The story appears on

Page C1 - C2

December 30, 2009

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Badges of Honor

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.

In 1966, at the beginning of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), which Guo called "an era of political illusion," they both became Red Guards, Mao's loyal soldiers.

"We believed Chairman Mao was then sent to change the world, and so were we," says Guo.

His workers' family background and rebel spirit helped Guo thrive amid the social turmoil. Soon he became a leader of a Red Guard faction and took over the management of the porcelain factory in March 1968.

With power in hand, Guo was eager to make a breakthrough in his work - he locked his eyes on Mao badges.

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.

Then the Leshan Qinghua Porcelain Factory set up a special "badge platoon" dedicated to making badges, with more than 30 "elites" recruited.

One's political record and family background weighed heavily in the recruitment. Anyone considered "politically incorrect" was likely to be rejected.

After he passed on what he had learned in Hunan, Wen was fired from the team because of unacceptable family background: He had been born into a family doing salt business. Businessmen were regarded as capitalist "poisonous weeds" at that time.

He accepted his rejection. "Mao badges were a holy article and could not be defiled by someone with a bad political background," he recalls.

Rejection, though bitter, had a reward. Wen found the woman he loved, Xie Huirong, as they worked together on another factory team. They eventually married.

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.

To show their love for Mao, all the badge team members performed the "Loyalty Dance" before and after their work every day. It was performed across China daily.

The movements were simple and identical: Dancers held both hands high toward the sky to show faith in Mao, they made bow steps to show determination to follow Mao and they clenched their fists to symbolize their revolutionary fervor. As they danced, they sang songs such as "Long Live Chairman Mao."

"Our work was a serious political task," says Guo. "We didn't say 'make' badges, but 'produce badges with full respect,' and people didn't say 'get a badge' but 'greet a badge.' The wording is all honorifics related to Buddhism."

The zealous workers produced about 40,000 badges in their first batch in September 1968, however, more than 80 percent of them were defective and rejected because of the work place pollution.

"Small particles of sand were mixed into the badge mud and caused the pinhole-sized pores on the surface," says Guo. "I was dumfounded, and some women colleagues even burst into tears, not for fear but for regrets. It was a sin to distort the leader's image."

All the workers, even the canteen chief, were organized into meetings to examine each step of the procedure, followed by a week of meticulous cleaning.

Quality badges were produced in 10 days, featuring portraits of Mao at different ages. The best samples were stuck onto a wooden board in the shape of the Chinese character zhong - loyalty. Guo led a team, carrying the board, to show their work to the Leshan County Government.

"It caused a great sensation as nobody had ever seen a porcelain Mao badge before. People across the county talked about it and were thrilled. The same euphoria only erupted once before, in 1964 when China detonated its first atomic bomb," says Guo.

The county regarded the badges as a sign of Guo's great merit and he was selected as Sichuan Province delegate to watch the celebrations in Beijing for the National Day in October. The Qinghua Porcelain Factory's badges were presented as gifts to Mao and Guo was among delegates to be received by the leader.

Guo clearly remembers the moment he saw Mao in the Great Hall of the People.

"He was much taller than I expected and his hands were very soft," Guo recalls. "I was so nervous that I couldn't stop trembling when shaking hands with him, as if I were sick."

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.

"Even the pickle jars bore slogans like 'With the Helmsman, to sail the seas, with Mao Zedong Thought, to undertake the revolutionary'," says Guo.

However, the badges were not for sale, but mainly for praising "heroes from different fields." A special office under the local government, known as "Mao's office," took charge of the distribution of Mao badges and other items. The factory was allowed to keep a small number to reward outstanding workers.

"There was no corruption. Even if our relatives asked for one, we didn't violate the rules," says Guo.

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.

Now, Guo faced the problem of storage and what to do with defective badges.

"Mao's portrait was on them, so we couldn't either bury or casually discard the badges - that would be a political mistake," says Guo.

After making numerous requests for guidance on disposal, and getting no reply from Mao's office, Guo ordered several workers to put all defective badges in several big bamboo baskets and loaded them on a small boat.

"They secretly poured all the badges into the Dadu River nearby. Only a few factory officials knew it. That was the best solution we could figure out," says Guo.

However, Guo's story didn't end peacefully. The Red Guard rebels began to recede from the center stage of the "cultural revolution" in the 1970s.

Both Guo and Wen were jailed twice between 1968 to 1972 in the struggles among different Red Guard factions. They were getting exhausted by the endless political struggles.

"It's dangerous. You are in heaven now, but maybe in hell next second," says Guo.

Guo decided to end his political ambitions and become an artist in 1974. He was recommended as a student in Chinese painting at the Sichuan Academy of Arts.

"My family couldn't understand (giving up the struggle), but I knew that only those who had skills could survive at any time," he says.

Guo returned to Qinghua Factory after graduation in 1977. He became a painting worker, like Wen.

But Wen wasn't reconciled to a life of an obscure painting worker. The next few years were critical in China: In the late 1970s, Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping began to steer the country toward reform and greater openness, which gave Guo an opportunity to change his life.

"Intellectuals regained respect in the 1980s and talents were needed everywhere. My college diploma changed my life," says Guo.

A college friend invited Guo to hold his first painting exhibition in Luoyang, Henan Province, in 1983. The show was a big success, Guo was in the spotlight again. He was invited to establish the art department of Luoyang University.

Guo became the first chair of the university's arts department in 1986 and his whole family later moved to the city. "I didn't change the world. It changed me," he says.

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.

"There are many sad memories," says Guo. "Thirty years ago, I thought my mission was to make Mao badges, but now I have found it in helping others and being useful to society. That is enough."

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.

He plans to write a book on the modern history of Leshan, which begins with the history of the Qinghua plant and its badges.

"The history needs to be recorded, the past should not be forgotten. I hope people will read my book," he says.

Wen still keeps the bottle of sand and pebbles taken from Mao's birthplace, though its rusty cap can no longer be removed.

In what he calls his "memory box," he keeps several Mao badges that he used to wear and a few paper badge bags.

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."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend