Everyday Ironies: Mao Badges as the Biggest Consumer Fad in History

Colloquium | March 22 | 4-6 p.m. | 180 Doe Library

 Wen-hsin Yeh, History, UC Berkeley

 Karl Gerth, History, UC San Diego

 Center for Chinese Studies (CCS)

Today’s bought, sold, collected, and inspected Mao badges seem to be at odds with their history as icons of loyalty to Mao Zedong during the early Cultural Revolution. It would be easy to imagine the postsocialist market for Mao badges as the perfect symbol of the transition from badges as symbols of socialist idealism and revolutionary commitment, culminating in their universal popularity at the start at the peak of the Mao cult around 1969, to badges as crass materialism and the ubiquitous market culture of today. One might argue that the market transacted Mao badges perfectly symbolizes the failure of Maoism and the central goal of the Destroy the Four Olds (破四旧) campaign: eliminating “feudal” and “capitalist” material remnants and thereby transforming China.

My paper will be the eighth chapter in a book I am finishing about the survival and transformation of consumerism during the socialist era. In this chapter and the book project, I argue that the postsocialist era is not the antithesis of the socialist era. Badges did not descend from sacred objects that symbolized the height of intense anti-consumerism and revolutionary fervor of the Cultural Revolution into the postsocialist era, when nothing was sacred or beyond commoditization, not even the image of Mao, and consequently they were treated as ordinary commodities, with market-determined values. Rather, the current market craze for Mao badge collecting is a resurgence of badge market value. The irony was present all along and, indeed, the markets and consumerism underlying the fad propelled the Mao badge phenomenon.

I interpret the Mao badge phenomenon as the biggest fad in history. Moreover, the biggest fad also represented the greatest irony of the socialist era: China at the height of its anti-capitalist, anti-market nationwide Destroy campaign in the summer of 1966 also produced the most intense outburst of consumerism, “capitalism,” and even the “feudalism” that the campaign was concurrently attacking. The fad led Chinese to steal, buy, trade, hoard, make, and even pin badges directly onto their chests. Examining the social uses of badges reveals a very different side to Chinese society than the one portrayed in studies that begin with the elite politics, purges, and violence of the Cultural Revolution. As with the previous book chapter on the Destroy campaign, which examines the unintended but widespread consequences of Red Guard activities, this chapter seeks to identify the same ironic unintended consequences through the specific case of the Mao badge fad.

 ccs@berkeley.edu, 510-643-6321