One of the most visible features of the Cultural Revolution was the cult of Mao Zedong. This origins of this personality cult can be found in stories and propaganda about Mao’s leadership during the Long March. As it grew, the cult of Mao was fuelled by the fanaticism of the Red Guards, pro-Mao propaganda and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control of information.
The Great Helmsman
Mao’s leadership – or, more precisely, approved accounts and perceptions of his leadership – made him the subject of enormous respect and adoration.
The cult of Mao intensified during the Cultural Revolution. During this period, the Chairman was depicted as the ‘Great Helmsman’, both an ideological visionary and a political genius. He was seen as a guardian of his people and a kindly and benevolent leader.
Mao’s achievements were exaggerated and glorified while his shortcomings were suppressed or concealed. The failings and brutalities of Mao-era China were concealed or explained away and blamed on others. Meanwhile, as this personality cult intensified, Mao’s power over the party and his control of China both increased.
What is a personality cult?
Personality cults glorify the achievements and importance of one leader above others. They are formed by a barrage of propaganda, symbolism and imagery, manipulated information and distorted history.
In time, public perceptions evolve to the point where the leader is widely adored, venerated or even worshipped. The leader becomes almost unchallengeable and impervious to criticism. Their power and control are intensified while ordinary people become more obedient and compliant.
Personality cults are a feature of authoritarian or totalitarian political systems. Some 20th century cults of personality include Joseph Stalin (Soviet Union), Adolf Hitler (Nazi Germany), Benito Mussolini (Italy), Francisco Franco (Spain), Kim Il-Sung and his descendants (North Korea), Ho Chi Minh (North Vietnam) and Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines).
Mao’s attitude to cultism
Hero-worship of socialist leaders is not a component of Marxist theory. Karl Marx himself despised the “cult of the individual” while in Soviet Russia, the Stalin personality cult was criticised after his death (“the inordinate glorification of individuals [is] alien to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism”, said the Soviet newspaper Pravda in 1956).
Mao Zedong was never bound by orthodox Marxism, however. He had long cultivated perceptions of his own importance as a means of maintaining power and getting things done.
Personality cults were “healthy”, Mao said, provided they worshipped great leaders rather than false ones. “There are two types of personality cults,” Mao said at a party conference in 1958. “One is the correct type. Worshipping Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin is correct because truth is held in their hands. The other type is incorrect… The second type opposes worshipping other people but demands that others worship him.”
Speaking with Edgar Snow in 1970, Mao claimed that a personality cult was necessary to “stimulate the masses” and bring about political change in China. It was difficult, Mao claimed, for the Chinese people to “overcome the habits of 3,000 years of emperor-worshipping tradition”.
Origins of the Mao cult
While Mao’s leadership was undoubtedly pivotal, the party’s accounts of these periods were shaped and manipulated by Mao and his followers. Mao’s leadership during the Long March, for example, was painted as innovative, inspirational and strategically brilliant, an assessment at odds with the views of several historians.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Mao aligned himself closely with Joseph Stalin and spoke in glowing terms of the Soviet dictator. Mao’s backing legitimised Stalin’s personality cult and, by extension, encouraged the formation of his own.
During the 1950s public adoration of Mao continued to grow, aided by CCP rhetoric. Hu Qiaomu’s 1951 book Thirty Years of the Chinese Communist Party, later the CCP’s official history, claimed that “Comrade Mao Zedong showed his great revolutionary genius. He was the first to employ the methods of Marxist-Leninism to analyse the class relationships in China”.
Lin Biao’s role
Not everyone was happy with the growing veneration of Chairman Mao. Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 triggered alarm bells about the emergence of a Mao cult in China. In November 1957, the CCP’s Central Committee issued a circular that condemned personality cults and banned the naming of streets, towns and other places after political figures.
A critical turning point was the rise of Lin Biao in the party hierarchy. A prominent military commander, Lin aligned himself closely with Mao, probably to further his own career ambitions. In the early 1960s, Lin oversaw sweeping reforms that politicised the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and indoctrinated soldiers with Maoist ideology.
