May 05, 2004 | 02:43 CET
Political Iconography Going Haywire
EastWestGirl  |  Jan 23, 2004  |  14:17 CET
Topic: Politics and Power
It was at the end of December, when the Christian world was busy celebrating the birth of their saviour that another part of the world was preparing for the anniversary for the birth of another saviour: the 110th birthday of Mao Zedong, born on December 26th, 1893 in the remote province of Hunan. In commemoration of the great helmsman and to remind people that China is still ruled by that same CCP that has gone through the Long March, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (as if that was a good idea), books and films have been produced, concerts were given and, here it comes: an album was recorded which includes a short rap song with lyrics from Mao's speeches. Maybe I have missed something but since when is Mao one of the boys in the hood? And who is going to be fooled into believing so? The CCP explained this unusual project with the need to revive interest in his ideology, increasingly regarded as irrelevant by younger, more money- and fashion-oriented, generations which explains another new release: a "Learn from Mao" book containing business management tips from the communist revolutionary.

On a first glance it seems like the not so good old days of the Cultural Revolution are back. The somewhat bloated face of Mao is smiling his Mona Lisa-smile down from everywhere. His features peer from
ghost money
and stamps and classroom walls. This impression however does not survive a closer look. Of course, the old image of Mao is still preserved in the giant portrait over the gate to the Forbidden City at Tienanmen Square which shows the revolutionary hero who liberated China, it is the portrait of a demigod. But in my observation, he rather plays the role of a kitchen god - a superstitious rather than a religious object. People don't really believe in it, but they still keep it around the home out of habit. In remote areas, childless couples are said to pray to him for children. If you take a cap in Beijing, it is very likely that your driver keeps a Mao pendant dangling from the rear view mirror as a lucky charm. In Shanghai, where his picture is harder to find, his features are more often than not displayed in the sense of folkloristic décor in Hunan restaurants.
Wang Wenhai , an artist and devotee of Mao, tries to reflect these different faces in the 1,500 sculptures he has made of the chairman. Until recently he produced only the classical images of Mao permitted during the Cultural Revolution, but in the past year he has made a Mao Buddha, a gay Mao, a lady Mao and a Mao pillow for those who want to sleep with the chairman.

It looks like Mao can be everything to everyone and as his image is growing more ubiquitous; his cultural significance is becoming shallower. The public memory of Mao could have done much worse than the mere undergoing of displacement. And much less amusing!

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