Thursday, October 1, 2009
60th Anniversary of the PRC - Oct. 1, 2009
This is a fantastic article from The New York Times:
October 1, 2009
Mao: The Great Helmsman of Kitsch?
By EMILY RAUHALA
HONG KONG — If you want to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on Thursday, look no further than zazzle.com, an American Web site that specializes in custom-made gifts. There, for $18.95, you can buy a white T-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Mao Zedong and the words “Chairman Mao is my homeboy.”
The shirt is sold in 62 varieties, including an infant-size bodysuit in organic cotton for $22.95. If that does not please you, there is a mouse pad ($10.95) or a Chairman Meow mug ($14.95).
Mao memorabilia are a big business and the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic is expected to give it a further lift. While no one keeps track of how much Mao material is sold annually, vendors and dealers report a recent uptick in interest. The Chinese state media predicted this summer that there would be a spike in sales. In Hunan, Mao’s home province, officials recently announced new regulations to ensure that factories that produce souvenirs with his likeness maintained quality as they met demand.
“He is more popular than ever,” said John Li, who sells Mao memorabilia from a small shop in Hong Kong. “The chairman is like Giorgio Armani.”
Mao, who led the Communists to victory in the Chinese Civil War, remains a deeply divisive figure. He is praised for helping China throw off foreign powers and despised for ill-conceived policies that left tens of millions of Chinese dead. There are many who find the idea of Mao kitsch offensive.
Yet it is this ambivalence about Mao’s life and legacy that, in some ways, makes him marketable — the Great Helmsman, as he was called, means something different to everyone, so he appeals to many people, in different ways.
According to Jennifer Hubbert, an anthropologist at Lewis & Clark College, in Oregon, Mao badges were first created in the late 1930s, or early 1940s to celebrate revolutionary victories and recognize service to the socialist cause.
During the Cultural Revolution, in the 1960s and 1970s, Mao iconography was produced by the state as part of efforts to personalize political culture. People in China used the badges to signify their zeal for the cause. Some went so far as to pin them directly to their skin.
As the personality cult widened, production peaked. Badges were distributed by work units, given as prizes or traded. Ceramic statues were exported to ethnic Chinese communities overseas and slowly made their way around the world.
When Mao died in 1976, there were literally billions of badges — as well as books, posters and other Mao-related knickknacks — in existence. As China adopted market overhauls and came to grips with the grimmer parts of the Mao legacy, most of these relics disappeared, though some were kept.
It was not until the 1990s that the market for all things Mao re-emerged. Spurred by the Chinese consumer revolution and the 100th anniversary of his birth, in 1893, a new strain of “Mao fever” spread. College students — the children of the Red Guard generation — began wearing Mao badges as a comment on China’s slide from socialist ideals. The communist revolutionary became a consumer-driven fad.
Recognizing Mao’s moneymaking potential, dealers set up shop in major Chinese markets. In the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, rows of factory workers started turning out a new generation of Mao memorabilia — laptop cooling pads, musical refrigerator magnets and key chains — as communist trinkets became a must-have for tourists.
But there are still originals to be found. Victoria Edison, for instance, runs 1930shanghai.com, a California-based online shop that specializes in selling authentic pieces to a predominantly American and European clientele.
“There are not a lot of Chinese people, especially people over 40, who are interested in this stuff,” said Ms. Edison, whose parents and grandparents survived the Cultural Revolution. “For them, it is a sore reminder of two lost generations.”
But for Ms. Edison, who left China as a young woman, collecting Mao memorabilia is — for better or for worse — a link to the past. “It is all part of understanding a lost world, rediscovering something that is gone,” she said.