Intellectual Property

The questionable legality of a Mao impersonator


Tourists at the Old Beijing Miniature Landscapes Park who stop into the Shufangzhai Restaurant have a chance to have their pictures taken with Chairman Mao himself. Pictured here is Sun Yang, who plays Mao at the restaurant and gives famous speeches, recites poems, and stands for photographs with customers for 20 yuan apiece.

It is this last part that has people upset; historical impersonators are not rare (see David Moser's article linked at the end of this post), but linking them with crassly commercial pursuits is generally out-of-bounds. The Beijing News quotes some upset tourists, as well as one who says, "He's not Mao — why take a picture with him?", but apparently many tourists do take advantage of the opportunity to take home a photograph with Mr. Sun's imitation of Mao's signature scrawled across it.

Mr. Sun is introduced at the restaurant as the actor who played Mao in The Decisive Battle, a part actually played by Gu Yue. But then, if both men's impersonations are done well, who's to say which actor actually inhabited the character the audiences saw on the screen?

More damaging, perhaps, are Mr. Sun's claims in a profile of "Mao Zedong from Changping" on a Beijing-based website devoted to exemplary figures in society, that he played the part of the Chairman in the film For the Sake of New China and the play Leaving Xibaipo. According to the The Beijing News' investigation, however, these works do not exist.

Upset as people may be at the prospect of the country's founder shilling for a restaurant, various legal analysts consulted by The Beijing News find little that is directly illegal about Mr. Sun's and the restaurant's actions. Everyone knows he's a fake, so he's obviously not out to swindle anyone. If his performances are not commercial, then he's not infringing on anyone's rights. If he is serving to promote the restaurant's business, then the restaurant owes royalties to the holders of Mao's image rights. But Chinese law in many cases allows payments to be made after the rights are used; prior consultation is often not necessary.

So the question comes down to whether the content of the performances harms Mao's reputation, and whether playing Mao at a restaurant cuts down his image in the eyes of the Chinese people.

More Info: For an inside look at the historical figure impersonation phenomenon, see David Moser's article that previously ran on Danwei.

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