ICM Midterm: Portrait of Mao

UPDATE 22 Feb 2009:
I have written a new concise description of the Portrait of Mao:

The Portrait of Mao is a 42 inch by 42 inch color print on archival paper. The image was generated by a Processing sketch I wrote, which reads pixel color data from an image file and replaces each pixel with a text character with the same color as the original pixel. In the case of the Portrait of Mao, the source image was obtained from a Cultural Revolution-era LP cover of revolutionary songs featuring Chinese leader Mao Zedong and a bright, motley array of proletarian workers, representing different ethnic groups in China. My Processing sketch used this source image and replaced the pixels with the Chinese-language text of The Little Red Book AKA Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, a required text for every Chinese citizen during the Cultural Revolution.

In creating the Portrait, I wished to explore how text and images play a role in political propaganda and how they serve to construct a cult of personality around a paternal and pop-cultural icon. We know that words and images have persuasive and seductive powers, but how, and why? In reappropriating the propagandistic images and text and by depicting the controversial leader in an irreverently kitsch, Pop-Art way (Andy Warhol’s Mao paintings are an obvious point of reference), I sought to deconstruct the aura surrounding such a well-known figure who is still revered by millions in China.

The fusing of words and images also plays on the pictographic and ideographic nature of the graphemes used in the Chinese language. Chinese characters are simultaneously words, images, and symbols. In the Portrait of Mao they become both semantic and graphic building blocks of a text, an image, and an ideology.

Original blog post from 29 Oct 2008:

I presented my ICM midterm project yesterday.  I wanted to explore how text and images play a role in political propaganda and how they serve to construct a cult of personality.

The image above is just a scaled-down version, the real version is a 42 inch x 42 inch poster.  The poster consists of a text mosaic derived from a scan of a Cultural Revolution era LP cover of propaganda songs.  My Processing program reads the color information in the pixels of the source JPG and replaces it with characters from the Chinese version of The Little Red Book.

Here is a close up of the text mosaic, taken from the Technicolor Dream Coat guy on the bottom right.

I hope to one day present the poster in an over-the-top kitsch setting.  I want to frame it with red Christmas lights and build a “shrine” to the Chairman, with flowers and Tsing Dao beer bottles.  I also have another poster in the works featuring the Dear Leader composed out of the Korean-language text of his On the Juche Idea.  Ultimately, I want to create a triptych, but I haven’t decided on a third subject yet.  Uncle Ho?  Or maybe Grandpa Marx?

Here is a snapshot of me presenting the piece to my class.  Photo credit: Catherine White.

The Global Handshake

I just got an email from Paul Hilder of Avaaz.org about a Global Handshake for the China Olympics:

As the Beijing Olympics begin, the world looks on with mixed emotions. It’s a moment which should bring us closer together, and Chinese citizens deserve their excitement — but the Chinese government still hasn’t opened meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama, or changed its stance on Burma, Darfur and other pressing issues.

Even worse, extremists in China are promoting the view that Olympic activism like ours is anti-Chinese. We can’t stay silent, but we also can’t let our efforts be abused to divide people. So what can we do? The answer comes from the Dalai Lama himself, in an unambiguous gesture of Olympic spirit and friendship: a handshake.

It began in London, passed hand to hand by thousands of us — now the handshake has gone online, and is criss-crossing the globe on its way to Beijing. All of us can join, Chinese and non-Chinese, and it comes with a promise: to hold ALL our governments accountable where they fall short, in Tibet, Iraq, Burma or beyond. We’ll deliver our message in a bold media campaign in Hong Kong and around the world: Click below to see how the Olympic handshake started, sign up to join in, and watch it circle the globe —


The handshake idea is nice (with all of the banality of that word fully intended), but let’s not forget to extend the dialogue to the Uighurs or with Taiwan.  Ok, I concede, the “round-the-world” map animation showing virtual handshakes is pretty rad, but I digress.

There’s not a lot of hope for the kind of openness that allows for fruitful dialogue on the Chinese side when they beat up and harass foreign journalists trying to cover the attack in Kashgar.  Then there is the systematic internet censorship.  The guarantee of press freedoms for foreign journalists was part of the contract that the Chinese government agreed to in order to host the Games.  The Chinese government isn’t living up to their side of the bargain.

