26 January 2005

Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge

The Spring 2004 issue of China Review International contains a review article by Ronald C. Keith entitled "History, Contradiction, and the Apotheosis of Mao Zedong" that includes the following fascinating summary of a book, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge: The Creation and Mass Consumption of a Personality Cult, by Melissa Schrift (Rutgers U. Press, 2001).
In the Yan'an [or Yenan] period there were perhaps only ten badge designs, and the handmade badges of that time used Mao's photograph and commemorative slogans. Initially badges were commemorative, celebrating the establishment of the PRC. In 1949, Mao supported a Party resolution that forbade the naming of streets, cities, or places after heroic comrades. Mao's own portrait, however, soon reappeared on commemorative badges as early as 1951. The modest beginnings of such badges could not have prepared even the most astute observer for the spectacular production of approximately three to five billion badges during the Cultural Revolution. The badges became compulsory wear for anyone who desperately needed to authenticate his or her redness in an era of wild and arbitrary political denunciation.

Schrift tells us that along with this unprecedented volume of production there was incredible diversity of iconographic design as well [as] assertive statement of political ideals. Chen Boda's "Four Greats" was, for example, extremely popular. Lin Biao struggled to keep his own imagery off these badges for fear that he be accused of competing with Chairman Mao, whose left profile was almost always featured on the Cultural Revolution badges. As Schrift indicates, there was a "riot of consumption" as the badges became a new form of political currency: "It was no longer enough to simply acquire and wear a badge. One's redness depended instead on the novelty with which one could design and/or consume a badge" (Schrift, p. 111). Moreover, while badge exchanges rarely involved money, they became units of black-market barter facilitating the acquisition of goods and services.

With Mao's attack on Lin Biao, the Party moved away from the excesses of personality cult. Badges no longer represented solid political capital. They offended a "revolutionary economism" that militated against such a tremendous waste of resources. More importantly, they could be associated with a resurgent "feudalism" within China's supposedly revolutionary society. Even so, there were subsequent rashes of production at the time of Mao's death and again on the centenary of his birth. In the contemporary era of market reform, pro-democracy protesters will wear Mao's image in order to resist the current government, and this image has become "remystified" as a hot consumer item for which there is both a domestic and an international collector's market (Schrift, p. 165).
Cool. Leftist consumerism. Or is this dialectical materialism?

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