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The many loved and hated faces of Mao
July 29, 2000

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Me in front of Mao's portrait at the entrance to the Forbidden City
Everywhere you go in China, there are images of Chairman Mao all over the place. He is on posters and t-shirts, smiling at passing tourists who are looking to buy that perfect Chinese souvenir. For just a few yuan, you can have your very own pin, lighter, key chain, or calendar with the Chairman's face on it. Carrying around Mao's image has become a hip fashion statement, for both locals and tourists alike. But how did Mao go from Communist leader to pop icon all of a sudden? When people buy and wear stuff with his image on it, are they also making a political statement? Is there anything more to Mao's image than a mere fashion accessory or a way to make a quick buck?

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At the Forbidden City
I have noticed an aura surrounding the man behind the image that is unlike our fascination with any other Chinese political or philosophical figure. After all, it's Mao's face that we see over and over again on all those souvenirs rather than Deng Xiaoping's, Confucius', or Sun Yat-sen's. In China today, it's almost as if there is something sacred about his image, the way Mao's huge portrait remains hanging at the entrance of the Forbidden City across from Tiananmen Square. Who is the man behind this face? And how has he managed to capture our imagination, even 25 years after his death?

Mao's legacy remains with us not only in image but also in memory. If there's any name that people will recognize from modern Chinese history, it will be that of Chairman Mao. His is the one name that is most strongly associated in people's minds with China's Communist past. After all, he is the founder of the People's Republic of China (PRC) who had led the Red Army to liberate the Chinese people from the Kuomintang in 1949. Although people may not know the details of how he built up Communism in China or even what his full name is (Mao Zedong), thoughts of Mao are always colored in red. Mao is to China what Stalin is to Communism in the Soviet Union and Hitler is to the Nazi Party in Germany. But the difference is that while the international community now recognizes the horrors Stalin and Hitler caused to their people and to the world, Mao's image has somehow emerged untarnished, remaining in a position of reverence to so many Chinese people.

Even after his death in 1976, it is the Gang of Four, and not Chairman Mao, that is officially blamed for the terrors of the Cultural Revolution. Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about, let me describe to you the interest and respect that continues to be paid to the Chairman's dead body.

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In front of Mao's mausoleum at Tiananmen Square
When we went to visit his mausoleum in Beijing, it was amazing to see the long, constantly moving line of people, winding all around the massive Tiananmen Square, who waited for over an hour just to get a few seconds glimpse of the Chairman's body. In line were Chinese and foreigners alike, from all over the country and all over the world. Some young, others old. Some spoke in Beijing slang while others spoke in their native dialects. The one thing everyone had in common was that we were all there for Chairman Mao, to see his well-preserved, rosy-cheeked body lying in an open coffin guarded by four soldiers. Waiting in that line under the burning sun was almost a spiritual experience. I felt like we were each waiting our turn to pay our respects to some god. Did we even realize that it was only Mao Zedong's dead body at the end of the line, and not some powerful, omnipotent deity? Certainly in Nanjing, when I went to visit Sun Yat-sen's mausoleum, there was no line at all. In fact, I was completely alone in the room where his body is kept for the first few minutes that I was there. And Sun Yat-sen was likewise a revolutionary, a father, a visionary, and a source of inspiration to the Chinese people.

What was it about Mao that is so different? Was it his rosy cheeks? His mole? His smile? Perhaps it was his incredible charisma, which led an entire nation of people through civil war, famine, economic disaster, international isolation, social turmoil, and revolution after revolution. As Chairman of the PRC from its founding until his death, Mao Zedong almost single-handedly shaped reality for millions of Chinese people for two and a half decades. That is a heck of a lot of people and an incredibly long amount of time. Practically an entire generation of people were drawn in to believe, to follow, and to commit themselves to their beloved Chairman and to his vision. People were seduced by their leader's call for equality, for industrial growth, for ideological reform, for putting China on the map, and essentially, for transforming the face of their nation on every front - political, intellectual, economic, and social.


icon - an object of uncritical devotion
aura - a feeling surrounding a person or object
omnipotent deity - all-knowing god
famine - a great shortage of food
pragmatic - practical

Is that what people are thinking of today when they wear his pin and put his poster up on their wall? Is it a sense of pride at what the great Chairman achieved for China that has everyone carrying around his image today? I would have a really hard time believing that considering what we now know about how the Chairman's ideas and plans really affected China. In general, it doesn't seem like people are thinking much of anything when they wear, buy, or sell his image.

I myself was totally drawn into the cult of Mao's image not too long ago. I remember when I came back to China on vacation a few summers ago and started my own collection of Communist pins, hats, and bags. I just thought they were really cool and somehow connected me with my Chinese past yet allowed me to make a fashion statement at the same time. Never at all did I associate any political meaning to my actions or realize the extent to which I was glorifying the image of this past dictator. To me, the cult of Mao and the days of the masses blindly following Communism were long over. I saw the souvenirs as mere cultural icons with no deeper political or historical meanings. I was naive though and have since brushed up on my understanding of Chinese history. Surely for the elderly, at least, there must be more to that powerful image. They lived through those moments in history and remember never getting enough to eat during the famine that killed over 15 million. They threw their pots and pans into backyard furnaces to feed the Chairman's iron and steel movement.

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Mao's village in Wuhan
They were alive to witness the Cultural Revolution which completely turned their reality upside-down, as they were yanked out of school, torn away from their books, and sent to the countryside to do manual labor. They were alive when Mao Zedong's voice, face, and ideas reached every Chinese family - in the cities, in the countryside - and influenced the people's every thought and action. I don't think it is even possible for us today to even imagine the extent to which Mao's image and ideology marked every aspect of Chinese life during the last decades of his life.

What about today? Has all that painful and tormented history just faded into the past, with Mao now emerging as a pop star? On the surface, China appears to have dealt with its painful political past and is now facing its new economic opportunities with a pragmatic spirit. Whatever he means to each individual wearing his badge, the memory and legacy of Mao is certainly being kept alive and strong today.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - I Thought the Bad Guys Always Wore Black
Jasmine - Playing the Game, The Communists Score!
Jasmine - Rural Women Know It All
Kavitha - Inside the Secret World: China's Forbidden City

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