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.

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."

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.