And those missiles aimed at Taiwan aren’t too friendly or conducive to dialogue either, are they?  Or how about that attempted Chinese weapon shipment to Zimbabwe?  Not very peaceful either.

And then there are those Beijingers who were forcefully and unlawfully evicted from their homes without proper compensation to make way for the Olympics.  And the peaceful Chinese civil society activists (and regular residents of Beijing) who are living under lockdown as a result of the games.  Their grievances can hardly be considered anti-Chinese; since they ARE Chinese.  Same goes for the repression of Falun Gong practitioners and other religious groups.

Ok, so I’ve given a handshake for peace, but what is the Chinese government going to give its own citizens and the international community in return?  Do Chinese leaders and hardline nationalists even want a handshake?  Or do they want the world to kowtow in reverence and awe at the “new” China’s coming-out party?  As much as we all wished that the Olympics were about sports and international goodwill, the truth is, they are also about state-sponsored political propaganda (and uncomfortable displays of nationalism if you ask me) as well as corporate bottom lines.

Save the Olympics?

I got this in my inbox this morning from Avaaz.org (My comments are in RED BOLD).

For those of you new to the blog or who do not know me personally, I worked at Avaaz for 1 year during its initial start-up phase. I’m now at Human Rights Watch, working with their China team on their China Olympics campaign, among other things. My commentary is solely my own as a concerned and engaged citizen blogger and activist and does not reflect the opinion of Human Rights Watch. I am doing this for the sake of open debate and dialogue about China, the Olympics and human rights.

Dear Friends,

The Beijing Olympics are a crucial chance to persuade China’s leaders to support dialogue and human rights in Tibet, as well as Burma and Darfur, and we need to seize it.

Dialogue alone is not enough, Tibetans, Burmese, Darfurians, Chinese and everybody else need concrete actions that result in better human rights. It’s also time to China to work on human rights in China as well. Learn more about the human rights issues surrounding the Olympics on Human Rights Watch’s China Olympics page.

Also, don’t forget the issue of Taiwan and the rise of rampant nationalism in China. I hope a Taiwanese athlete wins a medal. As in previous Olympic games, China has pressured the international community into forcing Taiwanese athletes to compete under the name “Chinese Taipei.” The Taiwanese (Republic of China) flag and national anthem are banned at the Olympics. When an athlete wins a medal, s/he gets to stand with the other medalists while their national flags are displayed and national anthems are played, but if and when a Taiwanese athlete wins a medal, s/he will stand without the Taiwanese flag and in silence. I’m not one for flag waving and national(ist) anthems, but I have to admit, the silent symbolism will sure be poignant.

China wants the Olympics to be a coming out party for a newly modern, powerful, and respectable nation. But the Olympics are about humanity and excellence–we can’t celebrate them in good conscience while ignoring the suffering of Tibetans and others. The Olympics are also about perpetuating nationalist propaganda and corporate sponsors making millions of dollars (or Euros or Yuan since the US dollar is becoming increasingly worthless).

So Avaaz is launching a major new campaign: SAVE THE OLYMPICS. We’ll ask China to save the Olympics for all of us (and more importantly for the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda team and for the shareholders of the corporate sponsors), by making specific, reasonable progress in dialogue with the Dalai Lama, securing release of Burmese and Tibetan political prisoners, and supporting peacekeeping in Darfur.

Ok, so even if the Chinese government does talk to the Dalai Lama, what will they say, what are the asks? Talking for the sake of talking is a start, but there has to be an agenda and a concrete roadmap for improving the human rights of Tibetans.

Our appeal will be placed on billboards and ads in major Olympic cities, in Chinese overseas publications, and we’ll hire a Chinese language team to engage directly on China’s lively blogs and in chatrooms. Sounds like a great idea, I hope they can pull this one off, especially the billboards and ads. Do the major Olympic cities in Beijing? Probably not, since I don’t think the Chinese government would allow that to happen. That’s pretty indicative of the lack of freedom of speech in China, isn’t it? We need 10,000 donations from people from 100 countries to kickstart the campaign this week with a truly global sponsorship–click below to see the ads and donate whatever you can, however small:


Within China, where the Olympics were once seen as a victory for greater openness and internationalism, the internal debate has taken a bitter turn. Most Chinese are now growing angry over Olympic activism, seeing it as biased and “anti-Chinese.” Most Chinese also live on a highly controlled media diet, which along with a fiercely nationalistic education system, indoctrinates them to think that attacks against the Chinese Communist Party and government (which are one and the same) are attacks against “China” or the Chinese people.

