Iron Women, Foxy Ladies
The CCP has been prone to laud itself as the champion of women's liberation. Right from the start, however, the CCP-revolutionaries seemed to have had a dual, and even contradictory approach to questions where women were positioned in the revolutionary process, and this has influenced the way in which women were represented in propaganda posters. On the one hand, there was the demand from the Party that women were to be shown in their entire liberated splendor, as conscious and active participants in the great enterprise of reconstructing (socialist) China. The liberation of the female half of the population had attracted a lot of support for the CCP. Various policies the CCP had experimented with had been codified into legislation after coming to power in 1949. But in the eyes of many women intellectuals at the time, even these measures were not radical enough.
Old-fashioned artistic ideas about the representation of women proved to be tenacious. By the early 20th century, a relatively well-established visual tradition had come into existence that treated women as objects that could be consumed by the male gaze. Numerous companies, both foreign and native, had settled in the treaty ports and the foreign settlements along the eastern seaboard. The advertising agencies the manufacturers brought with them promoted the use and appreciation of Western art techniques in their advertisements. The advertising posters featured delectable young women, beautiful actresses and popular singers in colorful and tantalizing 'Shanghai dresses' (qi pao), endorsing various products, ranging from cigarettes and alcoholic beverages to fabrics and pesticides. The advertisments often were designed by Chinese artists such as Li Mubai, Jin Meisheng and Jin Xuechen, to cater to the specific Chinese sense of aesthetics. Most of them were calendars (yuefenpai 月份牌) that were given away as free promotional gifts and hung up in homes and offices. This commercial printed matter became enormously popular, and its influence spread beyond advertising to other types of publications and design practice in general, where it became synonymous with modernity.
Even though these materials turned women into objects that served both commercial and titillating purposes, the genre as a whole nonetheless was seen by many as supportive of the demands for the emancipation of women. Instead of treating females as non-entities as Confucian orthodoxy had prescribed, the posters not merely showed them, but presented them as gorgeously dressed, professional women that radiated an air of self-confidence. To many, these 'modeng [modern]' girls were a reflection of women's search for a separate identity. The supporters of the calendar girls thus included many of the women who themselves were actively involved in the political struggle for women's liberation.
With the founding of the PRC, both the theory and practice of the Chinese advertising industry had to change completely. The designers of the commercial calendars, well versed in design techniques and able to visualize a product in a commercially attractive way, were quickly co-opted and incorporated in the various government and army organizations devoted to the production of propaganda posters. But they and their works continued to be regarded with suspicion by the representatives of the new ruling elite. And even though the officials from the cultural bureaucracy that took over had to admit that these designers could make rather acceptable 'new' New Year pictures, at the same time they could not refrain from allegations that their works still were marred by numerous political shortcomings.
While these cultural authorities insisted that they did nothing more than pass on the correct proletarian viewpoints of (female) representatives of the masses, they usually complained that the artists still lacked the proper ideological standpoint. They acknowleged that the designers dutifully attempted to follow the new rules and regulations pertaining to the arts by producing scenes set in industry or agriculture. In some cases, the artists were accused of tending to depict elegant 'modern city girls', with highly patterned blouses and scarves, pale skins and manicured hands, much in the vein of the starlets who had been shown endorsing soap or cigarettes.
These times, however, called for the depiction of peasant or working women taking obvious pride in their work, but whose faces and hands had been marked by unrelenting sunshine and hard labor. In the views of the laboring masses that the art critics allegedly had consulted, such images lacked verisimilitude: nobody in the villages or factories looked like these women. Moreover, no woman dressed in the latest fashions was able to take part in hard physical labor while still looking as spic and span as the poster models did.
When looking at the practice of depicting women for propaganda purposes, it is safe to say that the 'pretty girl' pictures continued to dominate the world of the propaganda poster, with the exception of the periods when high Maoism was the norm. Was this done in an attempt to make the latter's message more palatable to the population? Or was it simply because such representations could be read as a way of discounting women as revolutionary contenders, as expressions of the widely held belief that women were more interested in matters of clothing and physical appearance than men? Whatever the reason, attractive female forms were used for political propaganda purposes in a manner very similar to commercial advertising, a practice that also has been noted by Chinese writers.