China's 'Mao Doubles' Don't Smile, Do Perform at Weddings

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China has a burgeoning industry of Mao Zedong impersonators who, in the words of Wired's Pete Brook, "are devoid of irony, satire." Even decades after Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward contributed to tens of millions of deaths by famine and his Cultural Revolution brutally suppressed all dissent, Chinese nationalism has made The Great Helmsman such a revered figure that "Mao doubles" are hired out to play weddings and conferences.

"In perfecting their acts, Mao doubles train their voices, mimic body language and undergo plastic surgeries. They can even be booked for personal appearances at family celebrations," Wired's Pete Brook reports. They can work "a lively circuit of banquets, holiday celebrations and weddings, at which they deliver famous Mao speeches in his dialect."

What's perhaps most bizarre of all is how far removed the "Mao doubles" are from the Western tradition of impersonating political figures for the specific purpose of mocking them, as with Saturday Night Live's famous portrayals of every U.S. president since Gerald Ford. Brook writes, "The strange thing is, political satire in China is largely absent, so the impersonation of Mao is somewhat paradoxical; China doesn’t even allow cartoons of its leaders." David Moser muses in Danwei:

I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of ‘Mao Zedong’ and ‘Zhou Enlai’ playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show. I was completely flabbergasted. From what I thought I knew of China, I would have assumed that such an act would be considered absolute sacrilege, like a skit with Jesus and the Apostle Paul playing gin rummy on a broadcast of the 700 Club.

Whatever you think of the strange Mao doubles and what they reveal about Chinese culture and its perceptions of 20th century Chinese history, photographer Tommaso Bonaventura's collection of Mao double photos is not to be missed. You can see the photos here.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.