Posted by Joel Martinsen on Monday, April 25, 2005 at 1:20 PM
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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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.