“Hello comrades!” Chairman Mao bids a traditional Marxist greeting to his audience. “You have worked so hard!” If it’s strange to see the late Mao address a modern-day audience in exotic Hainan Province, it’s because it is actually impersonator Shang Qingrui, one of hundreds of look-likes making a living from the still-beloved Great Helmsman’s image.
For the 54-year-old Beijinger, imitating former Chinese leaders is a burgeoning business amid the rampant red-culture campaign in China. The resurgence of nostalgic red song singalongs and revolutionary culture mimicry was spearheaded in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing, endorsed by vice-premier Xi Jingping and has hit cinemas with the epic Beginning of the Great Revival, a depiction of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Shang’s troupe, which calls itself The Leader’s Charisma, was formed in 2006. At publicity events for both corporations and local governments, including a knock-off version of Chunwan, the annual Spring Festival gala, they have performed as leaders including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
They have recently returned from a tour of Chongqing, Hainan, and Shanxi, and they say demand for their unique show has never been higher due to the 90th anniversary of the CPC this year. Troupe members are also pursued for product endorsements. Although it is technically illegal to use images of leaders in advertisements, Shang and his like have found a way around that: “It’s not actually the leaders in the endorsements; it’s us. The rest is for viewer to judge.”
Though his physical resemblance to Mao is not particularly striking, all Shang needs to do is wear a grey Mao-suit, apply a distinctive mole and fashion the late Chairman’s signature bob-cum-combover to be warmly greeted by local citizens wherever he and his fellow members visit.
Invited to earthquake-stricken Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province in 2009, Shang was stopped by a 70-year-old grandmother in tears, telling him she lost both her son and daughter-in-law in the disaster. “Don’t be sad, the disaster will be over soon and the government will help you,” Shang – as Mao – told the grieving woman.
Born into a revolutionary family, Shang has worked as a Chinese teacher, reporter, civil servant and businessman. For his current occupation, he has much to thank, surprisingly, for the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when his schooling was reduced to simply learning quotations from the famous Little Red Book.
“Mao’s teachings were imprinted in my heart, that’s why I can mimic him with ease,” he said.
Despite a heavy Beijing accent, Shang has learnt to speak in the Hunan dialect Mao almost always used. He varies his act to fit the circumstances and sometimes has to play it off the cuff.
The trick, he says, is to integrate whatever publicity purpose he’s been hired for into Mao’s own words and he is not afraid to reject any inferior copy pressed on him by his clients.
He describes lines once given to him by Sany Group, a construction machinery company in Hunan Province, as “tasteless,” so he adopted instead Maoist rhetoric involving the fight against capitalism by building national brands. The result, irony aside, was well received, he says.
“Actors need to be equipped with a lofty mind,” Shang says. “And height,” he adds.
Certainly, this impersonator has an elevated opinion of his own status as more than a mere imitator.
In 2008, over 100 people were auditioned to play Mao Zedong by Hunan Television (the network responsible for Super Girls). Shang disapproved, and criticizes such activity as “entertainment or practical jokes” that tarnishes the images of the great leaders.
“We are actors, not leaders, but we are responsible to show their greatness and excellence, and avoid their mistakes and faults,” he said, adding that the leaders would also turn down such events if they were alive.
Certainly, the State approves of his work: He has received the award of “Red Image Ambassador” from the China Red Culture Academy, which is proudly displayed in his home.
The resurgence of red culture is an inevitable tendency of history, according to Shang, as the older generation of revolutionaries fought and paved the road for China’s prosperity.
“It was not easy. Many sacrificed their lives to build a people’s republic,” he observed. He has some startling claims to make as well: “[In China] people are masters, which is totally different from so-called human rights from America, which only protect those with property. We protect the benefits of the majority of people.”
Perhaps that message isn’t getting through to everyone, though. Shang’s troupe, he says, aims to educate the young, because they have lost the “glorious traditions and embrace a rotten lifestyle.”