Saturday, February 20, 2010

Me and the Chairman

"I saw you from your balcony window and you were standing there waving at everybody. It was really great because there was about a billion people there, but when I was waving to you, the way your face was, it was so, the way your face was, it made me feel exactly like we're, it's not that you were just waving to me, but that we were we were waving to each other. It was wonderful. It made me feel happy." --Patti Smith, "Wave" 1979

My living room is done up in Chairman Mao. Before you go inside there's a wall-sized black-and-white machine-woven blanket with his face on it. Inside there are two big posters from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, one showing a Busby-Berkeley-esque line of Chinese athletes behind a perfectly muscled young champion, the other showing a worker, peasant and soldier vowing to defend their border. There's a case full of color statuettes of Mao Zedong, Jiang Qing, the Gang of Four, and dancing resistance fighters from a Chinese Red Opera. Across the room is another case full of statuettes of Mao. Mao waving. Mao sitting. Young Mao crossing over the mountains at Anyuan to see the workers. There are busts of Mao made of plastic and plaster and porcelain. There's a Mao telephone (it works!). There's a three-foot tall metal statue of a burly Mao with his hands clasped behind his back. There's a tin wall-hanging of that young Mao with a caption in flowing Tibetan script; there's a beat-up tin picture of Mao in a heavy winter coat standing on the beach. There's a silk wall hanging of Mao in a bathrobe. There's a porcelain plaque of Mao and his one-time heir with the face of the man next to him scratched out. There's a mirror that flips to reveal what looks like Chinese soldiers in drag: garishly made-up performers from another Red Opera. In my closet I have a box full of little red books in Chinese, in English, in Arabic; some of the red-vinyl covers shiny and new some dog-earred and written though, pages clipped or folded down. I have another box full of Mao pins made of plastic and metal and porcelain and bamboo. Mao's face; Mao waving, most shiny red like bicycle reflectors.

Now I know that Mao Zedong was not a nice man. While he lead the revolution in China -- some say brilliantly, some say otherwise -- turning it from a corrupt, disunified and victimized country to a world-class nation, that now, years after his passing rivals the United States for global economic dominance, he did these things wielding not only righteousness but brutality. As he famously said, "a revolution is not a tea party, it is an act of violence." Mao's long march to unquestioned power in China meant not only defeating his enemies on the right but his enemies on the left. In post-revolutionary episodes like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, millions of innocent people suffered or lost their lives at the hands of poor economic policies, anti-intellectualism, and a mass militarized totalitarian hysteria that would have made George Orwell blanche and pale.

So, you ask, is my living room some kind of shrine to a mass murderer? What the hell is wrong with me? Are these my politics, some kind of bizarre post-modernist Maoism? If my friends are too polite, or perhaps too dumbstruck and intimidated, to ask these questions, they're certainly fair ones.

Here's the thing: most people I know, and actually not just Christians, have a cross on their wall. Or a little shrine full of saints and Jesus pictures. From the time the Roman Empire converted to the state religion of Christianity in the fourth century CE until now, how many people have been killed in the name of this cross? The crusades, the Spanish inquisition, the so-called burning times, the hundred years war, the forty years war, the seven years war, the centuries of European colonialism, the conquest and conversion of the great native empires of the Americas and Africa, the conquest and extermination of the nomadic peoples of the Americas and Australia. The symbol invoked by the brutal forces behind the millions of lives taken in these conflicts was that cross. Does that mean all these devout people with crosses on their wall are celebrating centuries of mass murder? My answer to this question and to the questions asked of me are a firm no.

Let me say right off that Mao is not my religion; not somebody I worship. I don't kiss a Mao portrait by the door as I exit, and I don't read quotations from the Red Book as I kneel in reverence before a red-dressed altar. Mao has nothing literal to do with God. But at the same time, I find these images, as well as the stylized propaganda images from the the Chinese cultural revolution oddly inspiring.

It's clear that there was a massive machine behind the Mao personality cult. It suited the Chinese Communist Party to build a virtual religion around Mao. Like the cult built around Stalin by the Soviets or the cult built around Kim Il Sung in North Korea, this went way beyond admiration of one man's achievements or ideas. Mao was transformed into not just a leader, but a kind of god. Let us divorce, for a moment, the cynical motivations behind this machine: let's set aside the mass manipulation, the brainwashing, the rewriting of history, the whitewashing of brutality and misleadership, the insistence that this one cultural standard should crowd out all the others, by force if need be.

Most of the propaganda images of Mao can be divided up into a few archetypal poses. From a few dozen official photographs, a kind of religious iconography is developed and repeated in endless variation and pattern. There's the young Mao looking like Jesus, crossing the mountains to see the class struggle for the first time. There's the resolute young adult Mao, dressed as a resistance fighter, planning ahead for victory from the caves of Yenan. There's man of the people Mao. There's Mao the writer of poetry. There's swimmer Mao wearing his bathrobe (I kid you not) showing he's still got it together in old age. The image I focus on is waving Mao. With this wave Mao transcends all concepts of religious and secular authority: Mao is not the distant stern authority figure, he is the inspiring hero, reflecting and acknowledging with his wave the source of his authority and inspiration. He's not a sequestered ruler, he's that guy who's as happy to see you as you are to see him.

See, here's the thing: the aspiration for people to be free in a political sense comes from the very same place as the aspiration for people to find fulfillment and meaning through spirituality and religion. My contention after a lifetime of activism and non-activism, of a career filled with alternating creativity and stifled resignation, after spiritual exploration that took me to a God-believing place I never thought I would have ended up, is that the fight for a better world is nothing unless it embraces the spiritual needs and aspirations of people who are hungry for hope and meaning; hungry for that sense of awesome wonder and human connection that can be found, among other places, in shared religious experience.

It's so easy to be bitter and angry at politics: There's a lot to be bitter and angry about. But I think one of the reasons our President Obama won the way he did is because he struck a spiritual nerve for that better world. And now that we're all reminded of how the real world actually works the rude awakening is proving to be fearsome.

Some people look at the idealized, cartoonish pictures of Jesus and all they see is a projection of hateful, intolerant bigots desperate to hang on to fragile privilege and hypocritical morality and an impossibly naive vision of reality. Some people look at the idealized, cartoonish pictures of Mao and all they see is a record of tyranny and repression and an impossibly dishonest vision of reality. In truth I can't say that all those things aren't really there.

While my avowedly eccentric taste runs more to iconic Maoist images than Christian ones, knowing everything I know about the harsh backstory reality of all them, they still make me all warm and fuzzy inside. I look at the pictures of Mao waving back at us, or the pictures of determinedly united women and men in Chinese posters, and I pull a sense of hope out of those pictures; a sense of aspirational possibility.

I'm not a Christian because as much as I believe in God the revelations of the Bible and its adherence to Abrahamic tradition just doesn't quite do it for me. That said I own more than one Bible and there are parts of it I love a lot, and I treasure the meaning this book held for so many of my ancestors. I'm not a Maoist because as much as I believe in the power of human beings to win their own liberation and change human destiny for the better, I don't think militarized Leninism is a winning strategy. That said my collection of Maoist icons is one I deeply treasure.

One of my favorite pieces of Mao memorabilia is a small laminated card. It's got that ubiquitous forward-looking Mao headshot that Warhol used; and dangling from it are red silk tassels. Oddly enough it's completely post-Mao; it dates from the 1990s long after the cultural revolution was repudiated by modern Chinese leaders. It was explained to me that this was a charm for a taxi-cab: because Mao had so fearsomely vanquished his enemies, he could now be channelled as a protective spirit for your car. Never having had a car I haven't had the opportunity to find out if it works. But this is kind of my point: art is a power for good. The symbolism of Mao--like the symbolism of Jesus, and despite all of the complicated backstory of both--is for me a reminder that people can change their world; that they can band together in determination; that no matter how desperate times seems to become, there is a spiritual underpinning that offers us hope for a better world.


  1. Here's an article about the Chinense treatment of Tibetan monks if you're interested:

    I agree, Mao's image is kind of arresting,but also rather creepy. I like Warhol's take on him myself- the bright colors make him less intimdating.

    Oh and there's this too:

  2. Thanks Jenny, for those links. I tried to read that biography the IS review addresses; that article does a great job of addressing the problems with it.

    The Tibet piece is thought-provoking. That seems to be a blog I should pay attention to. Thanks!

  3. oh and I hope this doesn't sound too nosy,but do you have an e-mail adress? I'm doin a feature for a class on the struggle for gay marriage pre and post prop 8 and just for the hell of it, I thought I could use some insight just to keep my morale going. I won't use our discussion in the paper though because my dad plans to set up an interview for me with the head of our local lgbt resource center.

  4. Jenny if you post your email address here I will reject the comment so it doesn't appear and send you my email privately.

    To be fair, I have some mixed feelings about the marriage equality issue. Happy to share them with you.