Your Mao T-Shirt Won’t Get You Into Heaven

If you stand in the middle of Tian’anmen Square, and listen very, very closely, you can hear Chairman Mao spinning in his glass case.

Because, of course, to listen that closely, you need to tune out the hawkers trying to sell you such things as a watch or lighter featuring Mao’s likeness. (As an added bonus, some lighters play “The East is Red” when you open them.)

Throughout Beijing (and really, all of China) the emerging capitalism has given rise to selling all sorts of things with the communist dictator’s likeness. I even have a necklace that was given to me as a friend featuring the image of Guanyin, the bodhisattva goddess of compassion. The flip side? Chairman Mao. You can get Mao on anything–he even has is own brand of cigarettes–or at least you can get it in army green with a red star.

Now, according to the explanatory text at this Mao Fever exhibit, this second, mini cult of personality re-emerged in China in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Chinese society struggled with their opening economy and culture. Also, Mao is still seen as the father of the modern Chinese nation. I saw several hip Chinese kids (and even some adults) wearing items of kitsch. Now, I am not going to tell China how and when or even if to deal with its historical demons, but…

Just because you can buy a Mao shirt in Beijing does not mean you should wear it. Especially if you’re some American Hipster.

Flying back from Beijing earlier this month, I was thisclose to getting into a fight with the woman sitting behind me. She didn’t seem to be all that bright, but was very happy with her Mao bag and kept showing it off. Why would someone want to carry around a bag that features a brutal dictator that was responsible for the deaths of millions of people? It was so obvious this woman had no concept of Chinese history and what Mao really stood for. She also mentioned how patriotic she was and how she supported our troops. At the very least, Mao was a communist.

Just because Andy Warhol painted him in bright colors multiple times does not make him socially acceptable.

Yes, he’s an icon. But for what? When I sit on the metro in DC and see people with Mao shirts, I want to lean over and ask them about their feelings on the Great Famine or the Cultural Revolution.

Are they fans of massive purges to consolidate power? Do they like to advertise their allegiance to a man and ideology that punished and executed people based on who their parents or grandparents were?

I ‘ll admit I’m obsessed with Mao, both the myth and the man, and with the personality cult surrounding him. I have a small desire for a collection of Mao-morabilia. But not to wear around and flaunt. I’d love some Cultural Revolution posters, but I wouldn’t hang those up in my house. I’m not a fan of Mao.

And, unless you’re a hardcore Maoist and are thinking of using the peasantry to overthrow the bourgeoisie, if you’re wearing some Chinese communist kitsch? I’m not a fan of you, either.

–Jennie

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23 Responses to Your Mao T-Shirt Won’t Get You Into Heaven

  1. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Does that mean they kicked the hawkers out of the “Maosoleum” and onto the square? When I visited in 2003, one could purchase all Mao gear imaginable in the large atrium behind his corpse. The flower kiosk in front sells plastic flowers which after being laid before his bust are “recycled” and sold again the next day. Don’t tell me they’re not capitalists.

    How do you feel about other Commie gear — the hammer and sickle, or the East German flag for example? Many people, not just hipsters, display their affinity for “the good old days” by displaying or wearing paraphernalia. It’s easier to overlook the millions of people killed when today you’re unemployed, your savings have evaporated, the future looks bleak and you’re fishing bottles out of the garbage to scrape by. The way things were wasn’t perfect, but it offered such people more than capitalism has provided for them today.

  2. kidsilkhaze says:

    The “Maosoleum” (I like that) is currently closed, so no one’s in there at the moment. But when I was there in 2000, even though it was open, the square was still swarming with them. I’m not about to say that China isn’t capitalist– I’m just pointing out the irony of selling commie gear.

    Now, as far as other Commie gear– I understand why there wasa grassroots return to the cult of Mao in China. I understand many Communist and post-Communist countries long to return to days that may have been crappy, but at least they were stable. Wearing a hammer and sickle because you have an affinity for that time period is very different than wearing it because you think it’s retro-cool and the latest trend.

    But, the 20 something kid American kid sitting across from me in the metro in DC isn’t longing for the good old days. He just thinks it’s cool, and that’s who I have a problem with.

  3. He’s on every piece of merchandise imaginable… sort of like Mickey Mouse, but Mao.

    I will call him Mickey Maos. Yes.

