For the Chinese, Chairman Mao was part of their daily life. Starting in the 1950s, Mao had been held up by the Communist Party as the supreme leader and father of the country. The mass publication of the Little Red Book— filled with the Chairman’s quotes— allowed the Chinese people to study his ideology while millions of posters, paintings, and badges produced by the Party spread his image around the nation.
The cult of Mao reached its peak during the early days of the Cultural Revolution. His presence was inescapable; people were instructed to love the Chairman more than their own families and to devote their time to studying his thought. Most homes had a bust or picture of the Chairman, while many devoted followers wore badges bearing his likeness. People of all ages were expected to quote the Little Red Book by heart and to perform the “Loyalty Dance,” a simple dance meant to show respect and devotion to Mao.
This section illustrates the many ways in which people participated in the cult of the Chairman. Although Mao was undeniably a brilliant leader in certain regards, these objects ignore the violence and suffering caused by his failings in policy. From sculptures celebrating momentous events in Mao’s life, such as his famed 1966 swim in the Yangtze River, to the many busts made in his image, visual culture portrayed the Chairman as a godlike, benevolent figure who deserved the ardent admiration and devotion of his subjects.
However, by the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese people’s faith in Mao and his policies had begun to waver. The first blow to his image came in 1971, after General Lin Biao died in a plane crash while fleeing the country for the Soviet Union; the Chinese people began to doubt the Chairman, as they could not understand how one of Mao’s closest followers and chosen successor could become a traitor. Soon after the Chairman’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping slowly took control of leadership from the ineffectual Hua Guofeng, who had been Mao’s appointed successor following Lin Biao’s death. Deng, with the support of the Party, began to “de-Maoify” the nation; he sought to undo the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and enacted moderate policies that ushered in a new period of economic development, and to a certain extent, allowed greater artistic and political freedoms, however, the 1989 Tiananmen incident illustrated the Party’s continued, iron-fisted response to political and ideological opposition and the public’s desire for more freedoms.
Along with this change in policy—from Mao’s radical leftism to Deng’s centrist approach— came the process of containing the fanaticism and excess of the Mao cult in the 1960s and 70s. To this end, the Party banned the erection of new Mao statues in public places and in 1981, the Party denounced the Cultural Revolution as one of Mao’s few mistakes, with the ultimate judgement of Mao’s policies as being “70% right and 30% wrong.” But in spite of this pronouncement, the Communist Party still tolerates little criticism of the Chairman, especially since Mao and his ideology remains central to Party ideology to this day. In any case, despite the violence and destruction caused in the wake of his policies, Mao continues to be revered in China for his role in liberating the country and establishing the modern Chinese nation.