Cambridge Catalogue  
  • Your account
  • View basket
  • Help
Home > Catalogue > Mao Cult
Mao Cult


  • 15 b/w illus. 3 maps
  • Page extent: 324 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
  • Weight: 0.65 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 951.05/6
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: DS778.7 L44 2011
  • LC Subject headings:
    • China--History--Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976--Sources
    • China--Politics and government--1949-1976--Sources
    • China--History--20th century--Sources
    • HISTORY / Asia / General--bisacsh

Library of Congress Record

Add to basket


 (ISBN-13: 9780521193672)

Manufactured on demand: supplied direct from the printer

US $103.00
Singapore price US $110.21 (inclusive of GST)
Mao Cult
Cambridge University Press
9780521193672 - Mao Cult - Rhetoric and Ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution - By Daniel Leese

Mao Cult: Rhetoric and Ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution

Mao Zedong’s political and cultural legacy remains potent even in today’s China. Many books have explored his posthumous legacy, but none has scrutinized the cult of Mao and the massive worship that was fostered around him at the height of his powers during the Cultural Revolution. This riveting book is the first to do so. By analyzing previously secret archival documents, obscure objects, and political pamphlets, Daniel Leese traces the tumultuous history of the cult within the Communist Party and at the grassroots level. The party leadership’s original intention was to develop a prominent brand symbol that would compete with the Nationalists’ elevation of Chiang Kai-shek. They did not, however, anticipate that Mao would use this symbolic power to mobilize Chinese youth to rebel against the party bureaucracy itself. The result was anarchy, and when the army was called in, it relied on mandatory rituals of worship, such as daily reading of the Little Red Book or performances of the “loyalty dance” to restore order. Such fascinating detail sheds light not only on the personality cult of Mao, but also on hero worship in other traditions.

Daniel Leese is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. He is the editor of Brill’s Encyclopedia of China (2009).

Mao Cult

Rhetoric and Ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution

Daniel Leese


Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi, Tokyo, Mexico City

Cambridge University Press
32 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013-2473, USA
Information on this title:

© Daniel Leese 2011

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2011

Printed in the United States of America

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Leese, Daniel.
Mao cult : rhetoric and ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution / Daniel Leese.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-521-19367-2 (hardback)
1. China – History – Cultural Revolution, 1966–1976 – Sources.
2. China – Politics and government – 1949–1976 – Sources.
3. China – History – 20th century – Sources. ;I. Title.
DS778.7L44 2011
951.05′6–dc22 2010054238

ISBN 978-0-521-19367-2 Hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

For Lia Cara, Amelie, and Justus

This land so rich in beauty
Has made countless heroes bow in homage
But alas! Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi
Were lacking in literary grace,
And Tang Taizong and Song Taizu
Had little poetry in their souls;
And Genghis Khan,
Proud Son of Heaven for a day,
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched.
All are past and gone!
For truly great men
Look to this age alone.
“Snow,” Mao Zedong


List of Illustrations, Figures, Maps, and Table
Chronology of Major Events
List of Abbreviations
Part I.   Coming to Terms with the “Cult of the Individual”25
1         The Secret Speech and Its Impact
2         The Dual Nature of Commodities
3         Redefining the Cult
Part II.  Charismatic Mobilization87
4         Lively Study and Application
5         The Little Red Book
6         Spectacles of Worship
Part III. Cult and Compliance149
7         Ambiguous Symbols
8         The Language of Loyalty
9         Rituals and Commodities
10        Curbing the Cult

Illustrations, Figures, Maps, and Table


1           Mao woodcut, Liberation Weekly, 1937
2           Zhu De woodcut, Liberation Weekly, 1937
3           “Everyday life” pictures of Mao, 1958
4           Model Soldier Wang Guoxiang, 1968
5           “Asking for Instructions in the Morning,” 1968
6           “Chairman Mao Quotation Gymnastics,” Shanghai Sports Battleline, 1967
7           Performing the Loyalty Dance, 1968
8           Creating Mao icons, 1968
9           Three Loyalties campaign in Harbin, 1968
10          Arrival of the mango replicas in Harbin, 1968


1           Translations of the “cult of the individual” in the People’s Daily, 1949–72
2           References to Mao Zedong Thought in the People’s Daily, 1946–81
3           Appearances of the phrase “Loyal to Chairman Mao” in the People’s Daily, 1960–80


