Archive: Mao as Icon

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By some estimates, 2.2 billion portraits of Chairman Mao were produced during the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s portrait was printed on the cover of the Little Red Book and was displayed in factories and at significant sites such as Tiananmen Square. As the Cultural Revolution unfolded, Mao’s image became a regular presence in every home, either in the form of posters or statues. Formal Mao portraits often occupied a central place on family altars, underlining the already god-like status of Mao as he was depicted in posters and paintings.

In the early 1990s, a resurgence in the belief of the protective qualities of Mao icons coincided with the centenary celebration of his birth. In the wave of nostalgia that followed, the interest in Mao memorabilia was resuscitated, resulting once again in the production of thousands of household objects with Mao imagery.

Aluminum medallion with portrait of Mao
Collection of Justin Guariglia and Zoe Chen


Commemorative mango
Battledore Collection


In August 1968 Pakistan’s foreign minister, Mian Arshad Hussain, paid a visit to China and presented Mao with several dozen mangos. Mao distributed the mangos to the Worker Propaganda Team stationed at Qinghua University. The workers were deeply moved by this generous act and decided to preserve the mangos instead of consuming them. Worker representatives came to Beijing from across the country to view these mangos, and plastic and wax replicas, like the one on display here, were manufactured and distributed to those who could not visit. In a short time, mangos became honored symbols of “Mao thought” that were treated like objects of worship in much the same way that reliquaries of the Buddha had been in the past.

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