  4. I wonder if they have an iPod with Mao on the dial??

  5. Sonetka says:

    Like poetloverrebelspy says, I can see longing for the good old days of economic stability-cum-terror when you’ve been tossed aside along with the old system and are pretty muc living out of a cardboard box. But the young kids trying to be edgy? No sympathy at all. On a semi-related side note, this reminds me of positively the most obnoxious Radical Chic t-shirt I ever saw; it was being worn by a kid on the U of U campus a few months ago. The usual picture of Che Guevara, along with the caption “CHE GUEVARA: DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHO HE WAS?” The patronizing idiocy of the thing was breathtaking – it was one of the very few times I’ve been tempted to confront someone over a t-shirt. Lucky for him (or for me) I had my toddler with me and figured he didn’t need a front-row seat to that kind of encounter.

  6. Jennie says:

    I’ve noticed a lot of backlash to Che shirts. (But not Mao? WTF?) There’s even a Facebook group called “Che Guevara was a murderer and your t-shirt is not cool.” I thought about touching on the Che thing in my post, but I thought I’d best leave that to our resident Latin American expert.

    I’m almost wondering if the shirt you saw was an anti-Che shirt. Many people who wear Che shirts (or Mao/PLA gear) *don’t* really know what these men did besides the greater romance of revolution. But who knows?

  7. Sonetka says:

    You know, it might have been anti-Che; if it was, though, that was either some seriously poor design or I’m really unobservant because nothing about it struck me as remotely parodic. Maybe I should have asked the guy after all :).

  8. Sonetka says:

    NB I’m not exactly a fan of Mao shirts, either – I’ve just never seen anyone in one!

  9. Dana says:

    My first thought was that said Che shirt would be a parody, too, but I suspect the design would have made that clearer. Or not, as Sonetka indicates. I’m going to hope it was a parody, and not some sort of misguided Communist proselytization shirt, a la “Ask me about Jesus.” There was a big debate a while ago on Plans between the LatAm history prof and a student about Che shirts, with a lot of historical/ethical aspects brought up, but I think the whole thing boiled down to “Che shirts are dumb,” and we knew that to start out with. So it does seem comparable to Mao merch, and probably more familiar to people in the US. I haven’t seen all that much Mao stuff actually here.

    Isn’t interesting how they only put the dead guys on t-shirts? Castro had a lot more to do with actually making Cuba communist, but he’s still alive, and thus much, much harder to idealize and mythologize. Dead guys don’t screw up your idolizing by doing something questionable in real time, after all. I wonder if Castro will start showing up on t-shirts after he dies.

    There’s been a plane flying around here lately, pulling a big Geico banner that has the face of one of their cavemen on it, Che-print style. It’s such an exact knock-off of that design, it took me a minute to figure out that Geico wasn’t trying to proclaim itself the radical communist’s choice for car insurance after all. I assume they were just trying to play on what has become essentially a fashion statement design, but it still struck me as being in rather poor taste. Then again, I think all their cavemen ads are annoying anyway.

  10. […] post, and also featuring a link which has sat overlooked on my desktop for far too long, is this blog post about the draw of Mao (and ‘Commie’) kitsch in both China and the West.  Also features […]

  11. Marge says:

    I’m not going to comment on the Mao shirts. I will say that the poster and those who replied to the poster should learn more history before they start criticizing people for their poor knowledge of history. Nothing like criticizing people for the same bad behavior you engage in!

  12. kidsilkhaze says:

    Marge–

    As the poster, I am interested to see where you think my history is flawed. Having reread everything I’ve written here, I can back up all my statements with credible sources, so I would be interested in seeing what you think is incorrect.

  13. Marge says:

    I do not say that what you wrote is incorrect. It is more like I think it is incomplete. I agree that the American hipsters who wear Mao shirts are misinformed. I am not a Mao worshiper and I am not about to wear a Mao shirt. I am able to evaluate him on the whole, though. Although we should never forget and not minimize the bad things that Mao did, I truly believe Mao was too complex to be described only as a mass murder. I do not think your post reflects that complexity. That is my problem with your post. I should have expressed myself more clearly.

  14. Jennie says:

    Marge–

    I find that a single blog post does not offer enough space to provide a completely balanced evaluation of a single person, let alone someone as influential as Mao.

    I agree that Mao is a complex figure, and I never called him a mass murderer (even though I do consider him one.) But, on the whole, the bad far outweighs the good.

  15. Unknown says:

    So uh Jennie who do you admire?

