Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Thursday, October 7, 2004 at 2:23 PM
Red Stars Over China: the Mao Impersonators
By David Moser
I’m at a popular Peking duck restaurant in Beijing, chatting with Chairman Mao. He sits a few feet from me, drinking Coca-Cola and chain-smoking Marlboros. His jet-black hair is immaculate, his gray revolutionary suit perfectly pressed, his smooth skin marred only by the familiar mole on his chin. I am mesmerized, awed to be in the presence of this historical icon. He asks me for my email address. I have trouble understanding his thick Hunan accent. He hands me his business card.
The name on the card breaks the spell. He is Du Tianqing, a Mao impersonator who has played the Chairman in many movies and television programs, one of a select group of actors who actually make their living depicting Chinese leaders in the entertainment media. Some Mao imitators play Mao as a younger man, and there are several older actors who portray him in the post-1949 era. Du Tianqing is one of these.
In addition to his movie and TV work, Du also travels around China gracing various meetings, variety shows, and factory openings with a once-in-a-lifetime visit from the Great Helmsman himself. He typically greets the crowd in the hortatory style of the revolutionary days (“Comrades! Under no conditions forget class struggle!”), and then delivers one of Mao’s famous speeches, mimicking every aspect of the leader’s body language and vocal intonation. Like many Mao portrayers, he has even put some effort into learning to imitate Mao’s unmistakable calligraphy, and he concludes his performances by producing, on the spot, a large character scroll in Mao’s hand.
There is also a stable of dead ringers for Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping, and other leaders, all able to provide eerily accurate portrayals of these historical figures, often down to the specific regional accents.
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. I was completely flabbergasted. From what thought I knew of China, I would have assumed that such an act would be considered absolute sacrilege, like a skit with Jesus and the Apostle Paul playing gin rummy on a broadcast of the 700 Club. When I asked my Chinese friends how these impersonators were perceived by the Chinese audience, they merely shrugged. “It just shows that Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai are still admired by the Chinese people,” they told me. It was back then that I first realized there were aspects of China I would never fathom.
Keep in mind, this is a country where actors and comedians are not permitted to mock or make fun of communist leaders on TV. There is, in fact, no political satire at all in China. One finds occasional political cartoons lampooning foreign leaders — say, George Bush as a gun-slinging cowboy — but cartoonists are strictly forbidden to represent the Chinese leaders in this way. In America, exaggerated caricatures and joking portrayals of public figures inundate the media landscape, whereas the Chinese public sphere is virtually devoid of such images. Thus I was initially puzzled that the Mao look-alikes were permitted to perform.
Of course, these performances should not be thought of as the equivalent of Dana Carvey imitating George Bush Sr., or impressionist Rich Little imitating Nixon. These impersonations of Mao and other leaders never veer into parody or ridicule. The actors must not exaggerate foibles or mannerisms for humorous effect, nor can they put inappropriate words in the mouths of the leaders that could elicit disrespect. Rather, the attempt is merely to recreate their personas as faithfully and realistically as possible. Such performances are perhaps more similar to Hal Holbrook’s one-man shows where the actor reincarnates Mark Twain, delivering passages from Twain’s prose writings as if he were giving an impromptu talk to the audience. The aim is not parody but miraculous reincarnation.
A 46-year-old Wuhan restaurant owner named Zhu Zhineng has spent a lifetime learning to imitate Chairman Mao. He grew up in Hunan province, in Mao’s home county of Xiangtan, and at a very young age became obsessed with the Chinese leader, diligently studying his calligraphy style. When he was in high school, family and friends began to notice that he bore a strong physical resemblance to the Chinese leader, and by the time he reached adulthood he had become the spitting image of Mao, coincidentally even reaching Mao’s exact height (1.83 meters). At this point Zhu Zhineng began to emulate Mao in earnest, collecting any recordings of Mao’s voice he could get his hands on, in order to perfect the vocal similarity. Offers to perform began to come his way, and he was offered the role of Mao in the TV series “Mao Zedong in Wuhan.” Zhu has kept his regular job, combining his Mao impersonations synergistically with his restaurant business. Who wouldn’t want to hold a birthday banquet at a restaurant where Mao himself might show up to sing “Happy Birthday” to the guest of honor?
