or reduced price) stay at a resort in exchange for sitting through an excruciating, 45-minute sales pitch.

So, our chipper guide herded us into a small room in which there was a demo table, a mostly empty display case for electric shavers, and two posters extolling the virtues of their super-sharp, indestructible tungsten steel kitchen knives and cleavers. Our “Vince” was a young woman in her early twenties who was, for somewhat kitschy reasons, dressed unflatteringly in an outfit resembling the Red Army’s olive-drab uniform. She proceeded to launch into her sales pitch, complete with hammering an ordinary cleaver and the super-cleaver against a steel pipe and showing us how the super-cleaver still could cut a daikon radish effortlessly. She demonstrated a two-ended vegetable peeler, a chef’s knife, and a waterproof electric shaver (it works underwater! — just in case you want to shave while swimming). And she finished with the usual, “now what would you expect to pay for such fine products?”

Well, that’s what I guessed she said. Naturally, she addressed us only in Chinese, and I was not really interested in getting a translation. I could get the gist of it, having spent too many hours watching infomercials and visiting the Kentucky State Fair. In the end, only one of us bought a chef’s knife (80 yuan) and several us (me included) snagged the peelers (10 yuan each). A complete set of knives, with wooden knife block, would have been 380 yuan.

[I can almost guarantee that the same knives are probably being sold in the US for at least twice as much. I considered buying a set as a gift, but postage would have wiped out the savings and taking knives on an airplane nowadays is a risky affair. So I saved my money.]

By this time, it was about 3:00 and time for us to hit the road.

On the way to Shaoshan, I had noticed our bus made quite a bit of noise, but I figured it was an unbalanced wheel. The university’s buses are usually used only for short trips, so maybe the maintenance crews don’t fuss about rumbly noises.

But as we made our way back home, the rumbling got louder and louder. Twice, our driver pulled over, got out, and walked toward the back end of the bus. I had this sinking feeling that I knew what was causing the noise, because I had heard it before in my own cars.

Dum-da-da-dum {cue spooky music}: Impending universal joint failure. Oh, shit.

[A car talk moment: In ancient times, most cars had engines in the front that drove the wheels in the back. This arrangement required a tube called a driveshaft to connect the two parts. Since the engine doesn’t move up and down, but the wheels do, the driveshaft has to have joints like hinges at each end. The “hinges” are at right angles to each other, to allow 360 degrees of movement — a universal joint.

After long years/miles of service, U-joints get very loose and the parts they are attached to start to vibrate. If the U-joints are really worn out, the little bearings inside can work loose and jam the joint up, then the joint shatters and your vehicle is out of commission.]

By this time, we were on the Changsha-Changde Expressway (the ChangChang), tooling at about 60 mph and hearing an ever louder rumble coming from somewhere under the bus.

Rumble, RUMble, RUMBLE, RUMBLE! RUMBLE !! BANG! … silence.

We coasted onto the shoulder, and the driver got out. And we got out. Men, women and children set off in different directions to go pee, while the driver crawled under the back end of the bus. I looked up in my cell phone the Chinese word for “universal joint” and showed it to him. He said yes, and gave me the thumbs-up, impressed with my mechanical expertise.

A chicken joined us as we stood outside the bus in the chilly evening air. This poor hen apparently had fallen off a truck, and was wandering dazed on the shoulder. Since a low wall kept her from leaving the shoulder, she, with her limited chicken wisdom, decided the best route home was to cross a four-lane divided highway. We tried to convince her otherwise, but finally gave up the debate.

In answer to the timeless riddle, the chicken did not cross the road … entirely. She made it across one and half lanes before being flattened (with a disgusting popping noise) by a semi.

About a half-hour later, an emergency road crew came to effect repairs. Three men managed to get everything back in order after three hours, and we were back on our way. We finally pulled into campus at 12:30 am.

Sometimes, with free travel, you get what you pay for, but in the end it’s usually better than not going at all.

————
* I had always heard that, “May you live in interesting times,” was an ancient Chinese curse — “interesting” implying “too chaotic.” It turns out that it’s not Chinese at all. Some English-speaking dude came up with it.

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