Stefan Landsberger, Paint it Red. Fifty years of Chinese Propaganda Posters

Originally published in:
Stefan R. Landsberger, Paint it Red (Groningen: Intermed Publishers, 1998) pp. 23-37
(Exhibition Catalogue, Groninger Museum)

Through five thousand years of history, Chinese politics have made extensive use of the arts to propagate correct behaviour and thought. Literature, poetry, painting, stage plays, songs and other artistic expressions were given one important function: they had to educate the people in what was considered right and wrong at any time. The general idea was that as long as the State provided examples of proper, or correct, behaviour, this automatically would lead the people to believe what was considered proper to believe.
This practice did not stop once the People's Republic of China was established in 1949. On the contrary, propaganda art continued to be seen as one of the major means to illustrate the 'correct' policies of the moment and the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) visions of the future, especially for those who could not read. And there were quite a few of those. During the huge political mass campaigns of the late 1950s and 1960s, in particular in the time of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, propaganda posters even came to dominate communications between the leadership and the people. In these years, the propaganda poster reached the peak of artistic expression, both in form and contents; the best available artists were employed to visualize the political trends of the moment in the most detailed way. And once the artists were finished, the posters were reproduced in as many copies as possible to create the maximum effect. Through its complete control of both the artists and the publishing sector, the CCP was able to force its interpretation of reality and aesthetics on the population. As opposed to other images to decorate the home with, propaganda art was widely available and thus penetrated into the lowest form of social organization and cohabitation: the multi-colored posters could be seen adorning walls in houses and dormitories. Their composition and visual content appealed to the spectators, while their political message was passed on in an almost subconscious manner.

What exactly is a propaganda poster?
Because Mao Zedong insisted that all art had to serve politics, all the posters on display in this exhibition can be considered propaganda posters. Some have explicit political or propagandistic contents, others do not. Similarly, some contain one or more politically inspired slogans, but not all of them. Propaganda posters can be and were produced in various artistic genres that were popular in China. Some were inspired by the genre of the New Year prints that had been produced for centuries; others were reproductions of oil paintings, or based on gouache, woodcuts, traditional paintings, and others.

In the pages that follow, the development of Chinese propaganda art as reproduced on posters will be closely examined. After all, by analysing these artistic interpretations of reality as dictated by the Party-leadership, the numerous political and social changes that have occurred in China in the last fifty years will be chronicled at the same time. Indeed, the history and development of the Chinese propaganda poster is like the history and development of modern China itself. This makes the Chinese propaganda poster such an extremely interesting and important source.

p. 23

In Search of a Revolutionary Style

Already before the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, a long search had been underway for a style to portray the accomplishments of the revolution. The traditional arts were considered ill equipped to serve the political goals of the Party: instead of addressing the elite, as the arts had always done, the "broad masses of the people" now had to be reached. After the Long March (1934-1935), the CCP finally had the opportunity to devote time and energy to that aspect of its work among the masses. In Yan'an, the area in the Northwest where the CCP established itself, the arts were first used as a catalyst for changes in the attitudes, behavior and culture of the peasantry. Propaganda art was created specifically to support political campaigns. Moreover, propaganda posters were widely used to mobilize the people in a struggle of resistance against the Japanese troops, which had invaded ever-larger parts of China since 1932. In order to accommodate and reach the largely illiterate peasants, the Party had to address them in terms of their own psychology and experience, by using reworked forms of art and images that were current among the people at the time. The medium of the New Year prints in particular was considered an excellent one for this goal.

New Year Pictures
New Year pictures made use of elements of folk art and symbolism and catered to the tastes and beliefs in the countryside; they provided protection, or expressed wishes for happiness and good luck. There were numerous varieties of New Year prints, which on the first day of the New Year would be stuck on the front gates, doors onto the courtyard, walls of a room, besides a room's windows, or on the water vat, rice cabinet, granary, or livestock fold. The prints did not necessarily spell out officially sanctioned behaviour. But they were created in an environment that was permeated by Confucianism, and, almost as a rule, they contained hints of what was considered desired behavior. In this way they drove home the Confucian values among the illiterate peasant population. And they used symbols that were traditionally seen as auspicious, including mythological personages like the Kitchen God, the Door God and the God of Longevity; such prints functioned as magical charms to drive away bad luck. This undoubtedly made them so popular among large sections of the population. These New Year prints evolved from the painting of images of gods on doors that could scare away ghosts and wild beasts during the Tang dynasty (618-907); later, printed versions started to appear. During the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), the subject matter of these prints broadened. The new types often showed the households of the rich and the opulent interiors of their houses, while at the same time reflecting Confucian principles; literary themes; theatrical subjects; and landscape prints. Especially during the 18th century, considered to be the golden age of New Year prints, their popularity reached its highest point, and the prints were spread widely throughout the country.

From the middle of the 19th century onward, numerous foreign companies settled along the eastern seaboard. The advertising agencies acting as their media agents introduced Western art techniques. These companies were instrumental in bringing large amounts of visual materials to the people, in the form of illustrated calendars, posters, handbills and scrolls. These materials often were designed by Chinese artists to cater to the specific Chinese taste; they were produced on some of the most sophisticated imported printing facilities and were distributed free of charge. The calendars, posters, scrolls or whatnot were meant to promote the sales of cigarettes, fabrics, medicines or beverages. Almost as a rule, they showed pictures of attractive girls; some of them even featured girls with bare breasts, or even completely nude ones, but such images were very rare.
They penetrated China, in particular in the countryside. There, they competed with New Year prints for the attention of the household and had a profound impact. As a matter of fact, the adverts, blended with Art Nouveau, formed a major influence on Chinese art and design in the 1920s. In a way, this commercial style, also called the 'Shanghai Style', became a benchmark for the way in which mass produced images were designed.

p. 24

Political Demands
The political limitations on art in a socialist society under CCP-rule had already been formulated in 1942. Mao Zedong, the Party-leader, stressed that the arts had to serve the "broad masses of the people", and made it clear that artistic modes of expression should be used that were popular among the people. More importantly, arts and artists had to serve politics, that is to say the demands made by the CCP; the Party, after all, considered itself to be the spokesperson of the masses. Mao summed up his expectations of revolutionary art by demanding "a unity of politics and art, a unity of content and form, a unity of revolutionary political content and the most perfect artistic form possible." Combining 'old forms,' or the "already existing sense of style among the common people," with new contents - politics - should create this unity. These decisions meant the end for the 'Shanghai Style': because of its links with advertising, and because of the fact that the more puritanical Party leaders frowned upon the frivolous women that it depicted, it was considered bourgeois and unhealthy.

'New' New Year Pictures
The 'new' New Year prints produced under Party-guidance came in the form of crude propaganda pictures, for which soldiers, workers and militiamen posed and which were painted on walls and houses, or on huge pieces of cloth. One form of propaganda pictures that was used from 1943 on, was the 'leader's portrait;' these portraits featured local, national and international figures (for example Marx and Lenin), military and political leaders (such as Mao), and labour and hygiene models. Such pictures sometimes were sold, but they were also given away as prizes.
The peasantry liked the old visual idiom and symbolism in these colourful images that was used by the CCP to propagate socialist principles. They liked their New Year prints realistic, as long as their portrayal of events was a little more beautiful than actual reality. Moreover, the 'new' New Year pictures were able to replace the traditional New Year prints because the CCP succeeded in establishing a hegemony over culture; the Party simply shut out old-style New Year prints by means of its monopoly over the media, by simply prohibiting their production and distribution.

