Mao the Scholar in the Cultural Revolution

“During the cultural revolution period, poster artists were required to produce representations of the leader in his many pastoral and international guises: the young scholar turned international savior, the Great Helmsman, the inspiration to the new, young, revolutionary generation, and so on, ” – Evans and Donald, “Introducing Posters of China’s Cultural Revolution,” 9.

The cultural revolution, for all of its grand promises of equality, resulted in a mass attack against the intellectuals of Chinese society. “Better to be red than expert” Mao famously said; this, not equality, became the heart of the revolution. Expert was bad; only Mao’s most ardent followers, the new generation, could fully understand what was necessary to live in a country of constant revolution. Mao was so ardently admired and idolized by the Red Guards, pillaging and killing in his name; can you even imagine the chaos that would have ensued if Mao had died before he basically “called off” the Red Guards? In a culture that became so actively against intellectualism, and so passionately for Mao’s “common people” revolution ideals, it seems exceptionally ironic to me that one of the common portrayals of Mao was as “the young scholar”. In the documentary by Carma Hinton we watched last week, there were several photos of young Mao that we saw that fit this Maoist archtype; Mao sitting in a study filling out paperwork, and Mao reading Marx in a large chair. Was this stereotype ever used as a way to support intellectualism? Or was it simply the transition – that Mao, who was once a scholar, could forgo his study and lead China to ‘peace’?

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