Study areas: Communist China, Post-Mao China, modern Chinese history, Chinese politics, Chinese propaganda and art.
The opening remarks of this documentary best summarize Mao Zedong’s (1893-1976) influence in China, both before and after his death: “He was a man of many faces: revolutionary hero, a godlike figure to the people, and a pop icon to the world. Mao’s image would control a nation for over half a century, and even in death, his presence lives on.” Focusing on propaganda art, Making Mao reveals how art served the only one purpose, namely, the promotion of the Communist Party and its goals, in Mao’s China, and how the image of Mao as the supreme leader was made in a half-century of revolution. The blind personality cult that resulted served to promote Mao as a god: in short, making Mao was the making of God in the Chinese context.
Art is powerful because it can change the way people think and live. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was certainly well aware of this. As a result, their propaganda effort is the largest in the world to date, and nowhere else is it as pervasive as in China, according to the film. The documentary shows how different art forms, including woodcuts, paintings, posters, music, opera, etc., were employed to serve the political purpose. Being used either to shape a utopian vision for the people or as a weapon to attack the opposing forces, this art has become a historical record of the CCP’s political reforms and campaigns, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Although the film does not mention Mao’s infamous “Talks at the Yan’an Forum of Literature and Art” in 1942, which set the sole criterion for revolutionary literature and art in the three decades after the CCP took power in China in 1949, it does examine art works produced under that criterion: art for the sake of politics. Under state control, socialist realism was the dominant creative style for all literature and art, and this genre permitted no exposure of the dark side of the new society. Paintings, posters, etc. reveal the revolutionary aesthetic standards, including the formulaic body gestures and heavy use of the color red. As in the Soviet Union, Chinese revolutionary posters were full of figures with strong arms, clenched fists, and serious or happy faces, showing their determination to follow the Communist Party and their supreme leader. The color red is traditionally a lucky color in Chinese culture that signifies happiness, prosperity and vitality, and so became a part of a new visual language serving political goals, also representing the blood of the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for revolution. For these reasons, red was the dominant color in the Communist propaganda art, as it was in Mao’s red books and badges; China became a sea of red. On the other hand, women were portrayed in masculine roles in the posters, echoing Mao’s remarks on women: women could hold up half the sky. Declaring that “our friends are all over the world,” the Communists made internationalism another important propaganda theme, and international figures were depicted as enthusiastic about a world revolution similar to that in China.
While Mao was made larger than life during his reign, he has continued to be important in a different way since his death in 1976. Interestingly, although Mao’s image is still alive in the minds of the masses, and the government cannot afford to jettison Mao, Mao has been commercialized as his image has become popular in the marketplace. Furthermore, Chinese artists abroad started to reinterpret Mao in the late 1980s and incorporated Mao into popular culture, imitating Andy Warhol, who exhibited Mao’s images in Paris in 1974. Zhang Hongtu, one such artist, has settled down in the USA and has been successful in promoting his works in which Mao is portrayed as a political pop icon. One of Zhang’s productions is a peephole in a door. Looking through the hole you see Mao watching you from outside, symbolizing Mao’s presence everywhere in Chinese people’s daily lives, as well as the artist’s Mao phobia. He also made a table tennis table with two outlined shapes of Mao cut out; if the ball were to hit Mao’s image, it would fall through the table and you would lose. “The concept is very simple: Mao is untouchable,” in the words of the artist, who “treat(s) the creative process as psychotherapy.” Zhang also puts Mao’s face on a Quaker oats box, his body on zodiac figures, and uses the first letter of Mao, “M”, on an old McDonald’s box. Western people find his works appealing, as these are things that everyone can relate to.
The interview is one of the most popular tools of the documentary form, and numerous interviews are found in Making Mao. Western historians and Chinese artists are interviewed in the film: Chinese artists recollect the way art was used and reflect on their own life experiences during Mao’s time, while western scholars provide the audience with their interpretations of the revolutionary propaganda. Although in one segment the Chinese art historian Karen Smith says something a bit misleading, that “there was no unified language when the Communists came to power, and that's one of the reasons they produced the simplified characters and did away with the complex classical characters," she does a great job in explaining how to read a revolutionary poster in another part of the film. She points out that “Every gesture had to have its immediate meanings. There were regulations for how one looked up, how much of the face had to be shown in every single image, or for what direction or point of view represented a good person or a bad person.” In another section, Paul Pickowicz, author and historian, reveals his belief that the costumes in Red Detachment of Women, one of the eight revolutionary model plays promoted by Jiang Qing (Madam Mao), were in fact very sexy, and suggests that Chinese artists did titillate the audience by using human sexuality even in Mao’s time. Some viewers might find this to be over-interpreted and farfetched at best, and male chauvinist, even orientalist, at worst, but for the most part, the film offers revealing analysis of this fascinating subject.
High school and college teachers will find the documentary useful in teaching modern Chinese history, politics, and popular art. The film can also be used as supplementary material in teaching modern Chinese literature. The length of the film makes it very suitable for a one-hour class session.
Shelley W. Chan is associate professor of Chinese language and cultural studies at Wittenberg University. She is the author of A Subversive Voice: Mo Yan and His Fictional World (2011) and a number of articles in scholarly journals. Her major research interests fall in modern and contemporary Chinese literature and women studies.
Last Updated: April 25, 2012