Watching the outpouring of grief over Kim Jong-il’s death in Pyongyang, North Korea, on YouTube transported me back to China in September 1976, when Mao Zedong, whom we revered as the Great Leader, died.

I was a middle-school student in the central city of Xian. That day, my head teacher interrupted our math class and announced the news with tears. A young and impressionable student, I was overwhelmed in a way I could not understand, as if life itself had been overturned. How could it be possible? Mao was like an immortal to us. The first words that I had learned in elementary school were “Ten Thousand Years to Chairman Mao.”

While Western children sang carols and hymns on Christmas, we celebrated Chairman Mao’s birthday on Dec 26 with songs like “Chairman Mao Is Our Savior.” My father used to point at Chairman Mao’s portrait on our living room wall and explain how his physiognomy set him apart. “Look at his big forehead, such a sign of greatness. His face and eyes exude kindness. He’s no ordinary person. He is heaven-sent.”

At the end of her announcement, my teacher began to wail, as did many of the girls in our classroom. We boys didn’t know what to do, but, worried that people might think we didn’t love Chairman Mao enough, we tried to squeeze out some tears. But it was hard because, as large as Mao was, we really didn’t know him.

So I began to think of my grandma, who was sick at home. If Chairman Mao could drop dead like this, so could she. My tears became real. Soon, I worked myself into such a frenzy of emotion that I fainted. A school nurse was called to treat me. All of my teachers were impressed by the depth of my grief over Chairman Mao. “I don’t know what will happen to us without Chairman Mao,” our head teacher sobbed while consoling me. I could tell her tears were genuine.

The school handed out black armbands and white flowers. Nobody dared laugh or joke. Wherever we went, there were portraits of Mao, draped in black and surrounded by white paper wreaths. Thousands of residents, organised by their work units, showed up at the People’s Square in downtown Xian. They quietly knelt in front of Chairman Mao’s portraits first. Then, someone started weeping. Soon, the whole group turned hysterical, beating their chests, screaming and howling, as if they were in a wailing competition.

In a sense, they were competing to see who was more loyal to Chairman Mao. Big posters went up wherever there was enough space for them: “The spirit of Chairman Mao will stay with us forever” or “Eternal glory to the Great Leader and Teacher Mao Zedong.” All entertainment in the city was banned. All day long, loudspeakers broadcast the same loop of mournful music. In our school, each class selected four students to stand around a makeshift Mao altar in four-hour shifts. I felt it a tremendous honour when I was chosen.

In a culture that frowned upon open displays of emotion at home or in public as frivolous, funerals provided a rare exception. In fact, the louder one’s wailing and the more dramatically you conducted yourself - chest and feet stomping and thrusting oneself toward the casket - the more respect you gained. It showed your deep love for the deceased.

In the case of Chairman Mao, displays of grief were a political necessity. At my father’s company, the president and other officials prepared for Mao’s memorial services late one night. Some passing workers reported the incident to the local public security bureau, accusing the company president of lacking revolutionary feelings for Chairman Mao and taking pleasure in a national catastrophe. Subsequently, he was placed under investigation and forced to make one “self-criticism” after another at staff meetings.

Looking back, it was ironic that Mao had spent his whole life preaching that humans were mortals and that there was no spirit left after death, yet in death, his designated successor elevated him to a godlike status, an immortal like the great emperors of China who presided over dynasties.  On the day of Mao’s memorial service in Beijing, there was pouring rain. My teacher said somberly, “It always happened in the past when an emperor died.” We children were too young to share her sentiments. While listening to the live radio broadcast of the memorial service, a classmate of mine farted. We all started giggling. The student eventually was spared expulsion after his mother, a head nurse at a hospital, presented medical records to show he had a digestive disorder.

Following Mao’s death, many scholars secretly predicted that China would follow the path of the Soviet Union, which experienced a political thaw after Stalin’s death. The predictions proved to be true. Hua Guofeng, whom Mao had designated as the country’s new leader, was a relatively unknown figure. The state media fabricated his credentials and lavished praise on him. The country addressed Hua as the “Wise Leader" and was urged to pledge loyalty to him. However, his lack of political experience soon fuelled a power struggle, which eventually enabled the moderate factions within the Communist Party and military to triumph over the radical Mao loyalists, including Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Thus, China opened its door.

Thirty-five years have passed, and it is sickening to see the echoes of Mao’s rule still being played out in North Korea. In the TV footage, I found many younger versions of myself among a group of schoolboys in front of a Kim Jong-il statue. Several were covering their faces, trying to force out a tear. They knew that if they didn’t, they or their families could be denounced.

I also saw the likenesses of my parents and my teachers - some were truly saddened at the loss of a demigod, while others resorted to funeral histrionics out of fear. At this moment, all one can hope for North Korea. Kim Jong-il’s death and the ascension of his son Kim Jong-un, a young leader who has no political legitimacy, might provide a rare opportunity for the reform-minded leaders to follow the examples of Deng Xiaoping, Nikita S. Khrushchev and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and open up the country to the outside world, allowing economic reforms, which have already been initiated grudgingly in the border regions with China, to blossom further.

Could it also be possible that Kim Jong-un, educated in the West, might consolidate his power with the help of loyal supporters and drastically change his father’s radical domestic and international policies, which have dragged the country down into total misery? If he instead continues with brutal rule, it won’t surprise me if, in a few years, he and his family stand trial, as so many other dictators in the world have.           –NY Times