"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.