The cult of Mao

Although Mao Zedong died 30 years ago, he still gazes out over Tiananmen Square, China’s symbolic and political centre.

Mao's image is one of the most famous of modern China
Mao's image is one of the most famous of modern China

Perhaps the most famous image of modern China, the huge portrait is an indication of Mao’s continued hold over Chinese society.


An embodiment of the Chinese Communist Party and its power, Mao was prominent in communist propaganda well before the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.


After the communist takeover, more and more posters and portraits depicting the “Great Helmsman” were produced as the cult of Mao took root.


In the early 1960s, facing internal power struggles and in an effort to consolidate his grasp on the country, Mao began explicitly to call for the creation of a personality cult around him.


Source books were compiled to help artists design posters that showed the chairman in his appropriate splendour. 




Millions of posters have been printed with Mao’s image

Millions of posters have been
printed with Mao’s image

He had to be painted hong, guang, liang (red, bright, and shining); no greys were allowed while the use of black was also frowned on because it indicated counter-revolutionary intentions.


Often Mao’s head was surrounded by a halo, illuminating the faces of the people surrounding him. Depicted as tall and robust, Mao had become firmly entrenched as the icon of revolution.


By the late 1960s, during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao worship was in full swing.


The chairman’s face beamed down from huge billboards along the streets and avenues in China’s urban areas.


His portrait decorated steam engines and harbour cranes, and photographs of his face were placed all over the countryside.




Mao carefully encouraged a personality cult around himself

Mao carefully encouraged a
personality cult around himself

An omnipresent force, he watched over China’s workers while revolutionary slogans and quotations from the man himself urged the people to work even harder to realise his vision of a communist utopia.


Mao’s official portrait also occupied a central place in every home and loyal communists were expected to carry his image wherever they went.


This carried the form of his photograph, on the cover of the ubiquitous “Little Red Book” of Mao quotations; or the Mao badges that millions wore pinned to their chests.


Only by the early 1970s, as Mao’s health began to fade, did the extreme aspects of the cult of Mao begin to wane.




Mao badges were once an essential item for loyal Chinese

Mao badges were once an
essential item for loyal Chinese

Yet after his death, and despite their misgivings about the personality cult, China’s communist leaders have continued to employ Mao as a legitimising symbol, protecting the country against the disunity and chaos they most fear.


For many millions of – especially rural – Chinese, Mao remains the leader who always took their wellbeing to heart.


For them, the privations and persecutions of the past that Mao caused seem to have been forgotten.


While many others undoubtedly have personal memories to the contrary, they take the view that Mao himself should not be held responsible for these aberrations, but that corrupt officials surrounding him were to blame.


Even the students who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in spring 1989 carried pictures of Mao to underline the patriotic nature of their protests.




Mao’s image is on every Chinesebanknote

Mao’s image is on every Chinese

Mao, then, as an icon and as a man, remains a widely admired Chinese personality.


Internationally, he could perhaps be considered China’s most famous brand.


In fact Mao, renowned for his fierce anti-capitalist purges, has come full-circle in a remarkable way.


His image, designed by an artist famous in the past for his revolutionary portraits, continues to grace all Chinese banknotes.


Mao’s words may no longer fill the people’s hearts, but his face is all over their wallets.


Stefan R Landsberger holds the Olfert Dapper Chair of Contemporary Chinese Culture at the University of Amsterdam and is Lecturer at the Sinological Institute, Leiden University. Landsberger has one of the largest private collections of Chinese propaganda posters in the world. He has published widely on topics related to Chinese propaganda, and maintains an extensive website exclusively devoted to this genre of political communications (

Source : Al Jazeera

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