Beijing -- John Lennon, who was once enamored with socialism, later voiced his disillusionment by singing, 'But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow.'
It turns out the late, great Beatle was wrong -- at least about getting it on. Thirty years after Mao Zedong's death, Mao kitsch is the new cool here, and young men are wearing tie-dyed Mao T-shirts to attract admiring looks. 'I think it shows that the man is thinking, that he's questioning Mao and China,' says Lu, a 19-year-old woman in Beijing.
Until recently, mocking Mao was dangerous stuff. The Communist Party derives much of its legitimacy from the late chairman, and the slightesthint of irreverence traditionally has merited severe punishment. In 1989, for example, a local editor who desecrated a portrait of Mao during protests at Tiananmen Square was given a 20-year prison sentence. Released on 'compassionate' grounds in late February, he came back to the world scarred by torture.
'During the Cultural Revolution, I painted portraits of Mao day and night,' says Liu Feng Hua, a 50-year-old artist working in Beijing. 'Every city square had a Mao statue and every room a Mao painting. They all had to follow official guidelines and be in the realistic style, and Mao had to be made to look almost like a god.'
In the past two years Mao's mug has come to adorn everything in China from faux-leather handbags to cheap clocks -- even frilly women's underwear. At the bustling Panjiayuan open market in Beijing, a haven for tourists and compulsive shoppers that's run by rural immigrants, irreverent Mao memorabilia flies off the shelves. An ashtray with the image of a youthful Mao seems particularly popular, no doubt because many people revel in stubbing their cigarettes out on the face of a man whose policies led to the death of at least 40 million people and irreparably damaged much of China's cultural heritage, national stability, and social fabric.
Even in more rarefied circles it's been hard to stem the degeneration of Mao's image from character to caricature -- although the exercise is a bit less of-the-street. In Beijing's swanky Sanlitun diplomatic enclave, there's a popular Thai restaurant called Serve the People, which was once a popular Maoist slogan. At cocktail parties ingenues show up in gowns designed by New York-based Chinese designer Vivienne Tam, best known for making vivid prints using Mao's mug.
So far, both purveyors and consumers of Mao kitsch have skirted punishment by relying on the tongue-in-cheek assertion that the products in question are really symbolic of the people's love and admiration for China's hero. If Mao rucksacks and night lamps sell well in tourist markets, it's only because 'people from all over the world are also learning to admire Mao,' a stall owner at Panjiayuan says with a tight grin.
Many older Chinese do venerate Mao, of course, and every day great numbers of people from all across the country travel to Beijing to pay their respects at Mao's mausoleum at Tiananmen Square. Some openly weep as they file past his embalmed body. And yet, the Chinese Communist Party has been forced to begin acknowledging the chairman's dark side (the official party line that the leader was '70 percent right and 30 percent wrong') and is itself stretching previous limits on the use of his image.
In 2003 the party commissioned a rap artist to write a song using Mao's favorite exhortation, the Two Musts -- people must preserve their modesty and their style of plain living and hard struggle -- as part ofa drive to recruit new youth members. When the Xin Dong Cheng Gallery for Contemporary Art featured the Great Helmsman flirting with Marilyn Monroe last fall, however, the party shut down the exhibit.
That the party would be hot and cold on the kitsch makes sense. For while all of this funny business is in some ways just harmless fodder for young Chinese, there's no doubt that a newfound flippancy indicates a serious desire for reform.
'What I'm waiting for is the day Mao's portrait at Tiananmen Square comes down,' said an activist in Beijing. 'Until that happens, nothing will really change.'