The Cult of Mao 1966 v. 2020

By David Kopel

Part 3: An all encompassing religion

This is part 3 in a series observing similarities between China’s Cultural Revolution and the United States today. (See part 1 and part 2.)

Under defence minister Lin Biao’s direction, the army since 1960 had been making soldiers read and learn collections of sayings by Mao. These became the basis for the “Little Red Book,” with an introduction by Lin Biao (formal title, “Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong”). In 1966, everyone in China was required to buy the “Little Red Book.” State printers ran out of paper, even though printing of all nonpolitical works had been eliminated.

Mao ranked the “Little Red Book” alongside the works of Confucius and the Bible. In terms of sales, he had a point. The royalties made Mao the first millionaire in the People’s Republic of China.

The only safe way to dress was in a simple unisex military-like uniform, plus a military cap with a red star, and a Mao badge on one’s breast. About 5 billion badges were produced, consuming so much aluminum that aircraft and some other industries were brought to a standstill.

According to a well-known list of Red Guard rules for everyone:

  • Every street was to have a quotation from Chairman Mao prominently displayed, and loudspeakers at every intersection and in all parks were to broadcast his thought.
  • Every household as well as all trains and buses, bicycles and pedicabs, had to have a picture of Mao on its walls. Ticket takers on trains and buses should all declaim Mao’s thought.
  • Every bookstore had to stock Mao’s quotations, and every hand in China had to hold one.
  • No one could wear blue jeans, tight pants, “weird women’s outfits,” or have “slick hairdos.” No perfumes or beauty creams could be used.
  • No one could keep pet fish, cats, or dogs, or raise fighting crickets.
  • No shop could sell classical books.
  • All persons identified by the masses as landlords, hooligans, rightists, and capitalists had to wear a wooden plaque identifying themselves.
  • Hospitals were forbidden to perform any “complicated treatment.”

“Keep people stupid,” was how Mao had described his policy in 1962. (As reported in a 1999 issue of “Bainan Chao,” the monthly magazine of the Central Party History Research Center). Mao had eclipsed Stalin’s and Hitler’s cults of personality; not even they had outlawed the classic apolitical literature and art of their nation’s culture.

Under Hitler and Stalin, there was no harm in playing chess with a friend at home while listening to classical musical and chatting about nonpolitical topics. But at the height of the Cultural Revolution, chess, playing cards, and Mahjong were forbidden. Listening to music other than CCP songs was not allowed.

As for songs, the most-approved were not about China or communism, but about Mao. For example, since the late 1950s, Mao had been trying to displace the People’s Republic of China national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” with a song about him. Mao liked “The East Is Red”:

“From China comes Mao Zedong.

He strives for the people’s happiness,

Hurrah, he is the people’s great saviour!

Chairman Mao loves the people,

He is our guide to building a new China.

Hurrah, lead us forward!”

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao would get his wish, and “The East Is Red” took the place of the national anthem. The author of the actual national anthem died in a Maoist prison.

For years the Socialist Education Campaign made sure that everyone sang loyalty songs. For schoolchildren, a soon-to-be pervasive new ditty was composed in 1966: “Father is dear, mother is dear, But not as dear as Chairman Mao.”

Under the national socialists in Germany, ordinary greetings such as “Good morning” or “Hello” had to be replaced with a mutual exchange of “Heil Hitler.” The same became true in China with “Long Live Chairman Mao”—literally, “Chairman Mao ten thousand years.”

Consumer product names such as “Fairy” or “Golden Pagoda” were forbidden; some existing inventory was allowed to be sold, as long as it had a trigger warning, but customers were afraid to buy these products. To stay safe, shops retitled themselves with monotonous names like “Red Guard” or “Red Flag.” Eventually, Mao quotes were printed on almost every object.

The country had changed greatly in just a few months. Rage mobs can accomplish a great deal when everyone is afraid to fight back.

A New Religion

With Mao’s blessing, the PLA began establishing a new religion for China. The PLA enforcers labeled any nonparticipant in the Mao rites as an “active counterrevolutionary.” Starting in the latter part of 1967, most non-work time was taken up by mandatory nightly assemblies where people had to discuss their personal behavior in light of Mao Zedong Thought. Then came the 1968–69 campaign of “Three Loyalties” and “Four Boundless Loves.”

The Three Loyalties were loyalty to Chairman Mao, loyalty to Mao Zedong Thought, and loyalty to Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line. The Four Boundless Loves were boundless hot love, boundless faith, boundless adoration, and boundless loyalty. These were supplemented by the Four Greats: Mao as great teacher, great leader, great commander, and great helmsman.

Statues and shrines of Mao were erected everywhere. Busts or pictures of Mao were mandatory home religious items. Although there was good money to be made, painters often declined the opportunity to produce a Mao icon, since the artist would be scrutinized and punished for the slightest inadvertent sign of insufficient veneration.

Upon arising in the morning, everyone had to face their home Mao shrine and “ask for instructions.” The day ended with “reporting back in the evening.” Mao replaced the kitchen god of Chinese folk culture. In other aspects Mao was portrayed as the sun god.

Life was structured around Mao and his words. Before every meal, people had to say grace: “Long live Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist Party.” If a peasant walked into a store, the clerk was supposed to say “keep a firm hold on grain and cotton production,” and the peasant would reply “strive for even greater bumper crops.” If the customer was a student, the clerk would say “read Chairman Mao’s books,” and the student would reply “heed Chairman Mao’s words.”

