Feature Story
Back Issues
In short
Comrade Language
About Us

  All materials © 1999 
  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 8, December 3 - 9

Rebellion is Justified,
Revolution is Not a Crime

Hey Ayi,
Recently a friend gave me a red Chairman Mao Zedong badge and I want to start collecting them. The only trouble is, I know so little about them and have no idea how many I have to find before I have a complete collection.
Please help!
Mickey Mao

Dear McMao,
If you are determined to collect a complete set of Mao badges then you have set yourself a tough task indeed my friend. For while no one knows exactly how many badges were produced, estimated numbers range between 2.5 and 5 billion with almost a million variations! Not wanting to discourage you from your new found hobby, however, I am more than pleased to impart my knowledge on the history of these Cultural Revolution keepsakes.

The exact origin of Mao badges is unclear, although the first ones are believed to have been produced in the Communist Party Headquarters in Yan'an before 1949. The first known badges were fashioned from aluminum toothpaste tubes, although they were later made from a wide variety of materials including copper, enamel, bamboo, plastic and ivory. At one stage, even pieces of US fighter planes shot down over Vietnam were used! The majority of Mao badges that you will find carry the left profile of the Chairman's head, although some may show full frontal views and more rarely, his whole body. During the Cultural Revolution, badges carrying Mao's right profile quickly became taboo, in deference to the prevailing 'anti-rightist' political mood at the time. Most commonly, they were round in shape, although badges designed like flags and hearts also enjoyed popularity. Even badges with moving parts and ones that glowed in the dark appeared at one time, but you will be lucky to find these designs wandering down Silk Alley.

Although Mao badges were manufactured before 1966, they were issued primarily during military or political campaigns to soldiers and model workers, or given out in commemoration of public works and were therefore only worn by a small percentage of the population. As soon as the Cultural Revolution gathered steam, however, production of Mao Zedong badges increased dramatically. A factory was even opened in Mao's hometown of Shaoshan, Hunan with the sole purpose of making Mao badges. Some of the best badge designers and technicians from all over China went to work there and at one point the factory was capable of producing 30 million Mao badges a year. These badges soon became some of the most sought after of this period. The factory continues operating today, although the volume of badges manufactured comes nowhere near that during the dizzying heights of the Cultural Revolution, and the badges are now produced as souvenirs rather than revolutionary icons.

Also popular during this time were special sets of badges, consisting of anything from three to several dozen. Common themes included the "holy sites of the revolution" such as Mao's childhood residence in Shaoshan, sunflowers (sunflowers always face the sun and Mao was widely regarded as China's 'red sun'), and the character zhong " meaning loyalty. Even the number of badges in each set held symbolic meaning. Three badges represented the 'three loyalties': to great leader Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong Thought and the proletarian revolution. Seven signified the boundless loyalty of the seven hundred million subjects of the People's Republic to the Great Helmsman.

There are a number of reasons Chairman Mao badges were worn. Although many sported them to express sincere love and admiration for the Chairman, during the height of the Cultural Revolution wearing badges became a symbol of revolutionary fervor and it was risky to be seen without one. Moreover, there was an accepted and proper way to wear your badge; pinned to the clothes slightly above the heart. The more zealous however, pinned the badges directly onto their skin. To some, the numbers and sizes of badges they wore was a measure of both their political zeal and social standing. The more and/or bigger the badges, the more loyal one was to Mao. It was only in1969, when nearly all supplies of aluminum had been exhausted, that the manufacture of badges came to a halt.

Chairman Mao badges started to make a comeback in the late 1980s. A mixture of nostalgia, reverence for Mao, fashion, and dissatisfaction with post-Mao society all played a part in the revival of Cultural Revolution relics. In the early 1990s people discovered that many such artifacts were worth considerable amounts of money. Realizing that some Mao badges could be sold for up to US$400 overseas, many dusted off their old collections and put them up for sale. Unfortunately, there is a booming market in newly minted knock-off Mao badges. The best way to distinguish the real thing is that if a badge doesn't look 30 years old, it probably isn't.

And so I wish you every success in your hunt for Great Helmsman badges. If you manage to acquire even a fraction of the collection held by Wang Anting, a Chengdu native whose 20,000 Mao badges earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, then your revolutionary spirit will indeed be beyond question.

Previous Picks...

Teahouse Ayi

Traditional Instruments

Washing the Tiles

My Son Lu Xun

Mama Africa

Ghosts and Foxy Ladies

Ayi gets testy

Ayi in Control

Creation Ayi

Ayi picks up Internet losers (and winners)

Traditional Chinese exercise

Flyin' high

Is the plural of abacus 'abuci'?