TODAY IN HISTORY: 120TH ANNIVERSARY OF MAO ZEDONG’S BIRTHDAY FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION
Today marks the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong, the charismatic Chinese revolutionary and leader commonly recognized as the founder of modern China.
Even as that nation has largely abandoned its Communist economy, the Party has managed to maintain its monopolistic stranglehold over the political life of the country.
While the Wolfsonian specializes in the period 1851 to 1945, the library does hold a small but important collection of materials dating from Mao’s dominance and the era of the “cultural revolution.” The bulk of the material dealing with Mao came to us thanks to a donation made some years back by New York graphic arts writer and educator, Steve Heller. Having recently published his Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State, Steven generously donated much of the material he had personally collected in the course of researching the project to the Wolfsonian library in 2008.
While our museum has an impressive array of artifacts documenting the rise of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes in Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, our holdings of similar materials from postwar China were negligible prior to Steve’s gift. Now we have nearly one hundred propagandistic items in the library stacks documenting the post-World War II Communist movement in China.
As in other totalitarian states, the “cult of the leader” became an important part of “branding” and “selling” the Communist regime in China.
As Heller argued in Iron Fists despotic dictators depend as much on a “populist” and “persuasive” approach to controlling the population as they did on brute force. Towards that end, the Communist regime in China created and propagated images of the revolutionary, politician, and poet so ubiquitously as to invest Chairman Mao with virtual “rock star” status.
The wide-circulation of the “little Red book” of Mao quotations added to the leader’s popularity and also figures prominently in the propagandistic imagery designed for the youth in Asia and across the globe.