Philobiblon: Learning to love Mao

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Learning to love Mao

When you visit China you're quickly aware of rather tacky plastic Mao badges on sale - in addition to all of the Mao lighters, cigarettes, watches and just about any other tacky consumer item you can imagine. What I didn't realise at the time was this is only the modern tip of an historic iceberg.

At a conference for British Museum volunteers yesterday I learnt, from Helen Wang from the Department of Coins and Medals, that these badges, then just bearing the communist star, began to appear in the Forties, when they were primarily given to people attending party conferences.

It was at the start of the Cultural Revolution that the concept - now usually bearing the image of Mao, or his words, really took off - at the same time as the Red Guards were being given Mao's Little Red Book.

Many show rays of the sun emanating from the Chairman (as left), others feature the phrase (usually in Chinese but sometimes in English) "Serve the People", the title of an essay Mao had written. This was usually reproduced in Mao's own hand - he was very proud of his calligraphy.

So, you might think, a minor element of the Cultural Revolution. Not so, either then or now. These were made in enormous quantities and an enormous range of styles. To be considered a serious collector in China now (and there are many at or aspiring to that status), you need a minimum of 40,000!

In 1969 Mao ordered that their production end. "Give me back my aeroplanes," Mao is said to have said. (It was estimated the metal used in them would have produced 40,000 aircraft.)

It is an interesting example of the way in which something dictated from the centre can spiral out of control. You can just imagine thousands of provincial officials straining every sinew to produce more badges than their rivals, until the state ended up with badge mountains. We were told of one southern province where this was the case. But disposing of this mountain was a serious problem. This had to be done "respectfully", lest the destruction be seen as a political act.

There's an extensive introduction on the badges here.

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