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No matter where one stood on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, to look north toward the portrait of Mao Zedong that hung on the gate to the Forbidden City was to meet the Chairman's steady gaze. The composition of the painting made sure of that: the subject's head is dead centre, his shoulders are square to the front, his eyes stare directly outward. That the portrait should dominate Tiananmen Square befitted a man who'd had so many titles in life: the Great Teacher, the Great Leader, the Great Helmsman, the Great Supreme Commander, the Great Saviour, Beloved Leader, but most commonly, Chairman Mao.
For fifty years, an oil painting of Mao Zedong had been mounted on the gate there. Successive versions subtly aged the Chairman and each altered something – taking away the cap, changing the jacket, realigning the gaze. The first was painted in 1949. A new portrait was commissioned in 1950, in 1952, in 1963, and for the last time in 1967. Sunlight and harsh weather took their toll on these paintings and at least once every year, the management office of Tiananmen Square was obliged to take the current version down and replace it with a freshly painted copy. Often the replacement was an overpainting on an old canvas, each of which was reused as many as five or six times. By 1989, the painter of the Tiananmen portrait, the third person to hold that post since 1949, had been turning out a painting every year for the past thirteen years. Just after two in the afternoon of Tuesday, May 23, 1989, in the sixth week of the pro-democracy protests in the square, that portrait maker's schedule was disrupted.
From the Hardcover edition.