September 25, 2019 / 11:04 PM / a month ago

Busts of leaders a hit in China's porcelain capital ahead of key anniversary

(This September 25 story corrects title of David Bandurski in paragraph 12 to co-director (not co-founder))

Busts portraying late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong are dried under the sun outside a studio in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China, June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Jason Lee and Huizhong Wu

JINGDEZHEN, China (Reuters) - Chinese ceramic artist Feng Chengren works alongside the country’s top leaders in his shop in eastern China. Their smooth faces, lightly tanned by the soil of nearby riverbanks, smile benignly at lines of customers.

Feng’s workshop is one of the few in Jingdezhen - China’s porcelain capital - that does not specialise in the signature blue-and-white patterned pieces that the city is known for.

Instead, Feng creates leaders.

“I make statues of whoever is in power. I’ve done Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin,” he said.  

Business has been brisk this year as China prepares to celebrate in October the 70th anniversary of its founding as the People’s Republic of China.

Outside Feng’s studio, there are few busts of President Xi Jinping - China’s most powerful leader in decades.

(Click reut.rs/2mYqVkS to see a picture package of the busts of Chinese leaders)

Xi has removed term limits on the presidency, taken command of the military, and added his ideology to the charter of the Communist Party.

Xi features more prominently in headlines in the official People’s Daily newspaper than other top members of the political elite compared with past leaders like Jiang Zemin, said Xiao Qiang, the founder of China Digital Times, a U.S.-based news site covering China.

“By and large he has an image that no one else can match in Chinese official media,” Xiao said.

Still, the government has actively sought to ban adoring songs and the use of “Uncle Xi” in state media. A Jingdezhen shopowner surnamed Jiang who sells commemorative plates featuring Xi says they cannot be found on Taobao.com, China’s biggest e-commerce platform.

The party has to tread a fine line in promoting its top leader “without encouraging the perception of cultishness or allowing excessive commodification of his image,” said David Bandurski, a co-director of the China Media Project, a research, fellowship and exchange program focusing on Chinese media at Hong Kong University.

Chinese leaders banned a cult of personality in the Party’s Constitution after the death of Mao Zedong, who founded the People’s Republic of China. Mao’s power was such that he cultivated a youth army whose violence plunged China into a decade-long turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution.

Veneration for the party and its ideals are, however, fully endorsed.

One officially sanctioned way of showing patriotism is visiting sites of historical importance in the Party’s Long March in the 1930’s.

China’s “red tourism” industry has grown rapidly since the government started funding the venture in 2005.

People flock from across the country to the city of Yanan, Shaanxi province, mythologized in party history as the birthplace of the revolution, where tourists dress up in historical costumes and watch battle reenactments.

The city saw 50.59 million tourists in 2017, an increase of 26 percent from the year before, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.

Slideshow (26 Images)

Even off the red tourism trail, Xi’s images still find their way into the homes and offices.

Most of Feng’s customers order Xi busts as “high-quality gifts,” he said, often their bosses, many of whom are Party members.

Smaller 50-cm tall busts of Xi sell for 260 yuan ($37.86). A 1.5-metre statue can go for 1,600 yuan.

Reporting by Jason Lee and Huizhong Wu; Editing by Gerry Doyle

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