WATCHING the outpouring of grief over North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death on YouTube transported me back to China in September 1976, when Mao Zedong, whom we revered as the Great Leader, died.
By Wenguang Huang
I was a middle-school student in the central city of Xi'an. That day, my head teacher interrupted our mathematics class and announced the news with tears. A young and impressionable student, I was overwhelmed in a way I could not understand, as if life itself had been overturned. How could it be possible? Mao was like an immortal to us. The first words I learnt in elementary school were 'ten thousand years to Chairman Mao'.
While Western children sang carols and hymns on Christmas, we celebrated Chairman Mao's birthday on Dec 26 with songs like Chairman Mao Is Our Saviour. My father used to point at his portrait on our living-room wall and explain how his physiognomy set him apart. 'Look at his big forehead, such a sign of greatness. His face and eyes exude kindness. He's no ordinary person. He is heaven-sent.'
At the end of her announcement, my teacher began to wail, as did many of the girls in our classroom. We boys did not know what to do, but, worried that people might think we did not love Mao enough, we tried to squeeze out some tears. But it was hard because, as large as Mao was, we really did not know him.
So I began to think of my grandma, who was sick at home. If Mao could drop dead like this, so could she. My tears became real. Soon, I worked myself into such a frenzy of emotion that I fainted. A school nurse was called to treat me. All of my teachers were impressed by the depth of my grief over Mao. 'I don't know what will happen to us without Chairman Mao,' our head teacher said while sobbing and consoling me. I could tell her tears were genuine.
The school handed out black armbands and white flowers. Thousands of residents, organised by their work units, showed up at the People's Square in downtown Xi'an. They quietly knelt in front of Chairman Mao's portraits first. Then, someone started weeping. Soon, the whole group turned hysterical, beating their chests, screaming and howling, as if they were in a wailing competition.
Following Mao's death, many scholars secretly predicted that China would follow the path of the former Soviet Union, which experienced a political thaw after leader Josef Stalin's death. The predictions proved to be true. An ensuing power struggle enabled the moderate factions within the Communist Party and military to triumph over the radical Mao loyalists, including Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. Thus, China opened its door.
We cautiously looked at the world, realising that what we had been taught to believe was the greatest socialist country in the world was actually one of the poorest countries in the world. We studied the newly leaked information from our historical archives and learnt that our saintly leader was actually a brutal dictator who was responsible for the deaths of millions of people in his political campaigns.
Like the antique treasures excavated from an emperor's tomb in my hometown, Mao's personality cult crumbled when meeting the fresh air. His omnipresent statues were torn down and the billions of lapel pins that bore his image were melted to make cooking utensils.
Even though the current leadership in China still venerates Mao and some people hang his picture in cabs, or plaster it on the walls of businesses as if he were a patron saint for the whole country, the Mao era has long ended.
Thirty-five years have passed, and it is sickening to see the echoes of Mao's tyranny still being played out in North Korea. In the television footage, I found many younger versions of myself among a group of schoolboys in front of a statue of Mr Kim. Several were covering their faces, trying to force out a tear. They knew that if they did not, they or their families could be denounced.
Now, all one can hope for North Korea, it seems, is that the transformation that swept over China after Mao's demise might also take hold in this hermit kingdom that is so punishing to its people.
Mr Kim's death and the ascension of his son Kim Jong Un, a young leader who has no political legitimacy, might provide a rare opportunity for reform-minded leaders to follow the examples of politicians Deng Xiaoping, Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev. They could open up the country to the outside world, allowing economic reforms, which have already been initiated grudgingly in the border regions with China, to blossom further.
Could it also be possible that the younger Mr Kim, educated in the West, might consolidate his power with the help of loyal supporters and drastically change his father's radical domestic and international policies, which have dragged the country down into total misery? If he instead continues with brutal rule, it will not surprise me if, in a few years, he and his family stand trial, as so many other dictators in the world have.
It is often hard to remember how insane the 1970s were, but China, for all its faults now, did emerge from the shadow of Mao's death. I am optimistic that a North Korean Spring or Soviet-style glasnost, or openness, will come soon, and that the organised public wailing and chest-beating over the death of a villain will forever be relegated to history.
The writer is a translator and the author of the forthcoming The Little Red Guard: A Family Memoir.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE