(6,500 words on Daniel Leese’s fascinating book Mao Cult: Rhetoric and Ritual in China's Cultural Revolution [Cambridge University Press, 2011], by someone who is no expert on Chinese history, but has lots of non-peer-reviewed theories about cults of personality. Thanks to Andrew Ivory for the book recommendation, and to my colleague Jason Young for conversation on the topic and help with the Chinese characters.)
Longtime readers of this blog know I am fascinated by the phenomenon of cults of personality. (Click here for some of my previous posts on the subject). In fact, I’m working on a paper on the subject and gathering data on the prevalence of cults and cult-like phenomena in the 20th century, so I was of course delighted to hear about this book. It did not disappoint: Leese’s book is everything a scholarly monograph should be. It is deeply learned, thoroughly researched, and well written; and the story it tells is fascinating. Not the least of its merits, from my perspective, is that it provides supporting evidence for some of my own pet ideas about cults of personality, though it also has led me to rethink and nuance others.
The idea of a “cult of personality” is in some ways a peculiarly modern one. Practices of “leader worship” were of course not unknown in the past; one might almost say that they were basically the default way in which peoples related to leaders in “pre-modern” state societies, from the recognition of Egyptian Pharaohs as god-kings to emperor worship in China, and from the cults of Hellenistic monarchs and Roman emperors to the sacralisation of monarchs in Medieval Europe. But such cults could only become a theoretical and political problem in the context of societies which claimed to be socially or politically egalitarian, as most societies do today; it is only against a background expectation of relative equality that the practice of leader worship appears as an aberration, in need of special justification or explanation. And this problem was especially acute in communist societies, where even formal terms of address had been consciously engineered to express the idea of equality (“comrade”), yet nevertheless appeared to be embarrassingly plagued by forms of leader worship.
It is thus no accident that the term itself (“cult of personality”) came into wide circulation at around the time of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” of 1956, which condemned Stalin’s “cult of the individual.” The pattern is unmistakable; we can see it, for example, in the books indexed by Google in a variety of languages. So, for example, in English:
|Figure 1: Frequency of "Cult of Personality" and related terms in the English corpus of books in Google|
Or, more emphatically, in Russian:
|Figure 2: Frequency of "Cult of Personality" and related terms in the Russian corpus of books in Google|
In Chinese the pattern is somewhat more muddled (there are some weird artifacts if we look at mentions of the term before 1940), perhaps because the Google corpus is less reliable for Chinese texts, and perhaps because of the simplification of the Chinese script that was happening around the 1950s makes it difficult for us to capture all the mentions of “cult of personality” in books published before and around the mid-20th century. Yet the basic shape of the usage curve is still there, showing the impact of Khrushchev’s speech, though it decays faster and rebounds more than in English or Russian, for reasons that are not immediately clear:
|Figure 3: Frequency of "Cult of Personality" in the simplified Chinese corpus of books in Google|
Leese’s book takes the Chinese response to Khrushchev’s speech as the starting point for its story. The speech could not but be seen by Chinese leaders as a poke in the eye, especially Mao’s, whose cult bore some resemblance to Stalin’s, even if it had diminished in intensity in 1956 relative to the late 40s. (In fact, the Chinese Communist Party had generally prevented excessive open flattery of Mao during the early years of the People’s Republic, with his consent; later “excesses” lay in the future). And by forcing them to respond and to justify or change their practices, the speech also threatened to produce shifts in power within the CCP. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the speech ended up providing an unexpected impetus to the further development of the Mao cult.
Leese argues that the cult first emerged during the later years of the Chinese civil war as a mobilizing device. It was consciously promoted by the top leadership of the CCP (not just Mao) in reaction to the growing cult of Chiang Kai-shek on the Guomindang side, and seen even by people who had doubts about overly personalizing Marxism as a way to unify the party against their enemies. From this point of view, the cult appeared as a form of what Leese calls “branding” (not my preferred term); and it was specifically nurtured within the party through the practice of “group study” of party history, which presented a mythical narrative of the Long March under Mao’s “correct” leadership. At this stage the cult thus served both to marginalize certain factions (e.g., the group of Soviet-trained cadres around Wang Ming, who had Stalin’s favour) and to motivate party and army members in the continuing struggle with KMT forces; to the extent that the cult also mobilized non-party members, it would have done so mainly through general propaganda campaigns, an arena where it had to compete with similar publicity by the KMT, at least in contested “white” areas. With the victory of the CCP these mobilizing and unifying functions of the cult became less important, though the party of course continued to control the public display of Mao’s image, and the cult could still be used as one of the instruments of centralization employed by the CCP (e.g., against Gao Gang in 1953-54, who developed his own regional cult in China’s north-east and was eventually purged).
This is not to say that there was no demand “from below” for cult practices. Since the CCP was in part a huge hierarchical patronage machine with few formal mechanisms for promotion, signalling loyalty through praise – sending congratulatory telegrams to Mao, for example, even when these were discouraged by the CCP leadership – was a useful means of career maintenance and even advancement. (You want to be the one local committee that does not send congratulatory telegrams? How is that going to look?). But praise of the top leaders was tempered both by the fact that it was embedded in a larger discourse where Stalin, not Mao, was the pre-eminent leader of the communist world, and by the fact that the top leadership of the party seems to have consciously discouraged extreme praise, perhaps because it feared (not unreasonably, as it turns out) concentrating power in Mao’s hands. The cult thus appears here not only as a mobilization device pushed from the top, but as the unintended consequence of loyalty signalling by lower levels of the party, which tended to keep the overall level of flattery relatively high, and inflationary pressures steady; and it was clearly fuelled, though not fully explained, by the undoubtedly high popularity of the party and the prestige of Mao as its leader during the early 1950s.
The death of Stalin, Khrushchev’s speech, and other political developments disrupted this initial equilibrium, in which the expression of loyalty to Mao had not yet crowded out all other signals of loyalty to the party and the revolution, and had not yet colonized public space to the extent to which it did during the Cultural Revolution. For one thing, the death of Stalin had the effect of displacing foreign leaders from their pre-eminent position in public displays, leaving Mao to monopolize an ever larger and more central share of public space. Leese’s book describes for example the faintly comical difficulties experienced by local cadres when trying to organize parades and other festivities after 1953; the question of whose portraits and what slogans to display, and in what order, was evidently of great importance to them (a faux pas could be harmful to one’s career prospects, I suppose), and yet directives from the Centre became ever more confusing. Indeed, a directive of April 1956 essentially declared that no guidance would be provided to local party committees regarding whose portraits to display and in what order during public events. Eventually the confusion seems to have been resolved in the obvious way: portraits of foreign leaders were no longer handed out to marching crowds at official events.
The effects of Khrushchev’s speech on the cult were at first more negative. On the one hand, the CCP’s initial response to it fed into a process of liberalization of the public sphere which had begun somewhat earlier. (Leese interprets the directive relaxing control over the display of symbols and portraits as part of this process). Criticism of the cult and other forms of “dogmatism” was aired in high places, and support for collective leadership expressed. At any rate, the party was (with good reason) confident in its popularity at this time, and prepared to relax its control over the public sphere. Leese thus takes the “Hundred Flowers” campaign of 1957 to be a (botched) attempt at genuine liberalization, though Mao himself later described it as a trap, a way to “lure snakes out of their holes.” As time went on, however, both Mao and groups within the party came to think that liberalization had gone too far: cadres became demoralized and confused (which contradictions were good and which were bad? Why had so many bad things happened since Khrushchev denounced Stalin?), critics started attacking the party and even Mao directly, and Mao’s prestige suffered:
The failure of the rectification campaign [the “Hundred Flowers” campaign] led to a self-generated crisis of faith in ... the CCP’s governance, and the responsibility was clearly to be placed on Mao. He thus faced two “credibility gaps”: The campaign had tarnished his image as omniscient helmsman of the Chinese Revolution among party members, and the campaign’s indecisive enactment led non-party members to question his authority over the CCP (p. 63).
