Portrait of the Artist as A Communist Tyrant

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

“If Mao’s Little Red Book was the national bible, Mao’s official portrait was the national stamp,” wrote the New York Times. Of these omnipresent facsimiles which graced bookcovers, stamps and money, not to mention walls of homes, schools, factories and government buildings, the most famous weighs 1.5 tons and stands six meters tall. A potent symbol of Communist power still hangs on the Tiananmen gate tower, from which rostrum Chairman Mao commenced a new republic in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

But very few people remember that Mao was not the first Chinese leader to appear in such hagiographical form on the Tiananmen Square. After his death in 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, was remembered by a giant portrait erected in the square. A similar image of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader, stood on the guard tower from in 1945 (below left).

That Was Then, This Is Now

When the Communists first seized power in February 1949, they replaced Chiang Kai-shek not only literally but also on the Tiananmen. The first version of the iconic Mao was a hastily sketched portrait that stood barely a meter tall. But by the time Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st, the portrait was already in its second iteration, and showed Mao with an octagonal cap and coarse woolen jacket.

Soon, the cap has to go too, and in 1950, after a brief competition, a teacher from the Beijing Art Institute named Zhang Zhenshi was made Mao’s first official portrait maker. He painted the standard image, Mao in his trademark gray suit, that became the imprimatur of Communist China. (It was on one of Zhang’s images that Warhol based his Mao series.) Initially, the portrait had a functional purpose — it served as Mao’s double for people who were too far away to make him — a primitive version of those video screens at concerts. This portrait, which had Mao gazing into distance, was replaced by one in which Mao stared down at people.

In 1967, when the Cultural Revolution was already raging, a final tweak was added to the painting: for the first time, it showed both of Mao’s ears, rather than just one, proof that he was listening to all the people and not just a select few. This frontal pose has remained the standard ever since. In 1976, when Mao died, the colorful oil portrait was briefly replaced by a black and white photograph during the mourning period.

In Black And White

During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, three teachers from Mao’s hometown defaced Mao’s portrait by throwing eggs filled with ink at it. They were swiftly arrested, and later received some of the harshest sentences in the crackdown with sentences of 16 years, 20 years and life respectively. For all the symbolism it represented, the portrait is often defaced (most recently in 2007 and 2010), and a spare is always kept on hand by the Communist Party for such eventualities. During the Tiananmen Square protests, however, the party was unable to replace the portrait swiftly, and they covered it with black cloth.

just one of many cover-ups in China that year

However, its importance in national myth is indelible; when the very first portrait was to be auctioned off, the public reaction forced the Chinese government to intervene and retain it. Similar outcry from Chinese diaspora forced Citroen to withdraw adverts featuring the iconic Mao unflatteringly.

Citoyen Mao




Truth be told, seeing Mao even on Baidu Maps (China’s propaganda mouthpiece-cum-searchengine) inspired this post. Looking at Baidu Maps in 3D is like playing SimCity. My only objections are (1) that the Tiananmen Gate didn’t have such huge lanterns on it, and (2) that they still haven’t installed tanks in front of the Beijing Hotel yet.



12 thoughts on “Portrait of the Artist as A Communist Tyrant”

  1. I actually work in China and would like to forward this article onto some of my close Chinese colleagues who happen to be well-educated albeit it frightfully ignorant.
    However phrases such as :…with his beady eyes peering directly at viewers” and “…they still haven’t installed tanks in front of the Beijing Hotel yet.” make this nigh on impossible.
    For such well-written and thoughtful articles, you do manage to pepper them with coarse and baised opinions on many occasions.
    If one where to hod back on the rhetoric sometimes, one could find themselves in charge of some brilliant commentary pieces.
    I do applaud the emails, the photographs and the intentions, but not so much the snide asides.

    1. hi dwight,
      thanks for the comment. i didn’t know ‘beady’ is considered biased but i can see how it can be offensive. i have removed it.
      however, i am not going to back down on the other comment. i don’t quite understand whom you were calling ‘ignorant’ in your comments, but i will assume you are calling your well-educated Chinese friends ignorant.
      no wonder since in China you have a regime which censors the internet, deletes all mentions of Tiananmen Massacre, and still jails a Nobel Peace Prize Winner. in face of such evidence, i seriously cast doubts upon ‘progress’ of human rights, democracy and freedom of speech in China. I cannot do much about first two, but I am exercising my freedom of speech here.
      when a journalist is writing for NYTimes or BBC, he may have to tone down his language, but I as an independent blogger do not feel obliged to do so.

  2. terrific analysis of visuals and the citroen ad
    probably represents what he thinks of all of China’s
    folk taking up the the auto, and bringing the fire
    this time

  3. Two things: Your reply to Dwight omitted the fact that China is not merely a dictatorship, but a military one. All of China’s prosperity is at the service of a military imbued with a nationalist ideology that makes the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere look like a church cookie sale.
    Also, I don’t get the Citroën advert. Is Howard R. addressing it saying that Mao recognized what a mess 500 million drivers was going to make of China? That seems a little complimentary. The Spanish is their version of “render unto Caesar…”, I think.

  4. […] icons — from the White House to the Eiffel Tower — a middle digit was firmly raised to Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate . In case the symbolism was unclear, he stood in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the […]

  5. […] national icons — from the White House to the Eiffel Tower — a middle digit was firmly raised to Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate . In case the symbolism was unclear, he stood in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the […]

  6. […] on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress […]

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