Chameleon Mao, the Face of Tiananmen Square

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FEW images created in the last century are as recognizable as the official portrait of Mao that looms over Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

For decades, the 15-by-20-foot oil painting has served as a national icon. This is the same image that, in the 1960's and 70's, was widely reproduced and hung near the entrances to millions of homes, schools, factories and government buildings. During the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was raised to cult status, it seemed as if the entire nation had set about drawing a Mao portrait, or at least honoring one. If Mao's Little Red Book was the national bible, Mao's official portrait was the national stamp.

And so it is no surprise that a firestorm erupted in China a little over a week ago after a state-controlled Beijing auction house wheeled out an old official portrait of Mao, owned by a Chinese-American, and said it would sell the piece to the highest bidder on June 3.

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