(More worrying, perhaps, was the fact that the failed rectification campaign had opened the doors to criticism of Mao by senior party figures like Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi, though Leese does not make much of this.) At any rate, the problems with the rectification campaign prompted Mao to take greater control over the propaganda apparatus and to sharpen the distinction between “good” and “bad” criticism in a way that left Mao more or less in control of determining which views fell into which category. By early 1958, at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, Mao had even formulated a distinction between a “correct” cult of personality (indicated by the term geren chongbai 个人 崇拜) and an “incorrect” cult (indicated eventually by the term geren mixin 个人 迷信). The distinction sidestepped the theoretical problem raised by Khrushchev’s criticism of cults by redefining “good” cults as a worship of “truth,” but it was transparently driven by Mao’s understanding of the cult “as an extrabureaucratic source of power that did not rely on its recognition within the party elite” (p. 69). In other words, if there had to be a cult, Mao indicated that it better be his as the representative of “truth,” or at least of those people he could approve of, regardless of party views. As Mao said, quoting Lenin, “it is better for me to be a dictator than it is for you.” (Much later, Mao told Edgar Snow that Khrushchev’s failure to develop a cult had led to his eventual purge by Politburo members, which shows that he thought of the cult as a useful device to prevent challenges to his position from within the party). Moreover, the cult seemed to Mao a good instrument for promoting a “lively, emotional climate” that would motivate people to take a “great leap forward” toward communism, just as the cult had served to motivate party members and soldiers during their struggles against the KMT.
The articulation of the distinction between a “correct” and an “incorrect” cult, however, opened the door to flattery hyper-inflation. As Leese notes elsewhere:
... with the validation of a correct cult it was not necessary any more to ‘praise the king the whole time, but, so to say, without explicit praises’, as Paul Pellisson, court historian of Louis XIV, once wrote. During the early years of the PRC, praise of Mao Zedong in public discourse had by and large been curbed with Mao’s consent. But after March 1958, references to the Party Chairman and his thought witnessed a huge upsurge in the media, although in comparative perspective the excesses were dwarfed by the Cultural Revolutionary rhetoric.
Cadres wishing to prove their loyalty could now stop worrying too much about the question raised by Khrushchev of whether cults of personality were compatible with Marxism-Leninism, and hyperbolic praise of Mao and his latest “line” soon became a necessary instrument of career maintenance and advancement within the CCP, though at the beginning such praise was still carefully defined as praise of the “truth” (which just happened to be embodied in the person of Mao and his works).
The praise soon came into conflict with reality, however. The burst of flattery encouraged by Mao led to a flood of “completely fictive numbers of both agricultural statistics and cultural artifacts in order to signal adherence of the provincial cadres to the Party Centre” (p. 73). But the great famine of 1958-59 could not be hidden by mere propaganda; for those affected by the catastrophe, the evidence of the senses was of course in direct contradiction with the claims of Mao and his flatterers, which challenged Mao’s prestige and credibility and offered opportunities to disaffected people within the party. This challenge was the most serious yet to Mao’s position, in part because the famine fomented dissatisfaction within the People’s Liberation Army, whose soldiers could not be fully isolated from reports coming in from family members about the situation in the countryside. (Not even the Central Bureau of Guards, the unit in charge of guarding the leaders of the party, was immune to unrest). Soldiers were asking: is “Chairman Mao ... going to allow us to starve to death”? (quoted in p. 96). Even more seriously, Marshal Peng Dehuai, who had enormous prestige within the PLA, became severely critical of Mao’s policies. This was an intolerable challenge to Mao’s position, who feared a coup; and though Peng was eventually purged (with dire consequences for the Chinese population, since Peng’s public criticism led Mao to stubbornly stick to policies that the party had been quietly about to correct, according to Leese), the need to regain control over the army was pressing. Lin Biao (the youngest PLA Marshal) proved the man for the job.