An Urban Style
But being able to visualize abstract policy and hints for behavior through traditional New Year prints, even when adapted in style and contents to the revolutionary situation prevailing in China, soon turned out be not enough in the eyes of the leadership, or at least not modern enough. Although relatively successful in transforming, or at least positively influencing, the thoughts and sympathies of large sections of the peasantry, the arts also had to be directed toward the audience of newly liberated urbanites who were still largely unfamiliar with, and possibly hostile to, communism. The big cities, after all, were the last areas to come under Party control.
From a very early stage, the CCP leadership sought inspiration in the Soviet Union for a number of concepts and institutions to rule the nation. This search included the development of a visual propaganda for city dwellers that was completely different from the decadent "Shanghai Style" they liked so much. As a result, Mao and other Chinese 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. Because of the bright colours and the happy and prosperous atmosphere that is so characteristic of Socialist Realism, it was seen as a continuation of the essential features of New Year prints, while at the same time new, modernized elements were used. What had to be discarded was the traditional symbolism that made New Year prints magical charms to ward off bad luck. This symbolism undoubtedly contributed to the prints' popularity among the people, but the Party considered such symbols superstitious.

Chinese Socialist Realism

Socialist Realism, then, became the accepted manner of representing the future after the People's Republic was founded in 1949. Socialist Realism was the dominant form of artistic expression in the Soviet Union. It depicted 'life' truthfully and in its revolutionary development, not merely as an objective reality. It provided a realistic view of life, represented in the rosy colors of optimism, and largely seen through an urban lens. Socialist Realism focussed on industrial plants, blast furnaces,

p. 25

power stations, construction sites and people at work, and stressed the importance of the economic and industrial development of the country. All this corresponded well with the Chinese policy that art should serve politics. 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. Some of the artists who had become exponents of the 'Shanghai Style' initially also tried their hands at this new mode of expression. They were given the opportunity - or in some cases were forced by the Party - to study real life, "to live with the people", and to spend time in factories and in the countryside, in order to be able to produce images that were true to life.

What is Socialist Realism?
In Socialist Realism, an image is structured as a narrative, something which is not merely to be seen or to be understood, but which can also be 'read', as a story containing numerous meanings. It is subjected to a number of codes. First of all, the main subject of the image is located in or near the centre, and usually illuminated by a natural or artificial source of light; this makes the other subject(s) shrouded in shadows. The representation of the subject is highly coloured and detailed. These are not the only reasons why all attention is drawn to the main subject. Its placement at the top of an imaginary, triangular ground plan, with the secondary subjects along the diagonal sides, is even more instrumental in drawing the spectators' attention. This spatial device, moreover, serves as a wedge from the foreground into the middle, adding depth to the painting. Secondly, Socialist Realism portrays the future in the present, not only showing "life as it really is," but also "life as it ought to be," or the revolutionary development which takes place "in the spirit of Socialism". In short, it creates a type of 'faction,' a hybrid of 'fact' and 'fiction,' stressing the positive and papering over anything negative. Socialist Realism, blended with traditional elements and specific Chinese artistic techniques, was not only thought appropriate because of its appeal to the masses. It also portrayed idealized social and political behavioural models, or learning objects: ordinary men and women engaged in the creation of this better future. In this way, the 'bright side' of life of the 'real heroes,' the representatives of the 'new people,' striving for a 'new world', was shown.

Models as Teaching Aids
The use of models played an important role in the political thought of Mao Zedong. He was convinced that everybody had to be made constantly aware of what constitutes correct behaviour, and what conduct was deemed unacceptable; he believed that correct ideas followed automatically from proper behaviour. This was not something Mao had invented. It rather builds upon ideas that had been developed over the centuries by Chinese philosophers: that people could be formed and transformed as if they were clay puppets.
According to Mao, when an ordinary person is confronted with a model of ideal behaviour, he will feel a desire to remake himself. This results in a contradiction between the existing, internalized values of that person and the new ones he compares himself with. The struggle between these two, then, leads to a new equilibrium, in which the new values are internalized. But the process does not stop there: When confronted with a new model, the equilibrium in turn gives way to a new internal contradiction. In this way, an eternal cycle of confrontation, internalization and renewed confrontation is created, leading to ever-higher levels of human perfection. Or, as Mao himself once said, "... it is only through repeated education by positive and negative examples and through comparisons and contrasts that revolutionary parties and revolutionary people can temper themselves, become mature and make sure of victory."
Various people of flesh and blood have had the good fortune to become a model; such models embodied the "spirit of a screw" by blindly following superiors. In the 1950s, Party functionaries were held up for study, because they demonstrated boundless love for the people, sacrificed everything they had for the ideals of the party, and were loyal and obedient to boot. Other models included soldiers who had died a martyr's death in the struggle for power that in the end led to the foundation of the PRC.

