Mao keeping track of the God of Fortune, or how Mao Zedong's iconography made space into fortune
There is no more famous image of modern China than an iconic representation of Chairman Mao. But how did this icon make it into fortune calendars?
Origins of an icon
There is probably no more famous image of the People’s Republic of China than an iconographic representation of its Helmsman, Chairman Mao Zedong 毛泽东. Naturally, there is a historical context for why this iconography started, reaching its peak in the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution (文革 Wen Ge) is short for China Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (中国无产阶级文化大革命Zhongguo Wuchan Jieji Wenhua Da Geming). It formally occurred from 1966 and ended in 1976, with Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four 四人帮(Si Ren Bang)—a political faction of the Chinese Communist Party, which included Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing.1 The preciseness of these dates might be contested, however.
The Cultural Revolution is, to this day, the center of one of the most polarized debates on modern China, both in academic circles and among the general public. These discussions shed light on today’s China and, in our case, on the usage and meaning of Mao’s iconography.
Chinese realism against traditionalism
Undeniable, however, the cornerstone of the Cultural Revolution was built on a discourse of anti-traditionalism, or 向旧世界宣战 Xiang Jiu Shijie Xuanzhan—to Declare a War against the Old World.2
This line is older than the official foundation of the Chinese Communist Party (1921). As a matter of fact, it was primarily associated with the May Fourth Movement that started in 1917—another highly pluralized movement, but with popular slogans such as 打倒孔家店 Dadao Kongjia dian, which literally translates as ‘down with Confucianism store.’3
The anti-traditionalism of the Cultural Revolution, following the line set by the May Fourth Movement, culminated with massive destruction of iconographic, textual, and architectural elements. It targeted everything that could be associated with traditionalism, from previous state’s ideology such as Confucianism to institutionalized religions and folklore-based ones. The destroyed faces of Buddhist statues that one can witness today are reminders of those times.
Contrary to May Fourth, however, the image of Mao achieved near apotheosis, being overwhelmingly used in several situations. For example, from pins attached to clothes to gigantic posters in the streets—the latter usually accompanied by Mao’s sayings and CCP’s slogans—to framed depictions of the Helmsman in people’s houses and shops. These representations were highly inspired by soviet socialist realist art and were readapted to the Chinese context.
From the public to the private
After the craze of the Cultural Revolution passed, while privately kept, Mao’s iconography started to fade out of the public spaces. The reason is two-fold. First, the Cultural Revolution was officially condemned by the CCP in 1981, and declared 十年动乱 Shinian Dongluan, meaning a ‘decade of catastrophic disturbance.’4 Second, with the Reform and Opening-Up and the establishment of Deng Xiaoping Theory, Mao Zedong's iconography lost its symbolic strength officially, mainly being kept in the private spaces and away from the public ones.
The less unified usage of Mao’s iconography led to its readaptation to the new Chinese development. It advanced with the resurgence of publicly displayed religious practices—which were banished from the public (and private) sphere during the Cultural Revolution—and the commoditization and over-consumption that the new market-based production prompted.
A fortune turn?
The quasi-religious re-adoption of Mao’s iconography is prominently associated with fortune 运 yun, appearing in calendars alongside the God of Fortune.
In other cases, the fortune connotation is not as obvious, as is the case with car pendants, even though shops sell them alongside other trinkets with the typical symbolic gourd and Buddhist Bodhisattvas.
In other instances, Mao’s iconography got re-adapted to the general globalizing scenario of contemporary art—which formally started in China with movements such as the New Wave Movement of 1985 and the 1989 ‘Post-Political Pop.’5 Contemporary artists like Sui Jianguo 隋建国create exhibitions with sculptures of the typical—but most famously used by Mao—Zhongshan suit, in different stages of degradation and colors.
In addition, versions (and readaptations) of Andy Warhol’s Mao (1972) appear quickly on the e-commerce platform Taobao.
There is no denying that Mao’s iconography is returning nowadays, after a period of being hidden from the public eye. But it definitely comes with new reformulations and new aesthetics, prompting exciting debates on the contemporary arts and religious scenarios.
However, one could wonder what Mao would think if he saw his iconography side by side with, for example, other Confucianist icons. That’s something that will have to be left to interpretation.
References / To go further
Jiehong Jiang, Burden or Legacy: From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007).
Jiang, Burden or Legacy.
Douglas Robinson, The Pushing-Hands of Translation and its Theory: In memoriam Martha Cheung, 1953-2013 (London: Routledge, 2016).
Jiang, Burden or Legacy.
Hou Hanru, “Towards and ‘un-official art,’” Third Text 10, no. 34 (1996).