PAUL J. MOONEY

Freelance Journalist

South China Morning Post, Oct 29, 2009

 

Follow the Leader

BY PAUL MOONEY

Cheng Wenjun was exploring the backstreets of Kashgar in Xinjiang province in the summer of 1989 when he turned into the city square and found himself standing before a large statue of Mao Zedong. The encounter would change his life.

'The statue made a huge impression on me,' the Beijing photographer says. 'I found a Mao statue in such a far-off place, and in a Uygur minority area. The experience really touched me.'

Cheng couldn't get the image out of his head after returning to the capital. As he travelled around the mainland, he began looking out for more statues and for the origins of the explosion in Mao statuary.

The phenomenon started in 1967, when a Western-style gate was torn down from an entrance to Tsinghua University at the start of the Cultural Revolution, and someone suggested a Mao statue be erected in its place, he says. Soon, Mao statues of varying quality were being made across the country by everyone from farmers to artists.

Some were disasters. 

'In out of the way places, many were made by farmers or workers, without the participation of artists, and they looked very funny,' says Cheng. 'But they were passionate. It was a crazy period.' 

In 1997, he began what would become a 12-year journey across the mainland in search of Mao statues. Visiting some 120 cities, towns and villages along the way, he captured some 5,000 images of about 200 statues, in all the provinces and special municipalities.

His marriage fell apart in the process - his wife couldn't understand his obsession - and he lost his factory business. But the 42-year-old remains undaunted. 

Showing off his collection of photos, he outlines the details behind each sculpture. The statues come in all shapes, sizes and materials, and can be found just about everywhere, from the main gates of factories and universities to farm fields, town squares and family living rooms.

In one photo, a farmer works in a plot in front of his house with a Mao figure looking over his shoulder from a glass-enclosed pavilion, a vase of flowers at his feet. In the courtyard in a small hospital in Chongqing, patients seemingly ignore a waving Mao statue, while others play mahjong, a game the Communist Party once tried to ban.

In Zhongwei, in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a white cement statue of the man who boasted about cutting off capitalism's tails stands in front of a modern mall covered with large advertisements.

Shaoshan, Mao's hometown in Hunan province, displays what Cheng says is the only statue of Mao wearing a changpao, a long traditional gown for men. His photo shows a youngish-looking Mao figure standing with one hand on hip, the other outstretched. 

Another shows a figure overlooking a plaza in Chengdu, where a large crowd raises their fists in a revolutionary pose reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, expressing their support for last year's earthquake victims in Sichuan province.

Some statues were buried when Mao allegedly criticised the practice of making his likeness, but when nothing more was said of the ban after a few months, the figures were unearthed. 

Among the rescued works is an iron figure that now stands in the courtyard of a Sichuan home, with arm extended into the air - albeit missing a hand.

Some sculptures have become the target of worship. One photo shows a group of Taoists, dressed in gowns, praying in front of a Mao statue. Smoke curls up from large red incense sticks burning at the base of the figure.

In another photo taken in Pixian, Sichuan, a lonely Mao figure stands in the middle of a deserted village, where all the farm houses have been demolished. Cheng says local villagers return each year on Mao's birthday to pay their respects. In the photograph, he is wearing a long red scarf that touches the ground and food offerings have been placed at the base.

Cheng was inspired to embark on his mission out of respect for Mao and by the artistry behind some of these efforts. 

'After I began to pay attention to this trend, I discovered that a lot of sculptors in the 1960s made these Mao statues. When you look back, it was an important public art form.' 

In the course of his research, Cheng learned that a 10-metre statue standing in Shenyang's Zhongshan Square was the joint effort of artists and teachers in the sculpture department of the Shenyang Lu Xun Art Academy. 

It is one of the best examples of the genre, Cheng says, and one of the participating artists, He Zhongling, told him 20 copies were made from the original mould. 

'From the point of view of sculpture, this was a very important piece of art.'

But after Deng Xiaoping launched his economic reform policy in 1978, people began taking down the statues, including the one put up at the gate of Tsinghua University. So Cheng felt a sense of urgency to capture the remaining figures when he embarked on his photo project.

A surge of Mao fever in the early 90s, when people began attributing supernatural powers to him, gave the penchant for his statues a boost. Taxi and truck drivers hung photos of Mao on their rear-view mirrors for protection, and an Asia Times report in May quoted a survey on religious beliefs in 40 cities, that found 11.5 per cent of families surveyed had a Mao shrine in their homes.

Professor Roderick MacFarquhar, a Mao expert at Harvard University, says the statues pose a dilemma for the Communist Party leadership. They have been obsessed with preserving Mao as a figure to legitimise the party, while admitting he made some big errors during the Cultural Revolution, MacFarquhar says.

'I think afterwards that they decided it would be much better if the Mao statues were not there, but to take them down would be much worse,' he says.

'Today you have a very corrupt party, and you don't have any doctrine, and the People's Liberation Army has been smeared by the Tiananmen Square incident,' he says. 'The one thing they have is the memory of Mao.'

Despite the respect that many people still have for Mao, Cheng has been unable to publish his collection of photos. He suspects that may be due to fears that the book will be seen as confirmation of the chaos wrought by the Cultural Revolution, because most of the statues were made during that decade.

A Beijing publisher says party rules require special permission to produce any books about past and present leaders, even if the publication is about statues rather than real people. This is especially so in the case of Mao, she says. 

'The party's view is: 'He's our god, we'll decide how he's used'. It wants to control the discourse.'

The 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China this year launched a new phase in the Mao cult, with new statues erected around the country. But the quality pales in comparison to the work done in the tumultuous 60s, Cheng says.

'The commercial statues being made today are not the equal of those made during the Cultural Revolution. The quality is terrible.'

He cites as an example a figure erected at Chongqing Medical University. At 38 metres, it was the tallest Mao statue in the world. But its face looked more like that of Deng Xiaoping, sparking a nationwide controversy. The head has since been replaced with a new one that looks more like Mao.