Why you should care
Because if you can control someone’s body, you can control their mind.
A crowded train platform is probably one of the worst places to do an exuberant dance. Yet in 1967, hundreds of weary passengers swept their feet across a dirty floor, sang their hearts out and flailed their arms in forced adulation — like a flash mob gone dystopian. This grand dance was their ticket to getting on board a train at the railway station in Shenyang. Refusing to twirl meant getting left behind, or worse.
Welcome to Mao’s China. Under his iron-fist rule, dancing was not just a pastime but a mandatory display of one’s undying love for the Great Helmsman. His loyalty dance, or zhongzi wu (忠字舞) in Mandarin, was a daily fixture of life in the late 1960s, just as the political strife of the Cultural Revolution started heating up and right before the blood of millions started flowing. Whether at home or in public, no one was spared from performing the dance at the drop of a hat in school, at work or sometimes right before dinner. Young and old, factory laborers and even grandmothers with tightly bound feet had to submit. In those days, the loyalty dance was a heavy-handed way of enforcing total discipline after a period of widespread resistance to the Cultural Revolution, says Stanford University’s Andrew Walder, author of China Under Mao. “People thought it was odd at the time, but … if you refused, what did that imply?”
No matter how close our parents are to us, they are not as close as our relationship with Mao.
Few dared to ask the question. Just as you now know Adele’s lyrics by heart, everyone knew Mao’s dance routine then. Imagine seeing the spectacle: Millions of Chinese people clasping their hands to hearts, stretching their arms to the sky and clenching their fists in homage to the revolution — whirling before a portrait of Mao. These simple steps, inspired by a folk dance from Xinjiang, were paired with lines from an accompanying revolutionary song, “Beloved Chairman Mao,” “Golden Hill of Beijing” or “Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman.” And the lyrics, sung with fervor, rang loud and clear: “No matter how close our parents are to us, they are not as close as our relationship with Mao.” The goal? To “inspire a spirit of collective worship,” says Roderick MacFarquhar, a sinologist at Harvard.
By today’s standards, the loyalty dance makes the Heil Hitler salute look halfhearted. Indeed, dancing your socks off and singing to proclaim your allegiance seems “comical and embarrassing” in retrospect, says Walder. Or as Laszlo Montgomery, the host of the China History Podcast, puts it, “just another stupid thing people had to do during the worst years” of the Cultural Revolution. But Mao was no fool. In the midst of creating a cult of personality around himself and quietly quelling critics, he employed a handful of methods to improve his brand: daily readings of the Little Red Book, evening pledges in front of his gleaming portrait and, oddly enough, a worship of mangoes. Mao especially picked up on the power of puppetry: To get into people’s minds, you start by controlling their bodies. It’s one thing to mumble the Pledge of Allegiance every day, but it’s another level altogether to surrender your body to someone else’s will.
Despite the dance fever, the loyalty dance was short-lived and quickly fizzled as the 1970s rolled in. Many look back negatively on the dance and, for that matter, the Cultural Revolution as a whole. “The damage done will take China at least two centuries to recover [from], if it can recover at all,” Zehao Zhou, a reference librarian at York College of Pennsylvania, tells OZY. He recalls the mass violence in his Shanghai neighborhood as a “nightmare” that never seems to end. Scraps of the loyalty dance still live on through kitsch communist-themed restaurants in Beijing that feature nightly performances. But unlike the railway platforms of yesteryear, the crowds are much different this time around, all eager to be dazzled by a dance from a dark past.