MAO Zhiming and his wife are a thoroughly modern peasant couple. She is in the refrigerator business while he runs a small joint venture workshop packaging Mao 100th anniversary watches. They live in a newly-completed two-storey villa surrounded by picturesque hills and farmland and have two charming daughters, both of whom plan to go to college when they graduate from high school. The family still grows rice and vegetables on their small plot of land, but often hire labourers from poorer neighbouring villages to bring in the harvest. It is a scene their distant ancestor and the founder of the People's Republic, Mao, would probably have difficulty recognising were he alive today, and it is doubtful if he would approve of the overtly capitalist lifestyle his descendants were leading. When the Great Helmsman last visited his home town in 1966, Shaoshan was still a poor, isolated hamlet, part of a vast commune where any form of private enterprise was strictly forbidden. Even keeping chickens in the backyard was a serious offence. Peasants had no property rights and could not even cook at home, having to eat in huge communal canteens where the food was mediocre, to say the least. Mao's grand communal design may have aimed at improving the lives of all the peasants, but as his descendants rather reluctantly admit, it did not really work out that way. ''There was no incentive to work in the commune so very little ever got done,'' Mr Mao said, however, he quickly added, this was not necessarily the fault of the late chairman. Living standards in Shaoshan only started to improve, he said, when the village was decollectivised and the land divided up equally among the different households in 1980, four years after the chairman's death. With fertile land to till and new market opportunities in the growing tertiary sector to exploit, the residents of Shaoshan rapidly began to acquire wealth previously only available to a few rich landlords. The average per capita income in the village is now well over 1,000 yuan (HK$1,340) a year, significantly more than the national average for rural areas. Nearly every family has managed to build a new house and still has plenty of cash stashed away in the bank. ''Just about everyone here is worth at least 10,000 yuan,'' said Mr Mao, whose own house cost more than 20,000 yuan to complete. Despite their new found wealth, the people of Shaoshan do not tend to flaunt their good fortune. They have no need for fashionable clothes or fancy furnishings. Just about the only sign of ostentation is an occasional gold watch or jade ring. The bulk of family expenditure goes on their children's education. Fees at the local middle school are 200 yuan per term, and increasing all the time. Should their children want to go on to college, parents are looking at an outlay of thousands of yuan. While Mao Zedong is believed to have fathered at least nine children, his relatives in Shaoshan are now restricted to just one, or two if the first child was a girl. Residents say family planning is very strictly enforced. Any parents producing a third child would be fined 4,000 yuan and denied benefits normally accorded families staying within the Government's limits. So far, no one in Shaoshan has dared defy the officials from the family planning department. ''It's just not worth it,'' Mrs Mao said. When the young helmsman was growing up in Shaoshan at the turn of the century, it could take days to reach the provincial capital Changsha, but today it is just a couple of hours drive away and villagers often travel into the city on business or shoppingtrips. Many Shaoshan residents travel further afield in the search for business opportunities. The owner of the famous Mao Family Restaurant, for example, has just opened a new establishment in Beijing which is already proving extremely popular. They may not have satellite television yet, but with soap operas such as A Native of Beijing in New York and Dynasty showing on domestic television, the residents of Shaoshan are already getting a glimpse of life in the capitalist West, something the late chairman never achieved.