Mao as Object of Steamy Desire? It’s Riling Up Some in China

A portrait of Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. More than four decades after his death, Chinese society has not fully come to terms with his legacy.

BEIJING — She wrote about desiring him: of wanting to kiss his eyes, his cheeks and his mouth a hundred times.

She said she was going crazy because he had not written for a while.

She said in the letter that he belonged to her.

It is unusual for the intended recipient, Mao Zedong, worshiped by many Chinese people as half emperor and half deity, to be portrayed by the state media as an object of romantic desire in such explicit terms. As it turns out, it may be too much for some Chinese people.

The letter was written in 1929 by Mao’s first freely chosen wife, Yang Kaihui, a prominent Chinese revolutionary, and was broadcast by China Central Television on the show “Trust in China.” It was the latest manifestation of how the state propaganda machine has been trying to win the hearts and minds of its people.

More than four decades after Mao’s death, Chinese society has not fully come to terms with his legacy. Many older Chinese display posters of him in their homes, and taxi drivers carry his picture as an amulet to ward off bad luck. But many others are ambivalent about the chaos caused by the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, when millions starved to death. Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, is vilified for her role in the Cultural Revolution (Ms. Yang, considered by some as Mao’s true love, was executed by a warlord at age 29 in 1930.)

Dorothy Solinger, a political-science professor who specializes in Chinese politics at the University of California, Irvine, said some people in China still want Mao “to remain above the fray and be superhuman.”

“It could be that the people who are protesting something about Mao’s personal life object to this trivializing of him by making him seem human,” Ms. Solinger said.

The “Trust in China” show features celebrities reading the letters of more than 100 national heroes and heroines from 1921, the year the Communist Party of China was founded. The show is intended to display the “humanitarian side” of party members, according to the Chinese news media.

On one website, the episode on Mao was viewed 1.7 million times. The Chinese actress Han Xue recited the letter against a simulated backdrop of a forest, where it was supposedly found. Before her performance, she said she felt a “little stressed” about having to read it to the public.

As her eyes welled with tears, Ms. Han cited Ms. Yang as writing to Mao: “I want to kiss your eyes, your cheeks, your mouth, your forehead and your head a hundred times, you are mine and you belong to me.”

But Chinese internet users were less than enthusiastic. One person published a statement online under the name Yunfeiyang2046, saying that the show “pained him” and caused him to lose sleep. He demanded a public apology.

“Instead of remembering the martyrs and defending their dignity and inheriting their spirit, you’re giving fodder to gossips and using the opportunity to gain eyeballs and ratings,” he wrote.

But many were supportive of the letter, saying that it presented a more rounded image of Mao.

“People are complicated, you can have a glorious side and an ordinary side, but heroic leaders are all produced among the people,” Zhang Ding, head of the family letter research center at Renmin University in Beijing, said in a telephone interview.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has imposed even tighter restrictions on any debate about Mao. In 2015, a Chinese television celebrity, Bi Fujian, was investigated for mocking Mao at a dinner banquet.

The state media is also fond of playing up the relationship between Mr. Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, often portraying them as a loving couple.

But discussions about the love lives of Chinese leaders are only allowed on the party’s terms. In 2015, five booksellers from Hong Kong, who sold books with topics such as the love life of Mr. Xi, went missing. They turned up later in the custody of the Chinese authorities.

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