Introduction to exhibition To Read Too Many Books is Harmful
Through all of its long history, the Chinese political system used the arts to propagate correct behaviour and thought. Literature, poetry, painting, stage plays, songs and other artistic expressions were produced to entertain, but they also were given an important didactic function: they had to educate the people in what was considered right and wrong at any time. As long as the State provided examples of correct behaviour, this automatically would make the people believe what was considered proper to believe.
Once the People's Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, propaganda art continued to be one of the major means to provide examples of correct behaviour. But it also gave a concrete expression to the many different policies and the many different visions of the future the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had. In a country with as many illiterates as China had in the 1940s and 1950s, this method of visualising abstract ideas and in this way educating the people worked especially well. Propaganda posters were cheaply and easily produced and became one of the most favoured vehicles for political communication. Because they were widely available, they could be seen everywhere. And they were an excellent way to brighten up the otherwise drab places where the people lived. They penetrated every level of society: multicoloured posters could be found in offices and factories, but in houses and dormitories as well. Most people liked the posters for their composition and visual contents, and did not pay too much attention to the slogans that might be printed underneath. This caused the political message of the posters to be passed on in an almost subconscious manner.
The most talented artists were employed to visualize the political trends of the moment in the most detailed way. Many of them had been designers before the PRC was founded, and they were quickly hired by the various government and party organizations that were responsible for propaganda posters. These designers were, after all, very able to visualize a product in a commercially attractive way. Their posters had to portray the future in the present, not only showing life 'as it really is', but also 'as it ought to be'. Propaganda became a type of faction, mixing 'fact' and 'fiction', which stressed only the positive and papered over anything negative.
The CCP also sought inspiration in the Soviet Union for the development of modern visual propaganda. Mao and other leaders were convinced that Socialist Realism, as it had been practised in the Soviet Union since the 1930s, was the best tool to develop new forms of art. It provided a realistic view of life, represented in the rosy colors of optimism, although largely seen through an urban lens. Socialist Realism focussed on industrial plants, blast furnaces, power stations, construction sites and people at work. In the period 1949-1957, many Chinese painters studied Socialist Realism in Soviet art academies; others were educated by Soviet professors who came to teach in Chinese institutions. But in the late 1950s, things changed dramatically. Mao expressed his dissatisfaction with the dominant artistic style, indicating that he found it too gloomy. He insisted that Soviet Socialist Realism should be replaced by a 'fusion of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism'. Art should "convey the most romantic and glamorous views of the motherland; social, economic and political triumphs; the strength, courage, and resourcefulness of the people; and the wisdom of their leaders." In reality, propaganda art had to become more intrinsically Chinese.
The years of the great mass movements such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) saw the climax in propaganda art production. The posters reached the peak of artistic expression, both in form and contents. In particular during the Cultural Revolution, politics took precedence. Chairman Mao Zedong, as the Great Teacher, the Great Leader, the Great Helmsman, and the Supreme Commander, became the only permissible subject of the era. His countenance beamed down from the many huge billboards located along the streets and avenues in China's urban areas. His portrait decorated steam engines and harbor cranes. Photographs showing his face were placed in the fields. The people themselves pinned Mao badges in varying sizes to their chests. The quotations from his writings, urging people to behave and think in a way he approved of, were often compared to a magical or supernatural weapon (a 'demon-exposing mirror'), a 'spiritual atom bomb' or even a 'beacon light'. The Red Book containing Mao's quotes was distributed in millions and millions of copies; these quotes were studied, chanted, sung, and used as magic spells. Intellectuals, leaders and artists were persecuted, and schools and universities were closed to give students the opportunity to follow Mao's calls for continuous revolution by becoming Red Guards. Waves of criticism engulfed the country, and practically every official was accused. By 1968, this struggle had escalated into a veritable civil war. The country and the economy were in a shambles. Life in China in those years was definitely unpleasant, but none of this can be seen in the propaganda of the period.
The decline in poster propaganda started in the early 1980s. Under Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Hua Guofeng who succeeded Mao at the helm of the PRC, the economic rehabilitation of China became the CCP's main consideration. Moreover, China opened itself to the West. Now, posters had to be designed to create public support for the new policies that made up the reform package. This had enormous consequences for propaganda. The themes became less heroic and militant, and more impressionistic, while bold colours were replaced with more subdued ones. The people did no longer have to struggle against class enemies, but were urged to adopt more cultured and educated lifestyles. Design techniques borrowed from Western advertising were employed again frequently.
The posters exhibited here focus on these changing attitudes of the CCP towards books, book knowledge and learning in general. They also show how the artistic styles employed in propaganda design developed through the decades. Where the new leaders still took great pride in their cultural achievements and the successful struggle against illiteracy in the early 1950s, this changed into suspicion of bookishness in the early 1960s. The Cultural Revolution that followed became widely know for its savage destruction of historical and intellectual artefacts. At the same time, many of the young people who for whatever reason where not involved in the iconoclasm that gripped China often found time and opportunity to read precisely the publications that were widely condemned and destroyed as "sugar-coated bullets of the bourgeoisie", exerting their pernicuous influence on the revolutionary pureness Chinese society was striving for. Once life seemed to have returned to relative normalcy in the early 1980s and the PRC embarked on its second - economic - revolution, the status of books, knowledge and learning was restored.
It is obvious that where Mao's continuous efforts at mobilization in the name of the revolution would have been unthinkable without posters, the second revolution that was engineered by Deng could do well without them. Not surprisingly, the images from the 1990s and beyond lack the vitality and urgency that marked those from the preceding periods. Reading too many books is not necessarily harmful, as Mao remarked, but it makes for uninspiring propaganda.
About this exhibition
This is the digital version of an exhibition, organized by and held at the Libraries of the Sinological Institute, Leiden University , The Netherlands, 7 December 2004 - 30 June 2005.
Exhibition concept: Hanno Lecher, Sinological Institute, Leiden University.
Selection and texts: Stefan R. Landsberger.
Introduction to exhibition To Read Too Many Books is Harmful