Since 1946, the “Pilot at the Helm” has appeared in the People’s Daily 475 times — all but four of which have occurred in the Xi era. These appearances date back to 2015 but have increased exponentially in recent years. After Xi’s position as the “core” of the Party was reaffirmed in 2022, when he clinched an unprecedented third term in office, these two titles began to appear in tandem. Nearly all occurrences now refer to Xi, in full, as the “Core of the Entire Party and Pilot at the Helm (全党的核心掌舵领航).
Mao’s time at the helm came at the launch of the Cultural Revolution. During the Red August of 1966, when Mao’s Red Guards massacred hundreds in Beijing, a People’s Daily editorial declared: “Long live the Great Leader, Great Commander, and Great Helmsman Chairman Mao!” After the addition of “Great Teacher” (伟大的导师), this formula would become known as the “Four Greats” (四个伟大).
It was a calculated move to learn from another man who had been hailed as “the Great Helmsman of the Revolution,” Joseph Stalin. When Mao’s American hagiographer Edgar Snow asked him in 1964 about Soviet accusations China was mired in a personality cult, the Chairman proudly affirmed them: “Khrushchev was forced to step down because he did not have a cult of personality,” Mao said. “China does have a cult of personality and needs a cult of personality.”
Although no other Chinese leader has been as closely associated with the “Helmsman” title as Mao, however, he was hardly the first to wear the crown. Sun Yat-sen was eulogized as the helmsman of the nation upon his passing in 1925, and his strongman successor Chiang Kai-shek attempted to pick up the mantle by having the ruling Kuomintang-run press refer to him as the “helm-master” (舵师).
Two centuries after Britain’s first ambassador to China Lord Macartney called the empire “an old crazy first-rate man of war,” the image of China as a vessel requiring a firm hand on the tiller was already well anchored in political rhetoric.