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
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
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
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.’