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Abstract

During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) political pilgrimage was a tool for promoting the communist ideal of collectivism. This paper explores the creation in the 1960s by Chairman Mao Zedong of one of the foremost sites of political pilgrimage, the small agricultural commune of Dazhai in north-central China. I argue that in the days of militant atheism, all the factors usually associated with the creation of a religious pilgrimage site were present and utilized to great effect by the communists to create a ‘super symbol’ of China’s desired future. These factors included a miracle, charismatic leadership, altruism, poignant sites of historical significance, rituals of remembrance, and a sacred mission that would inspire the impoverished Chinese masses to strive unceasingly towards the revolution’s goals. Through careful marketing (and propaganda), national leaders sold the Dazhai story to the Chinese people through political speeches and media reporting, and persuasive posters, banners and songs. At its peak, millions of peasants visited the commune, either voluntarily or at the invitation of the state, to learn about Dazhai’s agricultural techniques and the peoples’ spirit of self-sacrifice. In this paper, I describe my own visit to Dazhai from Australia in 1977 and speculate on the long-term legacy of the Dazhai agricultural experiment, and of this political pilgrimage. In contemporary Dazhai, tourists have the opportunity to reflect on the commune’s heroic past, but also to consider the environmental damage caused by a model of development that was rich in revolutionary zeal but poor in science.

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