Mao Badges: An Unforgettable Period of Chinese History

Mao Badges: An Unforgettable Period of Chinese History

Once Mao badges were amulets, produced in a ritual and revered and conferred on heroes. The story of the first porcelain badges and the tortuous tale of the men who made them is told by Yi Ling.

In the antiques store run by Luo Zhuqing, porcelain badges bearing the portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong are sold at around 40 yuan (US$5.86) apiece.

"The most expensive ones are worth more than 10,000 yuan," says the 59-year-old collector in Leshan, southwest China's Sichuan Province, who has 30 years in the business.

But for the former Mao badge makers Guo Zhiquan and Wen Jiyan, they are priceless. They worked in the state-run porcelain factory that produced China's first porcelain Mao badges.

Guo and Wen, both 67 and from Leshan, noted for the world's tallest stone Buddha, have known each other since they became workers in the state-run Leshan Qinghua Porcelain Factory in 1962.

Guo was assigned to make porcelain blanks, while Wen became a painting worker. The two young men, both lovers of art and literature, soon became good friends, but it was the national icon Chairman Mao who brought them closer.

It became a fashion to wear and collect Mao badges after Mao met the Red Guards for the first time in Beijing in August 1966. The badges, with Mao's portrait and his quotations, were carried from Beijing by enthusiastic Red Guards to other parts of China.

"First came the metal badges and then those made of plastic, or bamboo. Porcelain badges are regarded as the best because of their delicacy," says Guo. "I thought that's our opportunity."

Guo wanted to produce great badges, but he knew the limits of his factory, which mainly produced daily utensils. So he turned to the Jianxiang Porcelain Factory in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, Mao's home province. The factory became one of the country's first Mao badge manufacturers.

In July 1968, Guo led a team, including Wen, to Jianxiang and 20 days later they returned with knowledge of badge-making crafts and some samples.

Guo and Wen, dedicated disciples, naturally visited Mao's birthplace in Shaoshan County. The two pilgrims took a picture in front of Mao's home. Wen even brought back a bottle of earth and small pebbles he scooped up from the courtyard.

It took more than 20 procedures to turn a piece of stone into a badge - including crushing, grinding, mud-washing, molding, polishing, transferring the decal Mao image, and firing.

A perfect badge should be "as thin as paper, white as jade, bright as a mirror, and sending out a musical sound when flicked" - a standard for a certain porcelain articles used by royal families in ancient China.

The demands for the Qinghua badges soared after the Beijing trip and the number of workers increased from 300 to more than 500 as the factory expanded. In 1969 the factory turned out more than 30 varieties of Mao badges. Mao's images and quotations appeared on its other products.

However, the factory's prosperity came to the end in June 1969 with an order from the central government to stop producing Mao badges to avoid wasting materials, especially metal.

Qinghua altogether produced more than 100,000 badges before the order. And nationally, the number hit over 8 billion.

To pursue his art dream, Guo moved to Beijing to become a professional painter after he retired from the university in 1999. His landscapes were selected as official gifts from the Chinese Foreign Minister to visiting dignitaries.

In 2004, Guo returned to Leshan, which he describes as "falling leaves returning to their roots." His home is in one of the city's most expensive areas.

Guo is satisfied with his life now - painting, practicing calligraphy and writing art criticism - but he is reluctant to talk about the past. He has abandoned almost everything that can remind him of his youthful experience.

Unlike Guo, Wen didn't leave the Qinghua Porcelain Factory, except a three-year training in Chinese language at a local college in the 1980s. He retired from the factory as a general affairs manager in 2002 and then became a freelancer.
The Mao badge has been popular again in China since the 1990s, not as amulets, but collectibles. It's estimated that 200-300 million badges have survived and there are an estimated 2 million badge collectors on the Chinese mainland. Across China, badge study associations and related Websites are popular.

"People today are more practical," says Wen. "The badges represent belief for us, but money for others."

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