MAO AND CULTURAL REVOLUTION NOSTALGIA AND KITSCH

ADULATION OF MAO

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These days Mao is widely admired by young Chinese as the government has been able to successfully gloss over the atrocities that occurred during his rule and hailed him as the person who ended China’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners. One 21-year-old student who visited Mao’s hometown in 2009 told the Times of London, “Chairman Mao was very wise and very brave...His experience is an inspiration to us.” Another told the Los Angeles Times, “I think that what Chairman Mao really intended was for Chinese people to get rich.”

Some Chinese seem rally around the memory of Mao as a patron saint to validate their liking for cigarettes. Already, tourists to Jinggangshan toss unlit cigarettes onto Mao’s old wooden bed in remembrance of one who loved to smoke. This impulse has little to do with the issue of smoking and health, of course, but expresses a nostalgic affinity, attractive to people half-anxious at their smoking, across the boundary between today’s world and an ethereal world. [Terrill, Op cit]

A prominent sociologist told the Los Angeles Times, “The Communist Party’s propaganda office is promoting him like he is a god to give the young generation something to believe in. That’s why people go to Shaosan, because they talk of Mao as their god.” Many of those who admire Mao the most are the once who are suffering the most in modern market-oriented China.

Good Websites and Sources on the Cultural Revolution Virtual Museum of the Cultural Revolution cnd.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Morning Sun morningsun.org ; Red Guards and Cannibals New York Times ;
Great Leap Forward: University of Chicago Chronicle chronicle.uchicago.edu ; Mt. Holyoke China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Wikipedia ; Industrial Planning Video You Tube ; Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article paulbogdanor.com ; Death Tolls erols.com ; Communist Party History Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Illustrated History of Communist Party china.org.cn ; Books and Posters Landsberger Communist China Posters ; People’s Republic of China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Everyday Life in Maoist China.org everydaylifeinmaoistchina.org; Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com; Marxist.org marxists.org ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com;

Books: "Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62" by Frank Dikotter (Walker & Co, 2010)is an excellent book. "Tombstone" by Yang Jisheng, a Xinhua reporter and Communist party member, is the first proper history of the Great Leap Forward and the famine of 1959 and 1961. "Mao; the Untold Story" by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf. 2005). Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and her husband John Halliday, a British historian, portrays Mao as villain on the level of Hitler and Stalin. The book was read by U.S. President George Bush and embraced by the American right as a condemnation of Communism. It characterizes Mao as cruel, materialistic, self-centered and a leader who used terror with the aim of ruling the world. Also check out "Mao's New World: Political Culture in the Early People's Republic" by Chang-tai Hung (Cornell University Press, 2011) and "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Dr. Li Zhisui (1994).

Mao Worship and Neo-Maoism

Mao was the object of divine worship while he was alive. Portraits of his chubby, balding figure were like the holy pictures that are displayed at feasts for the saints in some countries. When Mao died, people wept in the streets. Many thought it was the end of the world, or simply refused to accept the fact as they believed Mao would live forever. Visitors to Beijing from rural areas still pay homage to Mao before the giant portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square by looking upwards at it and placing their hands together in a gesture of reverence typically used in religions all over the world. Many in the countryside retain his huge portrait at the center of their houses. His face still features on bank notes. [Source: Francesco Sisci, Asia Editor of La Stampa, Asia Times, September 17, 2010]

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"In the village of Gushuicun in Shaanxi province, peasants have erected a temple honoring Mao, where comrade worshipers and high party officials come to light incense and burn paper money in front of a 10-foot-high plaster statue of the Mao. In Gansu, thousands of villagers came to see a roadside tree stump after rumors spread it bore a likeness to Mao. n other places, farmers clutch buttons and photos of the chairman after devastating floods the same way Chinese Buddhists used to do with images of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and taxi drivers hang Mao portraits from their rear-view mirrors to ward off accidents and bring wealth.

"For the government some of this adulation has gone to far. In Mao’s hometown postcards picture Mao with a halo have been seized and Buddhist-style temples, where visitors prayed before images of Mao, have been shut down. Many taxi drivers in Beijing still display in their cabs a portrait of the young Mao, just like Neapolitans with Madonna or a crucifix. One taxi driver in Shaoshan with a plastic Mao figure on his dashboard told the Los Angeles Times, “I definitely believe that he will bless me.”

On the 40th anniversary of Mao’s death in 2016, China Real Time reported: “Beijing keeps a careful watch on neo-Maoists, fearful that their critiques might blossom into a more muscular political movement. Ironically, a volunteer with the Hong Kong Society of Mao Zedong Thought said he had the impression it was easier to be a neo-Maoist in the capitalist hub of Hong Kong than in the mainland, which he left in 1995. ”There are lots of celebrations that will happen there,” said Mr. Li, whose society is convening a symposium on Mao’s legacy. “But people won’t hear about them, they are censored.” “Ever since Mao died, subsequent Chinese leaders have “betrayed the Chinese people,” he said. “Now Chinese farmers lose their land, workers are laid off, and the rich steal the wealth of the nation.” Still, he said trends have improved under current leader Xi Jinping, whom he credited with taking measures to strengthen the party, including through a vast antigraft campaign. [Source: China Real Time, September 9, 2016]

Mao Villages

Maoism remains alive and well in Nanjie, a village in Henan province with 3,130 residents. Here, soldiers goose step past a Mao statue while loudspeakers blare out the Communist Party anthem The East is Red!; women with balloon-seated pants and Mao buttons do calisthenics in front of huge Mao posters; and foot-tall porcelain Mao figurines grace new apartments. The village even has a miniature version of Mao's mausoleum.

In Nanjie, there is no crime, unemployment, or unplanned children. Everyone lives in an identical free apartment, earns the same salary (about $35 a month in the early 2000s) and receives free health care, insurance, utilities and free foodstuffs like flour, eggs and cooking oil. Families that lose stars according to a 10-star good behavior system lose privileges. Weddings are held in a group ceremony on January 1st, children attend school from 5:35am to 8:00pm, and social life revolves around political study classes.

In the late 1980s, Nanjie was a poor village like tens of thousands of others in China. After Tiananmen Square when hard-liners in the Communist party felt that Mao's image needed sprucing up Nanjie suddenly found itself the recipient of $54 million in low interest loans and 11,000 low-paid laborers to run its factories.

Now the residents live in new houses with telephones, refrigerators, washing machines, and color television sets with cable. They are also provided with new sets of clothes twice a year by the government. The $500,000 main street is lined with rocket-shaped street lights that cost $360 a piece. The villages $2 million kindergarten has granite walls and an electric gate. Up to 250,000 tourist visit Nanjie every year.

Shaoshan, Mao's birthplace is now one of the richest towns in Hunan Province. The town features a half dozen hotels and a Mao museum and is full of busy restaurants and souvenir stands that sell bronze busts of Mao for $85, Mao snow globes for $7 and Mao key chains for $4.25. Shaoshan only has a population of 1,387 people in the late 2000s, with many claiming to be long lost Mao relatives, among them the founder of Mao’s Family Restaurant chain. In 2009, the 60th anniversary of China’s birth, 3.5 million visitors show up to honor Mao.

Mao Memorabilia amd Kitsch

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Mao’s image is on almost all the banknotes. If you fold up the currency in just the right way and move it, Mao’s expression will change from a smile to a frown as you move the bill up and down. In fancy nightclubs, singers do disco versions of Mao's poems. A satellite lost in space was reportedly carrying a Mao medallion studded with 44 diamonds. Shops in Hong Kong sell velvet Mao caps, chartreuse Mao jackets, Mao watches, with the Great Helmsman's hand waving every second, and Mao cigarette lighters that play the "The East is Red" when they are opened. The Italian designer Prada had great success with Mao jackets in 1998.

Pop art portraits by Chinese artists show a grinning Mao surrounded by advertisements for Maxwell House Coffee, Kodak film, Marlboro cigarettes and other popular consumer items. Cultural-Revolution-themed restaurants feature Mao pins, Mao clocks and newspaper clippings with headlines that read "We [students] want to go to the country to raise food ourselves." Boxer Mike Tyson has a Mao tattoo. Boxing promoter Don King said, "I'm just honored to be in his presence--- when he visited Mao's mausoleum. In the 1970s Andy Warhol did a series of Mao prints and is credited by some with being the first person to make Mao cool outside China. In November 2006, a rare Warhol silkscreen portrait of Mao was sold for $17.4 million to an anonymous bidder.

Since the early 1990s, products with likenesses of Mao have become all the rage in China. The chairman's face can be found on lockets, T-shirts, tie-clips, seat cushions, alarms clocks, key rings, thermometers, towels, sun visors, cigarette packs, yo yo's, telephone cards, laser disks with Mao speeches and busts that glow in the dark. Some of the stuff is quite expensive. Mao watches with diamonds and sapphires that sold for $1,500 were so popular that supplies ran out.

Mao-era memorabilia is quite valuable. Some Cultural-Revolution-era badges are worth thousands of dollars. Mao wool banners have fetched $5,250. A first edition of the Little Red Book. with an endorsement by Lin Biao, was sold at an auction for over $15,000. In 1995, an oil painting of Mao Zedong sold at an auction sold for $361,000.

Most of the memorabilia is fake. The first Mao badges were made from discarded toothpaste tubes. Now they are manufactures in capitalist-style assembly lines. Stuff that was common in the Mao era is now rare. In many bookstores in Beijing you will be hard-pressed finding a copy of The Little Red Book. Ross Terril wrote in the Washington Post: "But among ordinary citizens, 'Pop Mao' is a subtle mockery of the whole box and dice of Communist politics. It is also a symbol of commerce dethroning politics. That Mao is one of the ingredients tossed into the casserole of the market is itself a joke at the expense of socialism. (To compound the joke, many of the traders who market the portraits and busts and cassettes are former inmates of Mao's labor camps.)"

Giant Statues of Mao --- a Golden One and One with Long Hair

In January 2015, a 37-meter-high (120-foot-high) gold-painted statue of Chairman Mao was unveiled the Chinese countryside in Tongxu county, Henan Province. The BBC reported: “The giant homage to the late communist leader was paid for by local businessmen, who spent nearly 3 million yuan ($460,000; £313,000), reports say. Some villagers also contributed money to the project said The People's Daily. The giant sits in farmland in Tongxu county, Henan Province. The province was the centre of a famine in the 1950s resulting from Mao's policies-millions of people died in the famine triggered by the campaign, known as the Great Leap Forward. Some have criticised the statue online, for the perceived waste and what they see as the statue's insensitive location. But many others have leapt to its defence. Despite being responsible for so many deaths, Mao Zedong is revered by many in China, not least by President Xi Jinping, who praises him as a "great figure". [Source: BBC News, January 5, 2016]

On a gold Mao statue unveiling in 2013, Chris Buckley of the New York Times wrote: Mao Zedong, “who rhapsodized the Chinese people as “poor and blank” has received the birthday present he probably never dreamed of. He has been commemorated in a manner befitting the excesses of modern-day capitalist China: a statue covered in gold and inlaid with gems that is said to be worth about 100 million renminbi, or $16.5 million.” The 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth took place on December 26, 2013. Chinese leader Xi Jinping had said the commemorations should be “solemn, austere and practical.” [Source: Chris Buckley, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, December 13, 2013]

“But apparently China’s foremost revolutionary can be a spectacle of bling. The statue of a seated Mao went on display in Shenzhen, a commercial city in southern China better known for its raucous nightlife than its spartan revolutionary spirit. China National Radio said on its website that the figure of Mao — appearing unnervingly slim — was covered in gold, jade and other gemstones, and was the work of more than 20 master craftsmen over eight months. The whole ensemble, including the 110-pound statue of the man and a white marble base, cost about 100 million renminbi to make, according to the craftsmen. The report did not say who sponsored or paid for the work. “When the gold flashes, it captures the intense interest of the public,” noted the report. The statue went on display at an art and handicrafts show in Shenzhen, but will find a permanent home in Mao’s birthplace, Shaoshan, in Hunan Province.

Reporting on a giant statue of Mao while it was under construction in 2009, Malcolm Moore wrote in The Telegraph, “The statue, which has emerged from scaffolding in the central city of Changsha, will eventually stand more than 100ft tall. Classic Mao iconography portrays the "Great Helmsman" as an older man, usually wearing a dour overcoat and either standing impressively or waving to a crowd. The new statue, however, is both seated and of a young Mao, aged 32, when he composed a poem about Changsha. [Source: Malcolm Moore, The Telegraph, November 3, 2009 ]

Xie Liwen, a professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts who was on the creative team, told the Xiaoxiang Morning Herald newspaper that "our first concern was uniqueness and artistry". He said: "This design isn't all that strange. The Mao statues people typically see are mostly of him standing and waving, or else fairly formal and serious. During the creation of this statue of a seated, young Mao Zedong, we were particularly concerned with differentiating it from past images." He added that the designers hoped to "capture the expansive abandon of the poem [Changsha]."

In the poem, the young Mao describes the view from Juzi island, in the middle of a river running through Changsha, looking at the Yuelu mountain. The statue is sited on the same spot, but faces in the wrong direction. Huang Yanming, a resident of Changsha who can see the statue from his window, told the newspaper: "Look, how handsome the young Mao was!" Other residents told the newspaper that they were "surprised" to see the Great Helmsman looking "cool and elegant with long hair". On the Chinese internet, opinion was divided. Some web users praised the "far-sightedness" of the Changsha government, while others compared the statue to the Sphinx.

Mao Era Restaurant

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On the Beijing restaurant Cu Liang Ren Jia, or “Coarse Grains Family,” Liyan Qi and Olivia Geng of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “While many restaurants in China these days are trying to tickle the palate of China’s new bourgeoisie, this restaurant wants to help people remember the rough days of peoples’ communes in the 1950s, specifically those in China’s northeast. It’s a trend that’s caught on: Cu Liang Ren Jia now has five branches in the country’s capital city. Upon entering the restaurant, guests are greeted with the sight of a large red star and one of Mao Zedong’s most famous quotes: “Be resolute, fear no sacrifice. Surmount every difficulty to win victory.” [Source: Liyan Qi and Olivia Geng, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2014]

“Inside the restaurant, old newspapers from the 1950s to 1970s cover the walls. Many of them are emblazoned with Chinese propaganda lines, such as one newspaper from the 1960s that blares, “American Imperialists get out of South Korea! Get out of Japan! Get out of South Vietnam! Get out of our nation’s territory Taiwan!” Another Cultural Revolution-era slogan that decorates the wall declares, “Our aspirations to settle in the countryside are unwavering.” To further foster the atmosphere, the dimly lit restaurant has also hung dried eggplants, chili and garlic from the rafters. All three are commonly grown in northeast China.

“On a recent day, middle-aged and elderly customers crowded the restaurant during lunch hour. In addition to the hanging vegetables and Maoist slogans, the restaurant also accentuates the old-timey feel with scattered farm tools. Likewise, wait staff wear red armbands and nametags that identify their commune title. While Mao Zedong presided over years of mass, manmade famine, as well as violent political turmoil, Shi Hongliang, a manager whose nametag identified him as “village party chief,” told China Real Time he was very grateful for the leader’s legacy. “Chairman Mao’s radiance shines over tens of thousands of generations. There would be no new China without Chairman Mao!” In addition to the kitschy slogans and décor, the restaurant has also augmented the countryside atmosphere through the addition of a few baby pigs, who on a recent day frolicked in a small pen outside the restaurant. The pigs, too, are living happier lives than their predecessors. “Those pigs are for show only. We don’t eat them,” Mr. Shi said.

Mao Impersonators

Pete Brook wrote in Wired: “In China, the Mao heritage industry is thriving. The former communist ruler’s image has shifted from political posters to tea cups and now, increasingly, Mao Zedong doubles reenact episodes of his childhood and political life for theater, film and TV soaps. 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.” [Source: Pete Brook , Wired, October 7, 2010]

Most Mao double’s are based in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, where Mao was born and began his revolution. Photographer Tommaso Bonaventura who photographed many of them for a portrait series, told Wired. “They don’t belong to real agencies.”The one double from Beijing works alone. They often work in patriotic stage productions with a theater company based in Shaoshan [Mao's birthplace].” The Mao ersatz also work a lively circuit of banquets, holiday celebrations and weddings, at which they deliver famous Mao speeches in his dialect. [Ibid]

He Na, reporting for the China Daily has described the scene at a wedding in Changchun, Jilin Province: “With his theme tune, “East is Red” , [Mao lookalike] Li Shouxin makes his entrance at the wedding banquet dressed in a blue Mao suit.” The appearance makes revelers feel as though they’ve added something very privileged and unique to the occasion. [Ibid]

Sometimes they get television work. Describing unusual scene he witnessed David Moser wrote on the Danwei website, “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.” [Ibid]

Pete Brook wrote in Wired: “Most Mao doubles do not earn a living wage from their acting and appearances and hold down other jobs. Though the hobby is not without its perks. One Mao double, a restaurateur, enjoys a high volume of patrons who dine hoping that the Great Leader might show up and sing Happy Birthday.” [Ibid]

Bonaventura could not estimate what each Mao double earns.He told Wired, “They have a very strong competition amongst themselves. Any one of them thinks that the others are not good enough as Mao doubles.” Select lookalikes do hold the advantage over others.Mao was respected for his calligraphy so lookalike Gu Xiaoyue, renowned as a master calligrapher himself, can boast added value and “authenticity” in his act. [Ibid]

Mao doubles will never speak their own words through Mao’s lips. Unlike many Elvis impersonators, the Mao doubles act in homage and not irony. As Moser notes “What is lacking in the Chinese context is the concept of kitsch. I don’t think the Chinese have it. Part of the fun of watching a group of Elvis impersonators is the ironic awareness that Elvis is being subtly condescended to at the same time he is being glorified, and this may represent a distinctively Western aesthetic mode.”

“In Chapter 8 — “Mao’s Two Bodies” — of “Red Legacies in China: Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution”, Xing Fan writes: “ Haiyan Lee offers a nuanced interpretation of the cultural phenomenon of Mao impersonation in the post-Mao era. Treating Mao’s body as a red legacy, Lee proposes the “two-body” approach: the Mao body natural and the Mao body politic, and analyzes the post-Mao theatricalization of Mao as practices of “Mao’s depoliticization, or de-Maoification”. Lee traces three types of Mao impersonation, illustrating a process of secularization and marketization: portraying Mao as a larger-than-life political leader in quasi-documentary representations from the late 1970s and into the 1980s; giving increasing attention to Mao’s human attributes and allowing performers’ improvisation in professional filmmaking since the 1990s; and performances by freelance Mao impersonators, which has given rise to a “veritable rent-a-Mao cottage industry”. Based on this discussion, Lee criticizes two of the West’s misunderstandings of the post-Mao craze: a failure to recognize the myriad and ever-changing features of the craze; and the misconstrual of Mao impersonation via Western-style satire.” [Source: Xing Fan, Review, MCLC Resource Center Publication, March, 2017; Book “Red Legacies in China: Cultural Afterlives of the Communist Revolution” (Harvard University Asia Center, 2016), edited by Jie Li and Enhua Zhang.

Female Chairman Impersonator

Chen Yan is a female impersonator of China's late Chairman Mao. At 5' 1" (1.55m) tall, the 50-something housewife has to wear special shoes to increase her height to 5' 11" to match the late communist leader. Chen was discovered by a beautician while impersonating Mao on a local TV show and is believed to be the first woman to imitate the former Chinese leader. [Source: The Guardian, November 22, 2013]

Tom Phillips wrote in The Telegraph, “She is a 57-year-old shopkeeper who transformed herself into China's first and only female impersonator of Mao Tse-tung. But while Chen Yan's unlikely career as a Mao Tse-tung look-a-like has brought her fame and a measure of fortune it has also wrecked her marriage, a Chinese magazine claimed. For Mrs Chen told the Global People magazine that her husband had grown tired of feeling "he is sleeping with [the] Chairman and that their sex life had been destroyed. [Source: Tom Phillips, The Telegraph, November 21, 2013 -]

“Chen Yan's transformation into the Great Helmsman began in 2006 when she appeared on a televised talent show and was asked to impersonate the award-winning actor Tang Guoqiang, who is famous for playing historical figures including Mao. Mrs Chen was eliminated from the program but returned to her home in Sichuan province's Mianyang to find that her "Mao face" had made her a local celebrity. -

“Buoyed by her new found fame and sensing there was money to be made from impersonating China's chubby-faced revolutionary leader, Mrs Chen set about transforming herself into Mao. At just five-foot tall, she began with her body. Mrs Chen put on weight and commissioned a pair of custom-made 10-inch leather platform shoes that cost more than 10,000 yuan (£1,020). She changed her habits, abandoning the traditional hobbies of a rural Sichuan woman: mahjong gambling sessions and square dancing. She even gave up wearing skirts after fans began accosting her in the street with the question: "How can you wear skirts when you are playing Chairman Mao?" The mother-of-one also poured over Mao's mannerisms, particularly the way in which he would "smoke, wave [and] gaze into the distance." She even studied the way he held his chopsticks. -

“In an increasingly capitalist China, Mrs Chen's Mao-makeover paid off: property developers and department stores beat a path to her door hoping to use her uncanny likeness to the Chairman to sell their products. There were offers to preside over wedding receptions and birthday parties too, although Mrs Chen said she refused to perform at venues where smutty jokes were told. In fact, there was so much work that her fee swelled into "five digits" and she was forced to hire a press officer. -

“Yet success was bittersweet. For while fans would chant, "Chairman! Chairman!" after rousing performances of Communist "red songs", Mrs Chen's likeness to Mao pushed relations with her husband to breaking point. The couple was now fighting to rebuild their marriage and trying to be more "tolerant" with each other but "her husband is still disgusted by her playing Mao." Zhang Bingjian, an artist and filmmaker who made a documentary about Mao impersonators, said Mrs Chen's husband had struggled to come to terms with her day job."[He] never wanted her to play Mao. Thousands of years of Chinese tradition teach us that it is a violation of divine laws for a common woman to attempt to play the role of the Emperor," he said.Mr Zhang described Chen as "a lovely lady" who had helped deconstruct Mao's image as "a god who never made mistakes". Playing Mao had also brought Mrs Chen visibility in sexist, male-dominated society, he added. At home, Mrs Chen "cannot even get her hands on the remote control since her husband always switches [the channel] to football," he said. But as Mao she commanded "recognition and respect". -

Mao Film Industry and Actors That Play Mao

In 2011, The Telegraph reported: “While films, television shows and even cartoons about China’s modern-day leaders are strictly banned, there is an enormous industry in Mao-era drama. Almost every evening, Chinese television broadcasts so-called “revolutionary” soap operas putting Chairman Mao impersonators, who study the mannerisms and voice of the Great Helmsmen, in high demand. It is even possible to see television variety shows starring Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai, the former Chinese premier, making rousing speeches or playing ping pong against each other. [Source: The Telegraph, May 13, 2011 ==]

“The first biopic of Mao was The Great River Flows on, which came out in 1978, two years after his death. Since then there have been at least 26 other large-scale productions to capture him on film. In 2009, the Founding of a Republic, which was made to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of communist China, was a particular success and featured hundreds of stars including the kung fu heroes Jackie Chan and Jet Li. In a 2009 film, Mao was depicted a jolly fellow whose only apparent flaw seem to be once getting too drunk to celebrate a battle victory. ==

“Gu Yue, an actor who has played Chairman Mao in over 80 films and television programmes, told the state-run China Daily newspaper that China’s former leader was a “man of strong emotions and humour with plenty of charisma”. Like many other Mao impersonators, Mr Gu visited Shaoshan, Mao’s birthplace in Hunan province, to learn more about his character. He said that after the Chairman returned home in 1959, he had cried after he found out that people had no meat for months because of the Great Famine. “When Mao returned to Beijing, he refused to eat meat for more than a year,” claimed Mr Gu. ==

“Other doubles spend hours training their voices to be more highly-pitched and even have plastic surgery to achieve a closer likeness. Tommaso Bonaventura, a photographer, has even compiled an art book of dozens of Mao doppelgangers. In October 2010, however, one actor who was scheduled to play Mao in a forthcoming television drama found himself in hot water after it emerged that he had taken British citizenship. Zhang Tielin, 53, who studied for a master’s degree at the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire in the late 1980s, was attacked by nationalists on several Chinese internet forums as an inappropriate choice to play a revolutionary hero. ==

Cultural Revolution Nostalgia

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Cultural Revolution restaurant
Many of the Red Guards that took part in the Cultural Revolution are now old people who "ride bicycles to the market and live next door." Some veterans feel a sense of nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution. They have formed clubs and meet at reunions. Some of them meet in Cultural-Revolution-themed restaurant that serve peasant food and are decorated with Mao memorabilia or go on Cultural Revolution vacations that recreate the re-education experience in the countryside with mare's milk drinking, cow dung shoveling, boiled mutton eting and the singing of revolutionary songs.

Some never got over their Cultural Revolution experience. Many well-educated sons of academics and elite melted into the countryside, married local women and became peasant farmers. Some of residents of Shanghai and Beijing sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution now can not get work permits to come back and have returned as migrant workers.

Barbara Demick wrote in The Atlantic: “In China, the Cultural Revolution has not been quite as taboo as other Communist Party calamities, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Tiananmen Square crackdown, which have almost entirely vanished from public discourse. At least two museums in China have collections dedicated to the Cultural Revolution, one near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and another in the southeastern port city of Shantou, which now appears to be closed. [Source: Barbara Demick, The Atlantic, November 16, 2020]

Cultural Revolution Kitsch

Demick wrote: "For all the horrors associated with that period, many Chinese and foreigners have a fondness for what has since become kitsch — the Mao pins and posters, the Little Red Books that the marauding Red Guards waved, even porcelain figurines of people in dunce caps. (I confess I bought one a few years back at a flea market in Beijing.) A decade ago, a craze for Cultural Revolution songs, dances, and uniforms took off in the huge southwestern city of Chongqing, tapping a vein of nostalgia for the revolutionary spirit of the old days. [Source: Barbara Demick, The Atlantic, November 16, 2020]

In Hangzhou, China, couples are getting married and having their wedding pictures taken while dressed up like Red Guards in green military outfits with Red Star on their hat and Mao Zedong badge pinned to their uniform, “It's just different from other wedding pictures. I think it's very cool, but it doesn't mean it is related to the history of the revolution,” a 24-year-old advertisement company worker who is marrying 26-year-old dancer told AP. The idea for the special Red Guard-style wedding photos came from Zou Sigen, manager of the 9th Channel Photo Studio in Hangzhou, China, who thought they would be popular. “People are more open-minded, more eager to change,” said Zou. Two or three couples come every week for Red Guard portraits, which cost 2,000 yuan ($290), about the same as regular wedding portraits. “I think it is fun to pose as a Red Guard. That is a special period that most young people do not know about. It definitely makes you feel different when you are in the green army uniform,” Zou said. [Source: AP]

The Jinggang Mountains in Jiangxi Province is one of the most important sites of the Communist Revolution and a center of Red Tourism. The place is celebrated with posters, songs and operas. During the Cultural Revolution it was pilgrimage site for young Red Guards, who took advantage of a nationwide "networking movement" to get there and often made the journey on foot to relive the days of the Long March. At one point more than 30,000 Red Guards arrived a day, producing food and housing shortages and sanitation problems. These conditions lasted for around three months when the government began to take moves to discourage so many young people from coming.

In 2013, a video showing female employees at the Arirang Hotel in Dandong performing their allegiance to their company in Cultural Revolution style, was an Internet phenomenon in China. Check You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JbgNqwea4Q

Cultural-Revolution-Themed Restaurants

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The Daily Beast reported: “It’s a typical Saturday night at the Red Scene restaurant, which is packed with well-to-do Chinese diners. The younger ones clap in time to the music, while a gaggle of middle-aged patrons --- many of them red-faced and tipsy---are on their feet, dancing and singing along with the stage performers. Tables groan under heaping platters of food. This could be any one of Beijing’s popular dinner shows, which draw audiences with the promise of Chinese opera or Western cabaret. But at Red Scene, the waiters and performers are all dressed as Red Army soldiers, Red Guards, workers, and peasants. And the skit is showcasing the persecution of an evil landlord, who is being beaten and forced to wear a pointed dunce cap---a scene straight out of China’s Cultural Revolution, one of the most tumultuous times in the nation’s history. The epoch remains controversial for a huge number of Chinese who were submitted to such “criticism sessions”---or even knew people who’d been “struggled” to death for being too bourgeois. [Source: The Daily Beast, February 19, 2011]

Such restaurants are part of a boom in Chinese tourism and entertainment venues catering to revolutionary nostalgia. To many, the idea of a Cultural Revolution’themed dining establishment is paradoxical, since tasty cuisine was certainly not that era’s strong suit. The first “Red restaurants” sprouted in Beijing in the “90s, offering little more than a few socialist-realist posters and food that was minimalist in the literal sense of the word. One served dandelion-leaf salad and raw cucumbers to symbolize the grass and bark that some poor Chinese ate during the hardscrabble “60s and “70s. Now Red-restaurant cuisine is more in line with middle-class tastes. In Mao’s hometown, “the Chairman’s Favorite”---roast fatty pork---is a must, while Red Scene offers a pricey shrimp dish for $27 alongside less-expensive cornmeal cakes and country-style bean curd. By Western standards, Red Scene’s clients aren’t big spenders---an average check is about $12 per person---but that isn’t mere peanuts for most Chinese, either.

The emergence of songs, dances, and vignettes evoking Cultural Revolution conflict is an equally significant change over the past decade. Before that, anything that exacerbated “class struggle,” or focused on the gap between the haves and the have-nots, was considered too sensitive for public airing. But Red Scene, which opened in 2005 and serves an average of 400 customers a night, is a good example of how many older Chinese have forgotten the dark side of that era and how a younger generation never really knew it to begin with. During the skit vilifying an arrogant landlord, diners applauded and waved little red flags (conveniently provided by the wait staff).

This year, such “Red” venues are peaking in popularity because the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding in July. Local governments are promoting “Red tours” to legendary sites along the Long March route, and organizers of a Red China Tourism Expo said such sites across the nation have received 1.35 billion visitors---or a fifth of all tourism traffic---in recent years. They expected a fivefold annual increase in 2011 over 2010 numbers.

Many of the Red-restaurant clientele were urban youths during the Cultural Revolution. In a nationwide campaign, they were sent to the countryside to reap the fruits of manual labor. These sojourns were often filled with long days of backbreaking work in the fields and lonely evenings. Still, many were inspired by communal life down on the farm. One such youth, Huang Zhen, decided to open Beijing’s Red Flag Fluttering restaurant in 2007, ‘so that people can remember the past,” he told Xinhua News Agency. Huang, now 58, instructed waiters to memorize Mao’s quotations and to dance the “loyalty dance” of the Cultural Revolution era, which involves a lot of fist-clenching to symbolize revolutionary ardor.

At Red Flag Fluttering, the majority of customers are in their 60s and 70s, usually arriving in groups to wallow in nostalgia for their years as youths “sent down” to the farm. “They like ... the revolutionary songs, dances, and pictures, [which] bring their memories back to their Cultural Revolution experiences,” explains one waiter. He says customers also like the Red-themed dishes, such as one called “A Revolutionary Big Family,” consisting of nearly a dozen types of seafood and meat, and “Warriors Who Dashed Over the Luding Bridge,” a dish of chicken named after the site of a famous Red Army victory. As for the skits on class struggle, the waiter shrugged. “We simply want our customers to be entertained and to recall their old experiences without thinking too deeply of these social issues.”

But the popularity of Red restaurants has also stirred controversy. One reader wrote in to a local paper to complain about Red Flag Fluttering. “The Red Guard uniforms are disgusting ... They remind me of the unpleasant past.” The reader said she’d gone to the restaurant with a dozen elderly friends, but “one of us who suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution felt extremely uncomfortable. So we all left.” And how do authorities regard the restaurants? Although stage performances are subject to government censorship, there seems to be little official meddling so far. “We have nothing to do with the government, so we don’t care too much about its attitude,” says the waiter at Red Flag Fluttering. “As a matter of fact, we don’t even know the attitude of the government.”

Reminiscing About the Cultural Revolution

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Cultural Revolution costumes
Reporting from a Mao-era restaurant in Beijing, Liyan Qi and Olivia Geng of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “Sixty-two-year-old Li Shuhua, a native of northeastern Jilin province, who was dining alongside her husband, daughters and granddaughter, said she met her husband thanks to Mao, who sent millions of urban youth to farm and be “reeducated” in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. [Source: Liyan Qi and Olivia Geng, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2014 ]

“Sipping a large bowl of coarse corn porridge, Ms. Li and her husband said that the food reminded them of the home-style dishes they used to eat, including goose stew and a dish of stewed pig. Still, she said the restaurant presented a rosy vision of the past. “We were so poor. Ordinary families could hardly to afford newspaper to cover the wall,” Ms. Li said. Her 66-year-old husband, Dong Lisheng, said that when he was young, he was never able to eat goose stew. “I knew the dish was made in that part of the countryside, but we could never afford it,” Mr. Dong said.

“A few tables away, another older couple also reminisced about the early days of their romance, which they likewise struck up thanks to Mao’s campaign. “I chased her. She was so beautiful!” said 66-year-old Wan Jiajun, beaming at his 63-year old wife, Yu Min, who was originally from Beijing but met Mr. Wan in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, when the two were herding sheep and horses. The duo moved to Beijing in 1994.

”Red Culture” Revival Under Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai was one of the rising stars of the Communist Party. Named “Man of the Year” in 2009 in a People’s Daily poll, and the subject of a popular home video widely shown on the Internet, he was the top party official in Chongqing, China’s largest municipality, where he has won acclaim for cracking down on local organized crime and putting corrupt officials behind bars. His life fell apart in 2013 when his wife was found guilty of murder and he was imprisoned for corruption. But before that Bo gained notoriety for a citywide campaign to revive Mao-era communist songs and stories, dredging up memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution, although Bo claimed he wasn't motivated by politics and only wanted to boost civic pride. The campaign fizzled after initial bursts of positive publicity.

Reporting from Chongqing before the approach of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China in July 2011, Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “The country is being swept up in a wave of orchestrated revolutionary nostalgia...The local satellite television station recently stopped broadcasting sitcoms and now shows only “revolutionary” programs and news. Government workers and students have been told to spend time working in the countryside. The local propaganda department launched a “red Twitter” micro-blogging site, blasting out short patriotic slogans. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, June 29. 2011]

And in what seems like a throwback to the days of the Cultural Revolution, residents have been encouraged—or told—to read revolutionary books and poetry and to gather regularly in parks to sing old songs extolling the Communist revolution. A recent Sunday gathering, including a colorful, choreographed stage pageant, attracted an estimated 10,000 flag-waving people, many in uniforms and red caps and mostly organized by the party chiefs in their schools and factories.

The red culture campaign revival is the pet project of the local Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai, a former commerce minister and son of Bo Yibo, a Mao Zedong contemporary who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. Bo defended the red culture campaign, saying, “We aim to encourage people’s spirits.” He said his campaign has four aspects: reading Chinese and foreign classics, including the theories of Mao and other Marxist leaders; telling popular stories; circulating inspiring mottos; and group-singing of revolutionary anthems. “We should spread these things more,” Bo said.

Many here, including Communist Party adherents, agree that this revival of revolutionary fervor is needed to instill a new sense of pride and common purpose, adding that they feared that China’s decades-long rush to get rich has eroded the country’s moral bearings and created an ethos of unchecked materialism. “When I sing red songs, I find a kind of spirit I never felt when singing modern songs,” said Zhang Chenxi, a third-year student at Southwest University here. “To surround yourself with material stuff is just a waste of time.”

For others, particularly those old enough to remember the bloodshed and chaos of the decade-long Cultural Revolution that began in 1966, the red culture campaign is an unwelcome reminder of one of the darker chapters of China’s recent turbulent history. The Cultural Revolution played out particularly violently in Chongqing, with clashes in the streets involving knives, heavy weapons and tanks.”For people of my generation, it’s like a return to the Mao era,” said a 57-year-old lawyer who had attended a middle school in Chongqing and asked not to be quoted by name. “I saw the beatings of the teachers by the Red Guards. It was horrible,” the lawyer said. “Young people may not recognize it. But for us who lived through it, how can we possibly sing?”

Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, in June 2011, “Bo took his efforts to Beijing, with a 1,000-member Chongqing singing troupe, including small children and the elderly, performing red songs for audiences at several concert halls. Most senior party officials stayed away, but mid-level officials were in the audience.Some critics said they were rattled by this apparent revival of Maoism and red culture, which seems to be gaining traction nationwide. [Source: Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, June 29. 2011]

'Red Song' Campaign in 2011

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Bo and his family
Reporting from Chongqing, Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times,” Although her musical tastes run to Mariah Carey and Norah Jones, Vicy Zhang didn't hesitate when she received an instant message inviting her to sing paeans to Mao Tse-tung at a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. "How could I refuse?" said Zhang, a 26-year-old graduate student at Chongqing University who hopes to join the party and have a career in civil service. "I thought it was boring and useless, but I didn't dare say no."[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 03, 2011]

More than 10,000 students and faculty members participated in the event last month. Although Zhang wore an evening gown, other students were dressed as Red Army soldiers, with red epaulets and armbands. Carrying red flags, they danced around a university athletic field with arms swinging rhythmically to martial music harking back to China circa 1966.

Throughout China, people are singing and dancing in homage to the Communist Party. The "red song" campaign began in Chongqing, where it was launched by party Secretary Bo Xilai, an ambitious politician who is believed to be angling for a seat on the Standing Committee of the Politburo."Red songs depict China's path in a simple, sincere and vivid way," Bo was quoted as saying by state news agencies in November. "There's no need to be artsy.... Only dilettantes prefer enigmatic works."

In conjunction with the 90th anniversary celebration in 2011 of the founding of the Communist Party of China was in Shanghai in 1921, the red song phenomenon has spread throughout the nation. In Beijing's subways, television screens show transit employees competing in a red song competition. In some parts of China, karaoke clubs have restricted playlists of Taiwanese love songs in favor of patriotic mainland ballads.

Under orders from the local propaganda department, Chongqing satellite television suspended its soap operas in favor of patriotic songfests. From April 20 to May 20, local newspapers had to publish the lyrics to familiarize the populace with the songs.Outside the airport, a billboard as high as a seven-story building features photographs of pink-cheeked young Chinese students and workers urging the public to "Sing Red Songs! Spread the Truth! Raise Your Spirits!" In public parks, retirees set up portable stereos and dance in long lines to songs praising Mao, even in Shapingba Park, which is next to an overgrown cemetery where thousands of people killed in the fighting of the late 1960s are buried.

Enthusiasm for the 'Red Song' Campaign

On Wednesday and Friday mornings at 7 a.m., former schoolteacher Cao Xingfen, 66, led fellow retirees through an elaborate dance routine set to red music, beneath billboards advertising Ermenegildo Zegna suits and Louis Vuitton bags. "These songs have a good rhythm; it's easy to dance to them," said Cao, a petite, silver-haired fireplug of a woman dressed in red pajamas. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 03, 2011]

No doubt there is a genuine gusto for red songs, particularly among the older generation, for whom Communist marching songs are the campfire tunes of their childhood. On a balmy recent evening, a dozen people twirled through the dark in Renmin Park, the dancing figures illuminated by slivers of fluorescent light from a nearby beauty salon. "We know these songs from our youth. We grew up with revolutionary spirit and we want to pass that on to our children," said Cai Derong, 55, who wiped his brow as he watched his wife, dressed for the occasion in a silky black-and-white dress, dance with one of her girlfriends. "Our economy is good. We want to express our appreciation to the Communist Party," piped in a middle-aged woman, Zhang Jin, who was also taking a break from the dancing.

To critics, the Maoist revival has echoes of the maniacal quest for political correctness during the Cultural Revolution. "People with a sense of history look at it and wonder whether it is possible to go back to an era in which cruel things would happen again," said Alan Zhang, a recent law school graduate from Chongqing and blogger who, like other students interviewed, agreed to be quoted using only an English name. "The red song campaign has made Chongqing a laughingstock," he said."It's not that everyone is required to sing and love the songs. What we are seeking is a wider participation," Xu Chao, the Chongqing official in charge of the program, told the party-controlled Global Times.

$2 Million for Rare Cultural Revolution Stamp and $12.7 Million for a Warhol Mao

In 2017, an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong fetched $12.7 million at auction in Hong Kong— well short of the top estimate of more than $15 million. AFP reported: “The sale of the 1973 silk-screen print by the legendary U.S. pop artist attracted plenty of attention before going under the hammer. The top sale price estimate of more than $15 million was the highest the auction house had ever seen for a painting in Asia. “The identity of the buyer was not released. [Source: AFP-Jiji, April 3, 2017]

In 2018, a Chinese postal stamp dating from the Cultural Revolution was auctioned off for US$2 million, making it one of the most valuable stamps in the world. SCMP reported: “Nicknamed Big Patch of Red by stamp collectors, the unused 1968 stamp was sold by auction house China Guardian in Beijing. “There are only nine such stamps, and this example was said to be in pristine condition, news site Thepaper.cn said on Friday. [Source: Laurie Chen, South China Morning Post, November 23, 2018]

“It is the most expensive stamp yet to have sold in China, beating the 2012 record sale of US$1.2 million yuan set by another Big Patch of Red stamp.“The stamp shows revolutionary workers marching with Mao’s “little red book”, and features Communist slogans such as “All mountains and rivers across the country are a sea of red”, and “Long live the total victory of the Cultural Revolution without the bourgeoisie”. No details are known about the successful bidder.

“Similar revolutionary-era stamps such as Little Patch of Red are also very valuable, according to an unnamed stamp expert quoted by Thepaper.cn. There are 300 of those stamps in existence which can fetch up to 1 million yuan each at auction. Vintage Communist Party propaganda items are prized by Chinese antiques collectors, despite the government’s tight controls on any media reporting or public discussion surrounding the events of the Cultural Revolution. At the time, the Communist Party built a personality cult around Mao Zedong, so items of memorabilia linked to him are very valuable.

Image Sources: Morning Sun, Wikipedia, Glitterbug, Beijing blog, Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; restaurant and costumes; Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021


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