Hua Guofeng tried bravely to fill Mao Zedong’s big shoes after the chairman’s death. It was a daunting challenge but one which he was ready to take head on. Defending his position, Hua Guofeng stood squarely in his rival’s path. He styled himself after the chairman and used as his trump card the fact that Mao had personally selected him as his successor. But, by 1978, Hua Guofeng’s luck was already beginning to run low.
Altering Mao’s Statement
The first inkling that Hua Guofeng was in for some serious trouble came in the spring of 1978. In the city’s main thoroughfare, Chang’an Boulevard, a little ways east of Tiananmen Square, there was a sizeable knot of 30 or 40 young men gathered near the base of a very large billboard.
Everyone was looking up at a group of workmen on a scaffold. They were changing the billboard’s display, pasting one vertical panel after another over the freshly whitewashed surface.
By the time the second of the five panels had been pasted down, it was evident that the new poster was an artist’s idealized rendering of the now-famous deathbed scene of Hua Guofeng receiving Mao’s benediction: “Ni ban shi, wo fang xin” (With you in charge, my heart rests easy).
But before the sixth and final panel was unrolled and pasted down, a young man turned to his equally youthful companions and, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, completed the six-word phrase by substituting an entirely different final character, thereby giving the phrase a completely altered meaning. What he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, was “Ni ban shi, wo fang pi”—“With you in charge, I fart.” There was an immediate ripple of laughter that went throughout the crowd.
Now, such a gleeful public display of scatological irreverence might not have been remarkable in many other countries, but in post-Mao China, it was nothing short of stunning.
Learn more about Mao’s ‘cult of personality’.
Punished for Innocuous Offenses against Mao Zedong
During the Cultural Revolution, people had been struggled against, beaten, and imprisoned for far more innocuous offenses against the supreme leader, Mao Zedong.
Punishable acts of lese majeste in the late 1960s included one man’s ‘crime’ of wrapping fresh fish in a newspaper containing Chairman Mao’s photo, so that the fish oil leaked through and smeared Mao’s picture. For the crime of defacing Mao’s image, the man received a multi-year prison sentence.
Another incident involved an Australian journalist in China who was struggled by Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution for the crime of idly drawing a cartoon depicting Charley Brown’s dog Snoopy jumping up and down, clicking his heels together, yelling “Long Live Chairman Mao!”.
A Red Guard had happened to see the cartoon. Believing it to be deliberately demeaning to the Great Helmsman, he told other members of his group about it.
Later that night the group of Red Guards stormed into the cartoonist’s hotel room and detained him. After an all-night struggle session, they finally let him go—but not before they forced him to write a ‘confession’ in which he humbly apologized for giving offense to Chairman Mao.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
A Short Reign
Thus, the very idea that a young man could publicly crack an impious bathroom joke at the expense of China’s supreme leader, Hua Guofeng, was shocking. Even worse was the fact that a crowd of teenagers could openly laugh at such a joke.
What it suggested was that Hua’s Guofeng’s attempt to create a personality cult to emulate that of Mao Zedong had failed to gain much traction with the public. It seemed that the reign of the “Wise Leader,” Chairman Hua Guofeng, was likely to be a short and rather rocky one.
Nevertheless, and despite the obvious, unflattering comparisons with his illustrious predecessor, Hua Guofeng worked hard to establish his credentials as a far-sighted economic reformer.
Learn more about Mao’s shakeup of high-level politicians.
Hua Guofeng’s Grand Plan
Recognizing that China’s economy had been stagnant for about two decades, and that Mao’s policy of self-reliance had effectively cut China off from the advanced economies of the industrialized world, Hua Guofeng formulated a grand plan for a dynamic Chinese economic recovery, which he called the ‘Four Modernizations’.
Hua continued with his ambitious and well-intended but ultimately ill-starred efforts to modernize the Chinese economy, keeping his fingers crossed and hoping to play a long innings.
Common Questions about Hua Guofeng Walking the Shaky Path in Post-Mao China
The young man substituted the final character in Mao‘s statement to Hua Guofeng. Instead of “Ni ban shi, wo fang xin”, he said, “Ni ban shi, wo fang pi”. The meaning changed from “With you in charge, my heart rests easy” to “With you in charge, I fart”.
During the Cultural Revolution, people had been struggled against, beaten, and imprisoned for harmless offenses against the supreme leader, Mao Zedong. For example, a man was punished for the ‘crime’ of wrapping fresh fish in a newspaper containing Chairman Mao’s photo, causing the fish oil to leak and smear Mao Zedong’s picture. For the crime of defacing Mao’s image, the man received a multi-year prison sentence.
The Australian journalist in China had committed the crime of idly drawing a cartoon depicting Charley Brown’s dog Snoopy jumping up and down, clicking his heels together, yelling “Long Live Chairman Mao!”.