Cult Anarchy

Friday, February 27th, 2015

As the chaos of the Cultural Revolution deepened, and the cult of personality surrounding Mao spread, the Party lost control over its symbols and entered a period of cult anarchy:

Different factions of Red Guards started using Mao’s image and words in incompatible ways, and new cult rituals emerged from the grass roots, sometimes from the enthusiasm of the genuinely committed, sometimes seemingly as protective talismans against the uncertainty and strife of the period. Everybody appealed to Mao to signal their revolutionary credentials, but there was no longer anyone capable of settling disputes over the credibility of these signals. Mao himself wasn’t much help; whenever he spoke at all, his messages were often cryptic and didn’t really settle any important disputes. The cult was now a “Red Queen” race of wasteful signalling, rather than a carefully calibrated tool of mobilization or discipline, driven by a complex combination of genuine desires to signal loyalty and identity and fears for one’s security. (Leese notes that failure to conform to the arbitrary protocols of the cult put people at risk of being sentenced as an “active counterrevolutionary” and documents many cases in which minimal symbolic transgressions resulted in incarceration or even death).

By 1967, for example, statues of Mao first started to be built, something that CCP leaders, and Mao himself, had discouraged in the past, and still officially frowned upon. The statues were typically built by local factions without approval from the central party, and they were all 7.1 meters high and placed on a pedestal that was 5.16 meters high, for a total height of 12.26 meters. (26 December = Mao’s birthday, 1 July = the Party’s founding date, 16 May = the beginning of the cultural revolution. People arrived at this precise convention for the statues without any centralized direction, merely through a signalling process). Later “Long Live the Victory of Mao Zedong Though Halls” were built on a grand scale, again without approval from the central party. Billions of Chairman Mao badges were produced by individual work units competing with each other, which were themselves subject to size inflation (“[a]s the larger size of the badges came to be associated with greater loyalty to the CCP Chairman, … badges with a diameter of 30 centimetres and greater came to be produced,” p. 216); Zhou Enlai would grumble in 1969 about the enormous waste of resources this represented. Costly signalling demands kept escalating; some people took to pinning the badges directly on their skin, for example, and farmers sent “loyalty pigs” to Mao as gifts (pigs with a shaved “loyalty” character).

New rituals and performances emerged too: Leese discusses the “quotation gymnastics,” a series of gymnastics exercises with a storyline based on Mao’s thought and involving praise of the “reddest red sun in our hearts,” and more bizarrely perhaps, “loyalty dances,” which, like the quotation gymnastics, was “a grassroots invention” designed to physically signal loyalty, and which spread “even to regions where public dancing was not part of the common culture and thus led to considerable public embarrassment” (p. 205). People wrote the character for “loyalty” everywhere and developed new conventions for answering the phone that started by wishing Mao eternal life. One of the most bizarre and interesting stories in the book concerns “Mao’s mangos:” the story of how some mangos that Mao gave to a “Propaganda Team” became relics beyond the control of the Central Party.

The Mao cult went through about six different stages:

The first stage can be characterized as one of “controlled inflation,” lasting from the initial building up of the cult in the late 1930s and early 1940s to Stalin’s death, more or less. At this time, the cult was fostered by the entire party leadership and served primarily a mobilizing function, though the party was careful to prevent excessive praise of Mao; we might say that the initial cult building project shifted the base level of flattery upwards, but did not yet produce powerful inflationary pressures on the growth of flattery. The second stage, lasting from Stalin’s death to the failure of the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, more or less, can be characterized as one of slight flattery “deflation.” At this time, a number of events, including Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, prompted a certain amount of liberalization directed from above that led to a slight lowering in the level of flattery and a relaxation of inflationary pressures. With the failure of the “Hundred Flowers” campaign, the cult enters a stage of “sustained inflation,” and control over the cult shifts to Mao and his close associates, who promote it primarily for disciplinary purposes. This stage lasts until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, when they lost full control over the symbols of the cult. At this point (stage four) we have “runaway inflation”, driven by the need to signal loyalty in factional struggles and avoid punishment. By 1971, however, the party had regained some control over cult symbols, Lin Biao had fallen from grace, and the party engaged in some flattery deflation, helped somewhat by the death of Mao in 1976. (Interestingly, there was not a great deal of spontaneous public grief at the time; as Leese notes, most people were probably rather cynically disenchanted with Mao by then. The old rituals of the cult had lost their emotional power). Finally, one may add the resurgence of something like a posthumous Mao cult after 1989. Here cult practices are driven by many motivations – “disillusionment, nostalgia, renewed national pride, the incorporation of religious traditions, and commercial interests” (p. 262) lifting the background level of flattery from its nadir in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but incapable of sustaining runaway flattery inflation in the absence of encouragement from the CCP Center, which can’t live with Mao, and can’t live without him.

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