Hidden in the basement of a nondescript apartment complex on the edge of Shanghai’s French Concession resides one of the city’s most intriguing museums – the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center. A labor of love from museum founder and director Yang Pei Ming, who began collecting posters in 1995, it boasts a collection of over 6,000 propaganda posters from 1940 to 1990, with an additional collection of Shanghai beauty calendar posters dating from 1910 to 1940. The Mao-era political posters offer unique insight into the history and transformation of modern China, tracing the country’s shifting mood throughout events such as the Korean War, Sino-Soviet split, Vietnam War, and the domestic turbulence of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Yang, having lived through many of these events, believes it is important for younger generations to remember China’s past. “Our generation, especially [during] the Cultural Revolution – which was like a big earthquake, like a volcano – nobody was prepared, suddenly we lost our direction, we didn’t know what to do,” Yang says. “So this kind of experience, this kind of history, at the least should be mentioned and remembered by the coming generations.”
Yang appreciates the posters for both their artistic and historic value. He contrasts these with art today, which he laments as too driven by profit, pointing out that he likes the purity of the early posters’ artistry. Yang categorizes the post-1949 posters into three periods: the New Year Picture Movement, following immediately in the wake of the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China; the Romantic Period of the Great Leap Forward; and the Red Period of the Cultural Revolution. Organized chronologically, visitors to the museum develop a sense of the atmosphere in China as these events unfolded.
The first wave of posters was initiated at Mao’s request shortly after modern China’s formation. According to an essay by Yang, “art had to serve politics,” and later Mao decreed that artists must “combine revolutionary realism and romanticism together” to “nationalize and popularize their artistic creation.” The early posters are among Yang’s favorites, and depict happiness and dreamy optimism toward the young nation’s future. While some show military parades celebrating the Communist victory in the recently-ended civil war, they most often portray a utopia of abundant harvests and bustling farmland replete with livestock.
As the posters transition to the Romantic Period of the Great Leap Forward, the tone shifts. While retaining the earlier optimism, the posters acquire a more aggressive stance. A 1958 poster shows a muscular Chinese man on a mighty horse galloping past a plump British man atop an aimless bull. The Chinese man holds a flag reading, “Catch up with and surpass England within 15 years” (十五年内赶上和超过英国). Another 1958 poster features two farmers proudly standing upon a molten steel-spewing dragon, its scales replaced with buckets of flaming liquid metal. This one is aptly titled Fight to Produce More and Better Steel in the Year 1959. “Every time there’s a campaign, a political moment, a parade, they have posters,” Yang says.
As the Cultural Revolution commences, this aggressive tone intensifies. The vivid colors of the earlier posters become darker, drearier, redder. Farmers and their bounteous harvests are replaced by gun-toting revolutionaries, while the accompanying slogans lose their sanguinity and become increasingly combative. “Seize the Revolution,” “Liberate Taiwan!”, “Imperialism and all reactionary forces are paper tigers,” “Bombard the capitalist headquarters,” the posters read. Mao’s image dominates this period, becoming more prominent and often appearing as the sun. Mao Zedong Thought (毛泽东思想) is regularly championed in the posters’ titles. “The Cultural Revolution is like a mad man who loses all of his senses,” Yang writes. “He commits numerous crimes and leaves behind some art works to remind people of history’s lessons.”
Another important trend during this period was the emergence of dazibao, or “big-character posters” (大字报 – literally “big character reports”). Dazibao were large handwritten posters of text, typically penned by everyday citizens and pasted to walls in public areas. Often they criticized or denounced counterrevolutionary forces. Though not a new concept, following Mao’s support of them in 1966 they rapidly gained popularity. According to Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins’ book on Cultural Revolution era posters, on August 5th of that year “Mao wrote his own dazibao at Beijing University, calling on the people to ‘Bombard the Headquarters’ (meaning to criticize counterrevolutionary activity in the top levels of the CCP).” Following Mao’s endorsement of the style, these posters became a common form of expression among the masses.
“Such posters were the most powerful artworks of the Cultural Revolution,” Yang writes. “Each one represents the fear, violence, paranoia and chaos of that era. It was a time in which students denounced teachers as reactionaries, either because the students actually believed those accusations or because they feared that any student who did not do so would be considered a rightist-sympathizer.”
Years later, U.S. diplomat William W. Thomas Jr. spoke of experiencing these posters while in China in the mid-1970s. “There was frankness in the wall posters that we hadn’t seen before in China … a lot of political information was available this way and through no other way,” he told an interviewer. “We would take a different route going to work every morning, riding bicycles mainly so that we could see if there were any new posters up. We found out that Hua Guofeng was Chairman of the Party by going through our hospital courtyard and looking at all the new signs that were up.”
But these posters’ popularity was temporary. “Dazibao suddenly disappeared after the Cultural Revolution,” Yang writes, “as people hated what they stood for, and nobody saw them as having any value as an art form.” Later, Yang advertised across the country in search of original dazibao, but no one responded. Nonetheless, he has accumulated around 300 originals. “Because such posters are so rare now,” the museum’s websites says, “Our collection is probably the only one like it in the world.”
Prior to the Cultural Revolution it was easy to trace the posters’ origins, as they always listed the artist, date, license and publisher. “Publishing a poster is like publishing a book, it has to be licensed,” Yang says. But then “the Cultural Revolution came and the system broke down.” During the chaos of this era, the proliferation of student groups and organizations making posters without such information has made it impossible to discern their provenance. “Born in a moment of anarchistic frenzy and social disorganization,” Yang writes of the Red Period posters, “they had neither publication numbers nor authors’ names.”
The intensity of the posters climaxed during the Cultural Revolution. While production continued for two more decades, the posters became more subdued and less impactful. “After Mao died, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, his successors still kept on with this kind of style,” Yang says. “But three years later Deng Xiaoping came to power and they changed. They changed to modernization. So no more with this kind of [Cultural Revolution era] propaganda.” Unlike Mao, Deng didn’t want his image featured in posters, and with the growing prominence of television and the emergence of the internet the posters became less relevant. According to Yang, the last one was produced in 1997, the year Deng died.
While the broad shifts of tone and content throughout these different periods are apparent to even the most casual observer, a closer look shows more subtle changes taking place. A famous 1953 poster titled Grand Ceremony of Founding the People’s Republic of China depicts Mao addressing the nation while a group of prominent CCP figures stand at his side. Over the years this poster would be re-commissioned several times, as members of the group accompanying Mao on stage fell victim to the era’s political purges. The first occurrence took place almost immediately after the poster’s release, when in February 1954, head of the State Planning Commission Gao Gang was denounced – “the first prominent official to be purged after Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949,” according to Foreign Policy. The subsequent version of the poster removed Gao, replacing him with a pot of chrysanthemums. Later, following the fall of President Liu Shaoqi, another version of the poster replaced Liu with Vice President Dong Biwu.
The historical significance of these posters becomes immediately apparent when touring the museum, and Yang seeks to instill in visitors a sense of this importance. “I don’t mean I should give them education on what is correct and what is wrong – this is the responsibility of professors and historians,” he says. “As a collector I just keep all these original things and let people look. And they will think, and they can go back and research.”