Wednesday, May 23, 2007

the mao suit

This is slightly embarrassing to admit but when I went to Beijing a couple of years ago, I was expecting to see everybody in Mao suits, the traditional communist outfit (O.K., you can laugh at me now). It wasn't utter ignorance (at least that's what I like to think). I had read all about the economic boom there, and had seen many TV reports as well, but despite all this I still had the image of the old communist country in my mind. Tell about the power of a symbol. Or was it because Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor"? Well, maybe both. Either way, all I can say is 'boy, was I wrong!'. Modern skyscrapers, malls, fashionable people everywhere, and most of all the stark contrast of BMWs and Mercs side by side with thousands of bike riders, that's what struck me the most. Not a single person wearing a Mao suit though.
According to this great article about the symbolism of old Chinese communist outfits, "...popular mythology assigned a revolutionary and patriotic significance to the Sun Yat-sen (the suit's designer) suit, even though it was essentially a foreign-style garment. The four pockets were said to represent the Four Cardinal Principles cited in the classic Book of changes and understood by the Chinese as fundamental principles of conduct: propriety, justice, honesty, and a sense of shame. The five centre-front buttons were said to represent the five powers of the constitution of the Republic and the three cuff-buttons to symbolise the Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood".
Like Che t-shirts and Adidas CCCP Originals however, the Mao suit is no longer a symbol of the communist revolution, it has become a design icon, as demonstrated by the work of Chinese artist Sui Jianguo. See below this series of bright colored Mao suits.More of this artist's work here.
(via "I see what you mean". By the way, doesn't it sound like a cousin of "Just Trying to Understand"? Funny.)