The Faces of Chairman Mao: A Sociology of Reputation

Qian, Licheng, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Olick, Jeffrey, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

Chairman Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, has been dead for over 40 years, but his soul has never rested in peace. He is remembered, for various reasons, as god, hero, villain, or commodity. What factors affect the construction of Chairman Mao’s reputation in different social and historical contexts? What do these different images and reputations mean to people? And how do people use and transform Mao’s reputations based on their social and generational positions? These are the central research questions this dissertation aims to answer.

Based on archival study, content and textual analysis, and interviews and ethnographies conducted in Beijing, Shanghai, Sichuan, and Hunan, I argue that these questions can be better unraveled through a relational and post-totalitarian framework on reputations. A relational and processual perspective is beneficial in understanding the various reputations Chairman Mao has as well as the relationship among these reputations. For instance, the transcendent quality maintained through social participation (rather than conviction) explains the construction of the sacred reputation. Mao’s various heroic and villainous reputations changed as contexts shifted and constitute a “liminal sphere” between the profane and sacred spheres of reputations. In addition, the commodification of Chairman Mao can be viewed as a profane reputation which ordinary Chinese people can have, relate to, or make fun of in everyday life. As a result, these various reputations constitute a “liminal reputation circle” which connects the sacred, liminal, and profane.

In addition, the “liminal reputation circle” for Chairman Mao is strongly embedded in China’s totalitarian and post-totalitarian regime contexts. For instance, comparing the personality cult of Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s deification in contemporary China reveals that state mobilization is not a necessary nor sufficient condition for making and maintaining a sacred reputation. The study of “liminal reputations” in Mao’s era and the post-Mao era illustrates that the more totalitarian a regime is, the less liminal a figure’s reputations can be. Meanwhile, the study of Mao’s commodified reputation illustrates the influence of the very post-totalitarian context in contemporary China—this context both enables and constrains the form and content of the commodified memory, “creating” different consumer categories with various symbolic meaning-making practices. In addition, due to the post-totalitarian social change, the generation which was “present” in Mao’s China and the one born “after” Mao’s China possess different attitudes towards Chairman Mao, illustrating the particular processes and mechanisms forming the “formative years.” Moreover, due to distinctive symbolic ties to the communist regime and the regime’s influence on the Chinese people, Chairman Mao’s reputations are vastly more contested and controversial in contemporary China than those of some of his counterparts, such as Zhou Enlai and Sun Yat-sen.

By examining Mao’s various reputations, this dissertation not only deepens our understanding of Chinese society, but also contributes to the general theory on reputation, memory, and culture through a relational/processual as well as a post-totalitarian sociology of reputations.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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