After his collection of over 200 Chairman Mao souvenir buttons was stolen a few weeks prior, on February 25th, 2012, 71 year-old Li Decai used a red belt to hang himself from a beam two meters high in a shed in his bean and carrot field.1
Li Decai became a local celebrity in the county-town of Yanggao, Shanxi Province for his penchant to loiter in crowded public spaces and quote indignantly from Mao’s Little Red Book, censuring townspeople for straying from communist values. As a daily ritual, he would also stand outside the local county government buildings and harangue officials for what he perceived of as gross corruption and neglect of their duty to care for the people. His excited voice would ring out across the government courtyard: “There are only backwards leaders, never backwards masses.” He would promptly intervene if he witnessed a street fight, admonishing the pugilists to engage in “a cultural struggle, and not a martial one.” In one case, such unsolicited advice that “moderate drinking leads to a healthy life” offered to a teenager drinking alcohol outside of the local supermarket resulted in the teenager picking up an iron panel and beating Li Decai unconscious.
A retired PLA soldier, he continued to wear his ink green uniform, adorned with glittering Mao lapel buttons, he would proudly polish each night. His Model 28 Red Flag bicycle-powered push cart was no less a vehicle of nostalgia, draped with three cardboard placards painted with Mao quotations, and a portrait of Mao hanging from the handlebars.
Despite the accoutrements of Maoist fashion, Li Decai’s fidelity should not be reduced to the facile belief that he was only a worshiper of the “cult of Mao.”2 Against this easy temptation to confuse commitment with fetishistic blindness, researching his family background reveals a wealth of explanatory value. Li Decai’s father temporarily served as a messenger for a government office in feudal China before returning to be a farmer; his mother was a traditional foot-bound Chinese house-wife. Given the conditions of semi-barren land and a family of eight mouths to feed, the Li family was one of village’s poorest. According to local historical sources, the entire family slept together in one bed, sharing only one cotton quilt for cover, as the wind mercilessly blew threw their home’s cracked window. During the 1950 land reform movement, a nine-year-old Li Decai witnessed his father and other locals burn their old land contracts and draw up new ones promising spacious land and better homes. During collectivization of People’s Communes in 1958, Li was appointed the job of squadron accountant, as a result of his excellence in school. Friends recall Li Decai earnestly engaging in the nightly Marxist study sessions, imbibing Mao ZeDong Thought, and singing Red Songs during the Cultural Revolution.
This ardor is grounded in the historical reality of a family who was literally reborn and baptized by the Revolution and should not be mistaken for the feverish contagion of Mao worship. The last disciple Li Decai personally witnessed his family’s transformation from downtrodden peasants to the self-dignity and equality of comrades, and rightly, understood himself as the proud inheritor of this process. What is often lost in retrospective analyses and evaluative judgments on China’s Communist Revolution is how prevalent stories were like that of Li Decai’s family, in which the stakes were qualitatively different than a mere change of who held state power. I can think of no better example encapsulating such affirmative change than the slogan of the 1927 Anyuan Coal Miner Strike organized by the Communist Party: “Once beasts of burden; now we will be human.”3
The historical conditions that generated this dignity were to only last thirty or so years. Beginning with the death of Chairman Mao in September 1976 to be followed six years later by the decision of Li Decai’s production team to sell off their machinery and disband. Li Decai’s world was rapidly becoming unrecognizable. Even the visual landscape of the small city of Yanggao was transformed into a commodified pleasure center, full of liquor and alcoholic beverage stores, KTV parlors, fashion advertisements, and bookstores selling trashy romance novels. In 2009, the Yanggao municipal government decided to “upgrade the old city” and demolish over 220,000 square meters of buildings, including the iconic Cultural Center, where Li Decai went to publically mourn Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 and would use as the stage for his apocalyptic orations. A passerby recalls spotting Li Decai in 2011 standing on the ruins of the Cultural Center, head lowered with a bewildered expression on his face—a billboard advertising the imminent construct of “Yanggao’s Central Business District” in the distance.
