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
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
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
|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.
Cang Bo Gallery
Unit 2, House 9, Lane 181
Taicang Lu, Xintiandi
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
330 Nanchang Road, and 336 Changle Road
320 Taikang Road