Once Again, Long Live Chairman Mao

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

Nostalgic Maoists fancy that they understand the phenomenon. To them it represents a second coming of their political patron saint. Hard-liners have actually tried to exploit, even to further, the Mao craze as part of their ongoing struggle against the emphatically anti-Maoist economic reforms once again being promoted by Deng Xiaoping and his allies.

At the very least the Mao revival was linked to the post-Tiananmen Square propaganda of hard-line Marxists. But it has probably been commercialism more than anything else that has kept it alive. As capitalist-style market reforms have once again gained velocity, entrepreneurs have gladly taken up Mao because he sells.

Last year the investigative journalist Jia Lusheng published The Sun That Never Sets, a popular book in which he suggested that China's new fascination with Mao reflects a longing for those early years when the country seemed more stable and had a leader of mythic proportions to look up to. According to Jia, the symbols of the Chinese Communist Revolution—indeed, its whole legacy—can still evoke feelings of pride, respect, and awe which are almost primal for many Chinese. During times of cultural ambiguity and social chaos over the ages the Chinese have looked backward to China's pre-imperial past, to venerate the mythical Yellow Emperor and the model rulers Yao and Xun—sage kings who are believed to have lived in the utopian mists of prehistory. Now, amid bankrupt ideology, discredited leadership, rising crime rates, and troubling economic reconfiguration, they have turned toward a fantasy of another golden age: the early years of Maoist rule, before the political campaigns and purges reached their apogee, in the late 1950s and 1960s.

"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."

Presented by

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

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

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

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In