Zhang Bingjian's documentary Readymade (2008) focuses on the lives of two Mao Zedong impersonators in the People's Republic of China: Mr. Peng Tian, a forty-six-year-old farmer from Hunan Province enrolled in the performance art program of Beijing Film Academy with the financial support of his wife and family; and Chen Yan, a fifty-one-year-old “housewife” from Sichuan Province who is the only female Mao impersonator in China. Zhang's coverage of her life both onstage and off parallels a television interview with her that reveals the personal struggle she has with her husband and daughter who do not approve of her impersonating Mao and refuse to support her. Zhang's documentary raises several important questions about the continuing “cult of personality” of Mao Zedong as a cultural icon, and the mixed feelings he stirs up in different generations of common people when they are faced with him “alive” again through his impersonators. The film also provokes questions about whether impersonation and cross-dressing is ironic/sincere, parodic/respectful, or willed/unconscious. Zhang intends his documentary to act as a “witness of history,” specifically, the historical shifts between Mao's era and the reforms after it, especially the recent emergence of “red business” commodifying Mao's image and contributing to the younger generation's amnesia or disinterest in Mao's political history (beyond patriotic kitsch). While Chen and Peng are reverent toward Mao and truly believe it is their life's purpose or the people's desire for them to impersonate Mao, Zhang is interested in the irony embedded in the fact that their impersonation actually contributes to Mao's transformation into a commodity, entertainment. Zhang highlights the ways the Mao mythos is inadvertently undermined—or overlaid—by their “amateur” performance and the complexity of their personal histories and private lives that they bring into it. Performance studies, queer theory, and theories of postmodernity as a crisis of historical sense illuminate some of these apparent contradictions, but the specifics of China's history and state-controlled versus independent media also complicate universalizing theoretical claims. Zhang's film offers a unique illustration of recent developments by tracing the ways “Mao” has changed in meanings and affective responses since marketization.
Research Article|November 01 2016
Readymade Mao: Impersonation and Affective Relations
positions (2016) 24 (4): 789-812.
Nicholas de Villiers, Yongan Wu; Readymade Mao: Impersonation and Affective Relations. positions 1 November 2016; 24 (4): 789–812. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-3666039
Download citation file: