Shaoshan, China

Like visitors at George Washington's estate in Mount Vernon, Va., people come to Shaoshan village deep in the heart of China to remember and teach their children about their national hero.

He launched the Long March, an estimated 3,750-mile epic exploit as central to the story of China as the Boston Tea Party is to America. He fought warlords, the Japanese and the U.S.-supported Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. On Oct. 1, 1949, he stood in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the birth of a new China.
China: An April 13 Travel section article reported an incorrect Web address for the Huatian Hotel in Changsha, China. The correct website for the hotel is —

He was Mao Tse-tung.

In the West, however, he is remembered as the instigator of bloody purges, disastrous agrarian reforms and that heinous episode of national self-violation known as the Cultural Revolution. The first sentence of "Mao: The Unknown Story," a unilaterally condemning biography of the Chinese leader published in 2005 by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, puts it this way: "Mao . . . who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world's population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other 20th century leader."

There is no hint of this at his immaculately preserved birthplace in Shaoshan, the first stop on a trip across China I took last spring to try to resolve in my own mind the apparently irreconcilable contradictions that surround Mao's legacy and modern China. If I were ever to understand why the Communist government acts as it does in matters as consequential as press freedom, the recent crackdown on protesters in Tibet and its vilification of the Dalai Lama, it seemed necessary to me, as a foreigner, to try see China's recent past as the Chinese might see it.

Historians and political scientists have been analyzing these questions since Mao died in 1976. But travelers also can study politics and history by visiting places where important -- and, in this case, still debated -- events occurred that changed history in China and in the world.

The Chinese tourism administration encourages travelers to visit revolutionary war era memorials. In 2005, museums opened all along the route of the Long March, which ended in 1935. The arduous trek took the Red Army from compromised Communist strongholds in the south to the dusty town of Yanan in northeast-central China.

But few foreign visitors add these places to their China itineraries, partly because many of the landmarks are in remote regions. Then too, Westerners may know little about China's long, bitter and -- some would claim, ongoing -- struggle for freedom.

Mao's birthplace

Mao's idyllic-looking childhood home nestles in a narrow green valley shouldered by rice paddies a two-hour drive southwest of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. His modest primary school is close to the entrance, overlooking a pond where I imagined the boy swimming. Like books, it was a lifelong passion.

From there a winding path leads to a tidy, 13-room farmhouse where Mao and his two younger brothers worked under the sharp eyes of their father, a comfortably well-off farmer. A steady stream of visitors -- mostly old people and students -- crowded into the room where Mao, the first surviving son, was born in 1893 on a now-fragile-looking canopy bed to a mother who practiced Buddhism and did housework on bound feet.

One of China's countless heroic statues of the chairman stands at the center of a pavilion outside Shaoshan. Nearby is his clan's peak-roofed ancestral temple, where Mao started a night school for farmers in 1917, an early effort to mobilize China's rural poor whose hard, hopeless lives were dramatized in Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1931 novel, "The Good Earth."

At a time when the Moscow-educated bosses of the fledgling Chinese Communist Party were trying to get the revolution started in Shanghai, Beijing and other big cities, Mao saw that real change could come only from the countryside, supported by millions of Chinese peasants.

When I asked my guide what she thought about Mao, she repeated the official assessment rendered by the Communist Party five years after his death. Mao was 30% wrong and 70% right, a stunning moral quantification now taught to schoolchildren and parroted by the Chinese media.

In Changsha, a burgeoning city with a population of about 6 million, I caught glimpses of the as-yet-unquantified Mao, an unusually tall youth who loved to eat fermented bean curd, composed poetry and, according to local lore, mastered the neat trick of reading history books while swimming in the Xiang River.

He attended Hunan Fourth Provincial Normal School (later the First Normal School), a European-style compound devoted to teacher training. There he met and married Yang Kaihui, the daughter of one of his professors. But shortly after Mao led a failed Communist attack on Changsha in 1930, Yang was executed and their three sons were given to relatives.