Nostalgia for the Era of Chairman Mao


It’s interesting how the turn to Intangible Heritage makes collective memory so much more dynamic than the days when heritage was just historical buildings, museum collections, and archaeological sites.           

Take China, for example.           

With the economic and cultural transformation that has been going on since the 1990s, the Chinese government has “rediscovered” its ancient (read: pre-1949) heritage, successfully nominating 38 sites to the UNESCO World Heritage List and 29 elements of Intangible Heritage to the ICH Representative list.  And these are just the international acknowledgements of Chinese heritage.  Hundreds more sites and traditions have been commemorated within the Peoples’ Republic.           

All this represents a sudden and dramatic reversal from the revolutionary years, when the population was marshalled to focus on the ideology of Maoism, to dedicate themselves to the Revolution, and to scorn the ages of emperors, concubines, and luxurious tombs and palaces as a long era of class exploitation that had finally been overcome.           

It was probably inevitable that in this brave new world of market economy, consumer goods, a rising middle class, and personal status symbols that the old world of monotonously enforced class solidarity would have an appealing ring. And so the significance of Intangible Heritage has turned full circle, in content if not in the desire to long for a quality or character that has vanished from the contemporary scene.           

Discarded Mao bric-a-brac and memorabilia has long been among the most popular souvenirs for foreign visitors to China.  The seemingly unlimited supply of statuettes, ashtrays, teacups, serving trays and medallions were seemingly dumped on the market as a sign of their irrelevance in a New China that was already ideological light years away from the days of the Cultural Revolution, when these things were the compulsorily venerated votives of the national cult.           

Piled among the other flea market merchandise like mass-produced Feng Shui compasses, brass incense containers, and chipped porcelain, the images of Mao, Chou en-Lai, and the socialist-realist posters had an amusing air of kitsch about them to both tourist and seller alike.           

But strangely, with the passage of time, the old regimented society has– at least for some– begun to look a lot less kitschy.  Whether it is the nostalgia for the innocence of a regimented childhood by people now reaching the age of a suddenly insecure retirement, or whether it’s just a longing for a time of dedication for a cause higher than career advancement, profit, and loss– the era of Mao is back.           

Not as a real ideology, of course, but as Intangible Heritage, an idealized longing for something that has been lost.  That’s why the case of Comrade Lei Feng, reported below, is so intriguing.  In his reincarnation he is seen not as a compulsory civic model but as meaningful icon of Intangible Heritage that should be preserved even among the bustling, hustling, increasingly individualistic generations of today.           

*   *   *           

From the People’s Daily Online:           

Is learning from Lei Feng now outdated?

BEIJING, March 8 — Lei Feng (1940-1962) is a household icon in China who served the people wholeheartedly. Though a common PLA soldier, he helped countless people in his short 22-year life. Chairman Mao wrote him an inscription “Learn from Comrade Lei Feng” March 5, 1963, and established March 5 as “Lei Feng’s Day.”           

“Lei Feng Spirit” was formed in the 1960s and once had an extraordinarily broad impact. However, as a popular saying on the Internet goes, “post-1970s generation learns form Lei Feng, post-1980s revolts against Lei Feng, and post1990s forgets about Lei Feng.”    

As time goes by, “Lei Feng Spirit” is up a stump. Some young people even think that “learning from Lei Feng is now outdated,” so Shao Hong, deputy director of the CPPCC National Committee, proposed to apply for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status for the “Lei Feng Spirit” at two sessions (namely the National People’s Congress and the Chinese Political Consultative Conference) last year.           

He believes that the spirit is a unique culture that the Chinese nation first created to put noble moral characters into practice. It is not only influential in China, but also in some foreign countries, which is deserving of better protection. “Lei Feng Spirit” is also advancing with the times, and the unique spirit belongs to China and the whole world…       

Uncle Lei Feng tells revolutionary stories, 1965


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