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45 years on, Mao is still the iconic symbol of communist-controlled China

Mao’s legacy also extended far beyond the borders of China, shaping everything from the course of the Cold War to American pop art.

By: New York Times |
Updated: July 1, 2021 5:43:58 pm
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves above a giant portrait of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong at the end of the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China July 1, 2021. (Reuters)

Written by Amy Qin 

Forty-five years after his death, Mao Zedong remains the iconic symbol of a communist-controlled China and its complicated legacy. To his critics, he was a ruthless dictator who presided over famine and political upheaval that together caused tens of millions of deaths within his own country.

To many Chinese, he is also revered as the man who helped China stand up to Western imperialists and become a proud nation. To this day, his portrait still gazes down on Tiananmen Square; his embalmed corpse still lies in repose in the heart of China’s capital.

Mao’s legacy also extended far beyond the borders of China, shaping everything from the course of the Cold War to American pop art.

“Mao’s image, his ideas and his legacy have traveled to practically every continent from the 1940s onward,” said Julia Lovell, a China scholar and author of “Maoism: A Global History.”

Mao was a complex, deeply contradictory person, and so, too, were his ideas, Lovell said. His teachings on fighting asymmetrical insurgencies inspired anti-colonial resistance movements across Africa and guerrilla fighters in India and Peru.

His emphasis on the need for a strong, centralized party rippled across Southeast Asia. Among the most devoted students of Maoist thought was Pol Pot, a leader of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, whose efforts to “purify” the country’s agrarian society led to the genocide of at least 1.7 million people.

Mao’s thoughts on rebellion — often distilled into eminently meme-able sound-bites like “revolution is not a dinner party” and “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” — also reverberated widely, influencing counterculture movements across Europe and the United States.

Mao was a hero, for example, to Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party. To raise money for guns to confront police brutality, Newton and his classmate Bobby Seale sold copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” of political axioms to students in Berkeley, California. They also used the pocket-size books to teach their recruits.

Military band members practice before the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, in front of a portrait of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China July 1, 2021. (Reuters)

“Where the book said, ‘Chinese people of the Communist Party,’ Huey would say: ‘Change that to the Black Panther Party. Change the Chinese people to Black people,’ ” Seale later recalled.

Famously, Mao — his image, not so much his ideas — also caught the attention of artist Andy Warhol.

“I’ve been reading so much about China,” Warhol said to a friend in 1971. “They’re so nutty. They don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Tse Tung.”

The technicolor silk-screen portraits that resulted from Warhol’s Mao project have since become iconic, a central strand in a Mao memorabilia craze that has seen the communist revolutionary’s visage stamped across all manner of trinkets and kitsch.

In 2015, a Warhol “Mao” portrait sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $47.5 million — just another wrinkle in the contradictory legacy of the anti-capitalist warrior.

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