If the games are a fiasco, China’s repressive hardliners will win the day–and we could see the worst crackdown yet.

We need to stop this, and fast. So our campaign aims to reach out to China and Chinese people to show that we’re not anti-China but pro-humanitarian, and that our desire is to save the 2008 Olympics, not ruin them. Click below to donate now: China, Chinese People, and the Chinese Communist Party are three very different things. One can be pro-human rights, anti-Chinese Communist Party, but still be pro-Chinese people.


The Slogan of the 2008 Olympics is “One World, One Dream”. Let’s reach across barriers of perception and division, and ask the Chinese to make this dream come true for us this summer.

Does the implied “we” in “let’s reach across barriers of perception and division” include the Chinese government and state-controlled press? The Chinese government can help “reach across barriers of perception and division” by going easy on the jingoist national propaganda, letting journalists report unhindered in China, and by bringing down the “Great Firewall of China,” which prevents netizens in China from accessing fair and balanced news and other information about their own country and the world.

With hope,

Ricken, Ben, Graziela, Galit, Pascal, Iain, Milena, Sabrina and the whole Avaaz Team.

PS – If you are new to Avaaz, we are a new global campaigning organization launched in January 2007 that has rapidly grown to over 3 million members in every nation on earth. The Economist magazine has written of the power of Avaaz to “Give world leaders a deafening wake up call”, and we have been featured on the BBC talkshow HARDtalk. David Miliband, the UK foreign secretary, calls Avaaz “the best of the new in foreign policy”. You can see the results of our last campaign fundraiser, on Burma here, and the results of our last campaign on climate change here, as well as other campaign results here. Avaaz Foundation is a legally registered non-profit organization.

Avaaz.org is an independent, not-for-profit global campaigning organization that works to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people inform global decision-making. (Avaaz means “voice” in many languages.) Avaaz receives no money from governments or corporations, and is staffed by a global team based in London, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Paris, Washington DC, and Geneva.

Don’t forget to check out our Facebook and Myspace pages!

Boycotting the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

The following letter ended up in my inbox today from Huang Jinming of the Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party of China. Their website is under construction and there wasn’t much I could find out about them online. However, their letter lays out some principled, well-reasoned arguments, so I thought it was worth sharing.

For continued coverage and commentary on China, the Olympics and Human Rights, check out Human Rights Watch’s China Olympics website.

Continue reading Boycotting the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony

Commentary on the Olympic Torch Protests

Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director Sophie Richardson on The Newshour.

Human Rights Watch Media Director Minky Worden on Democracy Now!

The Olympic Torch Relay dates back to the Nazi Olympics in 1936.

Minky Worden:

There is a wonderful new academic book called Nazi Games, which gives a concise history of this. The torch relay itself is essentially a PR invention of the Nazi era, and the point of it was to run the torch through parts of Europe that Nazi Germany hoped to take over, including the Sudetenland. So I think if the corporate sponsors of the torch relay really knew the history of this, I can’t imagine that they would want to be associated with it. And the sponsors are Coca Cola, Lenovo, and Samsung…There certainly will be a price to pay in terms of corporate reputation if the torch relay inside China turns into a major human rights debacle.

Minky’s upcoming book: China’s Great Leap: The Beijing Games and Olympian Human Rights Challenges.

My view: The Olympics are essentially about political propaganda and making money. The role of activists and people who are simply engaged and concerned with the issues, both in China and people standing in solidarity with the people living in/under the PRC, is to exploit the inherent weaknesses and flaws of authoritarian propaganda (and it’s private sector corollaries, corporate branding and marketing) and to communicate an alternative message of respect for rule of law, human rights, and basic universal freedoms. We need to brand-jack and culture jam the marketing/propaganda of the Olympics to refocus attention on real issues of human rights and freedoms.