After the beginning of China’s economic reform and opening, Li Decai became the ghost of a form of life that washed away at the end of the Cultural Revolution. To be more historically accurate, Maoism as the organizing principle of political and personal life was actively buried by Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party’s largely successful attempt to label the Cultural Revolution as “ten years of disaster.”4 According to Guobin Yang, this process of “de-Maoification” included, but was no limited to: “In February 1979, an official party document was issued to suspend the distribution of the Mao quotation books. Another party directive was issued in July 1980, to cut back on ‘propagating individuals,’ which ordered, among other things, the reduction of the number of Mao portraits and statues in public spaces.”5 The world that actively gave Li Decai a meaningful place and animating Idea was slowly being dismantled and replaced by three decades of economic prosperity and political amnesia. Under these circumstances, his fidelity to what French philosopher Alain Badiou calls “the event” of Maoism combined with his refusal to adapt to the changing social current turned him into a living revenant.
The props with which he could keep alive a relay to the inexorably receding past steadily dwindled until ultimately reduced to a collection of perfectly polished buttons. When these buttons vanished, so did Li Decai’s world. His world could no longer underwrite the promise of what Lauren Berlant refers to as “cruel optimism“: “The fear is that the loss of the promising object/scene itself will defeat the capacity to have any hope about anything.”6
Late December 2011, when he was out for leisurely stroll his prized collection of nearly 200 Mao buttons was stolen from his home. The motive for the theft was most likely profit, given that the monetary value of Mao memorabilia has skyrocketed in the past decades primarily as a result of Western fascination and popularity in antique markets. For Li Decai however, the collection of buttons allowed him to exist through the fantasy investment in an object “in lieu of having a world.”7 Noting the irony, the Mao buttons served the role of what psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called the “point de capiton”: the symbolic upholstery button that holds the fabric of the universe together. Without it, the world crumples into formless disrepair.8 According to his neighbors, from the moment the buttons were stolen to the morning of his suicide (or social execution) all Li Decai could utter was: “My hands are numb, what happens afterward? … What happens afterward….?” (我手麻了，以后怎么办？… 以后怎么办… )
The unbearable truth of this story is that the “afterwards“ of the promise of utopia is the hedonism of contemporary capitalism. According to philosopher Jiwei Ci commenting directly on the aftermath of Maoism’s disintegration: “Hedonism…a mode of life open and tempting to those for whom the possibility of values has been destroyed.”9 The fact that the ascetic Maoist Li Decai refused the option of hedonistic sensuality and consumption made him appear as a monstrous apparition, curious, benign, and frightening in the eyes of his neighbors.
Dealing with a ghost who refuses to acknowledge his death, many of his neighbors pathologized him as suffering from: “a spiritual ailment,” directly labeling him a “lunatic,” while later speculating that he terminated his life because his “body harbored an incurable disease.” His body indeed harbored the disease of history’s cruel optimism, a refusal to “walk out of the madness we all left behind,” as one of his neighbors described it.
The online obituary describes local townspeople as being in a state of affective disarray, compulsively gossiping about his life and the circumstances of his death in “a tone of voice mixing sentimentality and ridicule.” Without being aware of exactly who or what was lost: “as if they were mourning a monument long ago eroded by the weather.” Like an unknown object shattering in the dark interval between private and public space, Li Decai’s death opened a wound in the community, which incessant speech, speculation, and mockery can only circulate around unconsciously.
When the supports upholding the deferred promise of utopia are kicked away, there is never a sublime or dignified result. Utopia crumples like an old man’s body hanging by a red belt from a shed in a bean and carrot field. It mumbles and stutters under the unbearable, dim light of nostalgia like Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” but without the subtle glow bestowed by the playwright and stage. As T. S. Eliot famously wrote:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
In a similar tone, the online obituary describes Li Decai as a “branch snapped from the root of a tree.” This is not a tragic-heroic ending brimming with pathos, but rather, an ordinary instance of life wearing out, as it’s possibility is gradually withdrawn from the world that offered it. ”Cruel optimism” is a free-fall into the ordinary of that which we believed could lift us out of it.
There are imperceptible forms of death that bear little resemblance to biological cessation. In this expanded definition, death is the inability to stay composed within a space that slowly cracks as the world becomes unrecognizable. If the coroner report were to be accurate, it would pronounce Li Decai dead at the moment he discovered his Mao buttons were stolen – or perhaps even earlier when Deng Xiaoping proclaimed: “to get rich is glorious” and unleashed China’s capitalist transition. The glimmering light refracted from the buttons granted him borrowed time from which he could haunt the space of living with the failed promise of the past. But there is only so much a button can hold together.