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11 The Little Red Book Lives On: Mao’s Rhetorical Legacies in Contemporary Chinese Imaginings Xing Lu D uring the height of his popularity, Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was revered as the “red sun” shining all over China and as the nation’s savior from its semifeudal and semicolonial past. Before his death in 1976, and especially during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), books, films, songs, and theatrical performances were produced to adulate him; his portrait hung in every Chinese household; and his quotation book, known as the Little Red Book, was read every day by everyone. In all of these texts, Mao was celebrated for his contribution to establishing a communist China that touted equality, unity, independence, and a better life. I lived in China during this time and remember clearly how Mao was elevated to the status of a living god, resulting in mass hysteria, blind faith, absolute obedience, and cultish behavior among the Chinese people. Fervent devotion to his teachings and the absence of any alternative views made Mao the final arbiter of truth and knowledge, which ultimately led to 12 Xing Lu acts of destruction and cruelty in the name of revolution and continued revolution.1 Ironically, tragically, and maybe inevitably, Mao’s extremism eventually destroyed the revolutionary legacy he had so painstakingly built; he created glory for China, but by the time of his death he also brought the country into chaos and to the brink of collapse. Succeeding leaders attempted to demystify Mao, evaluating him as “70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.”2 The assessment partially blamed Mao for the chaos and atrocities of the Cultural Revolution but still suggested his achievements for China far outweigh his failure. Thus, now almost seventy years since the communist revolution of 1949, Mao remains a colossal rhetorical influence on life in contemporary China. If the work of imagining nations depends, in part, on appropriating rhetorical resources inherited from prior generations, then Mao stands among the most important , even foundational, figures for helping China make sense of itself. Imagining China hinges on reimagining Mao. Since Mao’s death in 1976, China has moved toward Westernization and economic reform, resulting in a booming economy and the rapid improvement of living standards for the Chinese people.3 However, at the same time, China has experienced alarming corruption and moral decline in the post-Mao era. In such contexts, Mao has been resurrected in various popular cultural forums as an emblem of all that China has lost because of its rapid modernization; especially among older Chinese, a sense of nostalgia for Mao’s era has become popular. Indeed, what some observers call the “Mao fever” has risen so quickly that Mao is once again worshipped: taxi drivers hang Mao’s portrait in their cars; Mao’s badges are again worn by ordinary civilians; books, shows, and songs under the theme of “red classics” have again become popular. As observed by Melissa Schrift, “Mao, in spirit if not in body (his crystal-encased corpse in Tiananmen aside), is, indeed, alive and well in contemporary China.”4 In the celebration of Mao’s 120th birthday, on December 26, 2013, thousands of people in Shaoshan (Mao’s hometown) ate noodles together, sharing a traditional birthday meal while celebrating Mao’s longevity.5 In addition, the government media has published a large number of books and articles on Mao’s life, while films and TV series have applauded Mao’s infallible leadership during China’s anti-Japanese war and civil war. These nostalgic and heroic tributes to Mao tend to extol his personal charisma, Mao’s Rhetorical Legacies 13 wisdom, and eloquence.6 Because of the influence of Mao’s writings, one can still hear Mao’s sayings repeated in everyday conversations and online communications among the Chinese people. As Ross Terrill said vividly, “The real Mao has melded with China’s body, like yeast in a loaf already baked.”7 In sum, even as China is emerging as a power with global reach, Mao’s Little Red Book lives on. In the post-Mao period of economic and political reforms, the Communist Party of China (CPC or the Party) has moved from Mao’s ideological dogmatism toward pragmatism, as is evident in the nation’s relaxed economic and foreign policies as well as the Party’s increasingly de-radicalized rhetoric.8 However, the CPC still faces the challenge of addressing the rhetorical exigencies...


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