During my time in China, there were countless aspects of the culture that inspired, intrigued and amazed me. There was, though, one particular facet of the nation's psyche that simply rendered me speechless, the reverence for Mao Zedong. It astounded me how easy it was to buy a framed picture of the Great Helmsman, it left me dumbfounded that his face adorned almost every bank note and I simply could not grasp why the majority of Chinese citizens still saw him as a figure to be revered and adored rather than hated and decried.
When I visited his mausoleum in the middle of Tiananmen Square, the line to get in stretched for kilometres. I found myself having to battle back the urge to ask the people in line what effect Mao and his policies had on them or their family. The true answer to that would, in all likeliness, be death and sorrow. There was never any chance of hearing such a response though.. When I visited Shenyang, I remember seeing a thirty metre high statue and wondering just why it had not been pulled down the same way those of Lenin and Stalin had twenty years before. Despite living in China for four years, the cult of Mao was something I could never quite comprehend.
After four years, I left the Middle Kingdom and took a job in Turkey. When I arrived I landed in the capital Ankara and was met at the airport by my new boss. As we drove back to the city, we passed a giant building with imposing pillars. To make conversation, I asked "Oh, what is that?" "Ah!" She said. "That is Ataturk's Mausoleum, you will soon get used to hearing about him and seeing his picture, they love him hear."
Ataturk was the First World War hero who helped form the first secular Turkish state and who served as its president until the 1930s. A little quick history reading when I reached my apartment taught me a little more. Ataturk certainly played a major role in Turkish history, but he had died over 60 years ago. Therefore, I was not expecting his place in the national psyche to quite be up there with that of Mao in China. I could not have been more wrong.
I arrived at work for my first and was greeted by scores of pictures of Ataturk. In reception, he gently smiled down from above the main desk. In the office he peered intently from the corner and in some of the classrooms - I work in an education centre – he bore a look that exhibited the kind of intensity that helped him win through at Galipolli and to form the Turkish Republic.
My Ataturk experience certainly was interesting. I could understand the reasons behind the Turks displaying the image a lot more than I could the Chinese and their obsession with Mao. However, in both scenarios, the love of someone whose influence on their society comes very much from the past seemed fascinating. Nowhere did I see pictures of Hu Jintao, and I could not even name the president of Turkey, or pick him out of a line up.