  16. stan kohls says:

    I have just returned from my 1st trip to China. No one can deny that what has been accomplished in that country is nothing short of miraculous. It’s difficult to imagine these developments without Mao. The price was high, both in terms of human life and treasure. But under Mao’s leadership (and later in spite of it), the Chinese have built a modern, powerful society, which feeds and cares for 1.3 billion people. Development has been inconsistent; there are pockets of extreme poverty, oppression, corruption, etc.
    But there simply is no comparison between pre- and post-revolutionary China.
    bigkoala@verizon.net

    • kennethvaughan says:

      I used to live in my wife’s hometown and have a good working knowledge of communism from my undergrad and grad work in sociology. The development you see in China cannot be honestly attributed to Mao. Mao instituted communist policies that the majority of Chinese citizens and politicians loathe. Very scarcely will you hear politicians criticize Mao personally, but you will hear them say “never return to the policies of hte cultural revolution” which was Maos responsibility. That period of time lead to greater poverty, mass deaths including genocidal military policies towards ethnic minorities, slaughtering of Christians and Muslims, and several other atrocious policies. What you see now in China cna best be a attributed to Deng Xiaoping, who else had poor regard for human rights, but was responsible for capitalist policies, the polar opposite of Mao. That is what has lead to the economic growth.

      Comparing modern day China to pre revolution China does not help either. That pre revolution government fled to Taiwan. There they have seen greater development, great human rights, and less poverty than post revolution cina.

  17. Sadly, they stopped selling Oba Mao t-shirts. That would have been an interesting shirt to wear. The response from other people would have been intriguing to see.

  18. Captivating, I passed this on to a friend of mine, and he actually bought me lunch because I found this for him, so let me rephrase: Thanks for lunch.

  19. Concerned Citizen says:

    This is absolutely ridiculous. Americans have been brainwashed as hell.

    Do YOU know what Mao actually did? He led a resistance movement that ended Japanese and American oppression and control in China. Before Mao, 25% of Chinese were drug addicts. Women had no rights and the peasantry were constantly abused by landlords. During the Chinese revolution, people could see a doctor for the first time in their lives, children could go to school, women weren’t housewives and they seen equal to men. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a Chinese village and see a huge banner that read “Women Hold Up Half The Sky”. Women could actually get divorced from their forced marriages and footbinding was illegal for the first time in China. This is just only a few benefits that the Chinese Revolution brought.

    If Mao killed so many people, then why was there a MASSIVE population boom under his leadership?

    To blame everything on Mao is to reveal how little you know about Mao and China (in general) from the years 1949-1976.

    Mao was not a “dictator”. He was loved and cherished by the people like he is today internationally. My advice to you is to check out books by authors like:

    Edgar Snow, Mobo Gao, Anna Louise Smith, Maurice Meisner, and/or William H. Hinton. People who were actually there, have honest accounts, and aren’t cashing in their supposed “horror stories” and making millions off of it.

    Or you could continue to be ignorant… your choice.

    • Ken says:

      Population booms and mass killings can happen concurrently. One can murder great numbers of people, but still have these numbers exceeded by birthrates.

      There are some social benefits that have accompanied a lot of tyrants. An academic mentor of mine for example is Crimean and lived in multiple nations subsumed under Soviet imperialism before the Soviet empire collapsed. He’s the first to acknowledge where certain parts of life improved, and when he saw Hungarians celebrating the end of Soviet imperialism in their land, he doubted that they knew what they were in for in transition. Yet, he’s also written extensively on human rights abuses in the Soviet empire and some of the in humane policies of the regimes. To suggest that only the positive or the negative scenario can exist is to set up a false dichotomy and operates under the same logic as some whitewashed US historical tales.

      The same is true of China, a place I’ve lived, my wife’s home country. You are blaming our anti-Mao sentiment on a lack of familiarity with China, yet the sentiment you are expressing is not that common among the Chinese lay people and is incosistent with the way the Chinese government even appears to view Mao. We’ve had family see and experience atrocities caused by the cultural revolution. The Chinese Communist Party admits that the Cultural Revolution was a failure and attempts to pin the policies on people who surrounded Mao, in order to preserve Mao’s image. This is likely because many people alive today lived through the Cultural Revolution. The government can not maintain credibility while attempting to paint a pretty picture of this. My Chinese family is not making any money off their memories of the Cultural Revolution, unlike the authors you listed, who also did not experience his as intimately as our family. Older Chinese netizens who take to Chinese social media to apologize for their role in the Cultural Revolution are also not making any cash writing books for Western audiences.

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