Students and the Mao Suit

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During the Cultural Revolution in China, personal identity disintegrated as a new group identity and subsequent group mentality were formed. Under Chairman Mao, millions of people, men and women, young and old, rural dwellers and urbanites, were all forced into the same mold, projecting a sense of unity but also resulting in a loss of individuality. From the image presented above, we can deduce that Mao especially targeted the youth with propaganda and attempted to suppress all individuality through wardrobe, education, and limited choice.

Continuation: The most obvious denotation upon first glance at this photograph is the seemingly endless number of students in uniform in an organized formation. Though this photo cuts the group off at five columns and four rows of students, it projects a sense of mesmerizing repetition. Because the multiple subjects of this picture take up both the foreground and background, and because there is no highlight placed on one specific subject as separate from the others, the photograph gives the viewer an overwhelming sense of continuation, and makes us believe that the students expand past this photograph’s edges into all corners of China and also into our reality, much like Mao’s rule during that time period.

Repetition and similarity: This constructed sense of repetitive identity dehumanizes the students into robots and clones. For instance, all the subjects of this photo have the same outfit, accessories, hairdo, and are also of the same demographic: Chinese pre-teen female students. All students are also holding the same exact book, Mao’s red handbook, most likely reciting/reading the same paragraph in tandem, and have the same physical posture and facial expression. This almost perfect unity leads the viewer to perceive a void of emotion, personality, and personal agency. Though the students are loyally honoring their country’s leader, their praise and devout following does not stem from a genuine place and instead seems forced. Furthermore, none of the students even acknowledge the camera, either intentionally or unintentionally avoiding all eye-contact. This additional lack of human connection perpetuates their clone-like selves. The girls presented in this picture were most likely swept up into the Cultural Revolution without the choice to accept or deny participation. Mao has chosen them as the face of the Cultural Revolution, substituting their own unique voices with his own and dictating how they will learn and live.

Gender: Another aspect of this photograph to consider is the gender of all the subjects. If we assume that the photographer intentionally chose to capture this moment with only females, what was his purpose? One answer could be to elevate the social status of women. By capturing females actively participating in this social and political movement, it incites a sense that Mao’s revolution was all-inclusive. By emphasizing female participation, we can conclude that the photographer wanted to communicate the importance of women and their involvement in the 1960s and 70s.

Small distinctions: Upon closer examination, though each student seems indistinguishable from the others, there are slight differences in the shade of the Mao jacket and collar that each student wears. Some jackets seem brown while others are olive green, and also some white collars are rounded and shown, while others are pointed and fitted underneath the outer jacket collar. Thus we can conclude that although Mao’s goal was to create national unity through the suppression and extinguishment of the individual, it would be impossible to fully and completely repress personal distinctions. While this photograph correctly captures the widespread jurisdiction of Mao and demonstrates his attempt at nation-wide uniformity, it also represents the underlying flaws and failures of his propaganda and forced sameness which is simmering beneath the Mao suit.

nice organization and detailed explanation