Can you imagine a souvenir industry centered around Hitler? Unfathomable. Or Stalin? No way. So how has Mao turned into such a cult, both in China and in the West? After all, his programs led to the deaths of 70 to 100 million of his own people (30 million alone during the Great Leap Forward). Based on these numbers, Mao is clearly one of the most brutal rulers in modern history, if not all time.
So what’s up with the cult surrounding the Great Helmsman?
Andy Warhol first silkscreened Mao’s portrait around the time of Nixon’s secret trip to meet the Chairman. Back then no one in the US really understood the real implications of the Cultural Revolution (which was eerily still in full swing at the time of Nixon’s visit).
When I lived in Hong Kong a couple decades later, I’d peruse the Hollywood Road junk shops, in search of Mandarin speakers (so I could actually hear the language outside the classroom). And that’s when I came across Mao memorabilia like the portrait in the photo below. (On the other end of the spectrum, when the upscale Chinoiserie boutique Shanghai Tang first opened, it sold Mao watches and clocks.)
And then there are those lucky Mao charms people in China hang on their rearview car mirrors to ward off accidents.
The first time I met my former in-laws in central China, my eyes darted to a corner of their scantily-stocked bookshelves. Up top stood this small bust of Mao. But my ex-father-in-law was a Party member, so he didn’t display it as an object de kitsch. More like a show of patriotism.
Easy for me to say. But in fact, I’m just as guilty of buying into the cult of Mao. Here I’m standing with my dad in Tiananmen Square back in 1991. It’s highly unlikely we’d have posed in this spot had it not been for the Chairman’s larger-than-life portrait looming in the background. It’s kind of like my dad and I took a photo with Mao.
I bought this poster several years back and spent a peasant’s salary to frame it. It doesn’t feature Mao, but rather a model peasant during the Cultural Revolution. Same concept, if you ask me.
A couple years ago, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, The New York Times published an article about the huge (capitalist) industry benefitting from the kitschy cult of Chairman Mao. And Shaohan, his hometown in Hunan province, is a sort of Mecca for all things Mao.
I wonder how people will view Mao after the last few generations who lived through the Cultural Revolution are no longer with us. Will Mao, too, fade away, or will he he continue to elicit this cult status?