Originally published in 'Reminiscences and Ruminations' - China Information Anniversary Supplement, Summer 1994, pp. 37-41.
More than twenty years ago, I started developing a serious interest in Chinese propaganda posters, although I'm still not quite sure where this came from; it most certainly was not inspired by political sympathies. Initially, I tried to obtain these materials through the People's Bookstores (Renmin Shudian) which were located in various European capital cities, or in shops specializing in printed materials as they were put out by European Maoist and other politically 'progressive' fringe groups. Later, I contacted the Chinese distributor of all printed matter abroad, the Guoji Shudian company, directly through the mail. This seemed to be a reasonably good way of obtaining posters. I regularly started receiving single-sheet, type-written 'catalogues', on the basis of which I filed my orders. Once the Guoji people in Beijing discovered a potential customer in me, however, they increasingly started sending me materials that I considered way outside of my scope of interest; outrageously expensive mounted scrolls of traditional-style 'Qi Baishi shrimps', for example, would come my way, and clash in a serious manner with the Socialist Realist materials I wanted, the ones showing exited peasants welcoming Mao Zedong, or the material abundance in the Chinese people's communes as seen through the eyes of the peasant painters from Huxian (Shaanxi Province), or the traditionally inspired fat baby boys with gold carp. These were, after all, the glimpses of the future, based on the present, as they were held up by the Communist Party leadership during the reign of the 'Gang of Four'. The visual idiom employed then did not change markedly once Hua Guofeng rose to power as Mao's anointed successor after 1976.
Once the People's Republic of China seriously embarked on its reformist course of 'opening up' to the outside world in the early 1980s, finally allowing me the opportunity to visit the country of which I was studying the language, history, culture, etc., visits to local Xinhua bookshops, any local Xinhua for that matter, became a regular part of any domestic travel I embarked on every time I was able to stay in China. The further 'off the beaten track' those destinations were, the more I looked forward to going there, not in the least because of the interesting and colourful propaganda materials I doubtlessly would be able to acquire in these bookshops. In an early stage I already had discovered that bookshops in these out-of-the-way places often still sold propaganda posters that seemed to be in conflict with the current political course as spelled out by the central leadership. Posters were not the only Xinhua-product I was interested in; worthwhile books would not escape my attention, either.
In those days, buying books was still quite an adventure. Contrary to the exhortations to behave in an attentive, customer- friendly manner, demands that were contained in quite a few of the propaganda posters produced in the early 1980s, the shop assistants tended to defend the products on the shelves behind them by simply ignoring potential buyers and their queries. The gossip they were involved in, standing behind their counters, was, after all, much more exciting than helping people who did not know what they wanted to buy anyway. It was practically impossible to browse through books before buying them, as the services of the assistants were required to move the books from the shelves to the counters and prospective buyers.
Acquiring posters involved another sort of ritual, at which I became quite adept. Armed with a small notebook, I would enter the local Xinhua and check out the poster section. There, on the walls, the posters that seemed to be available would be on display, marked with a large number, which I would copy down. The next step was to try and draw the assistants' attention; then I would be able to recite the numbers I had just taken down. A foreigner speaking Chinese and interested in buying Chinese propaganda posters usually provoked a quicker response than when one was attempting to buy books, and a number of questions would invariably be raised by the shop assistants and the curious onlookers who would start to flock around the counter: "Why was I buying propaganda posters?" "Did I like them, and why?" "What was I going to do with them anyway?" "Why didn't I rather like and buy the reproductions of the 'real' art that all the other foreigners bought?" My replies that I did like them indeed and intended to use them to form the basis for a research project that was still vaguely formulated at that time, led to general disbelief: "Nobody in China is interested in these things, so why would anyone, let alone a foreigner, study them?" "Nobody likes these posters (and/or the sentiments they proclaimed) any more, so why did I, as a foreigner?" "They can't be considered art", and similar remarks often would be made. The fact that I had been able to observe that inhabitants of quite a few dwellings, no matter whether they were in urban or rural areas, had stuck identical or similar posters on their walls belied some of such disparaging remarks. Sometimes, shop assistants would refuse to sell me particular posters for no apparent reasons, whereas others went out of their way to help me. As far as I can remember now, the question of whether such 'unavailable' materials were for internal use only (neibu), or available to the general public (gongkai), never played a role in the assistants' unwillingness, or helpfulness, to sell me posters. In one small Xinhua branch office in Qufu, the section head even started taking sample posters off the wall, the numbers of which were included on my list but which had been sold out: If I really wanted them, and didn't mind the holes left by the thumbtacks, I could have them.
Back at the hotel or guest house where I was staying, I would add the newly-bought posters to ones I had previously acquired, thereby 'combining two-into-one', as it were. The quality of the paper used for producing posters then made them unfit for long spells of long-distance travel; carrying large numbers of them around for too long in awkward and bulky rolls would lead easily to damage. So my next destination was the post-office.
