Sun, 16 Mar 2003

Ailing 'Little Mao' seeks paternity truth after 68 years

Bill Smith, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Beijing

As the daughters of Communist China's founding father, Mao Zedong, discuss party policy in plush Beijing meeting rooms, state media treat them as minor celebrities.

Li Min and Li Na were among more than 2,000 delegates digesting party leaders' reports this week at China's top advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

But the two CPPCC members may not be Mao's only surviving daughters. Two British men retracing the 1934-35 "Long March" have discovered an ailing, illiterate 68-year-old woman who wonders if she, too, is a child of China's "Great Helmsman".

Xiong Huazhi grew up in an adoptive Miao minority family in Weixin county, a poor area of Yunnan province some 1,700 kilometers southwest of Beijing.

Last year her daughter and son-in-law told Xiong they believed she may be the child that Mao and his third wife, He Zizhen, abandoned on the Long March in February 1935.

Xiong's adoptive father gave her the nickname Maomei, formed by the two characters for Mao Zedong and "little sister". But Xiong says she and her family made no connection between her name and that of the Chinese leader.

When her daughter Yang Tingyu and son-in-law Xiong Minghu told her of new research by a local party official, suggesting she could be Mao's daughter, Xiong Huazhi was shocked. Her chronic liver cirrhosis worsened dramatically and she spent one month in hospital after her liver haemorrhaged.

"Mao Zedong and He Zizhen are great people. We shouldn't say this without proper evidence," Xiong Huazhi told her family.

Last June the family wrote to the county government asking them to help arrange a DNA test to establish if Xiong Huazhi is Mao's daughter. They say they have heard only that the issue has been "passed up the line" and have received no official response.

"We still hope the local government can help us solve this," Yang told Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

The modern Long Marchers, Ed Jocelyn and Andy McEwen, visited Xiong Huazhi recently at the home she shares with the second of her three daughters in a mountain village 20 kilometers from Weixin. A portrait of Mao hangs on the wall but there is no picture of He, McEwen said.

Jocelyn and McEwen are following the same 368-day, 9,000- kilometer route as the 4,000 survivors of 80,000 Communist troops who left Yudu, in the eastern Jiangxi province, in October 1934.

They aim to become the first foreigners to walk the entire route since German Comintern adviser Otto Braun arrived in northern China with Mao in 1935.

The British duo are recording an oral history of the march from elderly witnesses and participants. Finding Xiong is one of the highlights of the 2,500 kilometers they have already completed.

"It was an exciting meeting," Jocelyn said after visiting Xiong. "But it's entirely possible that we just sat down and had tea with a 68-year-old Miao peasant."

Mao is known to have fathered at least nine children, five of them with He Zizhen, who was just 18 when she married 35-year-old Mao. Three of their children were lost or abandoned and a fourth died in infancy, according to Philip Short's biography Mao: A Life, leaving Li Min as their only known heir.

He Zizhen was among the few dozen women who left Jiangxi with the Communists' central armies. Some accounts say the party ruled that women who became pregnant must give away their children to local peasants, though others say Mao decided to give away the child.

"It is true that He Zizhen and Mao Zedong abandoned one child during the Long March," said historian Wang Zhangwei of the Communist Party School in Beijing. "But I've never heard the story of Xiong Huazhi. It's difficult to judge whether such a thing is true."

It is also known that the Communist troops gave away a baby in the Weixin area, said Guo Zhangqiong, director of the Zhaxi (Weixin) Meeting Memorial Museum, which marks an important party meeting during the Long March. But is not certain if it was Mao and He's child, Guo said.

"People in the area guessed that an old Miao minority woman is the daughter, but there's no firm evidence," Guo said, noting that the former nurse, though illiterate, stood out as a "very capable woman" who attended the Yunnan provincial People's Congress in the 1960s.

Xiong was reportedly given to three families in succession and took her surname from the head of the third family. The time of her birth seems to be right and no one else has claimed to be Mao and He's lost daughter, Guo said.

"When she was young she (Xiong) had bright white teeth and her eyes were different from local people's," she said. "Some people say her eyes are like Mao's."

Xiong's father told her to memorize her date of birth: Sept.6, 1936.

After his death in 1944, her mother said Xiong was actually born in February 1935 but asked her to keep the date secret. Xiong told her family she was given away in 1947 as a tongyangxi, a name given to girls who served in wealthier families in preparation for marriage into the household.

The possibility of any new evidence emerging seems slim. "The place she lived in (as a child) was knocked down 20 years ago," said Yang, 38, a kindergarten teacher in Weixin.

As Xiong Huazhi waits for an answer to her family's request for a DNA test, the shock of learning she may be the daughter of the man still revered as the founder of modern China, and the subsequent attention from local people, appear to have left her disturbed and confused, McEwen said.

"I think the children may have raced to conclusions. Now it's too late and her peace of mind is shattered," he said of Xiong. "Right now, she doesn't know who she is."