Mao’s Shadow

A propaganda photo showing Mao with people from African, Arab, and South American countries, 1959
Hou Bo/Mark Henley/Panos Pictures/Redux
A propaganda photo showing Mao with people from African, Arab, and South American countries, 1959

On a blistering Saturday last summer, I made my way to Shanghai’s western waterfront, where an extravagant new cultural corridor has been rising in recent years. My first stop was the cavernous Long Museum West Bund, which was opened in 2014 by Liu Yiqian, one of China’s most ambitious billionaire art collectors. Featured on the ground floor of the hulking concrete structure was a lively exhibition of mixed-media work by the African-American artist Mark Bradford, titled “Los Angeles.” But my attention was drawn to another show, in the museum’s underground galleries, whose poster featured an unfamiliar, smiling image of the young Mao Zedong and bore an intriguingly vague, almost meaningless title: “Thinking of the Seven Decades History at My Space.”

What I discovered, nearly hidden away, was room after room of outsized paintings of the Chinese revolutionary leader, most of them dating from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Here was Mao at a desk, tracing his finger across a large map of the Taiwan Strait, as if planning an invasion. There was Mao in a heavy winter coat, writing calligraphy by lantern light. Two tableaux showed him beaming as he walked with overjoyed peasants through their fields. Others showed Mao on horseback or on the deck of a ship, heroically leading troops in battle. The legend inscribed at the bottom of yet another of these images read, “Chairman Mao Zedong is the Red Sun in the Heart of the World People’s Revolution.”

Many people have seen Mao kitsch of various kinds, but even for a longtime and frequent visitor to China, being confronted with such a concentration of it felt unusual. How to explain the effusive glorification of Mao during his lifetime, and why was such an extraordinary collection now stashed away in a cellar? The show’s English-language catalog essay was not of much help. In a passage under the heading “Admiration and Praise,” it said:

The works created by Mao Zedong’s portraits, statues, and Mao Zedong’s themes have developed greatly in the 1960s, not only in the large increase in the number and the expansion of the scope of expression, but also in the way of expression. It shows the creative characteristics of the ten years after the mid-1960s.

For anyone familiar with Chinese history, presumably including Chinese visitors to the show (who that day were few and far between), this can only be described as a grand evasion. The ten years in question were those of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), a traumatic time of widespread political violence and upheaval, as the aging Mao stoked youthful radicalism in a bid to extend his already long hold on power.

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