For one thing, Lin was not shy about praising Mao, and knew how to wield the charge of insufficient adherence to Mao Zedong thought against his enemies within the party and the military. In fact, he was able to shift the norms prevailing at the top of the CCP so that “adherence to Mao Zedong thought” became the sole criterion of loyalty. In practice, this meant that any statements critical of Mao – uttered at any time in the past – could be used as incriminating evidence of disloyalty, and used in factional disputes which nearly destroyed the party, and served to purge many people at the top.
There is a puzzle here, however: as Leese puts it, “[i]t seems difficult to explain why Liu Shaoqi and other CCP leaders watched and presided over the demise of the Beijing party leadership” since the criteria of loyalty promoted by Lin Biao “could be applied to nearly anyone” by those “wielding the power of interpretation” (p. 126). Why didn’t they resist this shift? Leese gestures vaguely towards Mao’s entrenched “legitimacy” as an explanation of the CCP leadership’s passivity in the face of what was, after all, a concerted attack on their position, but I don’t think this rickety Weberian catch-all term helps us very much to understand what happened here. My sense is that under the conditions of pervasive distrust at the top of the CCP, contradicting Lin carried higher risks individually (though
greater lowered collective risks) than supporting him
or staying silent (which nevertheless increased collective risks); but this was
not so much because Mao was especially legitimate among the top leadership (whatever
that means) but because the party was too
publicly committed to him for objectors to feel confident that they could count
on the support of others if they went out of their way to argue against the
cult. (By the same token, they could be pretty certain that others would use
their words against them).
Interestingly, though Lin knew how to signal his unconditional loyalty (in costly, even humiliating ways sometimes) he seems to have had no special love for Mao himself. On the contrary, he seems not to have liked Mao much, and to have promoted the cult in part as a way of protecting himself from the treacherous shoals of politics at the apex of the CCP; he had seen (in Peng Dehuai’s case) how even the merest hint of criticism could be turned by Mao (and others) against the critic, with severe repercussions, and was determined to avoid a similar fate. Leese quotes a 1949 private note of Lin’s on Mao’s political tactics: “First he will fabricate “your” opinion for you; then he will change your opinion, negate it, and re-fabricate it – Old Mao’s favourite trick. From now on I should be wary of it” (p. 90). By 1959 Lin was adept at anticipating Mao’s position and changing his opinion as soon as he sensed that the old opinion was no longer operative.
Lin used the cult not only to protect himself from the vicious “court politics” of the CCP, but also to discipline the army and tamp down dissatisfaction among the soldiers. The main tool he used to accomplish this objective was similar to the original forms of “group study” that had been used at the very beginnings of the cult, except more narrowly focused on Mao’s writings and more ritualized. The “lively study and application of Mao Zedong thought” was in practice reduced to learning to recite and use quotations from Mao’s works as persuasive tools. But the particulars are fascinating; what Leese describes is in effect the conscious construction of what Randall Collins calls an “interaction ritual” (really, go read Collins – it’s enormously interesting stuff!) that shifted the “emotional energy” of the troops and the party and increased their cohesion (Leese speaks of “exegetical bonding,” which is quite a nice description too).
Contacts between the troops and their families were monitored, but they were not necessarily directly censored. Instead, reports of distress in the countryside were turned into “teaching moments” that extolled the necessity of staying the course and blamed unfavourable weather or the deviations of local officials from the correct line. Elaborate performances making use of all kinds of media – big character posters, theatre, films, poetry, etc. – recalled the “bitterness” of the past (before the communist triumph) and extolled the “sweeteness” of the present (though, as one official noted, “most comparisons of the present sweetness referred back to the period of the land reform, whereas remarks about the Great Leap Forward were “inclined to be abstract and without substance”,” p. 102), while presenting examples of communist martyrs for emulation. The focus was on generating emotion by “remembering hardships” and then channelling that emotion against the enemies of the communist project to achieve bonding. The combination of peer pressure, genuine emotional experiences, and threats of discipline for recalcitrance was clearly powerful, yet the party was aware of the dangers of people merely “acting as if” they believed. Indeed, advice from high up indicated that “cadres were not to insist on formalities such as the weeping of participants as demonstration of their sincerity” (p. 100). But the very fact that such advice had to be given at all probably shows that lower-level cadres did insist on such performances just to be safe.
