Mao T-shirt




Decades after his death, the Chinese Communist leader formerly known as “The Great Helmsman” has enjoyed a revival in the sphere of Pop Culture. Mao Zedong has appeared on Postmodern paintings and done motif guest shots on fashionable clothing lines; his face continues to be plastered on enough Chinese souvenirs to employ more than a few collectives. That he is still so well known isn’t such a mystery—his youthful advancement of guerrilla tactics which would later assist Revolutionaries around the globe, the breakneck Industrialization of his country that cost the lives of millions of his own people, the crazed personality cult initiated in the Cultural Revolution—all this is the kind of publicity which money just can’t buy. But publicity doesn’t always equal affection. So why has a mass murdering, dictating demagogue become so damn fashionable? What is it that makes the Dong so darn loveable?

In truth, part of Mao’s appeal is the controversy that enfolds him and his policies. “Mao’s not black and white,” says Hutong Zhang, a survivor of the Cultural Revolution and artist living in New York. “He’s very controversial. People still have good memories of him.” This controversy is just as much admitted by the Chinese Communist Party, which quotes the 7:3 ratio in dealing with Mao. The ratio, first quoted in ‘76, allows that Mao was right 70% of the time and wrong 30%. Compare this with Joseph Stalin, who had certain parallels to Mao and enjoyed equal success by way of personality cults in his own time. However, as related by Professor Dennis Papazian, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Stalin fell out of favor with the Soviets due to a failure to “keep it real.” “After ‘39’s Hitler-Stalin pact, Stalin was no longer the hero of the left—he had cut a deal with the Fascists,” says Professor Papazian. “Mao, on the other hand, was left of left, and never compromised his position. His crazy ideas like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution started a fad, which caught on.” While it is true that Stalin is enjoying a bit of a kitsch revival of his own (see “Stalin World” in Lithuania), at this point it’s more of a cultural oddity than a cultural trend. And as for Hitler’s track record, well, it’s not just aesthetics that keeps his face off of coffee mugs.

But Mao’s face is on coffee mugs. It’s also on a key rings and coin purses. It’s on cigarette lighters, which chime the Chinese National Anthem when flipped open. His face is stitched into handkerchiefs, stamped onto pocket watches with eerie green glow-in-the-dark faces, supposedly so the owner can recognize Revolution even in the dark. His face is on countless pins and porcelain pieces. His form also graces a five-cent stamp, where, dressed in white shirt and blue slacks, he looks oddly like Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo. And he looks off into the distance from a cheap white T-shirt that shrinks down three or four sizes after being in the wash once. He was the subject of an Andy Warhol Pop Art painting in ‘72, where Warhol used the benign Social-Realist blankness of his subject’s face as a canvas for his own Pop sensibilities. From there he was the subject of Mr Zhang’s own art, from quaker oats mao #1 in ‘87 to unity and discord in ‘98.

Mao is also on $500 pieces of clothing. From early on, Vivienne Tam had realized Mao’s potential as a darling of the fashion runway. Born in Canton, China and raised in Hong Kong, she came to the United States in ‘81 and that same year established her own fashion label. She gained fame for using Zhang Hongtu’s whimsical treatments of Mao as motifs for her fashion line. For her, the link between Mao and fashion is an obvious one. “China, for me, has always been a very fashion driven country,” wrote Tam in her essay in Newsweek Magazine. “Where else could one man tell more than 1 billion people what to wear? From the beginning of his political career, Mao Zedong was a fashion czar.”

Indeed, since Mao is the one of the few experiences that all of China’s citizens have in common, it should be no wonder that his face is now being co-opted for their fashion, for their art, and for their knick-knacks. He was able to implant himself into the Psyche of the people, into their everyday lives. He is one thing that every Chinese citizen shares, whether he was experienced in the flesh or as a policy ghost, wandering around the halls of the collective Psyche. And now he has become a point of reference for artists and designers inside and out of China, as well as a staple of the souvenir stalls surrounding Tiananmen Square.

In these times of economic turbulence, Mao is seen as a symbol of stability. This nostalgia for an imagined “Golden Age” has even turned Mao into a kind of folk emblem. “His influence was wide and reached into the common people’s daily lives so deeply,” says Mr Zhang. “Before his death his image was worshiped as an image of God in China. Even today some still treat him as an idol.” To visitors of Beijing, perhaps the most immediately recognizable symbol of this Mao cult is the taxi amulets, which were hung over the rear-view mirror to protect drivers from potential accidents. It’s curious to see a man who had been larger than life, a giant who wielded so much control over the destinies of his subjects, be transformed into a little spinning talisman believed to bring one good luck. These are the same citizens who in the day may have worn the official Mao badges to show their affection for their leader. According to custom, there was an accepted and proper way to wear your badge—pinned to the clothes slightly above the heart. The more zealous however, pinned the badges directly onto their skin. Though there is an aspect of snake medicine and folk superstition to all this, it is, in fact, oddly pious. And what the parents revere, the children tend to turn into fashion.

So the respect for Mao coming from the parents can be accounted for. But that doesn’t explain the sheer size of manufactured goods featuring the Chairman’s face almost three decades after his death. During the Cultural Revolution, an estimated 40 billion volumes of Mao’s works were printed; that’s about 15 copies for each Chinese citizen. That first wave of Mao mania was sponsored by the state, which subsequently attempted to reverse the trend in a wave of de-Maoification in the early ‘80s. In contrast, according to Orville Schell, “It is probably been Commercialism more than anything else that has kept (the second Mao revival) alive. As Capitalist-style market reforms have once again gained velocity, entrepreneurs have gladly taken up Mao because he sells.” In other words, the present interest in the “Great Helmsman” is a bottom-up fad, originating with the people, and not being forced upon them from on high.

But one wonders how much of this Capitalist exploitation of Mao is truly grasped by the old Party elders. Apparently quite a bit—the “Maosoleum” in Tiananmen Square, which houses the corpse of the fallen leader, sells at least as much Mao merchandise as the vendors outside Tiananmen do. Besides illustrating how much everyone loves a non-licensable mascot (“You can’t trademark Mao,” quips Mr Zhang), it also demonstrates how the want of cold hard currency eases the tension between the Communist Party and its Capitalist relations—most of the Mao merchandise for sale is reportedly manufactured in Hong Kong.

The Party views this renewed interest as a healthy return to all things Mao, and as an extension, to their own validity. However, this renewed interest could also mean something entirely different. It may be that the giant Political icon known as Mao is going through a belittlement. To have been the waters from which flowed a major Political and Philosophical flood, and now to be treated as a Popular culture phenomenon is a lowering in status, no matter how popular the star may be. The kids dancing to the techno remixes of propaganda songs may dig the messenger, but that does not automatically mean the message is being listened to.

The Party seems to be oblivious that the wholesale use of their beloved leader might be leading to devaluation; by the constant turning of a sacred icon into everyday material, Mao’s legend is turning it into dirt. The members of the Communist Party may not be accustomed to the idea of such a quiet Revolution among the heart and minds of their children. After dealing with such solid, overt challenges as the student protesters in Tiananmen and the growing Political clout of the Fulong Gong members, the gradual street-level belittlement of what they consider solid rhetoric may be flying discreetly under their radar. While doing all they can to fend off an overt Revolution, they may be living in the midst of a silent, creeping one. Because Mao is in the hands of the people now, instead of the people being in the hands of Mao.

Ben Lefebvre

Nagahama, Japan


Mao lighter