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Chairman's popularity in decline for years, but presence still felt in his hometown

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Mao’s old house is massive. The Chairman began his life in a mansion (by 20th-century Chinese peasant standards) in the village of Shaoshan, 90 kilometres southwest of Changsha in the Hunan province. For less than a dollar, tourists can poke around Mao’s old bedroom and explore the legend of one of the 20th century’s most illustrious leaders.

The yellow brick farmhouse still stands, guarded by a few tired-looking members of the People’s Liberation Army who shelter themselves from the rain with umbrellas. A slow stream of domestic tourists flows through the entranceway to the tile-roofed building, pausing to learn about the leader’s mythic personality.

From 1936 to 1945, the Chinese Communist Party exploded from the rice paddies surrounding Shaoshan. In those nine years, party membership grew from 7,000 to over 1.2 million and formed an alternative government in Northern China.

Today, none of that fervour remains in Mao’s house. Although labeled a site of national interest, Mao’s falling reputation in his homeland has resulted in fewer pilgrims. In the past, thousands flocked to the house to purchase tiny red and gold Mao charms to hang from the rear-view mirrors in their cars. Smokers lit their cigarettes with Mao-emblazoned lighters. While tacky souvenir stands still line the entranceway to the site, most wares seem more kitsch than inspirational.

The building was built by Mao’s grandfather, a poor peasant, in 1878. At that time it housed two families, one in each of the two wings. As Mao’s father, an industrious peasant named Mao Jen-shen, become more successful, he added rooms and bought a tile roof.

At age six, Mao began working the farm and the surrounding three acres of land, teaching himself to swim in nearby lotus ponds. Entering the village primary school two years later, Mao studied until 1907 before rejoining his family on the farm, where he worked another three years. In 1910, Mao left the Shaoshan home again to study. He split his time between two teachers: an unemployed law student and an elderly Chinese scholar. Reading classical literature and contemporary newspaper articles, Mao learned both Confucian and modern ideas. After completing his education, Mao traveled widely in China.

As if waiting for Mao to return one final time, the train station now welcomes visitors with a massive portrait of the Chairman and a recorded version of "The East is Red". Spread throughout the town are various monuments to its famous ex-resident, including a huge bronze statue set in the main town square. The flower boxes around the image are carefully picked free of weeds and bloom in brilliant yellow, pink and red. Nearby garbage cans are emptied regularly and the streets are swept clean.

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