China Book Reviews


Melissa Schrift, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge: the creation and mass consumption of a personality cult, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2001.

ISBN 0-8135-2937-9

Melissa Schrift, Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge: the creation and mass consumption of a personality cult, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2001.

by Jason Lee

With the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, the regime of Chairman Mao Zedong launched a propaganda campaign aimed at disseminating inspiring images of himself to a skeptical populace. Thus was born the "Mao Badge" - a political icon in the form of a pin that was widely distributed to create, sustain and inflate the Mao personality cult. It is estimated that over two billion Mao badges were produced, featuring over fifty thousand different designs and themes.

"As visual texts featuring the most basic, if any, text," writes Schrift, "early Mao badges transcended vast differences in literacy and education levels and provided a sense of familiarity by invoking traditional cultural symbols." (p.8) Their adornment by so many, she adds, gave the appearance of unanimity, creating "the illusion of conformity to political dictum..." (p.8)

While Schrift has crafted a fascinating book that contributes to our understanding of the Cultural Revolution, she does at times employ a language that is convoluted and difficult to fully comprehend, which may alienate some of readers. "Mao badges were especially potent in accommodating cultural change by virtue of the intertextuality they offered," she says, as there are advantages of employing "certain propaganda forms of hybridity that can be defined as the combination of pictorials and text: Mao badges combined a rich visual and written text with a multitude of meaningful aesthetic stimuli through their imagery, text, color, shape, size, and material components. As material and symbolic collages, badges embodied a wealth of aesthetic resources through which even the most subtle semiotic conflation was possible." (p.9) She then goes on to talk about the "infusion" of state-sponsored "narratives' with "polysemy' and "unidirectional" consumption.

For me, the most interesting part of the book lies with Schrift's discussion of how these iconic Mao badges have taken on new meanings, with people now wearing and talking about them in subversive new ways. Clearly influenced by the theories of Michel de Certeau, she shows, quite convincingly, how many Chinese today have "appropriated" Mao's image, allowing badges to develop "lives" that far surpass the intentions of their creators, as the Chinese ironically commodified them, both during the Cultural Revolution and today.

Many Westerners too, harbor a fetish for Mao's image. "The revival of Mao image consumption," concludes Schrift, reflects the desire among both Chinese and Westerners to 'return to the primitive' that characterizes tourists' desires in Third World countries." (p.200) Representations of the Cultural Revolution allow tourists, argues Schrift, "to mingle with the sanitized yet savage era through Mao relics and retire in the luxury of economic reform. The irony, of course, is that the pilgrimage to the depths of China's historical underbelly is, in reality, remarkably shallow." (p.200)

This is a great read, so long as you can cope with the postmodern jargon, for it contributes not only to our understanding of Chinese society, but, more generally, of our understanding of the "tactics" that ordinary people employ in responding to and transforming the meaning of official propaganda campaigns and symbols.