Would you buy a lighter from the Great Helmsman?

He may make a good cushion, but Teresa Poole in Peking asks whether Mao is politically correct
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The Independent Online
It is 1997, Hong Kong is being returned to the mainland, and with the world spotlight on the handover, Chinoiserie is in vogue. Western magazines and newspapers feature beautiful Chinese brocade clothes, reproduction Qing dynasty furniture, and Chinese art and ceramics. And in those stylishly designed room sets, it is not unusual to find one familiar face staring out from somewhere on the page. Two decades after his death, Chairman Mao Tse Tung has found a new and surprising role as a design accessory.

In the West, one can buy cushion covers with the Great Helmsman's face, and Mao T-shirts. For those visiting China and looking for something a little more authentic, there are "Little Red Books", Mao propaganda posters, and other Cultural Revolution memorabilia. And for modern-day tacky souvenirs, one cannot beat the Mao cigarette lighters which play the tune "The East is Red", Mao room thermometers, Mao plates and cups, and for one's desk, a Mao penholder, and so on.

In Peking's "antique" markets, Western tourists eagerly haggle over such trinkets. The same people would not, of course, for one moment ever consider buying a Stalin cigarette lighter, or a Hitler room thermometer. But in the pantheon of world tyrants whose policies resulted in the deaths of millions, Mao memorabilia manages still to be considered chic, or at least amusing.

Someone eating a sandwich off a Mao plate will probably not dwell on the 30 million Chinese who died in the famine caused by Mao's insane Great Leap Forward in the late Fifties. Arranging one's collection of Mao cushions, it is best to forget that when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, anyone who inadvertently sat on a newspaper with a Mao photograph lurking on an inside page was in danger of being thrashed to within an inch of their lives by the Red Guards as a punishment for such disrespect.

One might imagine that the present-day Chinese propaganda machine, which keeps strict control over the reproduction of Mao's face and calligraphy within China, would frown on the use of Mao as a design motif in the West. But they have a different viewpoint.

Liu Min, at the Chinese Communist Party's Department for Research on Party Literature, is sanguine. He said: "Mike Tyson tattoos Mao's face on his arm. That expresses his understanding of Mao." "We wish people outside China can have a wider knowledge of Mao," says Mr Liu. "It is said Tyson regards Mao as a God, he believes Mao can protect him in the ring, he worships Mao. He understands Mao from his own point of view."

Mr Liu does admit, however, with some regret that "the knowledge of Mao by foreigners is probably limited". In the

Hong Qiao market, in central Peking, most Westerners buying Mao memorabilia do so because it seems quaint or simply rather ridiculous.

A reproduction Mao snuff bottle can be put to various uses, a reproduction figurine of a revolutionary peasant looks good on the mantlepiece, and a giant Cultural Revolution cloth hanging portrait of the Great Helmsman makes a very unusual bedspread.

The question of the death toll of Mao's rule does not seem to arise. Few tourists have studied post-1949 Chinese history, and China itself still officially reveres Mao, so the issue of possible bad taste is easily sidestepped.

Those who are steeped in Chinese contemporary history are fully aware of what they are buying. Professor David Shambaugh, a Sinologist at George Washington University, admits to a collection of "more than 300" Mao pieces including badges, statues, posters, copies of the Little Red Book in several languages, and a Mao clock.

"It is indeed ironic when vestiges of totalitarian tyrants, after their demise, assume collector's value and status as memorabilia," he said. "Such is the case with kitsch from the Mao era, and particularly the late Chairman's brainchild of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution - a mass movement that set back China's economy and society incalculably, and cost the lives and careers of hundreds of thousands of Chinese."

Peking's Chinese traders find it all rather improbable. Duan Xiuhua, who at 42 years old is part of the generation whose education was wiped out by the Cultural Revolution, is selling off her own family's huge supply of Little Red Books in her Hong Qiao store. She also has a collection of Mao busts, in sizes to suit anyone's needs. "In fact, we don't know what the foreigners are thinking about when they buy these things," she said.

At his stall, Chen Guowei is offering a Cultural Revolution cloth portrait of Mao, made by the Hangzhou "The East is Red" Silk Factory. Does this amount to mercenary disrespect for the Chairman? "Only people who really like these will buy them. Even the government produces watches with Mao's face. That does not mean we do not respect him. That just shows we really respect him," he said.

For an unwitting foreign tourist, none of this comes cheap. Ms Duan wanted to sell me a 1977 five-volume set of Mao's extended Little Red Book. When published they would have set one back 3.9 yuan (30p); her rather optimistic opening offer to me was 500 yuan (pounds 38).

Yao Zhongyong was one of millions of young Chinese "sent down to the countryside" during the Cultural Revolution, and did not manage to return to Peking for 20 years. Last year he put me off the whole Cultural Revolution shopping experience. "Chinese people still feel very deeply about that period. And they feel uncomfortable to know that foreigners, as spectators, like the art and artefacts of the Cultural Revolution. Everybody should know that it was a tragedy," he said.