SHAOSHAN, China - Thousands of admirers of Communist China's founder Mao Zedong flocked to his home town Wednesday to bow before his graven image - including one statue of solid gold - before his 120th birth anniversary.
Pilgrims from across the country lit firecrackers and offered flowers in Shaoshan, where Mao was born 120 years ago Thursday, to celebrate a man blamed for tens of millions of deaths but widely viewed as the father of modern China.
"He is a great leader who sacrificed his interests so we could be liberated," said retired teacher Fu Mengnan, after prostrating herself on the ground in front of a giant bronze statue of the leader.
"I have an image of Chairman Mao at home, and bow in front of it every morning and evening," the 56-year-old added. "I think he is a Buddha, and I am wishing him happy birthday to show that I'll never forget him."
The 12-decade anniversary has a special resonance in China, which traditionally measured time in 60-year cycles.
But while Mao's portly grandson Mao Xinyu appeared in Shaoshan on Tuesday, he was joined by merely provincial-level officials, in accordance with a call by President Xi Jinping for anniversary celebrations to be "simple".
Mao's legacy remains a divisive topic in China, where the ruling Communist Party's official stance is that he was "70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong" - and it has never allowed an open historical reckoning of his actions.
Political initiatives launched by Mao such as the "Great Leap Forward," and the "Cultural Revolution" led to more than 40 million deaths through violence and starvation, according to some Chinese and foreign estimates.