Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 20, 2007

Cafe Mao

What goes through the mind of someone who names their chain of ‘funky’ and ‘minimalist’ (I’m quoting from online reviews here) cafes after a dictator who killed more of his own people than Stalin?

Cafe Mao

It’s fascinating how differently we approach the iconography of communism and fascism.  And, for that matter, Soviet Communism and, say, that of China or Cuba.  I guess the ideology – the concepts of equality, a united workforce, shared ownership and community – of Marxism/communism continues to capture the popular imagination.  Its attraction is so compelling that people can look past the reality of daily life under communist regimes.  And I also imagine that while Soviet Russia was just too close to home, too much of a threat to the West during the 1950s and 1960s, China and Cuba (not in the US) remained just distant enough (spatially and ideologically) to develop a veneer of ‘cool’.  Plus, as far as Mao is concerned, the closed nature of China allowed the myth, that he had created a socialist utopia, to perpetuate (until his death and the arrest of the Gang of Four), while Khruschev had – through his criticisms of Stalin – fundamentally destroyed any western illusions of life in the USSR. 

But, in hindsight, we know how disastrous the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were, so why does this idea of Mao as a benign paternal figure perpetuate in western subcultural (and increasing popcultural) contexts?  Is it because people – especially those students/intellectuals who bought into the whole Maoism thing in the 1960s and 1970s cannot face to have their illusions shattered, once again?*  As Heath and Potter discuss in their book The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, it is these very people who have gone on to work in the creative industries that promote and repackage subcultural coolness for a mass audience.  And, as the well heeled ‘movers and shakers’ of industry, they themselves constitute a key demographic for marketers. 

Hmmmmm – methinks this has given me lots of things to think about…

* For example, the vitriolic response to Jung Chang’s recent, and oft criticised, biography of Mao, by Sinologists and other intellectuals in the field, did smack of petulance to a certain extent (IMHO!).  It was like they couldn’t bear the thought of their image of Mao – which formed, perhaps, the basis and catalyst of their academic careers – being shown to be an illusion.


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