Since his death, Mao has taken on a cult following the likes of which the political world has not seen since Eva Peron.
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
BEIJING — Outside the Temple of Heaven, where Chinese emperors once came to perform sacrificial rites to please the gods, a man shoved his arm within inches of my face. “Mao!” he exclaimed as he pointed to the watch he was wearing. It had a smiling, waving Mao Zedong on the face. This was just moments after Kate had made a surreptitious purchase of banned Olympic clothing in the public bathroom. “Mao!” he repeated, and gave a fast-action wave in grinning imitation.
He’s the leader of the gang that stopped the Western flow.
He brought his comrades the Communist Manifesto
Chairman Mao! Hip-Hurrah! Chairman Mao! Hip-Hurrah!
Fly your red banners high, high, high!
Since his death, Mao has taken on a cult following the likes of which the political world has not seen since Eva Peron. Long lines of adoring, flower-clenching Chinese line up everyday in Tienanmen Square to file into the huge mausoleum and catch a glimpse of the Chairman’s body (which many believe is now a wax corpse; no body could be kept from decaying for so long).
It looked wax to me, lying there in a huge glass casket, kept at a safe distance from the reverential proletariat by a glass wall and two armed guards. Just hours after Mao died in 1978, the Politburo voted to keep his body “preserved” for two weeks for the masses to see it lying in state. Two weeks later the deadline for preservation was extended to “perpetuity.” And so there Mao (or his wax stand-in) will rest, for all his adorning fans to gawk at, forever, or until they leave him too close to a stove one day and he melts onto the floor.
Outside the “Mao-soleum” are vendors selling Mao chotchkys — “little red books,” marble busts, pens, key rings, silverware, even a snow shaker with gold nuggets instead of the white stuff. It’s a marketing gold mine Walt Disney or George Lucas could only dream of. And because Mao-rabelia is just as popular with Chinese as it is with visitors, that’s a billion something consumers. It’s just a matter of time before the ubiquitous Beijing McDonald’s start peddling wind-up, goose-stepping and waving Chairman dolls in every kid-friendly cardboard Happy Mao box.
Outside the tomb, I bought a red lighter with the Chairman’s face on it that plays the national anthem when you flip the top open. And Mao is staring at you from more than just the tourist pap. He’s on most of the money (though the small bills have images of “the people”), and he watches over Tienanmen Square from the Forbidden City’s Gate of Heavenly Peace. While Indiana Jones-ing through the air raid shelter tunnels of the Underground City of Beijing, there was Mao again (along with Lenin, Stalin, Marx and other legendary Reds). At the immense Military Museum there’s a 20-foot statue of the Chairman. And of course, he’s heavily featured at the Museum of the Revolution. Taxi drivers even have Mao talismans hanging from their rearview mirrors, believing it will prevent accidents. None of the other four Chairmen since him have come close to the star power Mao holds. He’s like Elvis, Fuzzy Dice and George Washington rolled into one.
Mao Zedong was a young library assistant at Beijing University when he first read “The Communist Manifesto.” Soon he was participating in student circles of discussion on the topic of Marxist Communism and how that may be the answer that civil war torn and foreign-influenced China needed to restore order to the country.
It’s the young Mao I can relate to. I first read the “Manifesto” in high school and found it fascinating, if not largely convincing. Skip the dictatorship of the proletariat, I thought, and go straight to the wealth sharing and dissolution of class structure. Of course, Mao and his fellow revolutionaries were following the then-recent Soviet lead of Leninist Marxism and took a similar bloody course of action: civil war followed by enemy purging. But before all that, I can imagine young Mao engaged and energized by these new ideas and collective youthful optimism.
Like Mao in his youth, I’m also a poetaster. The only other publication of Mao’s writing other than his “Quotations” is a volume of poems written between 1925 and 1965 (ending a year before the Cultural Revolution began). I found a rare copy of the poems in an antique shop here in Beijing and read through a number of them. They’re pretty bad, and most are to the tune of some other Chinese song.
October 1, 1949, after his guerrilla war campaign toppled Chiang Kaishek, Mao Zedong officially announced the People’s Republic of China to a crowd of a half a million in Tiananmen Square. Russian architects were brought into the capital and Stalin-esque monument buildings, like the ones facing the Square, were put up and traditional buildings torn down. For the next 30 years, Mao was the main architect behind a series of reforms (called the Great Leap Forward) that largely failed and caused mass starvation, as well a Cultural Revolution that toppled temples, massacred monks, artists and writers and attempted to destroy traditional Chinese culture. Many of these policies are now dismissively referred to by the Party as “mistakes.” (Echoing in my mind the old Reagan-era official non-apologies for bad decisions: “Mistakes were made.”)
However Mao’s popularity doesn’t really depend on whether he was good or bad, right or wrong, sane or crazy (though conventional wisdom sides with the latter categories). In fact, the official line of the Communist Party follows a 7:3 ratio that says Mao was 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong. What makes him “perpetually famous,” as one shop owner described the phenomenon while I perused his Mao buttons and stamps, is that he was powerful. He is weida (great) to the Chinese because he had so much personal power. Without putting an ethical connotation on the word, he was, in fact, great. Forget that his bad agricultural policy caused millions to die or that his Cultural Revolution was the worst thing that happened in modern China, Mao was the closest thing this country has had to an emperor in the lifetimes of most Chinese. He created order (good or bad) out of chaos, and that garners respect.
The Cult of Mao didn’t crop up organically. During the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s, Mao instituted a PR campaign that would make Madison Ave green with envy. Lin Biao, then head of the PLA (The People’s Liberation Army), commissioned wall posters and murals all over the country and published an estimated 40 billion copies of what is known as the “the little red book,” titled “Quotations From Chairman Mao.” Pretty soon most PLA soldiers were reading Mao’s collection of thoughts on Chinese communism. And at Mao’s old stomping ground, Beijing University, students were issued red arm bands and became known as the Red Guards, parading en masse before the Chairman, frantically waving their little red books. All over the country Chinese wore Mao-style caps and jackets (a la Nehru) and little Mao pins, called Mao badges, that show the Chairman at various stages of his life — student, soldier, statesman, etc.
How now Mao?
In the countryside you can still see the fading murals of Mao and his messages for the people as well as newer statues of the Chairman in mid-stride or wave. And in Beijing the Mao artifacts are quickly becoming antiques and tourist souvenirs. But, if I dare prognosticate, the Mao Cult is far from waning. As China marches onward with its slow but steady economic liberalization, and businessmen (many American and European as well as Chinese) get wealthier while the factory workers and farmers get poorer and disgruntled, the conditions could once again be ripe for a Communist revival among the masses, and Mao Zedong, as the legendary figure head of the revolution, could be deified more than Elvis and perhaps loved even more than Mickey Mouse.