Revolutionary China

Mao Badges - Graven Images?

Revolutionary China

Judy Manton a member of the US-China People's Friendship Association visited China at the peak of the personality cult of Chairman Mao. Her personal observations on the development and use of Mao badges in the early 1970s give a keen insight into life in those turbulent times in China. The article is reprinted from SACU's China Now magazine (1988).

Premier Zhou Enlai stood in front of me expectantly. His intense but kind, sparkling eyes were focused on me. I didn't feel as nervous as I had anticipated, but I felt very small in his presence. Noticing that he was wearing a 'Serve the people' bar on his trim, grey, Chinese jacket, I pressed into his hand a button from the one-China movement in the United States. I had only one moment in which to say my carefully rehearsed lines. After learning the significance of the button, Premier Zhou smiled broadly as he vigorously shook my hand.

Why was such an insignificant person talking with China's Premier? It was January 1972 in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. A few minutes earlier in front of numerous heads Of Chinese agencies and other American friends, Zhou Enlai had graciously thanked my husband for his contribution to US-Chinese relations.

China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. 'Serve the people!'; 'We will continue our revolution forever'; 'A single spark can light a prairie fire.' The quotations of Chairman Mao were plastered all over China, were on everyone's lips and on badges on everyone's chest.

Mao badge

Badges had made their appearance in China, however, long before the Cultural Revolution. In Yanan even before Liberation, some people wore celluloid photos of Mao on badges. In 1950 a small badge bearing a '5' and a '1' representing May 1st was made in Beijing in commemoration of International Labour Day. The army wore 5-point red stars in their hats and Mao's portrait in gold on red stars over 'Serve the people' bars on their chests. The People's Militia then began to show their loyalty to Mao by wearing badges. Other badges worn in China were school name badges, those worn by the participants in the Children's Palace in Shanghai, and little pins of various shapes which were souvenirs of famous places visited. The wearing of any kind of personal adornment in China was not popular as people were told that it was not necessary to make themselves attractive, that it was not good for the revolution. There were a few Zhou Enlai badges, but they were seen no more after Zhou said that only Mao badges should be worn. After Zhou's death, however, commemorative badges were made.

Little red badges

The first badges worn during the Cultural Revolution appeared in Beijing and were quite small. These dime-sized red badges were dubbed xiao hong dou (small red beans). Bar-shaped badges bearing the characters 'Serve the people', made of cloth or plastic also became available. When the Red Guards were first organized by Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai spoke to them en masse and emphasized that it was not how many badges they wore nor how big they were, but that they should wear their badges to the end and be loyal to them.

The badges were carried from Beijing by enthusiastic Red Guards to other parts of China where they were greatly cherished. Then factories and institutions around the country began to make their own out of materials they worked with aluminium, plastic, porcelain, or bamboo. The porcelains were very pretty and as they were heavy they had to be secured especially well on the inside. People were afraid to wear porcelain ones: if they fell and broke, Mao's name would be desecrated.

People who worked in factories where badges were made often gave or sold them to relatives. That was permitted as it was all for the glory of Mao. Badges were not usually sold in stores, but could be purchased from people on the street. People sent special badges to their relatives in different parts of China. Some badges were distributed as gifts by various work units to their members. Others in the shape of little books were given out at special meetings which were called for the study of Mao Zedong Thought.

As badges made by factories run by the People's Liberation Army were usually larger and of better quality, people were anxious to obtain those. The public was asked to donate badges to remote areas so that more people could have them. Fluorescent plastic badges appeared for a time and were sought after because they glowed like the sun (the symbol of Mao). Once determined dangerous, however, they were no longer produced. A popular photo of young Mao in an army hat taken by Edgar Snow appeared on some bamboo and porcelain badges which were made towards the end of the Cultural Revolution after the metal ones had been prohibited as a wasteful use of metal. The government collected many to melt down as Mao had said that it was more important to use metal for planes than for badges. Some people were glad to give them to the collectors as they didn't know what to do with them and would be criticized if they threw them away. Others, however, who'd worked so hard to collect them and who didn't want to lose their swap value preferred to keep theirs.

Mao badges
People with Little Red Books and Mao badges. © Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

Badges got bigger and bigger. Some were ridiculously large and too heavy to pin to a shirt. The larger the badge, the more loyal to Mao, it appeared.

