The Incredible Shrinking Man

Just before the recent demonstrations in Beijing and other cities, which shook the Party to its foundations, a rumor ran through the capital: Mao Zedong’s body, embalmed and mounted in the ugly Memorial Hall which disfigures Tiananmen Square opposite the Forbidden City, was shrinking. The woman doctor who headed the team of experts that performed the taxidermy on the Chairman soon after his death in late 1976, conducted because the Party was afraid to follow the practice of cremating even its greatest heroes, issued reassurances that the body remained precisely the same as it always was. It was in effect well above average height for a Chinese. Perhaps, she suggested, a body lying down appeared less large than one standing.

It has become harder and harder to recall how awe-inspiring Mao was, in the eyes of the masses, his comrades, and many foreigners. “Red Red Sun in Our Hearts,” “Great Helmsman and Teacher,” he was consulted through his quotations by ping-pong champions during matches, surgeons conducting operations, and, during the Cultural Revolution, by diplomats in London as they ran information out of their embassy to confront the British police. The Party in 1945 declared him “the greatest revolutionary” in Chinese history and the “greatest genius of the modern age.” Chinese who treated disrespectfully even a scrap of paper with the Chairman’s words or picture on it risked arrest, and millions of Red Guards and others “reported” to portraits of Mao every morning and every evening as if he were the emperor or at least a noble ancestor. A Chinese intellectual in Nanking who was beaten and otherwise shamefully treated during the Cultural Revolution told me how years after the Chairman’s death in September 1976 she noticed a little heap of Mao badges lying in the gutter, finally discarded by some ex-devotee. A great fear seized her that someone, even then, could court disaster by throwing away anything connected to Him. In Beijing during the recent mass demonstrations I saw an agitated, horrified reaction sweep through the crowds after three hoodlums threw paint on the gigantic portrait of Mao that hangs over the Gate of Heavenly Peace. When a new portrait was quickly produced—it was notable that a spare was available—the relief was palpable.

Mao’s words poured from the official presses: between 1966 and 1968 alone 150 million copies of the Selected Works were published, with an additional 75.8 million published by 1976. There were 140 million copies of Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Zedong, 96 million volumes of his poems, 740 million copies of Quotations from Chairman Mao—the Little Red Book—and, two years after his death, 28 million copies of Volume V of the Selected Works.

Then came the fall. After Mao’s death, the arrest of the Gang of Four, and the descent into political oblivion of Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng (who had decreed that “whatever” the Chairman had ever done or said was gospel), the …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.