SHAOSHAN, China (AFP) - Thousands of admirers of Communist China's founder Mao Zedong flocked to his home town on Wednesday to bow before his graven image - including one statue of solid gold - before the 120th anniversary of his birth.
Pilgrims from across the country lit firecrackers and offered flowers in Shaoshan, where Mao was born 120 years ago on Thursday, to celebrate a man blamed for tens of millions of deaths but widely viewed as the father of modern China.
"He is a great leader who sacrificed his interests so we could be liberated," said retired teacher Fu Mengnan, after prostrating herself on the ground in front of a giant bronze statue of the leader.
"I have an image of Chairman Mao at home, and bow in front of it every morning and evening," the 56-year-old added, saying: "I think he is a Buddha, and I am wishing him happy birthday to show that I'll never forget him." The anniversary has a special resonance in China, which traditionally measured time in 60-year cycles.
But while Mao's portly grandson Mao Xinyu appeared in Shaoshan on Tuesday, top-level officials seem to have stayed away, in accordance with a call by China's President Xi Jinping for anniversary celebrations to be "simple".
Mao's legacy remains mixed in China, where the ruling party's official stance is that he was "70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong" - and it has never allowed a full historical reckoning of his actions.
Analysts say Mao has emerged as a rallying point for those discontented with rising inequality and rampant corruption, presenting a potential challenge to a leadership which does not tolerate public dissent.
One self-described "Maoist" from the central city of Changsha said he and at least four other people had been prevented from leaving their homes, and had been warned not to hold a discussion forum about Mao.
"The speaker at our event has been detained in his home by the government," said the man, surnamed Liu.
Some in Shaoshan, in the central province of Hunan, expressed a belief that their country had taken the wrong path since Mao's death in 1976.
"There are a lot of problems in today's China, and the way to solve them is with Mao Zedong Thought," said Chen Yaoyao, a man in his forties who wore a red jacket.
"I hope we can realise true Communism in China." In apparent defiance of the President's request, a solid gold statue of the leader worth a reported US$16 million (S$20.3 million) was proudly on display - with a steady stream of admirers kneeling on red cushions to pay it their respects.
Official memorials in Shaoshan, where Mao lived until his teens, celebrate his role as a revolutionary leader and make little reference to his subsequent political initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward, which some overseas historians estimate led to more than 40 million deaths through violence and starvation.
"This place should be hot and noisy, because it's the place where the red sun was born," tour guide Shen Chao told a busload of eager visitors as they rolled through rice fields near Mao's former home.
But earlier, he had confided to AFP: "Mao Zedong is an example of what can happen when power gets out of control. I see him as the last emperor of China."