A Foreigner's Observations on Mao Badges

 A Foreigner's Observations on Mao Badges

Judy Manton a member of the US-China People's Friendship Association visited China at the peak of the personality cult of Chairman Mao. Her personal observations on the development and use of Mao badges in the early 1970s give a keen insight into life in those turbulent times in China. The original article is reprinted from SACU's China Now magazine (June 1988, Page 8).

Badges had made their appearance in China, however, long before the Cultural Revolution. In Yanan even before Liberation, some people wore celluloid photos of Mao on badges. In 1950 a small badge bearing a '5' and a '1' representing May 1st was made in Beijing in commemoration of International Labour Day. The army wore 5-point red stars in their hats and Mao's portrait in gold on red stars over 'Serve the people' bars on their chests. The People's Militia then began to show their loyalty to Mao by wearing badges. Other badges worn in China were school name badges, those worn by the participants in the Children's Palace in Shanghai, and little pins of various shapes which were souvenirs of famous places visited. The wearing of any kind of personal adornment in China was not popular as people were told that it was not necessary to make themselves attractive, that it was not good for the revolution. There were a few Zhou Enlai badges, but they were seen no more after Zhou said that only Mao badges should be worn. After Zhou's death, however, commemorative badges were made.

Little red badges
The first badges worn during the Cultural Revolution appeared in Beijing and were quite small. These dime-sized red badges were dubbed xiao hong dou (small red beans). Bar-shaped badges bearing the characters 'Serve the people', made of cloth or plastic also became available.

The badges were carried from Beijing by enthusiastic Red Guards to other parts of China where they were greatly cherished. Then factories and institutions around the country began to make their own out of materials they worked with aluminium, plastic, porcelain, or bamboo. The porcelains were very pretty and as they were heavy they had to be secured especially well on the inside. People were afraid to wear porcelain ones: if they fell and broke, Mao's name would be desecrated.

People who worked in factories where badges were made often gave or sold them to relatives. That was permitted as it was all for the glory of Mao. Badges were not usually sold in stores, but could be purchased from people on the street. People sent special badges to their relatives in different parts of China.

Some badges were distributed as gifts by various work units to their members. Others in the shape of little books were given out at special meetings which were called for the study of Mao Zedong Thought.

As badges made by factories run by the People's Liberation Army were usually larger and of better quality, people were anxious to obtain those. The public was asked to donate badges to remote areas so that more people could have them. Fluorescent plastic badges appeared for a time and were sought after because they glowed like the sun (the symbol of Mao).

Once determined dangerous, however, they were no longer produced. A popular photo of young Mao in an army hat taken by Edgar Snow appeared on some bamboo and porcelain badges which were made towards the end of the Cultural Revolution after the metal ones had been prohibited as a wasteful use of metal. The government collected many to melt down as Mao had said that it was more important to use metal for planes than for badges. Some people were glad to give them to the collectors as they didn't know what to do with them and would be criticized if they threw them away. Others, however, who'd worked so hard to collect them and who didn't want to lose their swap value preferred to keep theirs.

Collecting badges became a hobby, replacing stamp collecting which had been forbidden. Publicity was given to a young girl who said that when she had 500, she would present them to Chairman Mao. One man in Beijing made 75 different ones in cloisonné which he presented to Mao on his birthday. An American reporter in Inner Mongolia in 1973 reported having seen a display of 2,000 badges.

Badges even reached some peasants, given them in appreciation for housing transient Red Guards. Some of the Educated Youth who were sent to the countryside to live like peasants were so delighted with the large, attractive badges from the city that they framed them and hung them on their walls.

A badge for all reasons
Badges were issued for many reasons, such as to commemorate an event. One badge bore the picture of Yu Hua Tai, the Revolutionary Martyrs' Garden in Nanjing where the Guomindang had executed many revolutionaries. Another showed Zun Yi, where in 1935 during the Long March, Mao had been chosen Chairman of the Communist Party. Others were issued in memory of places Mao had visited or where he'd delivered a significant speech. Several badges depicted An Yuan, a coal mine at which Mao had organized a strike in the 1920s.

Badges were not only red and round ('The red sun in our hearts'), but also in the shape of banners, flags, hearts, books, red stars, bars, flaming torches, and Mao's profile. Popular symbols were the sunflower which represented Mao, the evergreen tree which is the Chinese symbol of longevity, and the mangoes which had been given to Mao by General Ne Win of Burma.