Once Again, Long Live Chairman Mao

A recent return to deifying Mao is less straightforward than it seems

WHEN Mao Zedong died, in 1976, and his wife, Jiang Qing, was arrested as the leading spirit in the Gang of Four, the Great Helmsman's legacy presented Deng Xiaoping, his reform-minded successor, with a dilemma. To de-emphasize Mao's legacy in China, as Khrushchev had tried to "de-Stalinize" the Soviet Union, would have shaken loose the keystone of the ideological arch that still held up the Chinese Communist Party's right to rule unilaterally in the name of the people. However, to continue emphasizing Mao's militant class-based ideology would have collided with the kinds of economic reforms that Deng, who had himself been accused of being a "capitalist roader," and had suffered grievously as a result of Mao's whimsical dictates during the Cultural Revolution, viewed as essential for the transformation of China into a modern country.

Deng adopted a strategy of distancing himself from Mao's legacy without entirely repudiating it. As Confucius said of the spirits, "They must be respected but kept at a distance." Mao was mothballed: his mummified corpse remained on periodic display in a crystal sarcophagus in his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, while his political legacy drifted into a decade-long state of suspended animation. But Mao remained a totem even while Deng's momentous reformation of the Chinese economy and his opening China to the outside began to assault ideologically all that Mao stood for.

By the end of the decade, however, the once ubiquitous images of Mao in China had all but disappeared. Most ordinary Chinese were glad to unburden themselves of the remaining effluvia of the Cultural Revolution—Red Books of Mao quotations, Red Guard arm bands, posters of Party leaders, Mao buttons, and obligatory ceramic Mao busts—without fear of being labeled apostates. Most institutions were only too pleased to remove the portraits of Mao that had hung in every public room, and even to dynamite most of the mammoth statues of Mao that had dotted China's urban landscape. By the mid-1980s Mao memorabilia were in evidence only in curio shops, where vexed clerks watched as Westerners sought them as eagerly as if they were Ming Dynasty antiques.

Mao's influence remained latent nonetheless. The wave of student protests at the end of 1986 led to a power struggle within the Party which culminated in a resurgence of Maoist ideals during the winter of 1987. So, too, the dark and repressive period that followed the 1989 Beijing Massacre presaged a Party sponsored attempt to revive Maoism. What was curious was that although the resurgence was initiated by diehard Maoist leaders who had generally lost favor but had gained new political leverage during the crackdown, certain other aspects of old Mao kultur began to find an unexpected resonance among ordinary Chinese.

In fact, by the end of last year a surprising new craze for Mao trivia had spread throughout China. Although it lacked the political frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, during which weeping devotees of Mao marched across China in his name, beat to death supposed enemies of his revolution, and even pinned Mao buttons to their naked flesh, this latter-day infatuation was remarkably widespread. Beginning in 1990 travelers in southern China began to notice what at first seemed like no more than occasional spectral images of Mao reappearing in unforeseen places. By last year many street markets throughout China were stocked with tubs full of badges, tattered posters, plates emblazoned with Mao's figure, embroideries of his visage, busts in varying sizes (even some that glowed in the dark), and alarm clocks adorned with Red Guards holding Red Bibles they waved with each tick. One aficionado in Sichuan Province was reported to have gathered some 18,000 of these collectibles—a veritable museum of Mao memorabilia. With the hundredth anniversary of Mao's birth on December twenty-sixth of next year, it will not be surprising if yet another wave of Mao trinkets appears.

Wherever I've gone in China during the past few years, I've heard tales of people who have allegedly been saved by Mao. "People say because Mao has become divine like a god, he can bring good luck," a shopkeeper in Wushi explained as she wrapped up some Mao pendants I had just bought. "Some people say the old guy can even protect you from bad fortune!" She shrugged and gave an embarrassed laugh. I've heard stories about drivers who claim that the protection afforded by a Mao amulet allowed them to walk away uninjured from the scene of a hideous crash while those without one were maimed for life, and tales of street vendors who escaped robbery and even murder because they had fortified themselves with a photo of Mao. I was hardly surprised to hear that huge numbers of destitute peasants in southeast China bought Mao talismans after the catastrophic floods of the summer of last year.

Capitalizing on this new infatuation with Mao, the state-owned Xinhua bookstore sold more than 10 million copies of a new four-volume edition of Mao's collected works last year, and state-owned film studios have been cranking out docudramas. The 1991 film Mao Zedong and His Son was calculated to make Mao appear more human by highlighting an emotional scene in which he was told that his son Mao Anying had just been killed in the Korean War by the Americans. Such efforts to humanize Mao continued this year with the release of the propagandist Story of Mao Zedong.

Almost everywhere one turned in China last year, Mao kitsch popped up. Beijing Television even began airing an American-style quiz show called Sun and Truth. Taped before a live audience and presided over by a TV personality named Chao Shan (attired not in a Mao jacket and pug-nosed cap but in a Western-style suit, tie, and trendy dark glasses), the program pitted three-member teams from different state enterprises against each other in a competition to recite well-known Mao quotations on command and to identify the dates, places, and contexts of other Mao quotations.

Presented by

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

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