YAN'AN, CHINA (REUTERS).- Sculptor Wang Wenhai has dedicated his life to one man - China's controversial former paramount leader Mao Zedong.
Since Mao's death in 1976, Wang has made well over 2,000 sculptures of the "Great Helmsman," most of them from the soft, red clay dug from the nearby hills. A terracotta army of miniature Maos fills his tiny flat and studio in Yan'an.
Wang, now 60, worked for two decades as a Mao Zedong thought propagator in Yan'an, a gritty north-western Chinese city which the Communist Party made their base for 13 years before taking control of China in 1949.
"Because I used to work as a Mao Zedong thought propagator and spent all day promoting him, I have seen a huge number of .Chairman Mao portraits and file photos," Wang told Reuters.
"Every photo of Mao has left a deep impression in my head. So when I make a Chairman Mao, I don't have to think much, it just comes out through my hands," he said.
Wang first made Mao en masse when he produced 1,300 statues in the years leading up to the late chairman's 100th birthday in 1990. Though production has slowed down since, making the leader's image is still effortless.
Every sculpture is unique, but Wang and his wife, Wang Yanhua, make sure Mao's signature mole is never absent from his chin.
Wang grew up in an era when almost every artist made images of Mao, though many leapt on other subjects when ideological grip weakened after his death.
His small sculptures sell to individual buyers for several hundred yuan (tens of U.S. Dollars), while one of his two meter high iron casts has sold for over 100,000 yuan ($15,000).
Ninety years since the Chinese Communist Party was founded on July 1, 1921, Mao is still revered by many, above all for uniting the huge country after his People's Liberation Army defeated the ruling Nationalists and declared "New China."
But he is also blamed for the deaths of tens of millions of people due to the famine sparked by his disastrous Great Leap Forward, and the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.
After more than three decades of landmark economic reforms that followed his death, Mao and Maoism are now more symbolic than anything else in the world's second biggest economy.
"It's natural that people will have different opinions of Chairman Mao. But in the end, I believe he was a great man," said Wang.
"I think people should always cherish and remember Mao Zedong thought, especially his ideals of serving the people, and having their best interests at heart."
Despite the mixed legacy, Mao tourism is still big business.
Busloads of tourists flock to Yan'an to walk through the humble cave houses in which Mao and other leaders plotted the revolution. His simple bed, now sealed off, is strewn with unlit cigarettes left as offerings by red pilgrims.
"We learn a lot about Chairman Mao through our studies and in day to day life. And we know he opened a new page in China's history," said 21-year-old student Yan Mengling.
"In my heart, he is always the Great Helmsman."
But others still cannot forget the chaos and brutal purges of the final years of Mao's rule.
"If he saw someone in the way, or saw a threat to China, he would immediately use slogans or other means to stir up the people's emotions against them," said a tourist who only gave his family name, Dong.
"He would side-step the law and directly get rid of anyone he wanted. This was a huge mistake of his, and it still hurts us today."
(Reporting by Reuters Television; editing by Elaine Lies)