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'It is right to rebel': Chairman Mao

(Originally published in the Door Peninsula Voice, a Door County, Wisconsin arts publication, in Brian Linden's "World of Art" column.)

The red star remained, although the Chairman’s shadowed profile had become bleached with age. Under his portrait were his famous words encouraging the Chinese masses to rise up in revolution. I climbed over the threshold and entered a courtyard full of Mao and Lenin statues, Socialist-realism paintings and porcelain soldiers. A smiling man beaconed me in, "Welcome to the Cultural Revolution." 

With hands around my shoulders, the "Capitalist Chairman," as he called himself, guided me through a maze of Maoist sculpture. Like a scene from a Chinese Dante’s hell, Mao’s hands appeared at all angles, his gaze at all heights. It was difficult to escape his staring eyes. Lenin’s devil-like beard surfaced in certain corners for variety, but it was Mao’s cherubic face that haunted my evenings for the following nights. 

"Everything you see here is for sale," said the smiling Chairman. "I sell statues to Americans all the time and the paintings are particularly popular with people from New York. (Must be Warhol’s influence!)

"I recently had a French man buy a thirty foot high cement statue of Mao for his gardens. He paid close to US$10,000 for the statue and about that same amount for the packing and shipping. I could probably give you slightly better prices on some of the 25-foot high statues." 

I told Chairman that we have a converted a 1950’s church into a gallery and a 25 foot Chairman Mao may not be the most auspicious figure for this space. When asked if Lenin would be better, I nodded an emphatic no.

If anything can capture the tumultuous changes of the past 40 years in China, it is this courtyard of Cultural Revolution memories and the smiling businessman. Most of these items were among the most vocal criticisms leveled against Western society. The paintings had sayings such as "Never forget class struggle," "10 years to overtake the UK, 15 years to catch up with the US," and "Revolution is not a dinner party." 

I was escorted to this courtyard by young artists, most of whom would have been the main targets of the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guards. The younger generation is intrigued by this period of Chinese history (1966-1976). How could children turn against their parents? How could people believe that Mao was a God? The distance of time makes the mass hysteria appear naïve and unbelievable. Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism has been the only political policy most of these artists have experienced.

I was accompanied into a storeroom lined with porcelain statues of Red Guards, soldiers and political figures. I had purchased one of these at a local market and had it sitting in my hotel room when one of the artists dropped off some paintings. He nearly fell over laughing when he saw the Red Guard balanced on my flattened suitcase. He agreed to escort me to this hidden courtyard the following day.

"This is one of my favorites," said an amused Chairman, "It shows a Red Guard beating an old imperialist devil. This guy was most likely a former landlord and the Red Guard is holding Chairman’s Mao book of sayings over his head." 

"Other hot items are the Chairman Mao clocks. Watch this, the secondhand is a Red Guard’s arm holding Mao’s Red Book. This is especially popular with Americans." I thought to myself that they certainly have not reached Green Bay yet! 

The famous early 20th century Chinese writer, Lu Xun, once said that China’s history is filled with "people eating people." Throughout markets in China, I was reminded of periods of oppression and vice in the fragrant opium pipes, risqué 1920’s nightclub posters and tiny lotus slippers. Lu Xun died long before the communist takeover in 1949 but would not have been surprised by the events of the Cultural Revolution. What is surprising is any culture’s ability to forget, and, in this case, to profit from folly. 

I left the Chairman’s embrace without any large statues or paintings. I did however purchase a number of porcelain figures, clocks and Red Guard armbands. I know too many friends who suffered during this period of chaos and wanted to remember how difficult the times must have been. To see the face on the porcelain figure with a young Red Guard balanced on his back cannot help but cringe at the terror that must have echoed through my friends’ hearts only thirty five years ago. The Capitalist Chairman, by profiting on this period of fear, has definitely carried on Lu Xun’s tradition.