There were also campaigns to emulate “soldiers of Mao Zedong thought,” which essentially meant soldiers who displayed the sorts of self-sacrificing qualities that the party thought desirable. Here the cult served, it seems to me, as a means by which certain kinds of status competition were encouraged (the heroes of Mao Zedong thought, like Stakhanovite workers in the Soviet Union, received media attention and other rewards), and hence provided a positive incentive to adopt the “correct” sort of identity and behaviour, complementing the negative incentives provided by peer pressure in group study sessions or other collective interaction rituals. And as elsewhere, status competition that is made to depend on the credibility of loyalty signals appears to lead to inflationary pressures on flattery.
From the army, the more intense forms of the cult spread to the broader population over time, accelerating as the Cultural Revolution started. Leese tells the story of the creation of the “Little Red Book,” for example, which was printed more than a billion times between 1966 and 1969:
|Image from wikimedia commons|
The Little Red Book was at first confined to the army, but demand for it outside its confines was soon enormous. For one thing, political study campaigns in the countryside (which increased in the 1960s) required a focal text to mobilize people properly, and the Quotations provided one. But, as Leese astutely observes, the main thing that the Quotations offered was the “possibility of empowerment for non-party members” (p. 121). Though Leese does not put it this way, the book seemed to provide access to the “code” that enabled people to act more or less safely within the highly unpredictable environment of the early cultural revolution; and the party enabled this demand by basically diverting the resources of the “entire publishing sector” to printing Mao’s writings, “at the expense of every other print item, including schoolbooks” (p. 122). Pace Leese, I think it is a bit misleading to speak of the work’s “popularity”; the work was popular, if that’s the word, because it was becoming essential for everyone to show some familiarity with (read: be able to recite quotations from) Mao’s writings. Indeed, as Leese documents later in the book, during the early cultural revolution Red Guards would set up “temporary inspection offices” on the streets and harass pedestrians about their knowledge of Mao’s works, like the “vice police” in some countries today; this sort of atmosphere helped the cult to grow.
Other rituals were of course important to the spread of the more intense forms of the cult outside the army. The eight “mass receptions” of the Red Guards in 1966 were the most spectacular of these, though in some ways the least interesting (to me). Though the Red Guards became a sort of vanguard in the spread of the cult throughout Chinese society during the cultural revolution, the actual number of people who participated in these receptions would have been quite small relative to China’s total population, most of them impressionable young students who took the advantage of free train travel to get involved in something bigger than themselves. Under the circumstances, it is unsurprising that many of them reported ecstatic experiences on seeing Mao (who didn’t make any big speeches or direct them in any particular way), which in turn cemented their identities as Red Guards; this sort of “interaction ritual” seems likely to produce this sort of outcome fairly reliably, independently of any characteristics of the supposedly “charismatic” figure (consider what happens at your typical K-pop or J-pop concert). The more interesting point for me was about the role that free train travel and accommodation played in encouraging the cult in 1966; for some people, at least, participation in the “exchange of experiences” must have been a great opportunity to see China and engage in rebellious activity with relatively low risk. (As Leese remarks, “many students displayed much more revolutionary fervor in distant places than at home, where they had to consider other interests involved,” p. 139).
As the cult spread and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution deepened, however, the party lost control over its symbols. Leese refers to this as the period of “cult anarchy;” I would compare it to the point at which monetary authorities lose control of the money supply, leading to runaway hyperinflation. 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,” (picture at the link) 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. Let me quote from Adam Yuet Chau’s article on the mangos as relics (Past and Present (2010) 206 (suppl 5): 256-275), which has a much better summary than anything I can manage:
On 5 August 1968, Mao received the Pakistani foreign minister Mian Arshad Hussain, who brought with him a basket of golden mangoes as gifts for the Chairman. Instead of eating the mangoes, Mao decided to give them to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team … that had earlier been sent to the Qinghua University in Beijing to rein in the rival Red Guard gangs. Two days later, on 7 August, the People’s Daily, the official news organ of the Communist Party-state, carried a report on the mango gift that included the following extra-long headline in extra-large font: ‘The greatest concern, the greatest trust, the greatest support, the greatest encouragement; our great leader Chairman Mao’s heart is always linked with the hearts of the masses; Chairman Mao gave the precious gifts given by a foreign friend to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team’.
