Tiananmen Square


From Geremie R. Barmé, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader
(Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), pp. 19-21.
Reproduced with permission of the author

There was something for everyone in the Mao persona. As Edgar Snow wrote in the early 1960s: "What makes him [Mao] formidable is that he is not just a party boss but by many millions of Chinese is quite genuinely regarded as a teacher, statesman, strategist, philosopher, poet laureate, national hero, head of the family, and greatest liberator in history. He is to them Confucius plus Lao-tzu plus Rousseau plus Marx plus Buddha...." (73) In the 1990s, Mao remains a patriotic leader, martial hero, philosopher-king, poet, calligrapher (surrounded as he so often was with the bric-à-brac of the traditional literatus --cloth-bound books, writing brushes and ink stones), but he is also widely seen in a positive light as a strong and irascible figure, a wily infighter, a man who was both emperor and oracle, the ultimate Machiavellian manipulator who knew, many would argue, just how to keep the restive Chinese nation in place. (74) Mao consciously played on the contrasting Chinese traditions relating to the Sage-Emperor and rebel chieftain... . (75) As one academic has noted -- and it is a remark that remains significant today -- the Communist revolution (and we could add Mao as both an individual and symbol), had "carried through [an]...attempt to reconstruct the world in the spirit of inner-worldly transcendence inherent in Confucianism." (76)

For many people Mao represented not only national but also physical potency. Most of the Mao-related jokes current from the early 1980s cheerfully reflected the leader's prowess in bed, and they often used figures like Zhou Enlai or Hua Guofeng as foils. On one level such humour represented a transgression against the august figure of the Leader and allowed a popular invasion of the "forbidden zone" ( jinqu) relating to the person of Mao. On another level, they were also indicative of a gradual process that has seen Mao become more human, approachable and, in the new Mao Cult, the familiar of the Chinese masses. Through this process, one often described by Chinese critics as "secularization" ( shisuhua), Mao has been enlisted in the ranks of the people in contrast and even opposition to the present leaders who were increasingly perceived of as being sectarian, corrupt and lacklustre. (77) The fascination with the details of Mao's everyday life as given in the plethora of books published from 1988 ... is also an indication of this process. Despite the Chinese authorities' denunciations of the BBC for broadcasting Dr. Li Zhisui's revelations concerning Mao's sex life in early 1994, one could speculate that popular opinion in China was probably neither particularly outraged nor surprised by the latest proof of the Chairman's talents. If anything people may well regard Mao's voracious appetites as further evidence of his exceptional stature, superhuman energy and unequivocal success.

It could also be argued that Mao, the ultimate father-mother official ( fumu guan), enjoyed such a broad appeal because, to an extent, he was a love object ... . (78) One could argue that he was also a bisexual or omnisexual figure. Mao's official portrait shows the enigmatic face of a man-woman (or grandfather-mother). In poetry, song and prose he had often been eulogized as a mother/father, and his personality in all of its majesty and pettiness fits in with complex attitudes regarding sexual personæ. In his dotage Mao, a bloated colossus supported by young female assistants, (79) often looked like a grand matriarch, time having blurred his features into a fleshy unisex mask. Li Zhisui's memoirs, The Private Life of Chairman Mao , provide numerous fascinating insights into the Chairman's various peccadilloes, not least of which was his irrepressible and, in some cases, bisexual appetite. Not only did he disport himself with a bevy of comely ingenue, it would appear that he was not above lunging at the handsome young men in his guard who put him to bed, or to expect a "massage" from one of their number before retiring. (80)

In this context it is instructive to recall the reaction of the American journalist Agnes Smedley to her first meeting with Mao in Yan'an:

His hands were as long and sensitive as a woman's.... Whatever else he might be he was an aesthete. I was in fact repelled by the feminine in him. An instinctive hostility sprang up inside me, and I became so occupied with trying to master it, that I heard hardly a word of what followed... (81)

The Mao suit only added to the sexual egalitarianism of the Mao image. While in his later years Mao was a wrinkled, green-toothed, slack-jawed old man, the official description of the Chairman was of a vibrant and healthy individual whose features remained unravaged by that mighty sculptor time. His pictures were airbrushed to perfection and his appearance in documentary footage carefully doctored to present the best possible image so that even in terminal decline official propaganda could claim that he "glowed with health and vigour, and he enjoyed a ruddy complexion."


73. Quoted in Jerome Ch'en, ed., Mao, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969, p. 131.
74. One of the most evocative fictional depictions of Mao as mastermind can be found in the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare's The Concert: A Novel, written in Albanian and translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by Barbara Bray, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1994, pp. 25-39, 79-90, 181, 311-312, 323.
75. Schram, "Party Leader or True Ruler?" p. 235 and n. 84.
76. See Shmuel Eisenstadt, "Innerweltliche Transzendenz und die Strukturierung der Welt. Max Webers Studie über China und die Gestalt der chinesischen Zivilisation," quoted in Schram, "Part Leader or True Ruler?" p. 228. In this context, see also Thomas A. Metzger, Escape from Predicament. Neo-Confucianism and Chinese Evolving Political Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1977, pp. 121 & 233, also quoted in Schram, pp. 226 & 228.
77. As the government's campaign against corruption widened in 1995, many people seemed unimpressed by all the storm and fury. One comment was: "All the Beijing officials are corrupt. Chairman Mao wasn't a good man, but at least he knew how to deal with corruption." Graham Hutchings, "China's Anger with Leaders Bursts Out," The Telegraph, 14 April, 1995.
78. See Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, Gifts, Favors, and Banquets. The Art of Social Relationships in China, Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 257-258.
79. For the memoirs of the two most prominent of Mao's "personal secretaries," or shenghuo mishu as they were commonly referred to, see Zhang Yufeng, Mao Zedong yishi, Changsha: Hunan renmin chubanshe, 1989; and Meng Jinyun's recollections as published in Guo Jinrong, Mao Zedongde huanghun suiyue, Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi, 1990.
80. Zhisui Li, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The memoirs of Mao's personal physician Dr. Zhisui Li, translated by Tai Hung-chao, London: Chatto & Windus, 1994, pp. 358-359.
81. Quoted in Simon Leys, "Aspects of Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976)," Broken Images, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980, p. 64.

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