Chairman Mao: Pop Icon
The Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party,
It's a Gift Shop (and Art Show)
Print Magazine, October 2010
WHAT WOULD MAO ZEDONG say about a boutique that features a bigger-than-life plaster mannequin of himself modeling jewelry? Or about a line of home accessories decorated with his visage, silkscreened Andy-Warhol style?
If it were 1934—the start of the Long March of Communists—Mao might have repeated his famed admonition: "A revolution is not a dinner party… a revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another." If it were 1966—the beginning of the ten-year Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—he'd have sent a team of Red Guards to denounce the store owners, destroy their property, and send them to a labor camp or prison.
Today, he might bewail the triumph of capitalism. Or he might take out his platinum card and load his purchases into his shiny black Audi.
Such are the changes that have rocked China over the last 75 years. And nowhere have the changes been reflected more graphically than in Chinese design artifacts and art. Thirty-five years after his death, Chairman Mao is a pop icon, sort of like George Washington, Mickey Mouse, and Colonel Sanders all rolled into one. Not far from his huge official portrait in Tiananmen Square, crowds shop for Mao t-shirts and note cards. Eye-catching necklaces made from Chinese candy wrappers are displayed alongside revolutionary-hero hand puppets and home accessories. The revolution is a dinner party with your Mao place mats and table runners. Other hot sellers include notebooks decorated with reproductions of the Big-Character Posters that were made by 1960s artists, who in the service of the state, drew bold black and red images of comrades building a new society.
The Big-Character Poster -- (dàzìbào) -- was and is a brilliant piece of graphic communication. Everyone was expected to participate in the Cultural Revolution by covering large sheets of paper with slogans such as "Wherever Chairman Mao Points, There I Will Run." Mao didn't invent this means of communication; he just took brilliant political advantage of it.
For centuries, slogans and posters have guided Chinese thought and behavior, even as messages morphed from "Control Population Growth — Promote Social Development" to "Get Rich Through Foreign Investment." A journalism student who grew up in Qufu, the city where Confucius was born in 500 BC, told me that one of Confucius's key sayings was, "If the Emperor tells you to die, commit suicide." This meant that you must obey those above you: your parents, teachers, work superiors, and those in political power especially. You must fulfill your role, whether you are first son, second wife, or third concubine. This paradigm was transferred to the Cultural Revolution when the role shifted to that of soldier fighting to destroy the old culture, with its bound feet, and starving peasants, its Ming vases and capitalist tendencies.
Today, the images and language of Big-Character Posters not only decorate artifacts for the tourist market, they pervade the fine art scene. Beijing's 798 Art District is like SoHo on steroids: more than 50 galleries and art spaces in 2 million square feet of former factory space. In this environment, with its remnants of workers' slogans fading from the brick walls, artists work out their love-hate relationships with China's political history. To many, the Cultural Revolution was a terrible time in human history, when universities were closed, intellectuals were sent to work on pig farms, all private property was confiscated, and millions died. To others, the period was the culmination of the Communist Revolution that took China from feudalism into modernity, bringing about agrarian and social reforms.
Whether they feel guilty, liberated, or confused, artists are exploiting the period's iconography. The red star is ubiquitous on everything from graffiti on gallery walls to posters announcing exhibitions such as "Revolution Guys." An artist who calls himself Brother Camp creates sculptures using toy action figures spouting "Long Live Chairman Mao." Digital artist Tian Yonghua has combined hundreds of photographs to form complex images of contemporary icons such as the Bird's Nest stadium surrounded by formations of revolutionary soldiers and tanks.
While contemporary Chinese art demands high prices at auction, it also speaks to the text-messaging youth who've abandoned their parents' gray zip-front jackets in favor of hip outfits from Benetton. On one hand they're still under Communist rule and are expected to uphold Party ideals. On the other, they're surrounded by posters and billboards urging them to buy apartments and cars, to take vacations and play golf—to live even more richly than the bourgeoisie their grandparents were forced to denounce.
What would Mao say about these contradictions? "The people and the people alone are the force in the making of world history," he wrote. It would be interesting to hear his response to the mandate: "Buy Coca-Cola and Enjoy Delicious Food."
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