Yuet Chau then quotes an eyewitness:
Mao gave the mangoes to Wang Dongxing, who divided them up, distributing one mango each to a number of leading factories in Beijing, including Beijing Textile Factory, where I was then living. The workers at the factory held a huge ceremony, rich in the recitation of Mao’s words, to welcome the arrival of the mango, then sealed the fruit in wax, hoping to preserve it for posterity. The mangoes became sacred relics, objects of veneration. The wax-covered fruit was placed on an altar in the factory auditorium, and workers lined up to file past it, solemnly bowing as they walked by. No one had thought to sterilize the mango before sealing it, however, and after a few days on display, it began to show signs of rot. The revolutionary committee of the factory retrieved the rotting mango, peeled it, then boiled the flesh in a huge pot of water. Mao again was greatly venerated, and the gift of the mango was lauded as evidence of the Chairman's deep concern for the workers. Then everyone in the factory filed by and each worker drank a spoonful of the water in which the sacred mango had been boiled. After that, the revolutionary committee ordered a wax model of the original mango. The replica was duly made and placed on the altar to replace the real fruit, and workers continued to file by, their veneration for the sacred object in no apparent way diminished.
Here’s a picture of one of the mangos, from Stefan R. Landsberger’s fantastic collection of Chinese Cultural Revolution posters; the poster is based on a photograph taken very shortly after the gift of the mangos:
|Figure 5: "The great leader Chairman Mao's treasured gift to the Workers' Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Teams of the capital - a mango" (1969). From Stefan R. Landsberger's collection.|
“Mango fever” then spread throughout the country:
In order to share the honour with workers and the revolutionary masses elsewhere, more replicas of the mangoes were made and sent around the country. All over the country welcoming parties were organized to receive the mangoes, and many work units enshrined the mango replicas for the masses to view in order to partake in the Chairman’s gift. Mao badges with the platter of mangoes and posters with revolutionary messages illustrated with the mangoes began to appear; a cigarette factory in the city of Xinzheng in Henan Province began producing a line of mango-brand cigarettes (still in production today); a film was made on class struggle using the Mao mango gift as a key symbol in the story line. In the months following Mao’s giving of the mangoes a mango fever descended upon China.
It’s worth noting that mangos were very rare in China at the time; few people would have seen one, so they were more likely objects of curiosity than one might have expected. A detail from another 1969 poster gives some of the flavour of the mango processions (though actual pictures of these events, one of which is included in Leese’s book, show the mangos inside covered reliquaries):
|Figure 6: Detail from poster "Forging ahead courageously while following the great leader Chairman Mao!" (1969). From Stefan R. Landsberger's collection.|
As Leese notes, most of these inventions (the mango rituals included) were not authorized by the CCP Centre, and many of the supposed leaders of the cultural revolution (e.g., Kang Sheng, Jiang Qing, and occasionally even Mao himself) tried to curb their practice, or at best only grudgingly authorized them after the fact. From their perspective, these “grassroots” practices and rituals were objectionable because they could not be controlled directly by them.
But it would be a mistake to think that because these practices were not directed from the top, that they were therefore genuine expressions of love for the Chairman. Motivations were of course various, and one does not want to preclude positive affect by definition– those who adopted the identity of “Red Guards” probably thought of themselves as sincerely in love with Mao, for one thing – but whatever people’s motivations may have been they were clearly dominated by the need to signal loyalty against a background of others who were also furiously trying to signal loyalty for their own manifold reasons. The clearest evidence of signalling behaviour is in fact the uniformity of the language used to flatter Mao (“down to the level of single phrases” over thousands of texts p. 184: "boundless hot love," "the reddest red sun in our hearts," etc.); the language of flattery was a code to be mastered, not a way of expressing deeply held emotions, as Leese rightly sees.
