Scott McLemee
Mao's New Collectivism
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The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 January 2003


Wandering around Marquette University with a paperback of Chairman Mao Speaks to the People in my book satchel, I feel a little like a displaced and bewildered Red Guard. The running dogs of imperialism are quiet. No signs of sharp struggle here. Only one poster makes a fervent demand on students. It exhorts them to consume a certain brand of pizza.

In December 1962, the Great Helmsman wrote a short poem called "Winter Clouds." It closes with these lines:

Plum blossoms welcome the whirling snow
Small wonder flies freeze and perish.

The images no doubt carry huge political implications, for those able to decrypt them. (That's one thing you can say about totalitarianism: It teaches people to read between the lines.) But this afternoon in Wisconsin, 40 years later, even the snow is moderate. Thin patches cling to the ground, but not the sidewalks, so there is not even the slightest disruption of the exam schedule.

The drab, post-ideological scene changes when I reach the office of Melissa Schrift, who joined Marquette's faculty this past fall as an assistant professor of anthropology. On a long piece of cloth draped across one wall there are pinned dozens, maybe hundreds, of buttons with images produced during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In 2001, Ms. Schrift published Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge: The Creation and Mass Consumption of a Personality Cult (Rutgers University Press).

Ms. Schrift works in a field that might be called the anthropology of objects. Her office is a little museum of creative artifacts, some easier to classify than others. There are photographs of paintings by self-taught "outsider artists" from the rural American South. (She and her husband are both from North Carolina, and you hear it in her accent.) Less traditional in form are items she has collected while studying prison culture, such as a picture frame made from cigarette packages.

But what I've come to see, after reading her book, are the badges. Each shows the Chairman in some pose of smiling beneficence or rapt ideological fervor. Besides the ones pinned to the banner, she has loose-leaf binders, like those used by coin collectors, filled with scores more. Also hanging on the wall is a portrait of Mao emblazoned on a porcelain plate. I mention that it looks very much like something from the Franklin Mint.

"Yes, there's a kitsch quality that I think the younger Chinese who are collecting old badges appreciate," says Ms. Schrift. "As Westerners, we think we have some kind of monopoly on ironic attitudes toward popular culture. For older collectors, there's a cathartic quality to collecting images from that period. It's their way of dealing with something in the past that was incredibly traumatic, but that the government would prefer to forget. It'll be a long, long time before there is a Cultural Revolution museum in China, if ever."

The badges were the one form of personal adornment that were ideologically permissible in the years after 1966, when, encouraged by Mao, young Red Guards began attacking "capitalist roaders" -- first among university faculty members, then at every level of Chinese society. Each school, factory, town, and military unit issued its own commemorative badges to honor Chairman Mao. Ms. Schrift says there may have been up to 10,000 distinct varieties.

By 1969, the mass production of literally billions of badges had placed an intolerable strain on the economy, already suffering from three years of continuous insurrection. The Communist Party began discouraging the badges. By the late 1970s, many were treated as scrap metal, to be melted down as raw material for the economic renewal begun by Deng Xiaoping, one of the "capitalist roaders" most fiercely criticized during the Cultural Revolution.

But after China celebrated the centennial of Mao's birth, in 1993, his image (if not "invincible Mao Zedong Thought") underwent a sort of revival. Some of it embodied genuine respect for him as a founding father. But in the growing population of young professionals, for whom both communism and the democratic movement of 1989 were failed dreams, there was a sort of campy consumerist nostalgia for the bad old days of "two-line struggle." A market in Mao badges emerged.

The rows of icons in Ms. Schrift's office present a study in monotonous uniformity, at least at first. But looking at the badges one by one, you can't help noticing how beautiful they are -- and how various. There are portraits of Mao at all ages ... heart-shaped badges ... maps of China with the whole country in red, except for one little island in white, the "renegade province" of Taiwan ... Mao playing Ping-Pong ... the Chairman in front of rippling red flags (blown, no doubt, by the Wind of Revolution from the East). Some badges show mangoes. Mangoes?

"In 1968, Mao gave a gift of mangoes to the propaganda teams that were trying to rein in the excesses of the Red Guards," Ms. Schrift explains. "The mango badges became very popular. It was a way to signal that things had gone too far."

Oh, right. Ms. Schrift provides a detailed account of Mao-and-the-mangoes in her book. But only now, with the badges a few inches away, does the point really hit home: The emblems have a language. And it does not always speak in the voice of official ideology; the badges sometimes articulate the secret thoughts of the people who wore them. Think of the creativity, and the desire for eye-catching personal adornment, expressed by 10,000 small but distinct variations on a handful of themes. Imagine the longing, implied by all those innocuous baskets of fruit, for a little peace and quiet.

Ms. Schrift's husband, Keith Pilkey, a lawyer, arrives with their two small sons, who soon bring an element of unrest to the campus, or at least to the anthropology department. Ms. Schrift and Mr. Pilkey discovered the world of Mao badges while visiting China as graduate students in the early 1990s. An interest in the people who collected them grew into Ms. Schrift's dissertation topic.

"After finishing my comprehensive exams," she recalls with a laugh, "Keith and the kids gave me a cake designed like a Mao badge. Quinn is probably the only one in his kindergarten who knows who Mao is."

"The older collectors in China are irritated with people in the younger generation there who see badges as an investment," says Ms. Schrift. Her book has helped stimulate interest in the badges in the United States, where they tend to be, if anything, even more commercialized and de-historicized. "People will put their collections in a box, stick in $5, and send them to me for appraisal," she says. "It gives a whole new meaning to 'applied anthropology,' I guess. But I'm trying to steer clear of that sort of thing." She did, however, write an article for the auction house Sotheby's, which recently conducted an online sale of Cultural Revolution memorabilia.

A few weeks before our interview, while browsing in a Chinese shop in Toronto, I came across a few such items -- grubby old Red Books in Chinese, for example, heavily thumbed, I imagined, during prolonged "self-criticism" sessions.

One item was especially intriguing: a medallion, cast in a bronze-colored metal, showing Chairman Mao in bas-relief, in front of a microphone with a pen or a cigarette in his left hand. Next to him sits a figure looking very much like his "close comrade in arms" Lin Biao, the military leader and second in command at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

But later, in 1971, Comrade Lin sought to overthrow Mao, and his plane was shot down over Mongolia when he tried escaping to the Soviet Union. Images of the former No. 2 were destroyed en masse. Ms. Schrift's collection includes a ceramic knickknack that once showed Mao and Lin side by side. The traitor's name and portrait have been scratched out. You can almost feel the anxiety of whoever did it, desperate that no dangerous trace of the disgraced man remain.

Examining the beat-up medallion, Ms. Schrift says, "Oh yes, that's Lin all right." My first venture into the marketplace of Cultural Revolution memorabilia has yielded a real find -- a piece even a Chinese collector might covet.

"An item like this didn't survive Lin's downfall by chance," she says. "Somebody had to have wanted to keep it, for some reason. That means they had to hide it."

The dents in the metal, and its dull color, suddenly prove as meaningful as the image itself. "I bet somebody buried this," Mr. Pilkey says, holding the medallion. "Maybe they dug it up later, when it was safe, and sold it," adds Ms. Schrift.

Which is, come to think of it, the politics of commodified cultural memory in a nutshell.