Given the unpredictability of the Chinese political landscape, it is probably wise for these great-leader Doppelgangers to keep their day jobs. When Deng Xiaoping died in February of 1997, all the Deng Xiaoping impersonators were suddenly thrown out of work for an extended period of time, since it was not deemed tasteful for the recently-deceased leader to appear hale and hearty on the stage in front of a variety show audience.
In the summer of 1999, Beijing TV mounted a variety show to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the communist takeover of Beijing. The show began with a brief skit with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Zhu De discussing strategy on the eve of the takeover. Backstage I talked with the actors who played Mao, Zhou, and Zhu. This particular Mao Zedong look-alike was not very convincing (with his heavy makeup, he looked more like Mao’s corpse on display at the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square) but the actors playing Zhou Enlai and Zhu De bore an astonishing resemblance to the original personages.
However, I learned that maintaining this striking resemblance does not always come naturally. The Zhu De impersonator told me that since he was now able to make his living exclusively acting this role, he had actually undergone plastic surgery on his lips and cheekbones to make his face more closely resemble Zhu’s.
“Here,” he said to me, placing my hand on his cheek, “You can feel it right here. It’s softened up a bit, but you can still detect it. I’ve also had silicone injections on my chin. Looks pretty good, eh?” I shuddered a bit as I felt around his chin and cheeks, which felt like Silly Putty. I was strongly reminded of Madame Tussaud.
Other impersonators undergo similar plastic surgery, dye their hair, and lose or gain weight in order to retain the appropriate body type. It’s a living.
Since everyone loves to have their picture taken with a famous person, these impersonators spend most of their time posing for photos with audience members and their kids. (I have a dozen photographs of myself standing next to various Mao Zedongs, Zhou Enlais, and Deng Xiaopings.) And indeed, one reason for this phenomenon is simply the sheer fun of seeing an historical icon come to life. But it is surely more than that. In the 90s, taxi drivers hung Mao talismans from their rearview mirrors like St. Christopher medals. Updated versions of revolutionary songs from the 50s and 60s have a sizeable market, sometimes even crooned in the Karaoke bars. Revolutionary theme restaurants offer diners a Spartan proletarian ambiance decorated with banners and slogans from the period. And revivals of revolutionary theater works such as Bai Mao Nu, “The White-Haired Girl” have enjoyed surprising popularity. Clearly there is a growing nostalgic interest in the Zeitgeist of the Mao era, even for the art and artifacts of those dark days of the Cultural Revolution. And at the center of this swirl of reappraisal and retrospection is the Red Sun, Chairman Mao.
Which makes one wonder: Can we compare this state of affairs to the Elvis imitators? After all, the ersatz Elvises are not, strictly speaking, mocking the King. Rather they, like the Mao imitators, are engaged in a kind of complex homage to a revolutionary figure who defined and embodied an entire era. Whether the slogan is “imperialist running dogs” or “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog”, both men seem to evoke powerful resonances of a turbulent past that now seems mythic, larger than life.
