“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.