As Xi Rises, the Cult of Mao Lives On

As Xi Jinping leads China into a new era of personality-driven rule, they're still making statues of the country's last Great Helmsman — Mao Zedong.

Effigies of Mao used to take pride of place in almost every village square and college courtyard. While the practice has been in decline since the 1980s, when the Communist Party acted to rein in the personality cult around Mao, statues and busts of the former leader can still be found in party offices, some universities and in farmers’ homes.

There are only about five workers left in the Mao statue workshop at the Jingdezhen Porcelain Factory in China's northeastern Jiangxi province, but they're still plying their craft.

The most influential figure in China’s recent history, Mao led the Communists to power and was head of the all-powerful party from 1935 until his death 41 years later. While the famine of the Great Leap Forward and political chaos of the Cultural Revolution tarnished his legacy, Mao is still revered by many in the world’s most populous nation for reunifying China after a century of colonial invasion and internal rebellion.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Mao’s visage has become an enduring symbol of modern China — his face still appears on the country's banknotes and looms over Tiananmen Square. He's often depicted in his trademark "Mao suit" tunic that he and other revolutionary leaders wore to align themselves with the working class. Modern Chinese leaders including Xi still wear a variation on the suit — which was first popularized by revolutionary Sun Yat Sen — at military events.

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Some Mao statues are being retained as historical relics and retirees still place gifts and flowers at their feet on Mao’s birthday every year. As of 2016, there were about 180 public statues of Mao around the country, from more than 2,000 at the peak of the Cultural Revolution, according to the party-run tabloid the Global Times. A stainless steel effigy of Mao erected at Chongqing Medical University in China’s southwest in 2008 was said to be the biggest in the country. It cost almost 5 million yuan ($790,000), the Global Times said.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Jingdezhen used to be known as China’s “Porcelain Capital” and pottery has been made there for thousands of years. Famous for its blue-and-white china, the city started producing Mao statues during the Cultural Revolution, a period of upheaval in which Mao sought to revive revolutionary zeal and reassert his own centrality.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Mao purged potential rivals from positions of party influence as part of the broader campaign to rid the society of perceived feudal and capitalist elements.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Workers cast the sculptures — which vary from small souvenir busts to life-size statues — using molds and then fire them in communal ovens. The potters in Jingdezhen have Mao’s distinctive visage, with his trademark receding hairline, down to a fine art. During the Cultural Revolution there were strict rules around how Mao could be portrayed in clay. When rendered full size, he had to stand 7.1 meters (23 feet) tall to match the founding date of the Communist Party, according to state media. He also had to be waving with his right hand, or holding both hands behind his back.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

While some revolutionary red is added, most of the figures made in the Jingdezhen workshop are left white and glazed to a high gloss. The factory used to be state run, and is still operated by a workers’ collective today.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Mao may be dead but the Communist Party machine he built lives on. More than 3,000 lawmakers from the worlds of government and business are descending on Beijing for the country’s annual political summit. They’ll help shape the legislative agenda for 2018, though ultimately the power resides with the president and his top cadres. The National People’s Congress voted Sunday on a proposal to repeal presidential term limits, allowing Xi — whose father was among those purged during the Cultural Revolution — to stay on past 2023.

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Just like Mao, and Deng Xiaoping — the reform-minded leader who helmed China from 1978 to 1989 — Xi’s political thought was enshrined in the Communist Party’s charter alongside his name last year.

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You don’t typically see statues or busts of Xi, 64, in China, with the current president more likely to use propaganda posters to convey his authority. His book, “The Governance of China” is everywhere. You can buy tea sets and dishes with Xi’s face on them, though.

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Once completed, the Mao statues make their way from the Jingdezhen factory to locations around China, and abroad. They can be found on Taobao, the country’s biggest e-commerce platform, where a 190 centimeter-tall statue of Mao in a trench coat, his arm raised and apparently made from Jingdezhen porcelain, can retail for about 2,500 yuan, plus shipping costs. Prized for their kitsch value in the West, Mao statuettes and busts can also be bought on eBay.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

The rules limiting China’s president to two terms were written into the constitution six years after Mao’s death to prevent a repeat of the chaos that ensued under his personality-driven rule. U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to praise Xi’s move to repeal the restriction in a speech to donors, calling him “president for life,” according to a recording released by CNN.

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Some have risked the wrath of the party and come out against the abolition of term limits. Li Datong, a former senior editor at the state-run China Youth Daily newspaper, said in a public letter that it risked planting “the seeds for China to once again fall into turmoil.” Mao used his cult of personality to put in place industrial policies blamed for tens of millions of deaths by starvation. The party has grappled with how to deal with Mao’s legacy, with Deng saying the ex-leader was “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.”

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg