If you’ve spent any time in China, you’re probably familiar with the efforts of China’s propaganda ministry, currently known as the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China. Their handiwork can be seen all over China’s cities and countryside, to say nothing of the Internet, such as this infamous animated music video introducing the Communist Party’s 13th Five Year Plan. (“The Shi San Wu!”)
More iconic than these modern methods of “opinion guidance,” however, are the stark, provocative propaganda posters dating from 1949 to 1978. Most of these posters feature strong, handsome young peasants and workers posing in front of the purported achievements of New China, or in some cases, scenes of “enemies of the people” getting their just desserts. Subtlety was not the guiding principle of the era, unlike idealism, which was widespread.
Probably the best place to see these in person is the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, a enchanting museum run by retired hospitality industry veteran Yang Peiming. Originally just one room in the basement of an apartment building in 2002, the museum has expanded to three rooms occupying more than 400 square meters, with a collection encompassing more than 6,000 posters from the Republican era on down to today.
Probably the most fascinating aspect of posters like these is the way they allow you to trace the evolution of modern Chinese history, with its tumultuous twists and turns, from the initial optimism of the post-war period to the grimness of the Great Leap Forward and later the fanatical revolutionary impulses that dominated the Cultural Revolution. Posters in those years were actually one of the Party’s primary means of communication with the public, especially a semi-literate one, and the museum’s collection is a look at the sometimes rapidly shifting official viewpoints throughout the years on a wide variety of topics, from agriculture and industrial development to foreign relations and family values.
Politics aside, Yang’s museum also has dazibao, or “Big Character Posters,” and a series of “Worker Artists’” Woodblock Prints from the 1970s, as well as a large collection of what he terms “Shanghai Lady Posters,” reproductions of which you’ve probably seen in tourist markets and shops. These are excellent examples of early consumer advertising for the brands of the day, which typically feature a pretty young woman in a qipao, whose appearance and surroundings are meant to exemplify the modern, cosmopolitan lifestyles of bourgeois Chinese during the heady years between the fall of the Qing in 1911 and the advent of Communism in 1949.
Whether commercial or political, these posters are a fascinating look at the changes China underwent during the 20th century, and a tour of Yang’s collection can provide an entertaining, useful counterpoint to the attitudes and ideas about China’s history and identity we see reflected in the media, both here and abroad.
Replica Chinese propaganda posters can be purchased at www.chinesepropagandaposters.com.
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