Altars in the temples held photos of Mao or statues, one more than three feet high, the official said by telephone from Shaoshan. Thousands of items have been seized from stores and roadside souvenir stands that depict Mao as a halo-crowned Buddhist saint or a Chinese folk god bestowing wealth, he said.
The official said Communist Party leaders in the town decided to act from growing alarm at the appearance of "superstitious activities" involving Mao, who died in 1976. They have also banned the burning of incense and specially printed paper money before images of Mao, he said. Both are traditional Chinese ways of appeasing spirits of the dead.
The crackdown comes amid a push by Beijing to wrap up a 2-year-old effort to crush the Falun Gong spiritual group, and just days before hundreds of thousands of Chinese are expected to visit Shaoshan during week-long celebrations of China's Oct. 1 National Day. The holiday marks the date in 1949 when Mao declared the official founding of the People's Republic of China. The dirt-floored farmhouse where Mao was born in 1893 is a popular tourist destination.
Mao has crept into the pantheon of kitchen gods and guardian deities of Chinese folk religion over the past decade. Under Mao, the communist government tried to stamp out traditional religion, which he blamed for China's backwardness. But Mao allowed a cult of personality to flourish around himself. It reached the level of religious adoration in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when thousands of young Red Guards gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to chant Mao's name.
Folk religions reappeared in the late 1980s to help fill the spiritual void left by China's rejection of orthodox Marxism. Mao's smiling face appeared on good luck charms that drivers hung from rearview mirrors to protect them from accidents. "Worship of Mao has come back in the guise of folk culture. It says something about the durability of China's low culture," said Orville Schell, dean of the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of several books on China.