Red Corner: Painting Mao

One of the first things one notices upon stepping into Tiananmen Square in Beijing is the massive, three-story tall painting of Mao Zedong. Like every other tourist to pass through this famous square, I too snapped a handful of photos of this gargantuan visage.

I didn’t give the portrait much thought after my first sighting and went quickly on my way. Like everything else in China, however, the painting has a fascinating story behind it. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Ching-Ching Ni, this famous portrait is “freshened up” every year and replaced by a brand new version created by an anonymous artist.

In typically secret Chinese fashion, the whole process is kept under tight secrecy; Mao’s big mug is painted in a secret, fireproof art studio in the corner of Tiananmen Square, his artists are never identified, and no one is allowed to put their name on the final painting. The Times estimates that at least six artists have worked the Mao shift in the last 57 years. One of them, surprisingly interviewed for the article, commented that, “Mao’s face must be painted extra red to show his robust spirit.” This same artist was chastised early in his career for painting a Mao at an angle with only one ear showing. According to The Times, “the Red Guards said it implied that the chairman listened to only a select few rather than all of the masses.”

Mao may be long dead, and communism on the way out, but, as one can tell by the near religious devotion to this painting, the Chinese government still has a need for the Chairman and all that he represents.