Mao the Master Calligrapher
A n exceptional highlight will be offered in the upcoming Important Manuscripts, Continental Books and Music auction at Sotheby’s in London on 11 June: an autograph letter signed by Mao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China, entirely in his fine calligraphic script, and written towards the end of the Civil War that brought him to power. There is no prior record of a sale of an autograph letter by Mao on the international market.
Considered to be one of the most influential, important and controversial figures of the 20th century, if not modern history, Chairman Mao was also a master calligrapher. This remarkable skill is present in this letter sent to a trusted friend at the end of the Chinese Civil War.
In the late 1940s, war raged between the Nationalist Guomindang and Mao’s smaller Red Army armed, according to Mao, with only “millet plus rifles”, but with devastating expertise in guerrilla warfare. The Communists enjoyed much greater support from local peasants and farmers in part because they deemed Mao one of their own – perhaps a precursor to his future Cult of Personality.
This letter was written to Yang Yi, a trusted party member and journalist who would become a key member of the future PRC, the Xinhua News Agency and a contemporary of Mao’s own son Mao Anying. It was either written in August 1948, when Mao was conducting the war in Manchuria and northern China from his base in Shanxi Province, or in August of the following year, in which case it was sent from the Fragrant Hills just outside Beijing as he waited for the ideal moment to enter the city and cement his position as leader of the People’s Republic of China. Either date represents a turning point in the history of China, with Mao’s bravado and pride shining through in the characters.
The letter itself, is written on plain paper and uses a recycled map as an envelope—the furnishings of power were yet to emerge. Mao’s expert characters flow left to right, utilising a newly-fashionable method, rather than the traditional top to bottom to give emphasis to new techniques, and with a lighter, freer brush stroke juxtaposing small and large characters. This sense of freedom could be seen as evidence of the impending victory over his enemies in the war. During his lifetime, Mao’s bold calligraphy was considered a new form, coined Maoti or ‘Mao-style’ and since his death has gained considerable popularity throughout calligraphy circles in China.
Mao’s fusion of an ancient art form with modern ideas is in keeping with his renowned use of traditional storytelling when discussing contemporary political ideas, and even the paradoxical nature of his empowered lifestyle as leader, and the puritanical life expected of a simple party member. Mao was full of these contradictions—the old with the new, feudalism and revolution, tradition and the push for modernity—in so much that he becomes an enigmatic, faraway ideal of a ruler and comes to emulate those hidden Emperors of antiquity.
This letter represents a mere moment in the life of a charismatic leader, but as an item of China’s cultural history, his beautifully-crafted characters take on an almost-mythical quality. The reason this document is so important stems from the knowledge that it was written only months before he took power, after which the guerrilla leader Mao Zedong became Chairman Mao—unchallenged, obscure, and all-powerful.