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.