Mao as Idol

You’ve got to know that this article went straight to that privileged position close to my heart, even though the personage under discussion in Christian Y. Schmidt’s piece in the Frankfurter Rundschau (Mao: The Giant of My Generation) is not the “Mao” you might think (or hope). No, it’s the original Mao, that founder of the Chinese People’s Republic whose name these days is spelled “Mao Zedong.” Still, what better way to gain a bit of insight into the Chinese in the run-up to the Peking Olympics, eh?

This Christian Y. Schmidt is not a FR staff-writer, but rather someone (obviously, a German) who has lived in China for some years and even published a (German) book about his experiences, Alone Among 1.3 Billion: A Chinese Journey from Shanghai to Kathmandu. It quickly becomes apparent that you’ve got to take his title, “The Giant of My Generation,” seriously: in his recitation of the prevalence of the Mao-image in present-day China he starts with the “reddish-gold amulet hanging on the bookshelf next to his desk, for he freely admits that “in my youth I greatly honored the man,” mainly because of the figure of an “anti-authoritarian popstar” that he cut during the so-called Cultural Revolution starting in the mid-1960s, issuing slogans such as “Rebellion is justified” and “Bombard the headquarters.”

Now, at the same time that that “anti-authoritarian” Mao was letting loose with those phrases of wisdom he remained secure in his position as dictator in charge of the Chinese Communist state, at the very top of that country’s authoritarian pyramid of power, with the power to have any of those “justified rebels” that he chose consigned with a wave of his hand to hard-labor concentration camps. But we need to set such considerations aside, for now, because notwithstanding all of that the ubiquity of Mao’s image in present-day China, as Schmidt describes it (never been there myself) is truly astonishing. That amulet he mentions turns out to have as its original function that of a sort of St. Christopher’s medal, meant for auto dashboards as a good-luck charm to ward off calamity and, sure enough, such talismans of the “Great Helmsman” are supposedly present within millions of Chinese vehicles on the road today. Beyond that, though, as Schmidt writes, “In fact one sees Mao posters in the entire country almost only on the walls of small stores, workshops and modest restaurants. They also seem to be a warning to the current Communist Party leadership, not to forget their roots. Also in contemporary Chinese art: Schmidt estimates that at least one-third of Chinese painters and sculptors work with Mao themes, for the simple reason that such works sell, especially when Mao’s visage is coupled with another appealing image like the Statue of Liberty or Marilyn Monroe. And finally, you’ll find Mao all over Chinese paper currency.

The Tao of Mao

All of this reflects one simple reality: Mao Zedong still commands enormous respect among the Chinese. Indeed, to many he is even some sort of deity, particularly among those adherents of the centuries-old eastern religion of Taoism. Schmidt reports that there are actual shrines to the Mao cult in the countryside, and even on Taiwan. This for not only an avowed atheist, but also one with an impressive record during his long time in power of religious persecution!

I’ll give Schmidt credit: the above points about atheism/religious persecution are ones that he brings up himself in his article, along with the further irony of his (alleged) popularity among China’s new businessman class, which was not even allowed to exist under Mao. However, the full scale of horrors for which he was responsible – e.g. the widespread starvation during his ill-conceived “Great Leap Forward” of the late 1950s, the millions who fell victim to state-sponsored terror during the Cultural Revolution – are presented in this article not by the author, but by a grey column added on the left side, presumably put there by FR editors rather than by Schmidt himself – who prefers to discuss the equally-valid points about Mao uniting China, ending foreigners’ domination over it, and smashing the wealth and power of the rich.

As such, then, this essay is consistent with the hero-worship Schmidt confesses to practice towards Mao and his image: in the past on the amulet, in the present on Chinese currency. And this raises that perennial topic of the great political criminals of the twentieth century and how they are regarded at the beginning of the twenty-first. Adolph Hitler has been shunned ever since the defeat of Germany by all except extreme fanatics. On the other hand, the status of Joseph Stalin in the eyes of his countrymen and many foreigners – a brutal dictator who ultimately killed even more than did Hitler, and who terrorized his country for a much longer time – has never dipped very low and in fact is now currently in an upswing sponsored by the Russian state. To that we can add the cult of Mao, placed definitely on the Stalin side of this spectrum.

Update: Here is the NYT’s treatment of this Mao subject, which appeared shortly after Schmid’t article.

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