Divine Presence in Xishuangbanna

“People see him as a God.” The words hung in the air like the thick, muggy humidity that is typical of the densely forested landscape of southern Xishuangbanna. Sam and I stood there silently staring at a picture of one of the most famous men of the 20th century. It was late afternoon, and the coffee table sized picture of a man, who is inseparable from the identity of modern China, hung tightly to a wall post of an uncompleted gate towards the center of a small Dai village. In the west, we grew up having very mixed feelings about this man, and even though I was born in the after the Cold War years, I was still well aware of the ‘democracy vs. Communism’ narrative, that seemed to signify the struggles and conflicts in the post WWII era world. Before coming to China my preconceptions were clear, I knew about the Cultural Revolution, the consequences of The Great Leap Forward and moreover, the human rights issues that correlated in a less than positive approval rating in many westerner’s minds which included my own. But what about the Chinese people themselves? What do they think about Mao Zedong?

Sam, my guide and interpreter, with his pitch black hair and darker skin tone that often differentiates the Dai people and other minority groups in Yunnan Province from the Han Chinese, gave me a clear and astounding answer. “He is seen as a father, a God.”

The pictures of the legendary Chinese Communist party founder were posted everywhere throughout the Dai village settled in the valley of the mountains in a region that feels much more like a southeast Asian country rather than typical China. I found it ironic for there to be so many of these pictures amongst a group, known for its spirituality. As my mind was pondering the steep complexity of Sam’s response to my question, I finally blurted out and remarked,

“Why? What about the cultural revolution? When the Buddhist temples were burnt and the monks beaten?”

Sam, in his usual response to my questions pertaining to politics and other things not associated with Dai culture and Theravada Buddhism (which was his specialty and why I hired him) shrugged indifferently, and said, “That was a long time ago, most people have forgotten now.”

Before we moved on from the picture and made our way up a dragon style staircase to the town’s Theravada Buddhist temple, a thought crossed my mind that i dared not utter but remained with me long after I left China and Asia, “Mao once said religion is poison. Now he’s revered as a God…is he turning in his grave?”


Readers Note: This story is not meant to be taken as a opinion or criticism of China, it is simply a musings of a time and experience I had there. The truth is, and I write on this in another article, I was also amazed at how much I learned about the many positive things the Chinese government has done for minority groups in Yunnan Province. In the end, an outsiders perspective, can only be taken as an outsiders perspective 🙂

Leave a Reply