As the ruling Chinese Communist Party stepped up the pressure on the country's institutions to resist Christmas, considered a foreign cultural import, Chinese people paid their respects to late supreme leader Mao Zedong on Monday, the anniversary of his birth on Dec. 26, 1893.
In a country that now boasts a nationwide Mao-themed restaurant franchise and where the Mao Zedong museum in his hometown of Shaoshan sees more than eight million visitors a year, Mao is an enduringly popular figure, in spite of presiding over mass famine and 10 years of political violence known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Photos recently obtained by RFA from the Chairman's home province of Hunan showed people honoring him at impromptu shrines to Mao in Taoist and Buddhist temples.
In one, a seated figure of Mao sits under a canopy of imperial yellow adorned with red stars.
Flanked by figures in People's Liberation Army uniforms, Mao's statue presides over an altar where people have left tightly packed incense sticks to burn, as well as offerings of fresh flowers and paper money usually burned for one's ancestors.
In another, a temple visitor kneels in front of a gilded statue of Mao, which stands, one arm raised in salute, in the same room as Taoist protector deity Taisui Laojun.
And in a third, a man is shown saluting a Mao statue in what appears to be an improptu Buddhist shrine in a residential apartment.
According to state media, some 180 statues of Mao remained in key locations across China on the 123rd anniversary of his birth on Monday.
"To celebrate his birthday, people pay tribute to statues of the chairman and hold various commemorative activities," the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the Communist Party, reported.
Any statue of Mao is strictly vetted, and must comply with state guidelines, the paper said.
Official media promote Mao's image
Statues should be 7.1 meters tall, in a reference to the founding of the Communist Party on July 1, while the total height must recall his birth-date, at 12.26 meters.
"The statues must show Mao standing, either waving the right hand or with his hands at his back," it said.
Not everyone complies, however.
A stainless steel Mao statue was raised at Chongqing Medical University in 2008 that measured nearly 40 meters in height, at a cost of around U.S.$720,000, according to the Global Times.
And official media continue to promote Mao's image, with regular features about pilgrimages to his birthplace, or young couples who choose to get married under his fixed gaze.
But not all the grief at Mao's loss was stage-managed, and many ordinary people still genuinely miss the Mao era, according to 82-year-old Liu Jinhua from Leshan in the eastern province of Shandong.
However, the party's attitude to the ongoing Mao cult is still highly ambivalent, he said.
"The central government brought out a document which sought to repudiate Mao's legacy," Liu said in an interview on Monday. "Blogger Wuyou Zhixiang wrote a blog post suggested we honor [Mao's birthday] as the People's Day."
"[The powers that be] got in touch with him to say that it was OK to hold commemorative events, but not to call it the People's Day," he said.
"They said the central government would never agree to having Mao's birthday made into a national holiday."
Xi Jinping has his own cult
Zhang Zuren, a collector of Mao memorabilia based in the southeastern province of Fujian, said Mao is still remembered as a strong leader by many in China although he "made some mistakes during the Cultural Revolution."
"He kept launching political mass movements, like the Cultural Revolution," said Zhang.
"This reversed China's progress, but his successes ultimately outweighed his mistakes," he said, using a formula that has become established Communist Party doctrine in Beijing. "His failures made up 30 percent of his record."
An online commentator who gave only her surname Song said this is in part because the authorities fear Mao's image could become a focal point for dissatisfaction with the current government.
"There are a lot of people who aren't very happy with their lives, nor with the government," she said. "They want to set Mao up as a sort of deity, so as to hark back to days gone by."
"It also reflects the fact that people are aware of how corrupt officials are nowadays, and lack the purity of officials in days gone by."
According to political commentator Wei Pu, Mao's popularity has come in waves since his death in 1976 sent the country into mass mourning, heralding a new era of economic reform and a bid by party leaders to distance themselves from his legacy.
"The administration of [President] Xi Jinping has played a role in fueling this latest round of Mao fever," Wei wrote in a commentary aired on RFA's Cantonese Service at last year's anniversary.
In public, Xi has stuck to the party line that Mao was a great leader who made some "serious mistakes," telling a gathering of dignitaries for the 120th anniversary celebrations that the Chairman was human, not divine, and shouldn't be worshiped as such.
"But we have seen that Xi Jinping's adminstration has denounced any criticism of Mao Zedong or the Communist Party's legacy as historical nihilism in recent years," Wei wrote.
He said Xi's suppression of any criticism of the government in the state-run media is more complete than ever before, and that the president is well on the way to setting up his own personality cult in Mao's stead.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service and Goh Fung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.