“Quotations of the leader came to replace even the most mundane speech acts during a period ranging roughly from March 1968 to April 1969,” according to Daniel Leese’s “Mao Cult.” Another history of the period, Rana Mitter’s “Bitter Revolution,” summarizes: “The Cultural Revolution is perhaps the time in the twentieth century when language was most separated from meaning. … If you do not mean what you say, because what you say has no meaning beyond the immediate present, then it is impossible to imbue language with any system of values. … This led to the overall moral nullity of the Cultural Revolution during its most manic.”

As George Orwell had written in “Principles of Newspeak,” an appendix to “1984,” “The intention was to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral, as nearly as possible independent of consciousness.”

Maoist life encompassed the body as well as the mind. Instead of “revisionist” sports, the new exercise routine was “quotation gymnastics”—a set of group exercises in which participants shouted Mao quotes related to the motions. For example, in the third set of exercises, the leader would yell “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The exercisers would make nine thrusting and stabbing motions with imaginary bayonets.

Even more common were “loyalty dances,” in which individuals or groups stretched their arms to show their “boundless hot love” for Mao, sometimes worshipping him as the sun. People began reporting miracles such as healing of the sick and attributing them to Mao.

Communist temples were erected, based on the historic model of ancestral temples. When buying a Mao item in a store, one could not use the common word for buying, mai; instead one would use the polite verb qing, which is used for the purchase of religious items.

The Mao religion began to be toned down in 1969, since the Beijing committee running the Cultural Revolution realized that people who privately detested Mao were performing the public rituals in order to avoid suspicion. Moreover, the sincere religious believers were grassroots activists, and thus too far outside Beijing’s direct control.

Nevertheless, the cult continued for years. For example, in June 1970, a peasant in Shaanxi province was executed for not having a Mao poster in his hut, and for saying that Mao would not literally live ten thousand years. Today, the Xi Jinping regime is reviving the Mao cult, albeit without the most extreme features of the late 1960s.

The 2020 Cultural Revolution

The ongoing cultural revolution in much of the West has not yet achieved the absurdity of the Mao religion of 1967–69. Yet so-called “Wokeness” has the characteristics of a religion bent on the extirpation of heretics, as Joseph BottumJamil Jivani, and Michael Vlahos, have observed. No wonder that some of the new religion’s adherents vandalized, desecrated, and burned churches and synagogues.

In America in 2020 as in China in 1966, ultra-left rage mobs have been allowed to riot, assault, loot, and pillage, as David Bernstein describes in “The Right to Armed Self-Defense in the Light of Law Enforcement Abdication.” The modern violent ultra-left is mostly above the law, including pandemic laws against mass gatherings.

As in China, the mobs do not target only the heretics. Anyone can be attacked for no reason at all—the better to terrorize the population into submission. Thus, mobs purporting to care about racial justice demolish apolitical small businesses owned by blacks; business that try to mollify the rioters by putting up signs of political support receive no mercy.

It’s easy to lose one’s livelihood over nothing, like the Hispanic truck driver fired for cracking his knuckles, which a Twitter mob interpreted as a white power symbol. Or for indirectly casting doubt on the mobs; an employee of a data company was fired for retweeting a study showing that peaceful protests are more effective than riots in achieving political objectives. (Both incidents are detailed in Yascha Mounk’s “Stop Firing the Innocent” essay for The Atlantic.) People who dare to criticize Black Lives Matter Global Foundation, Inc.—or who fail to praise it sufficiently—may quickly find themselves unemployed and unemployable.

School curricula and libraries are being “decolonized” by the elimination of classic books such as Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” a black woman’s history of her family in Jim Crow Mississippi.

Today’s cultural revolution, like Mao’s, is top-down and led by the most privileged university graduates and students. They have worked themselves into self-righteous fury against the unawokened lower classes.

As in 1966, modern iconoclasts deface and destroy all statues with equal zeal: abolitionists, animals, 9/11 firefighters, Indians, Union soldiers in the Civil War, Ulysses Grant, and Abraham Lincoln all get the same treatment as Confederates. Although the destroyers may not have heard of Lin Biao’s exhortation to “Smash the Four Olds,” they implicitly understand that building the “anti-capitalist” new order they want requires the obliteration of the memory of all that come before: old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.

An important difference between China in 1966 and the West today is that the rage mobs and their more sedentary allies do not yet control all means of communication—but the space for dissent is considerably narrower than it was just a little while ago. Unlike China, we don’t have a formal Socialist Education Campaign in every classroom—but we have something similar in more and more educational institutions, from pre-schools through university.

And at least in the United States, many do have the practical means to resist mob violence; professor Bernstein’s article collects numerous examples. But the exercise of lawful self-defense may still lead to criminal charges by prosecutors aligned with the extreme left.

China’s Cultural Revolution began to end in 1976 when Mao died, and the pragmatic totalitarians staged a coup that removed the more idealistic totalitarians. Will the people of the Anglosphere have to wait that long, or longer, for rescue? Or will the hundreds of millions of people who don’t support the totalitarian ultra-left emancipate themselves from mental slavery? Will they end the reign of terror of today’s Maoists?

This essay is adapted from David B. Kopel, “The Party Commands the Gun: Mao Zedong’s Arms Policies and Mass Killing,” pages 423–521, in online chapter 14 of “Firearms Law and the Second Amendment: Regulation, Rights, and Policy,” by Nicholas J. Johnson, David B. Kopel, George A. Mocsary, and E. Gregory Wallace. Complete citations to Chinese history may be found therein.

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