[08:34 December 24 2010] Comments The Red Sun Choir performs at Beihai Park on October 18 last year. Photo: Benbenxiong By Zhang Lei That Mao Zedong was born within a day of Jesus Christ is seen as no coincidence by some. As the groundbreaking drama Che Guevara that debuted in Beijing 10 years ago states, "God found mankind lives in pain so he made Jesus to save them. "It wasn't enough, so the next day he made Mao Zedong." Other Mao fans have noted that due to the global time difference, December 25 in the West - by which they presumably mean Bethlehem - is actually December 26 in China. "So it is indeed the same day and they were brothers," says Fan Jinggang, founder of Land of Utopia, a bookstore and website advocating the thoughts of Mao. "Poor people consider Mao as a savior and god." Ten scholars famously released a statement urging a boycott of Christmas opposing the erosion of Chinese culture back in 2006. "Chinese people join the Christmas carnival without knowing its origin â€¦ so that our own culture is overshadowed by the trend," it said. Mao Xinyu has publicly commemorated his grandfather's birthday in recent years, even going so far as to suggest last year that the 26th should be a Chinese national holiday. "I hope that Chinese can bear in mind the great leaders of China's founding and widely publicize their achievements and thoughts among the public in numerous ways," he reportedly said. It's OK to commemorate Chairman Mao's 117th birthday but don't go around wishing people "Merry Maomas!" ("Maodanjie kuaile!") says Mao loyalist Cao Zhanjing, 56, who goes every Sunday to catch up with his friends among more than 1,000 middle-aged and elderly people gathered in circles in Jingshan Park (the Coal Hill Park) of Beijing. Cao doesn't like the term "Maomas" because it's derived from Christmas, a Western term, but he sure likes singing red songs to accordion and drum accompaniment. Ladies put on their best smiles while gentlemen warble with gusto to combat the icy winds that blow through this open area near the west door of a park about 200 meters north of the Forbidden City. On the branch of a pine tree not far from where the last emperor of the Ming Dynasty hanged himself in 1644 hangs a new holy trinity: a portrait of Mao with a national flag and a Communist Party flag either side. "How warm to see Chairman Mao again," says a woman in her 50s, looking at the portrait with heartfelt respect painted all over her face. Elderly people socialize here in a free and easy manner, reminiscent of the "good old days." "Compared to the holy god, it's understandable to consider Mao a saint to the Chinese people," says Cao, adding he'd never celebrate Christmas. He Wanping preaches Mao's teachings to the crowd: "We should not only promote Mao's thoughts, but also put them into practice ." Photo: Zhang Lei Confucius' birthday is celebrated in China and abroad and is arguably a better fit were an Asian version of Christmas required. "Confucian thoughts also have drawbacks," Cao quotes Mao religiously. "Preserve the essence and get rid of the scum!" On the 26th he'll visit Mao's Mausoleum to commemorate the Great Helmsman with all his heart. "I will talk over his goodness with my neighbors whenever I get a chance," he says. One of the nearby groups is also discussing a trip to Mao's Mausoleum on December 26 when a man in a People's Liberation Army uniform and a cap from the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution approaches to warn them about the time on December 26, 2005 when he tried to sing hymns to Mao at Tiananmen Square. Police stopped him, says He Wanping. "I consulted the policemen and they said it was illegal," says He, 48, a dairy factory worker. The festive crowds excite Li Na, 57, a newcomer to the friendly congregation. "I grew up listening to Mao's words," she says, "so it was the only spiritual guidance for me." Missing Mao She's still a bit taken aback by the vibrance of the melancholy for Mao. Leading a well-off life after retiring from a state-run organization, Li rarely encounters disgruntled workers living off early-retirement state pensions of between 1,000 and 2,000 yuan ($150 - 300) a month. "It's only natural they'd miss Mao because society was fairer at that time without the wealth gap and we enjoyed simpler pleasures," she says. "The working class, then the master of the nation, now lives at the bottom of society." A Jingshan choir leader announces they are recruiting singers for Mao's 117th birthday and will be rehearsing four songs tonight: "Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman," "Song of Chairman Mao's Quotations," "Unity is Power" and "Our Leader Mao Zedong." Some 30 people volunteer immediately. "There are all kinds of people here," says Cao, a retired worker. Chairman Mao badge pinned to his chest, he isn't hesitant about comparing then and now. "It was far better back in Mao's day when people didn't have to pay for medical services and an education," he says. Though lacking many of today's material advantages, people could survive then even with five children, he says, an impossibility now with the high cost of living. Faking persecution That intellectuals were sent to rural areas to work the fields during the Cultural Revolution, Cao doesn't deny. "They all exaggerated it by saying they got persecuted," he says. "Actually they only worked eight hours, much less than the farmers." Each small crowd has a different-if-similar topic, complaining for example about rampant inflation, the price of housing or vegetables while seeking answers from Mao verses carved on their hearts. "Mao didn't appoint himself as a master," He says. "He told people to be their own masters." A retired worker and ex-soldier named Chen Qing, who claims she is 72 but looks younger, walks up to people asking a rhetorical question that she feels has an obvious answer: "Who is greater: Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping?" Chen's not only annoyed Mao gets criticized today but condemns Deng for dismantling state-owned enterprises and assets. "Now things are done in the interests of a small handful of people, leaving the rest living in pain," she says. Born to a landlord family, she doesn't blame Mao for herself being "affected" during the Cultural Revolution. "Despite all his faults," she says, "No one could deny Mao was indeed a great leader." A retired translator from the Ministry of Geology, Sun Tan pulls out a poem he wrote for the jolly red chairman. In rhyming verse, Sun seethes with disappointment over how today's young scientists lack Mao's miraculous guidance. "The idealism has died in them as they simply conclude it's impossible to achieve difficult tasks," he says, comparing them to 1960s Geology Minister Li Siguang, who predicted earthquakes and located oilfields. Over-commercialization A metallic voice suddenly blares out an inspirational announcement through loudspeakers: "The Communist Party of China Central Committee's decision on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." It's the re-reading of a document released on August 9, 1966, day one of a decade that would eventually go down in history as claiming the lives of 34,800 people - according to the Gang of Four show trial - or 1.5 million, according to Mao's Last Revolution authors Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals. Maomas is unlikely to take off, says Su Zhen, a researcher into urbanization. "Christmas is celebrated in China as only an occasion for shopping, rather than a spiritual demand," he says. "Chinese accepted Christmas back in the 1980s because Western lifestyle stood for a high-quality life at the end of Cultural Revolution." Li Na was 12 that hot summer day in 1966 and still recalls reading aloud the document on the bus all day long. "I earned lots of applause," she says. The Mao crowd at Jingshan does not dissipate until sunset. Meanwhile outside the Landgent Center on the East Third Ring Road in Beijing about 15 people are singing festive red songs from lyric sheets hanging from a small door. Not far off is a cartoon Santa Claus and a five-meter-tall Christmas tree illuminated by the busy streetlights at 8 pm Friday. A man distributes fliers in praise of the Great Helmsman's general greatness and helmsmanship. At the bottom of each is printed the name of a company promoting red songs. Mao's birthday might not be an official festival but it's still honored by many mainlanders 34 years after his death. "We should remind the rest of the world about the birth of Mao and carry forward his thoughts," Cao says. "Society wouldn't be like this if we had stuck to Mao's path." Back in bookstore owner Fan Jinggang's Henan Province hometown, 90 percent of villagers admire Mao and have deep feelings for him, he says. "People who care about social issues also think highly of Mao," Fan says, "because in his time, there wasn't this much social injustice." Different people might have different opinions of Mao, he concedes. "Some say he was a national hero, people's leader or revolutionary mentor, while others say he was a tyrant."