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China Dolls

While it is common for absolute rulers to be deified in portraits and statues, most are imbued with excessively heroic, blemish-free veneers. Yet as if to compensate for the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, many Mao souvenirs issued to commemorate “great leaps forward” in political and economic culture projected a curiously benign sensibility – some were almost childlike in their execution. Unlike the turgid Stalinist model, Mao was deliberately portrayed as  a “friendly trade character” replete with smiles, and even belly laughs from time to time.

For the duration of the Cultural Revolution Mao and his key allies were painted, drawn, stenciled, paper-cut, silk-woven, or engraved in official poses and casual vignettes on everything from posters to wristwatches. But of all the propagandistic memorabilia for exclusive use inside China, the most ubiquitous was the thousands of  different colorful porcelain figurines (some produced in quantities of hundreds of thousands) – the equivalent of three-dimensional posters – canonizing real and symbolic heroes and events of the Chinese Communist Party. These revolutionary Hummels (those sappily prosaic collectible statuettes of children and animals sold in gift shops throughout the US), produced by formerly denounced but ultimately “rehabilitated technicians and artisans” working in ceramic workshops, were usually presented as souvenirs to loyal revolutionary functionaries working in The People’s Communes or otherwise supporting the Revolution. Recipients so honored were, however, ordered to give them prominent display or endure draconian penalties – heaven help anyone who broke one – prison or worse was their fate.

Possessing various iterations of these mini-Maos (with cigarette or without, with children or without, with party leaders or alone, swimming in the Yangzi River or on land) was a must. But there were also a huge assortment of elaborately molded friezes depicting peasants, workers, Red Guards, dancers, and soldiers in all manner of social and political interaction, with Red Books, flags, banners, signs, and guns. One showing male and female workers astride a silver (phallic) missile with a Mao quotation – “Exceed U.S. and U.K.” – symbolized the “Great Leap Forward,” one of Mao’s anti-capitalist economic plans. Yet among the most prized, if eerie, of all porcelains were a variety featuring smiling Red Guards men and women or proud factory workers perpetrating cruel, though officially sanctioned, acts of humiliation on counterrevolutionaries who, kneeling doggy-style (since they are considered criminal dogs), are wearing dunce caps (the favored symbol of punishment) and signs hanging from their necks scrawled with derogatory slogans like “traitor” or “spy.”

Revolutionary Committees throughout China had considerable autonomy with the materials they produced. Some artists and designers were employed by government-sponsored Ceramic and Porcelain Research Centers, yet many collaborated Red Guard cadres to continually create new designs that would compete with outputs of other committees. Some statues were commissioned for specific purposes, but in an effort to outdo the next cadre there was no limit to the types of sanctioned depictions: From iconic statuary of CCP leaders and what were known as “model citizens,” or heroes of the revolution, such as Wang Jinxi the “model factory worker” and Chen Yonggui “the model farmer” to children in school uniforms worshiping at the feet of Mao.  Some ceramics were also based on larger sculptural compositions, like an enormous “The Rent Collector,” monument somewhere in Northern China, which in the spirit of “class struggle” shows the brutality of wealthy landowners on their peasants.

Ceramics are an ancient Chinese craft, and while the CCP did its utmost to outlaw remnants of the imperial and nationalist pasts, this porcelain medium was an effective means to promulgate Maoist messages. Porcelain was also a more politically correct material than metal, which was scarce in China at the time (and even Mao criticized certain artists for using metal for such purposes). Moreover, the figurines could be inexpensively manufactured, some in private kilns so as not to waste time or manpower in overworked factories.  So in the all-out campaign to brand the nation, ideology, and leader – at a time when access to television and radio was limited – these quaint though politically charged souvenirs brought revolution from the street into the home.

(Read more in Iron Fists: Branding the Twentieth Century Totalitarian State.)

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