Once Again, Long Live Chairman Mao

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

"There is definitely a lot more at work here than just nostalgia," a Chinese acquaintance cautioned when I showed her the host of photos, talismans, and baubles I had been collecting. "Our current leaders are just a bunch of generals chosen from an army of dwarfs," she scoffed, reciting an age-old Chinese expression. "It may be that hard-liners in the Party supported this thing, but if they did, they have given their detractors a convenient way to thumb their noses at authority without risking reprisals. There's a good deal of the old tactic of 'waving the red flag to attack the red flag' going on here."

And how do all the people swept up in this fad manage to overlook Mao's destructive role in the Cultural Revolution? "I think the fact that so many people still look back so wistfully to Mao in spite of what they feel about the Cultural Revolution only highlights their ambivalence toward Deng, Li, and Yang," my friend replied, referring to China's ex-officio leader Deng Xiaoping, Premier Li Peng, and President Yang Shangkun, the architects of the Beijing Massacre. "Consciously or not, they're really saying that even with all his many flaws Mao was still more venerable than the current gang."

The more I have seen of the recent Mao phenomenon, the harder it has been to tell whether Mao is being adored or defamed. In a way that many octogenarian Party elders seem unable to grasp, Mao and his revolution are taking quite a beating—to the point of seeming ludicrous—at the hands of this new popular-culture fad. With the exception of the 1989 protest movement, Chinese dissent has almost always had to find expression by means of Aesopian language, subtle satire, allegory, and other forms of indirection. Because Mao has been reduced to a bauble on a cheap key ring or a blurry plastic-encased photo dangling from the rearview mirror of a taxi, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in certain respects the Mao revival is also a backhanded slap.

Nowhere is the ambiguity of the message more evident than in the revival of "revolutionary songs" from the 1950s and 1960s which swept China late last year. Whereas in the late 1980s disenchanted Chinese hardly dared to toy with the music, much less the words, of official slogans and old songs as outlets for their sarcasm, now state-owned recording companies openly soup up the revolutionary songs with disco, country-and-western, and rock-and-roll arrangements and then sell the recordings at great profit. Chinese pop music has in the past remained largely aloof from even faintly suggestive political material, favoring saccharine love ballads instead. One of the most bizarre of the new hybrids is the disco version of "Washing Clothes for the People's Liberation Army," a song in which Tibetan maidens express their undying love for a group of People's Liberation Army soldiers—presumably part of the Chinese force occupying the Tibetan Autonomous Region—by helping them do their laundry. In this recording, crooned by a young woman with a syrupy voice, over a vibraphone and Mantovani-like cascades of strings, the only enduring martial quality is the relentless drum-machine track.

While many hard-liners favor this fad for updated songs from the Revolution, reform-minded leaders are much less enthusiastic. What concerns them is not only the way in which the Mao craze plays on old superstitions by deifying the former Chairman but also the possibility that these dogmatic songs might encourage a resurgence of leftism despite their pop-music veneer. The one thing almost all Chinese—even most of the leaders—agree on is that the Cultural Revolution was a catastrophe.

Deng Xiaoping, who spent several years under virtual arrest during the Cultural Revolution, and who has recently launched a campaign against Marxist "leftism," said last January, "Right now certain people are set on launching a campaign to glorify Mao. In my view it is abnormal, nothing more than a provocation that is contrary to our fundamental orientation." Why is Deng so wary of the Mao craze? Because, he said, "young people today who do not understand the last forty years of the history of our country may be given the wrong impression."

Whatever the intra-party politics behind the revival of these songs, it is not easy to keep a straight face while listening to a country-and-western rendition of "Mao and the People Together" with Hawaiian-guitar solos between verses, or "The Sun Is Most Red and Chairman Mao Is Our Most Beloved" embellished with electronic church bells and sung in close harmony. Although the new get-down version of "Ah, Chairman Mao, How the People From the Grasslands Long to Behold You!" might suggest to some hard-liners a renewed love of Mao and an ardor for socialism, it is hard to imagine that true Maoists, who spent years guarding against what Mao called "sugar-coated bullets from the bourgeoisie," are not mortally offended by such vulgarizations of their revolution. The willingness of ordinary people to make Mao a part of their disco dreams represents a monumental change of attitude. If Mao is being reborn at all, it is not as the political messiah that hard line Marxists hope for but as a pop-culture phenomenon that raises the notion of camp in China to a new high.

With the growing disparity between official ideology and reality and between economic and political reform, the Chinese system has become every bit as bastardized and contradictory as these latter-day revolutionary songs. While the Party continues to pretend that socialism is still alive and well—albeit now imbued with what it likes to refer to as "Chinese characteristics"—these songs underscore the extent to which socialist culture has been lost.

Avant-garde artists of all kinds have recently exploited revolutionary visual imagery for their own subversive purposes. For example, the painter Wang Guangyi, who won notoriety for superimposing grids of black lines over bold portraits of Mao to suggest that he was being held behind bars, has turned to creating still lifes in which images from Cultural Revolution propaganda posters are shown alongside advertisements for such bourgeois products as Nescafe and Coca-Cola. Huai Ren—a name meaning "Evil-doer," adopted by a former railroad worker whose involvement in the 1989 protest movement prompted Beijing police to wreck his studio—has begun painting scenes of decapitations and a bizarre series of shoes, including one painting of People's Liberation Army sneakers splattered with red paint.

Zhang Hongtu, an artist who studied at the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts before going into exile in the United States, has produced a replica of Da Vinci's Last Supper, in which all the apostles not only wear Mao suits and caps but have Mao's face, and a series of irreverent Mao panels, including an outline of Mao's fleshy loin-clothed body done in the manner of a traditional acupuncture chart; a portrait of a randy Mao ogling the Goddess of Democracy with a speech bubble overhead exclaiming, "Women!"; and even a blank silhouette of Mao's familiar portrait with a likeness of the democracy-movement leader Wuer Kaixi speaking through a megaphone superimposed over the Chairman's face. Although these panels were made in the United States, artists in China are now beginning to use the same kind of forbidden images in their works. "The Mao image has a charisma of its own," Zhang wrote to a friend about his tongue-in-cheek portraiture after the Beijing Massacre. "It's still so powerful that the first time I cut up an official portrait of Mao for a collage, I felt a pang of guilt, something gnawing away inside me."

Mao is slowly being stripped of his imperial quality, of his ability to evoke either awe or fear. Just before I left Beijing last June, one Chinese friend jokingly predicted that it wouldn't be long before some clever advertising account executive—and there are more and more of them in China—tried to put Mao's unsmiling visage on a brand of soft drink or detergent.

Just as Mao s embalmed corpse still lies in repose in the middle of Tiananmen Square, so his thought still resides at the very core of the ideological canon on which Party leaders continue to rely (even as reformers appear again to be gaining ascendancy over hard-liners). The appropriation of this revolutionary culture for commercial, political, or even artistic purposes, despite the government's repressive policies toward overt dissent, is having a subtle but profound impact on the way the Chinese look back on Mao's legacy of revolution. Despite its subtlety and indirection, the trend could well prove to be just as corrosive to official ideology and Communist Party rule as all the sloganeering, wall-poster writing, and banner-waving of the 1989 protest movement.

Jump to comments
Presented by

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

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In