Mao approved of these reforms and became Lin’s benefactor, supporting his elevation into the Politburo Standing Committee (1958) and his appointment as defence minister (1959). In return, Lin exalted and glorified Mao in his writing and speeches. “Chairman Mao is a genius,” Lin said in one 1966 address. “Everything the Chairman says is truly great. One of the Chairman’s words will override the meaning of tens of thousands of ours.”
The ‘Little Red Book’
Lin Biao was later responsible for an iconic feature of the Mao cult: the infamous ‘Little Red Book’. Formally titled Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, it was compiled by Lin and first published in January 1964.
Like a contemporary version of Confucius’ Analects, Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong was a collection of observations, witticisms and advice. It contained 427 Mao Zedong quotations organised into 33 chapters; each of these chapters dealt with an important aspect of the new society, its political ideology and the expected behaviours of good citizens.
Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong would have a profound impact on Chinese society. Initially printed for members of the PLA, the first edition had a print run of 4.2 million – but by the summer of 1965 more than 12 million copies had rolled off the presses.
The quotes contained in the ‘Little Red Book’ were widely available elsewhere, however, the book itself became a symbol of individual loyalty to Mao Zedong and his ideas.
During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards often demanded that individuals produce their copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong. Failure could result in anything from verbal harassment to a beating or prison sentence. Study of the book’s contents took place in thousands of schools, factories, military units, workgroups and peasant collectives.
Mao in propaganda
Mao also loomed large in socialist art and visual propaganda, both of which surged during the Cultural Revolution.
These activities were closely monitored and strongly influenced by Jiang Qing, a former actress who became Mao’s third and final wife. Jiang sought grand narratives that emphasised and celebrated China’s socialist achievements. Artists were told to honour the ‘Three Prominences’: prominence to positive characters, prominence to heroes and prominence to the most important leaders.
Much of the art and propaganda of the Cultural Revolution has Mao as a central figure, either leading or directing the masses or looming above them like a demigod. Mao is variously depicted as the Great Teacher, the Great Commander, the Great Leader or the Great Helmsman.
Images of Mao’s face appeared everywhere, from portraits in schools and government buildings to street signs and wall murals. It was not unusual for private homes to have a picture of Mao displayed in a prominent place, or even a small Mao shrine. As with the ‘Little Red Book’, not having an image of the Chairman in one’s home was considered a sign of disloyalty and potential dissent.
A historian’s view:
“Many brigade head-quarters established ‘loyalty chambers’ or ‘loyalty halls’, which were clearly modelled on ancestral temples. The halls were decorated with pictures of the ‘red sun’ Mao Zedong and large-scale quotation boards. Fresh flowers would be placed before Mao’s image and his works were put on display on ‘precious red book shrines’… ‘Instruction shrines’ were established on the village square or in front of … local buildings. [They] resembled traditional memorial sites or archways. They were inscribed with Mao quotations and engraved with sunflowers and loyalty symbols.”
1. A cult of personality is a campaign of rhetoric and propaganda that exaggerates the importance of a particular leader. They are features of totalitarian systems and are used to assert and increase the leader’s control over the people.
2. The cult of Mao Zedong had its origins in his leadership of the CCP during the 1930s. Mao’s decision making and contributions were exaggerated or glorified in subsequent accounts.
3. The key figure behind Mao’s personality cult was Lin Biao, the PLA commander who showed public loyalty to Mao, ascended through party ranks in the late 1950s and became Mao’s successor.
4. Two significant developments were Lin Biao’s politicisation of the PLA and his publication of the book Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, of which 12 million copies were printed in 18 months.
5. The Cultural Revolution also saw a surge in pro-Mao propaganda that featured the Chairman in a variety of roles. This propaganda highlighted his importance as a leader, a strategist, a teacher and a military commander.