Despite the similarities, what is lacking in the Chinese context is the concept of kitsch. I don’t think the Chinese have it. Part of the fun of watching a group of Elvis impersonators is the ironic awareness that Elvis is being subtly condescended to at the same time he is being glorified, and this may represent a distinctively Western esthetic mode. Thanks to Andy Warhol, Westerners already view Mao as kitsch, but the real proof is that the market for schlock Mao artifacts is mostly foreign. More than a decade ago, Chinese manufacturers of tourist souvenirs noticed to their puzzlement that foreigners went gaga over anything with Mao on it, and an industry was born. Go to any Beijing tourist trap — the Badaling section of the Great Wall, the pearl markets, the trinket stores around the hotels and foreign embassies — and you will find piles of faux Cultural Revolution items, among them Mao’s Little Red Book, Mao badges, Mao busts, Mao wristwatches, and Mao cigarette lighters (which play “The East is Red” when you open them). The buyers for these items are almost exclusively foreign; the Chinese don’t seem to appreciate the ironic appeal of such treasures. There are also visual artists who snidely exploit Mao imagery in their works, and these cater almost exclusively to foreign ex-pats, who (for a while at least) found them trendy, post-modern and subversive. The journalist Orville Schell, a formidable China hand, very early on speculated that the Chinese perception of Mao’s Good Samaritan role model, Lei Feng, approached the level of kitsch. I’m not so sure. At any rate, when the Mao impersonators perform, there are smiles but no laughter.
Occasionally events conspire to imbue these great-leader impersonators with great symbolic power. On April 1, 2001, an American spy plane collided with a Chinese jet in Chinese airspace, resulting in the death of the pilot, Wang Wei. The event infuriated the Chinese citizenry and set off a very messy diplomatic crisis. On the evening of the incident, I happened to be attending a Chinese banquet, the entertainment for which included a Deng Xiaoping imitator, a younger, 30-something Deng. We happened to be seated at the same table, so I struck up a conversation with him. Our exchange was amiable enough (I certainly wasn’t siding with the US on this one), but at one point he said “Your spy plane rammed our jet, yet you’re a guest at our banquet?” It felt very queasy to be scolded by Deng Xiaoping himself. I wanted to crawl into a hole.
The time came to begin his act, and his first words had an electric effect. “Comrades! The true nature of imperialism never changes!” The crowd went wild, cheering and applauding. The events of that day had given this stale slogan a vibrating urgency. “The Americans have attacked us again! We will stand up to American hegemony! We will never give up!” More appplause, laughter, a standing ovation. The person sitting next to me nudged me and said “Hey, he’s talking about your country!” I realized that the presence of this pseudo-Deng was bringing out very genuine cathartic feelings in this audience, enabling them to vent their frustration and outrage through a proxy spokesman who had more symbolic power than the current leadership did.
While impersonations of the great leaders in the controlled media must not ridicule or satirize, in private settings offstage, performers are under no such restriction. In the presence of trusted friends or secluded audiences, many actors and performers do sometimes perform hilariously scathing impressions of Mao, Deng, and more current leaders such as Li Peng (who was sort of the Dan Quayle of Chinese leaders). At a private party in Beijing, I once saw a popular Chinese TV actor (whose name I won’t mention) hike up his pants, don a large pair of glasses, and perform a dead-on imitation of Jiang Zemin, giving brutally catty appraisals of various world leaders, cursing like a Beijing taxi driver, and even expressing inappropriate carnal feelings for Kate Winslet in “The Titanic”, boasting that he had a “Titanic” of his own, and he would love to “sink it” with her any time. (You will remember that Jiang had praised the political class consciousness of the movie when it first came out.) This was bawdy, funny stuff, and it made me wonder what Chinese TV might be like if the government censors did not exert such a stranglehold. How many potential Chinese Lenny Bruces, Dick Gregorys or Richard Pryors are out there in China with no forum for expression and no hope of an audience? In this most political of all countries, when will political satire come into being?
This will require another kind of cultural revolution, I think. In the meantime, Mao, bless his heart, lives on in China.
The author is a program consultant and host at China Central Television in Beijing.
Copyright 2004, David Moser
The first image is a screen capture from a Tom.com photo essay about the TV play 'Mao Zedong in Wuhan' which you can find here. The second image shows Mao impersonator Zhu Zhineng; it was taken from an article on the website mzdthought.com which you can find here. Mzdthought: the revolution shall be abbreviated.
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+ 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.