Mao badges had to be handled with the greatest of care and respect, as they carried with them a lot of political meaning. People knew they should wear them, but on the other hand they were afraid to as if the badges were damaged consciously or unconsciously, disastrous consequences might result. There's a story about a little girl who dropped a badge down a drain in the street. Fearing that someone might spot it and search out the careless individual, her family waited until night and when they were sure no one was watching, went outside, lifted the drain grating, and with a great sigh of relief retrieved the badge.

Collecting badges became a hobby, replacing stamp collecting which had been forbidden. Publicity was given to a young girl who said that when she had 500, she would present them to Chairman Mao. One man in Beijing made 75 different ones in cloisonné which he presented to Mao on his birthday. An American reporter in Inner Mongolia in 1973 reported having seen a display of 2,000 badges. The government forbade the trading of badges as they were considered too sacred to be treated so lightly. Badges were, however, traded widely. As the schools were closed during the Cultural Revolution, there was nothing much for the young people to do. Children at Bei Hai Park and the Summer Palace often approached strangers, wanting to trade. One of the favourite gathering places of young enthusiasts in Beijing was at one of the entrances to the zoo. Stories circulated about people being arrested and their collections being confiscated. To fool the police, badges were pinned to shirt fronts and jacket linings and even up each sleeve. When completely covered by a closed jacket, innocence could be feigned. Some even covered the palms of their gloves with badges and concealed them by making a fist or thrusting their hands into their jacket pockets. The young people spent a lot of time discussing the relative value of their badges. Some hard-to-get, popular badges took on a monetary value and were traded for scarce items such as light bulbs, eggs, stamp albums, cigarette labels for collections, and even free train rides.

Many parents disapproved of their children's great interest in collecting badges, however, as they considered them a waste of money. The intelligentsia were not interested in them, except perhaps as a hobby. A lot of people wore them who were not really very supportive of Mao. Those who were very political, wore them to get promotions and to meetings where it was important to demonstrate loyalty.

Mao badges

Badges even reached some peasants, given them in appreciation for housing transient Red Guards. Some of the Educated Youth who were sent to the countryside to live like peasants were so delighted with the large, attractive badges from the city that they framed them and hung them on their walls.

A badge for all reasons

Badges were issued for many reasons, such as to commemorate an event. One badge bore the picture of Yu Hua Tai, the Revolutionary Martyrs' Garden in Nanjing where the Guomindang had executed many revolutionaries. Another showed Zun Yi, where in 1935 during the Long March, Mao had been chosen Chairman of the Communist Party. Others were issued in memory of places Mao had visited or where he'd delivered a significant speech. Several badges depicted An Yuan, a coal mine at which Mao had organized a strike in the 1920s.

Model communes were adulated too: an attractive porcelain badge showed Mao wearing a broad, straw peasant hat while overlooking the once lauded Dazhai. Below the picture was the quote: 'In agriculture, learn from Dazhai'. Many of Mao's famous quotations appeared on the front and back of the badges, such as one from Guangdong Province which read: 'Chinese women don't like to dress beautifully, but like to fight'.

Political movements were also a subject. Red Guard factions wore badges to indicate their leanings. One of these groups was the Red Flag Commune which began at Zhongshan University (Sun Yat-sen University in Canton). After the late Premier Zhou Enlai had praised it, most of the students joined and the movement spread throughout the city. Their badge was greatly prized in Guangzhou and commanded a very high trading value.

Mao badge

Badges were not only red and round ('The red sun in our hearts'), but also in the shape of banners, flags, hearts, books, red stars, bars, flaming torches, and Mao's profile. Popular symbols were the sunflower which represented Mao, the evergreen tree which is the Chinese symbol of longevity, and the mangoes which had been given to Mao by General Ne Win of Burma.

Feelings in China now towards Mao badges are mixed. When word got around the University in Guangzhou that I collected Mao badges, many brought out from under beds where they'd been for several years were presented to me on my birthday. Some had been pinned to another once-treasured discard - a Mao Zedong Thought Brigade arm band. Badges could be given away or even melted down, the graven image destroyed, but the impact of the Cultural Revolution on the Chinese people cannot so conveniently be erased.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 125, June 1988, Page 8

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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