By Carlos Barria
SITONG, China (Reuters) - In a remote part of China, the day starts at the Democracy Elementary and Middle School with a pre-dawn jog, some revolutionary songs and then an activity long-since forgotten at other schools: reciting quotations from Mao Zedong's "Little Red Book".
While the ruling Communist Party that Mao led holds him in esteem as the leader of the Communist Revolution, his radical policies and teachings have been largely shelved since his death in 1976 in favor of a pro-market approach that has turned China from a backwater into the world's second biggest economy.
But for Xia Zuhai, a farmer-turned-educator with thick-rimmed glasses and a toothy, broad smile, there are no teachings more important than those that Mao gave the world.
"Education isn't just for learning practical skills, but it is more importantly for character building, to create good people," said Xia, who founded the school in 1996.
"From the basic level, Mao Zedong Thought is for uprightness, kindness, and greatness ... Mao Zedong Thought is, in reality, about taking people and liberating them from material desires so they can be free and natural people. This was Chairman Mao's greatest educational point."
Lofty though it may be, the message is being ignored by most in China today and that needs to change, he says, echoing a small but vocal contingent of leftists who regularly invoke Mao to criticize the materialism and inequality that have grown since market reforms started in the late 1970s.
The school has about 20 students. Many are poor and their parents placed them in Xia's boarding school for lack of better options. In 2005, it boasted about 600 students, but Xia says it has fallen out of favor in the thrusting China of today.
To be sure, students take classes in maths, English, Chinese and other core subjects at the school in the rural central province of Henan. But Xia puts special emphasis on Mao Thought. The school is largely funded by the government.
Posters of Mao are pasted at the entrance and in classrooms. Students memorize Mao's aphorisms, and Xia tries to drill home the message that to work hard and "Serve The People" is righteous. The school keeps ducks, chickens, goats and a vegetable garden. Farm work is good for teaching Mao's dedication to hard work, he says.
The "Little Red Book" is a pocket-sized collection of quotations from Mao that was first published for the military in the 1960s but became a must-have during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. To most in China today, it is perhaps a curio from a bygone era seen mostly at tourist shops. At the Democracy School the books are dog-eared and well used.
"Eastern culture and Mao Zedong Thought both preach thrift," Xia told Reuters.
"Thrift is good for people ... Only Mao Zedong Thought can save the world."
What about critics who say that in the post-1949 years Mao led the country from one disaster to the another?
Historians say as many as 30 million people died of hunger during the 1958-61 Great Leap Forward, Mao's ill-conceived attempt to industrialize the country at warp speed. Henan was among the worst-affected provinces.
Five years later, the country was thrown into a decade of chaos, infighting and stagnation in the Cultural Revolution.
The official record whitewashes the details of both periods, but it admits that Mao made major mistakes.
"It is difficult to avoid errors in this big of a country, and you could say it is inevitable. Chairman Mao actually committed the least errors," said Xia. The problems were because of people misinterpreting Mao's teachings, he adds.
Mao remains a sensitive topic in a country with growing inequality. Despite previous media coverage of the school by at least one state-run newspaper, local officials were nervous when foreign journalists visited.
Several men who called themselves Xia's friends showed up when Reuters journalists were visiting. They tried to derail, and then monitor and shorten, an interview with Xia. They followed the journalists after the visit, presumably to make sure they were leaving.
The 120th anniversary of Mao's birth is on December 26, and the Communist Party will no-doubt be keeping tabs on public reaction. Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has re-affirmed Mao's importance.
Xia, for his part, has a simple vision of the most appropriate way to celebrate the Great Helmsman's birthday.
"The best way to remember him is to do real acts that serve the people," he said.
"Our nostalgia for Chairman Mao isn't to return to a time of struggle and violence and chaos. We want to return to a time when the skies were blue, the water was clear and when people existed harmoniously with one another."
(Writing by John Ruwitch; Editing by Robert Birsel)