This is not to say that flattery was never sincere or reflective of great love for Mao; but its escalation came from the Red Queen race aspect of the situation, not from some deep well of emotion or from awareness of Mao’s charismatic qualities. And this Red Queen race was reinforced by the presence of a small core activist group – the Red Guards at first - that was quite capable of inflicting punishment, directly or indirectly, on those who did not conform. At any rate, as Randall Collins says: “Sincerity is not an important question in politics, because sincere belief is a social product: successful IRs [interaction rituals] make people into sincere believers.” But lose the rituals, and you easily lose the group identities and emotional energy that drive action; sincere belief is rarely an independent driver of action.
It is also unsurprising that such “grassroots” loyalty signalling would tend to draw on various traditional scripts for demonstrating reverence or support, including scripts connected with the veneration of relics in Buddhism (as in the case of the mangos) or other forms of religious worship; the signal has to be recognizable to arbitrary others, and only religious scripts have sufficient universality for this purpose. Similarly, some of the manifestations of the cult (painting loyalty characters all over one’s house) can only be understood in terms of what I would call “magical thinking” – the use of words and objects to ward off evil pre-emptively. (But, unlike other forms of magical thinking, this stuff worked!). There is, in short, little need to appeal to tradition, “feudal” remnants, collective backwardness, or superstition to explain any aspect of the cult, contrary to the standard accounts of the cult offered by communist party theoreticians (and many people today).
This post is already long enough, but it is worth noting that the party seems to have tried to regain control over cult symbols by ratcheting the ritual level up – making the cult protocols more arbitrary – to foster unity in the factionalized atmosphere of the Cultural Revolution. The degree of ritualization was astonishing; Mao quotations came to be used in the most banal exchanges (answering the phone, buying produce, etc.); work units were required to “ask for instructions in the morning” before a portrait of Mao; etc. But the disciplinary function was clear: “[d]eviations from the prescribed routines were regarded as disloyal behaviour and thus potentially engendered drastic consequences” (p. 199). Once direct control over the symbols of loyalty was re-established, the party could move to gradually control flattery inflation and even engage in some controlled disinflation.
Though Leese does not put it this way, his overall story suggests that the Mao cult went through about six different stages, each of which can be distinguished by its own distinctive “inflationary” drivers on flattery of Mao. 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.
A few general lessons may perhaps be drawn from this story. First, cults of personality basically never emerge from the spontaneous expression of emotion by a population, despite what dictators may have you believe. They are primarily tools of political control within networks of patronage relationships, as Leese rightly sees (hence, in practice, much more likely to emerge in highly authoritarian contexts). I have compared them here to the tools of monetary policy in the economic realm, insofar as they affect the average level of effort invested in signalling loyalty to a ruling group or person (the “flattery level”); but, as with monetary policy, cults can miscarry – in which case uncontrolled flattery inflation may result. Second, their effects are not produced by mere propaganda; interaction rituals are required to produce genuine emotional energy within specific groups, increase cohesion, etc. But the cult does not depend on the genuineness of anybody’s sentiments to work; it depends on the possibility of producing certain kinds of emotional pressures through group rituals. (As an aside, we lack a good “high pressure” political science and psychology; too much of our political science and psychology assume “low pressure” environments. But cults are high pressure phenomena, and attempting to understand them by means of the stories and concepts we use in low pressure environments is apt to lead us astray). Finally, the rickety Weberian apparatus of “legitimacy” and “charisma” is basically irrelevant to the explanation of cults. Leese’s book is mercifully free of those terms, except for the occasional sentence claiming that so and so’s actions “legitimized” this or that; but most of these can be safely ignored (all the sentence can possibly mean is “increased support”).
All in all, this is an excellent book – highly recommended if you are interested in the topic, though it does assume a great deal of background knowledge of modern Chinese history.