1           Administrative divisions of China
2           “Sacred Places” of the Chinese Revolution
3           Guizhou province and the site of the Dafang Incident


1           Number of students traveling to and from Shanghai, 1966


In 1921, the Chinese Republic was shaken by a seemingly obscure scandal, the so-called Eight-Thousand Hemp Sacks Incident (baqian madai shijian). The Historical Museum, an institution entrusted with archival duties after the fall of the Qing dynasty, had upon instruction of the Ministry of Education sold some 75,000 kilograms of archival materials to a wastepaper trader. The revenue of four thousand silver dollars was to help ameliorate the ministry’s dire financial situation and simultaneously relieve the staff of the burden of classifying and arranging the huge amount of material. The documents had in 1909 already been singled out for destruction, but upon intervention of an upright official, Luo Zhenyu, had been retained and stored in thousands of hemp sacks. In 1921, it was again Luo Zhenyu who discovered parts of these materials on markets in Beijing and decided to buy and preserve the documents. The scandal drew wider circles and nationalist sentiments ran high when Luo a few years later had to sell part of the stacks to other collectors, including a former Japanese official in China. The famous writer Lu Xun, who in the early Republican era had worked in the Ministry of Education and was well informed about the extent of private appropriation of archival documents through the ministry’s staff, remarked sarcastically that “archaeological endeavors” among the stacks had become a favorite pastime among officials.1 The stacks that had finally been sold as wastepaper, in Lu’s opinion, therefore had found an adequate destiny.

Today, scholars trying to write a social or cultural history of the 1950s and 1960s sometimes cannot help but feel reminded of the hemp sacks incident when searching for sources. Although the possibility of archival access has greatly improved during the past decade, the documents allowed for public perusal have usually, but not always, been carefully sorted and arranged to suit the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official interpretation of events. Local archives or danwei offices, however, faced financial pressures that resulted in the vending of stacks of documents to wastepaper traders or collectors. Thus over the years, flea markets and secondhand bookshops have occasionally become a welcome treasure trove of local-level documents that allow for a partial reconstruction of everyday life and administration otherwise nonexistent in official archival memory.

During an occasional visit to the flea markets while studying in China, I bought a stack of obscure documents related to the veneration of a certain Comrade Men He, who, I later learned, was one of the Cultural Revolution’s foremost model heroes in 1968. Because I was unclear about what to make of the documents, which mainly consisted of congratulatory statements and “lively applications” of Mao Zedong Thought, they gathered dust on my bookshelves for several years. When searching for a suitable topic for a doctoral dissertation, I reconsidered the stacks again, and after an exchange of ideas with the doyen of Chinese “garbology” (lajixue), Swedish historian Michael Schoenhals, I decided to pursue the topic of the Maoist personality cult further. As no predefined body of texts existed or, to put it differently, not even the type of sources from which to draw evidence on the cult could be clarified in the first place, the initial research consisted of literally digging through stacks of old documents, mimeographed pamphlets, and obscure objects from flea markets, private collections, and finally archives.

Many people have contributed to this work by sharing their ideas, comments, and criticism, though not of all them can be mentioned here. I explicitly thank my former dissertation committee members Johannes Paulmann, Nicola Spakowski, and Jürgen Osterhammel for making the endeavor possible; their work continues to be a major source of inspiration. I would further like to thank the people at the Universities Service Centre in Hong Kong, which hosted me for several months, and Roderick MacFarquhar and the participants of the Sixth Annual Conference on International History at Harvard in 2006. Barbara Mittler, Jan Plamper, Rudolf Wagner, and Vivian Wagner offered very helpful comments during different stages of the project. The History Department and International Relations Department at Beijing University, especially professors Niu Dayong and Yin Hongbiao, provided me with valuable support, without which archival access would not have been possible. The same holds true for Tang Shaojie at Qinghua University. Thanks also to Li Zhensheng and Contact Press Images, who allowed me to reproduce some of Li’s most fascinating images from his Red Color News Soldier. Furthermore, I would like to thank the staff at the National Library of China in Beijing, the Hebei Provincial Archives, the Bavarian State Library, and all other institutions and individuals who helped to accommodate my obscure research interests.

© Cambridge University Press
printer iconPrinter friendly version AddThis