Seeing Red in Today’s China

Visitors continue to be intrigued by Mao’s legacy

By: Gary Bowerman

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The Longhua Martyrs Memorial in
Shanghai features dramatic statues.
When 35-year-old Gu Haiou threw a burning object at the giant portrait of Chairman Mao in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in May, causing it be replaced, he was challenging an iconic image that has become part of China’s booming tourism industry.

Thirty-one years after his death, the visage of the Great Helmsman who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and ruled it until 1976 adorns all Chinese currency notes, as well as myriad tourism artifacts, such as posters, T-shirts, fridge magnets, watches, alarm clocks and replica copies of the “Little Red Book” sold in markets nationwide.

Though representing a very different China from today’s economic powerhouse, Mao’s image symbolizes what many visitors remember: a strictly controlled communist nation locked in Cold War isolation. Today, the once-ubiquitous Mao images on China’s streets are rare but not impossible to find.

In the western city of Chengdu, for example, a giant Mao statue dominates the central square, while in Mao’s hometown of Shaoshan, in central Hunan province, visitors and locals swamp his former residence.

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Beijing’s Panjiayuan market is a
treasure trove of Mao memorabilia.
Beijing’s weekend Panjiayuan Market is home to around 3,000 vendors, but search between the contemporary art booths and home accessories stalls and you’ll find a treasure trove of Mao-era imagery including books, T-shirts, photographs, bags and paintings. A more active retro image is provided by 51-year-old female Mao impersonator Chen Yan wearing a gray Mao suit, swept-back hair and an eerie resemblance to the former dictator, she is regularly pictured in the newspapers.

Tracing Mao’s legacy is most intriguing in Shanghai, the official birthplace of Chinese communism. It was here, in July 1921, that 13 communist intellectuals, including a young Mao Zedong, held the first clandestine congress of China’s Communist Party. The meeting site is now part of the Xintiandi dining and entertainment district, and has been converted into a museum. It carefully details the complex economic and societal factors that led to the creation of communism in China and displays recreated scenes from that historic first gathering.

Next stop along Shanghai’s communist timeline is the Longhua Martyrs Memorial in the south of Shanghai. This beautifully manicured park and mausoleum houses several large socialist-realist statues depicting scenes from a tragic event that occurred on this site, the execution in April 1927 of hundreds of idealistic, Mao-inspired young communists by the ruling Kuomintang government.

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Mao statue in Chengdu.
Jumping ahead a couple of decades, the Propaganda Poster Art Center is a fascinating gallery located in the basement of a French Concession apartment block. On show is a small part of a collection of 4,000 propaganda posters painted to Mao’s orders between 1949 and 1976. The colorful, romanticized visions of life in Mao’s China illustrate the political use of art to empower the Cult of Personality: Mao is shown founding the People’s Republic, greeting smiling peasant workers, riding a white stallion and as a blazing red sun shining light on the fields of rural China.

After the viewing comes the buying, and “Mao-orabilia” makes for great souvenirs. The Propaganda Poster Art Center has a small souvenir store, while across town is Madame Mao’s Dowry, a small shop selling a bright array of Cultural Revolution-themed paintings, clothing, mirrors and ceramics. Look for the store’s giant wooden statue of the chairman himself.

More offbeat is Shirtflag, a clothing retailer specializing in left-field interpretations of Mao-era slogans. Chen Ruiyuan’s excellent portraits of China’s few remaining Chairman Mao wall murals are on sale at Vision Video, while Xintiandi’s Cang Bo Gallery showcases Shao Qingling’s clever reworkings of Andy Warhol’s famous Mao portrait, featuring a young and old Mao and a Xian terra-cotta warrior.

Now head back onto the streets. At the junction of Chongqing and Fuxing roads, just by the entrance to Fuxing Park, are some narrow lanes. Gracing a wall just along here is a very rare, chipped and battered image of Chairman Mao waving to the masses. To finish, step inside Fuxing Park to meet the philosophers who set China’s Communist train in motion. A granite statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels still stands in leafy Fuxing Park a small piece of communist history amid Shanghai’s 21st-century consumerist maelstrom.

Inspired to Paint
“Words on Walls,” a collection of paintings by New Zealand-born artist and veteran China Hand, Peter Mousdale, was inspired by Cultural Revolution-era slogans painted above doorways in an old Shanghai lane leading between Changle and Huashan Roads. Though many pro-Mao slogans were subsequently covered over, still visible here are the Chinese characters urging: “Long Live Chairman Mao” down the left side and “Long live the Communist Party” down the right side of a doorway. Mousdale says the paintings, shown in Shanghai in April, “record part of Shanghai’s history and document the events in people’s lives before they are lost forever through urban redevelopment.” Mousdale is currently in New Zealand working on a “bigger and better second Shanghai exhibition” for March 2008.

CONTACT

Cang Bo Gallery
Unit 2, House 9, Lane 181
Taicang Lu, Xintiandi
www.cangbogallery.com

First National Congress
Xingye Road (corner Huangpi South Road), Xintiandi

Longhua Martyrs Memorial
2887 Longhua Road
(adjacent to Longhua Temple)

Madame Mao’s Dowry
207 Fumin Road (near Julu Road)

Propaganda Poster Art Center
Basement, Building B, President Mansion, 868 Huashan Road
www.shanghaipropagandaart.com

Shirtflag
330 Nanchang Road, and 336 Changle Road
www.shirtflag.com

Vision Video
320 Taikang Road

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