Any prevalent misperceptions about China’s stance on the legacy of its great helmsman - Mao Zedong will be dispelled by the grandeur of Shaoshan, the birth place of Mao Zedong in Hunan Province. Starting from his house, which has developed into a vibrant tourist destination to the statue situated on the Bronze Square, the provincial government has spectacularly capitalized on the leader’s image. The bronze square has in fact become a center for myriad community activities especially, mass weddings. This article probes why is the government, in this case, the provincial government, interfering in a cultural phenomenon like marriage when most of its concerns lie in the socio-political realm? Is it a part of a larger strategy or is it an effort to realign its strategy in the wake of unintended consequences of its social policies?
On 20 November 2011 in the Shaoshan city 50 couples held their wedding ceremonies in the Mao Zedong Square. It is one of the largest ceremonies to be held in Shaoshan and the first ever in this Square which is situated next to Mao’s Memorial Hall. The couples received ‘red certificates’ from the organizing committee and the delegates of the tenth Hunan provincial Congress of the CPC. Simultaneously, the PLAAF soldiers also paid tribute to their strategic mentor while the mass weddings were being conducted in the courtyard.
The combination of a wedding, the air force officers and Mao’s square seem a little mismatched at the first instance; however, myriad objectives of the government lead to this new trend. Given the rising costs of living and marriages in China, the government has been forced to dole out beneficiary schemes in terms of community marriages. Under the scheme of “My Weddings in Shaoshan”, the new community hotlines are offering free participation and online registrations for couples, attracting substantial youngsters. Second, the reasonable cost of RMB 500 per couple is a respite for those families for whom weddings have become a cumbersome task.
The phenomenon also exploits the legend around Mao and his wife Yang Kaihui, who first met at the Hunan First Normal School and began their sojourn together. The gaining popularity of such weddings also reflects the fairy-tale wedding that the youngsters aspire despite their meager means of survival. Thus through this initiative the government aims to reduce the gap between the social aspiration of the youth and the ground realities, thereby reducing associated social evils.
These attempts are also situated in the backdrop of certain social phenomenon: the rise of ‘naked marriages’
(marriages with minimal expenditures), declining marriage rates over all and non-availability of enough brides given the adverse sex ratio. Most of these have resulted as an unintended offshoot of previous policies like the one-child policy, which resulted in the preference for a male-child. Another reason is the realization of the inability of the youth to continue with the traditional marriage practice, that is, the groom’s side providing a house for living and the girl’s side providing other necessities.
The weddings in Shaoshan also differ from previous efforts on similar lines, like the mass weddings for the ethnic minorities on 4 October 2011 where 100 couples of different ethnicities tied knot in Wuhan in their traditional attires or the mass weddings in 2008, as the charm of the wedding specifically revolves around Mao himself. The inclusion of the party leaders and PLAAF members is indicative of the reverence for Mao as a military leader, which continues to be engraved in people’s consciousness. Moreover, the authorities have taken a decision to develop this “my wedding in Shaoshan
” into a ‘red cultural brand’ via the slogan - “starting a happy life from the Holy Red land.” It points to the fact that the Hunan government might be interested in developing this cultural event into a larger economic enterprise by getting the target group to become more politically active.
With more and more young couples deciding their partners on their own, such schemes by the government will make it redundant to get family consent or financial sustenance and thus alter the family structure which is already undergoing a process of change. Long gone are the days of the ‘three letters and the six etiquettes
’ that were a prerequisite for ancient Chinese weddings, or other customary gift-giving practices. The generation next has no inhibitions in exploring new trends in their search for an ideal partner and is willing to experiment with newer ways to solemnize their bonds. On the flipside, since such marriages still require a certain investment, they might prove useful for only certain sections at the middle rung and may leave out the lower rungs from the scope of benefits.
Given the fact that the phenomenon is specifically based around Mao’s charisma, it is unlikely that the Chinese central authorities will try to emulate this in other provinces or carry it out as part of a larger strategy. Rather, it seems more like a corrective measure for the debacles resulting from previous national policies being marketed under a branding effort.