Mao Zedong: King of Kitsch

With Mao-abilia everywhere, the “Great Helmsman” may have done more for the Chinese people in death than in life

The Last Page March 2009
"The Devil may wear Prada, but as Mao once observed, if there is "great disorder under Heaven, the situation is excellent." Illustration by Eric Palma

Almost 60 years have passed since Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic of China in October 1949, promising an economic system that would muzzle capitalism's running dogs. I think most of us can agree that the Great Helmsman screwed things up pretty badly with his disastrous Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other bloody and misguided social experiments.

But love him or loathe him, Chairman Mao has done more for his people in death than he ever accomplished when he was alive and peddling his Little Red Book. He has become the King of Kitsch—and a zillion Chinese manufacturers and shopkeepers are the beneficiaries. Not to mention collectors of totalitarian memorabilia like me. (If you ask nicely, I might show you my gaudy as all get-out Idi Amin shirt or my splendidly outrageous Hafez al-Assad banner.)   

 I was pondering Mao's legacy one recent morning in Hong Kong while sipping a mocha frappuccino at a Starbucks, just down the street from a McDonald's, Citibank, Hard Rock Cafe and other symbols of unrepentant capitalist greed. Mao would be aghast, I thought, at how utterly decadent China's cities have become. In Beijing, a short stroll from the marble and granite mausoleum where his gray-suited corpse is still on display, a hotel shopping arcade boasts dozens of designer boutiques, including Fendi, Chanel, Cartier, Gucci and Prada.

The Devil may wear Prada, but as Mao once observed, if there is "great disorder under Heaven, the situation is excellent." I found evidence of such excellence while browsing with my wife and daughter in the musty antique, almost-antique and no-damn-way-antique stores on Hong Kong's Hollywood Road. In shop after shop, we were bombarded with offerings of Mao memorabilia by folks eager to make a fast Hong Kong dollar off the Great Leader. Our choices included newly made Mao wristwatches, beer mugs, cigarette lighters, key chains, CD cases, Band-Aid boxes, fridge magnets, playing cards and even bobblehead dolls.

You may ask: What would the Great Teacher think if he could see himself as a bobblehead?

Easy answer: he would be delighted.

It was Comrade Mao, after all, who jump-started the Mao-on-everything craze during his Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. While other dictators were content to order up 50-foot-tall statues and inspirational murals, Mao one-upped them by slapping his mug on such everyday items as flower vases, candy jars, incense burners, record albums and windup clocks.

 I bought way too much new and old Mao-abilia from one shopkeeper who confessed that while he utterly despised the man, "Mao helps feed my family."

My favorite piece of Mao? Undoubtedly the vintage LP that offers such blasts from the past as "Chairman Mao Is Dearer to Us Than Our Parents"—perhaps written by a teenager grounded for partying too hard at the annual May Day parade.

But the playing cards are pretty cool too. Mao's face is plastered on the Ace, King and Queen and all the other cards—including the Joker.

I never considered Mao much of a Joker. But as the King of Kitsch once noted in a speech to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party: "Without contradictions, the world would cease to exist."

Bill Brubaker, a staff writer at the Washington Post from 1985 to 2008, hopes to get a Kim Jong Il button for his birthday.

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