Mao’s Last Photo


The year 1976 was not a happy year for Communist China. It began in January with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane party grandee who held back the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A few months later, in July, a severe earthquake hit the industrial city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people, according to government estimates (the real figure was probably much higher).

That the year was the Dragon Year — a watershed moment according to the Chinese astrology — could not have been far from anyone’s mind, let alone that of the old man succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao was 81 and he had been the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since 1943; now he had been reduced by his ailment to communicating by means of cryptic scrawls on notepads. (The only person who could decipher them was his nurse).

Mao made his last public appearance on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a great admirer of Mao, emulating Chinese Communism with his own Islamic Socialism and Mao’s Little Red Books with a similar red book called “Bhutto speaks” and it was suspected that it was during this last meeting that Mao agreed to transfer 50 kg of uranium to Pakistan — an act that allowed Pakistan to develop its first nuclear weapons in the 1980s.

The photos from the meeting were last photos of Chairman Mao — and they made abundantly clear to everyone, including Mao, that he would not be alive much longer. Seeing them, Mao decided to end his public audiences altogether. By September, he was dead.



The Good Soldier Lei Feng

In 1962, an unheralded conscript was killed in Fushun, northeastern China. Lei Feng was just 20 when a banal accident — a falling telephone pole — ended his yet-undistinguished life. Officials later fortuitously uncovered his diary, allegedly filled with words of selfless devotion to the Communist Party. His ideal had been “to be a small cog in the machine,” working for the party and Chairman Mao. “Parents are dear to their children, but they can’t compare with Chairman Mao,” read one entry.

Mao needed all the propaganda skills he had to divert attention away from the Great Leap Forward, which was failing spectacularly; Lei Feng’s story was a godsend — as much as that word can be employed within Mao’s atheistic society.  ‘Lei Feng’ myth thus promptly began with a ‘Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’ campaign, initially focused on performing humble Communist deeds, but later also on following the cult of Mao. The biography of Lei Feng saw some strange variants before the definitive version was prepared by the writers of the Propaganda Department in 1964.

Chinese leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin praised Lei Feng as the personification of altruism. ‘Lei Feng Exhibitions’ were organized in the large cities, showing many different “original” copies of the hero’s diary. These exhibitions –and the official illustrated diary — also contained a remarkable number of photographs, such as “Lei Feng helping an old woman to cross the street,” “Lei Feng secretly [sic] doing his comrades’ washing,” “Lei Feng giving his lunch to a comrade who forgot his lunch box,” and so forth. Susan Sontag was frankly dismissive of the authenticity of these photos in her On Photography. Simon Leys was more sarcastic in his 1977 book Ombres Chinoises: “Only cynical and impious spirits will wonder at the providential presence of a photographer during the various incidents in the life of that humble, hitherto unknown soldier.”

After Mao’s death, Lei Feng briefly remained a cultural icon symbolizing selflessness, modesty, and dedication, but his life became more openly questioned. A photograph later hilariously showed Lei wearing a wristwatch, an item of extravagance that was officially denied and practically unavailable to people of his rank*. Although many contemporary writers dismiss Lei’s continued importance, he remains one of modern China’s most resilient icons. Although his prominence in textbooks has declined, Lei Feng remains part of the national curriculum. He may now be subjected to open mockery, but there are still Lei Feng memorial, museum, and memorial day, and his life was also still celebrated in songs, T-shirts, kitsch internet animations and even a video-game even into 1990s and 2000s.

(cf. Wristwatches also made a rather unfortunate appearance in another series of iconic propaganda photographs made by an equally suffocating dictatorship.)



The Gang of Four

The Gang of Four was the name given by Mao Zedong to the ultra-leftist political faction composed of four high Chinese Communist Party officials, led by his last wife, Jiang Qing. When Mao placed Jiang in charge of the country’s cultural apparatus in 1966, she had not taken a public political role. Using her role, she would effectively manage the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and Communist China itself. (The other three members of the gang were Jiang’s close associates,  Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen, who were party leaders in Shanghai who played leading roles in securing that city for Mao during the Cultural Revolution.)

With Mao’s health faltering, the group slowly lost their influence. A power struggle inside the Communist Party ensued, and a propaganda campaign was launched against the four, calling them the Gang of Four. (Four has the same sound as ‘death’ in Chinese, and is viewed as an unlucky number). On October 6th, 1976, a month after Mao’s death, the gang was finally arrested. Blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, they were dragged in front of a show trial in 1981. Madame Mao, the former Shanghai starlet, now dubbed a witch by state media, remained defiant and theatrical to the last, protesting loudly and bursting into tears at some points. The only member of the Gang of Four who bothered to argue, she insisted that she obeyed Mao’s orders at all times. Zhang refused to admit any wrong. They would receive death sentences that were later commuted to life imprisonments. Yao and Wang, who confessed to their alleged crimes, received twenty years in prison. Jiang, who never repented, hanged herself in May 1991 after  a debilitating struggle with cancer.
Above, in the true Communist manner, the Gang of Four was removed from the original photograph of the memorial ceremony for Mao at Tiananmen Square. This was extremely ironic for Wang who announced Mao’s funeral service on national radio. Below, the images from the trial of the Gang of Four.