Granddaughter keeps Mao's memory alive in bookshop

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Mao Zedong is still a force to be reckoned with in China, nearly six decades after he founded the People’s Republic, and his granddaughter is making the most of her grandfather’s often controversial appeal.

Kong Dongmei, 37, runs a bookshop dedicated to the memory of the late Communist leader whose face adorns everything from T-shirts to coffee cups.

Kong, who also owns a company aimed at protecting Communist culture, says her shop, located in Beijing’s fashionable 798 art district, aims to preserve Mao’s memory while giving a sense of the real man.

“I want to give the historical truth. He wasn’t just a great man; he was also a normal person. He was also a husband, a father and a son,” she told Reuters.

“I want to show a truthful and objective history, regardless of whether he was right or wrong. I hope to give visitors an accurate representation. For me that is very important.”

Kong’s mother Li Min was one of Mao’s three daughters, born to his second wife He Zizhen.

Kong, who keeps a low profile and rarely speaks to the media, declined to answer questions about Mao’s relationship with her grandmother, who many historians say endured her husband’s extra-marital affairs, fell ill and was sent to the Soviet Union for psychiatric treatment.

She also declined to talk about China’s politics, but said she was not surprised her grandfather, just like revolutionary leader Che Guevara, had become an icon in China’s growing consumer culture.

“It shows his influence, that he exists in people’s consciousness and has influenced several generations of Chinese people’s way of life,” she said.

“Just like Che Guevara’s image, his has become a symbol of revolutionary culture. It is natural that he would be used on T-shirts or cups as a cultural logo.”

The “Great Helmsman” is praised above all for uniting the huge country, when his People’s Liberation Army defeated Nationalist forces and declared a new China to a jubilant Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1, 1949.

But he is also blamed for the deaths of tens of millions of people due to the famine sparked by his disastrous Great Leap Forward, and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Sidney Rittenberg, the only American ever to be admitted into the Chinese Communist Party, interpreted for Mao and maintained a close relationship with other Party leaders, as detailed in his memoirs “The Man Who Stayed Behind”.

Despite being imprisoned in solitary confinement twice for a total of 16 years during the power struggles of Mao’s rule, 88-year-old Rittenberg believes Mao never intended to cause the deaths and suffering endured by people under his chairmanship.

“I’ve said about him in the past that he was a great leader in history, and also a great criminal because, not that he wanted to, not that he intended to, but in fact, his wild fantasies lead to the deaths of tens of millions of people,” he said.

After more than three decades of market reforms that followed his death in 1976, Mao and Maoism are now more symbolic than anything in the world’s fastest growing economy.

But Mao’s image still overlooks Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and thousands flock to his mausoleum each day to pay their respects to his embalmed corpse.

And whether it’s hanging on a key ring or on the Gate of Heavenly Peace, Mao’s image will continue to command attention in China for many more years to come.

Editing by Miral Fahmy