Post-office employees strictly enforced the rule that every single piece of mail had to pass their inspection first before it could be wrapped up and prepared for sending off; although specialized international post offices have sprung up in major cities in recent years, the regulations ordering the employees to inspect outgoing mail may still be in force. The confrontation with a foreigner trying to send off large amounts of propaganda posters again led to startled remarks from both post persons and other customers. Sometimes, a heated discussion about the subjects of the posters, or the way certain themes were represented in them, would ensue. This would interest me to no end, as it provided me with another glimpse of the popular reaction to, and/or (dis)satisfaction with, the materials which the government produced with a specific purpose in mind. The people's surprise about my collecting activities only increased when I made it clear to them that they should be send by air mail. Often, the air mail rate would amount to two to three times the combined value of the posters, but I was convinced that the speed required would decrease the opportunities for further inspection, loss or serious damage. I'm still convinced that sending posters by air mail reduced risk: of all posters I thus send out of China, only one single batch ever got lost. Upon inspection, quite a few post-office workers found some of the materials which I wanted to send abroad problematic and refused me permission to include them. National guidelines for granting permission to export posters did not seem to exist, and it was apparently left to the discretion of the individual post-office employee: materials which one post office refused to handle, were sometimes accepted by another.
The posters devoted to military subjects in particular were often picked out because of the fact that they, allegedly, contained State secrets. Of course, the representation of the People's Liberation Army in propaganda posters had been the subject of important changes in the era of reform; soldiers no longer were portrayed while alertly engaged in the defense of the sacred borders of the Fatherland, or while fraternizing with civilians, or while taking part in production. 'Military' posters now consisted of 'artists' impressions' of paratrooper attacks or highly idealized scenes of Chinese sea-, air- and ground forces engaged in war games. These posters, then, were truly a sign of the times, with its stress on increased professionalism in the Army! Considering such materials as divulging State secrets seemed a bit farfetched, but then, Wei Jingsheng had been convicted for divulging less. On the other hand, while the printed and broadcast media devoted considerable attention to the constructive role which the Army played in the process of reform, no posters were ever produced as far as I know to illustrate these military peace-time activities.
Post office workers never objected to the various poster series which were devoted to spreading legal knowledge among the population. I still find this remarkable, as these materials provided the observer with real 'slices of life', of social phenomena which the leadership even nowadays labels as remnants of the feudal past which only still exists in isolated parts of the country. In short, they chronicled behavior which might be considered an embarrassment. Published by the Falü chubanshe (Legal Publisher) in December 1983, these multiple-sheet educational 'comic strip' posters, allegedly, recounted true events taking place in the recent past. These events usually featured evil male behavior towards (young) women, either for material gain or for carnal pleasure: forced marriages, maltreatment of parents, i.e., unfilial behavior by children, kidnapping naive peasant girls and forcing them to work as hostesses, etc. The various elements of such cases were spelled out explicitly in multi-paneled posters, while the satisfying conclusion consisted of the legal countermeasures taken by the Public Security and Police representatives in the final panels. Relevant laws and regulations are, of course, cited prominently.
In those cases were I was not allowed to send off certain posters, all I could do was to fold the offensive materials and put them on the bottom of my travelling bag. The fact that they had been refused by the authorities added to their value, I thought, although it was hard to see what made them so 'dangerous.' Nonetheless, I felt compelled to add them to my collection, even if that meant breaking the law by smuggling them out of the country.
Now, in the 1990s, things have changed considerably. In the wake of the events on Tiananmen Square in Summer 1989, China has witnessed a few unsuccessful leadership attempts to revive the use of propaganda posters, in particular those portraying obedience and discipline, qualities that were left once more to Lei Feng to propagate. With the exception of the portraits of Mao, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi, posters have almost completely disappeared from Xinhua bookshops; often, they have been replaced by glossy calendars featuring pretty girls in various states of undress. Even Deng Xiaoping's attempts to do away with these so-called 'leader portraits' have come to naught: in the late Fall of 1992, a simple black-and-white brushwork portrait of Deng himself appeared on the market, which met, according to the reports, with enormous popular response.
Those posters that are still available, produced by artists who are not employed by the state, can no longer be bought at Xinhua shops: they have returned to being New Year prints, although they have adopted a modernized guise. One of the most interesting New Year prints published in 1993, on plastic sheeting, featured the traditional good-luck symbols of the San Xing, the gods of happiness, emolument and longevity. The attention of the spectator, however, is drawn to the center of the print: stacks of 50 and 100 yuan RMB bills, and a sizable stack of American $100 bills. Should this be interpreted as the ultimate success of the process of 'peaceful evolution'?