Classic portraiture: Mao Zedong as he would like to be remembered by history
In summer I like to wear one of my favourite t shirts, bought in fashionable Shanghai clothing store Shirt Flag several years ago. One of their best sellers, it features a smiling elderly Mao Zedong in bright red and orange on a plain background of black. On this particular occasion I was accosted by the small, ancient Chinese lady who manned the organic vegetable stand at our local produce market. "Why you have him on your shirt?" she asked me. "Not good. This was a very bad man".
Mao Zedong is regarded as an iconoclastic figure in modern world history and was named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century by Time Magazine. Responsible for the Cultural Revolution and leader of China’s Communist Party between 1943 and 1976, he helped to establish the People's Republic of China and effectively led the country until his death in 1976. Ultimately though, he is seen as a controversial and divisive figure. He was a womaniser and a tyrant responsible for the deaths of between 40 and 70 million Chinese people and his reformist Marxist policies caused severe famine and irreparable damage to the culture and society of China. Today, however, Mao is undergoing an unprecedented rise in popularity throughout the world. His image, like that of Che Guevara, has transcended itself and his radical policies of peasant reform to become a part of western pop culture and a market leader in the antiques and collectibles market.
Chairman Mao in the popular press. Scanned from an original poster bought in Shanghai from the collection of a government press journalist. Photo credit: Kashgar
After Mao’s death in 1976 the Chinese government began a series of free market economic reforms and distanced themselves from his policies. As less recognition was given to the status of Mao, so too did his public profile decline. His statues were removed from civic areas and while his portrait appeared in the mid-1990s on all new renminbi currency, this was regarded as an anti-counterfeiting measure rather than as a mark of respect. In 2006, all mentions of Mae Zedong but one were removed from senior high school books; today Chinese students only learn of him in junior high school.
In spite of this, Mao’s cult of personality has flourished enormously over the years. During the Cultural Revolution Mao's took great care to ensure that his image was glorified and that his name became synonymous with the working class’s struggle against imperialism and capitalism, evils strongly associated with the western world. To many Chinese, especially those too young to have known deprivation during the Cultural Revolution, Mao became a God-like figure whose very image could expel evil spirits and bad luck. During his lifetime, a large but ultimately limited range of memorabilia, consisting mainly of poster and photographic images, china figures, badges and banners was created, while his Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, also known as the Little Red Book, was mandatory reading for anyone who aspired to Communist Party membership.
Pop Mao lives on. Obey the Kitty's Chairman Meow
Andy Warhol's take on Mao the man
A Mao for the 21st Century as seen by Cafe Press
Shirt Flag's iconic rendering
Cheap and cheerful, these watches with Mao and waving hand are sold on every street corner in Chinese cities.
After his death, authentic Mao memorabilia quickly because desirable amongst collectors. The Chinese, ever quick to take advantage of such trends, began faking pieces for the international antique market, then created a thriving new industry off its back. They manufactured a vast range of pop culture items including statues, posters, t shirts, mugs, school items and watches, many of which display an irreverence not apparent in the originals. Today these items are as popular in China as they are in the west. Mao's granddaughter, Kong Dongmei, has discussed what she calls the "Red Culture" phenomenon, stating that "it shows his influence, that he exists in people's consciousness and has influenced several generations of Chinese people's way of life. Just like Che Guevara's image, his has become a symbol of revolutionary culture." However, as Ross Terril of the Washington Post writes, the rise in popularity of Pop Mao is more likely “a subtle mockery of the whole box and dice of Communist politics. It is also a symbol of commerce dethroning politics. That Mao is one of the ingredients tossed into the casserole of the market is itself a joke at the expense of socialism.” He goes on to note that many of the older traders who market the posters, busts and cassettes of Mao are former inmates of his labour camps. The very real terror that Mao inspired during his lifetime has been diffused and disempowered by the power of capitalism and free trade, concepts Mao once worked hard to eradicate.
As the market for Pop Mao items continues to grow, so have the rarer real memorabilia increased in value, not only to international buyers but to a new era of Chinese collectors grown affluent off the back of China’s economic surge. Some Cultural-Revolution-era badges and wool banners are now worth thousands of dollars. Within China itself is a huge market for authentic Mao stamps, ironic given that Mao himself detested stamp collecting as a bourgeois pursuit and banned it in China. In 2010, a Chinese auction saw a block of four stamps from 1968, depicting Chairman Mao standing alongside Lin Biao, sell for US$858,700. Similarly, Mao Zedong books from the Cultural Revolution era are gaining in value, making them ideal investment pieces. A first edition, first print of Mao's Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong which featured the signature of Chinese military leader Lin Biao sold for US$12,256 in London in 2006. As usual with Chinese antiques it is a case of buyer beware. The Chinese are expert in art forgeries and porcelain buyers in particular should be wary.
Today, it’s not just about Mao’s image on objects. The latest craze in China is a growing assembly of Mao Zedong impersonators who appear not only in tv broadcasts, films and soap operas about the man, but also put in appearances at weddings, parties and banquets. Most of the doubles are not professional actors, do not belong to talent agencies and hold down other jobs. And far from performing satirical or comedic performances of Mao, a form of artistic expression generally unpopular in China, most reenact episodes of his early and political life, earnestly delivering his speeches in his own dialect and mannerisms, although renditions of Happy Birthday and personal messages to newlyweds are apparently very popular. Unlikely to ever become fashionable outside of China, the trend still points to an ongoing fascination with the man that is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future.
References and Further Reading
Chinese Mao Impersonators Are Devoid of Irony, Satire. By Pete Brook, 2010
Kong Dongmei: Inherited Her Grandfather's Character. All-China Women's Federation 2006
Look-a-like Chairman Mao Stirs Debate By He Na (China Daily). 2005
Mao Zedong. Wikipedia. Accessed 10th June 2011
Mao's Death, Legacy and Mao Memorabilia Jeffrey Hays, 2008 Last updated February 2011.
Red Stars Over China: the Mao Impersonators By David Moser. 2004
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