p. 26

The Early Years

The early years of the PRC were a time of hope and support for the party. The posters of this period truly reflect the enthusiasm that existed among the population. Despite the numerous political campaigns, organized to increase or consolidate popular support for various aspects of Communist rule, to combat corruption and bureaucracy, politics were not the most important subject. Everybody seemed to be willing to join the enormous effort that was required to create a new socialist world in a country that was devastated by decades of war and internal strife, and the propaganda reflected that desire. Elderly Chinese, both Party leaders and ordinary people, still talk about the "golden years" when they think back to these days.
During the 'Great Leap Forward'-campaign in the late 1950s, things changed dramatically in all fields of life. In the arts, Mao cryptically insisted that Soviet Socialist Realism should be replaced by a 'fusion of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism'. According to one explanation of the concept, in this fusion "revolutionary realism takes realism as its keynote, and blends it with romanticism," and "revolutionary romanticism takes romanticism as its keynote, but blends it with realism." 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 element of romanticism made the arts more visionary, and provided an even rosier representation of Chinese reality. It had to instill in the population the spirit of self-sacrifice, hope and enthusiasm to overcome concrete obstacles by pure willpower. The atmosphere during the 'Great Leap' was one of absolute optimism and belief in the ability of the people to end China's backwardness and to turn the country into an advanced nation overnight. No wonder that propaganda made extensive use of models in the various subcampaigns that were designed to overcome the objective difficulties created by lagging industrialization and mechanization. A typical subject of the time were people operating backyard furnaces, where everybody was supposed to contribute personally to the production of steel. These models were used by the CCP to demonstrate that by purely relying on will power, the people would be able to bring about a quick transformation of the concrete obstacles they encountered in the physical world.
Within less than two years, the movement proved to be a disaster and turned into a nightmare. Instead of becoming an advanced nation, China suffered from disastrous famines, claiming an estimated forty million lives, which resulted from the failures of the Great Leap. It is no coincidence that particularly in the years following the movement, a large number of posters were produced featuring great amounts of food.

The Early 1960s

By 1962, Mao had been pushed out of the center of politics and power as a result of the failures of the Great Leap movement for which he was held responsible. Under the rule of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, politics and economic developments returned to the predictability of the early 1950s. By applying a less strict interpretation of ideology they were rather successful in countering the negative effects of Mao's disastrous economic policies.
Mao's artistic policies also were dismissed: the attention devoted to politics and the heroic characters in Socialist Realist art was replaced by a more balanced treatment of the so-called 'middle characters,' people who could neither be classified as heroes, nor as villains. More room was left for personal doubts and individual shortcomings, to make the subjects more recognizable and true to life. The idealistic and heroic images were replaced by more romantic visualizations of the good life that the people led under socialism. Quite a few 'pretty-girl pictures,' art featuring female beauties in an aesthetically pleasant way, without any (hidden) political message, were produced.
Mao did everything in his power to regain his influence and position. In order to do so, he increasingly found fault with the policies of the leaders who had succeeded him. One of the most important results was that they were able to bring an end to the famines. This was more than Mao could bear, and he advocated the unleashing of a Socialist Education Movement (SEM), in an attempt to 'inoculate' the peasantry against the temptations of feudalism and the sprouts of capitalism which in his analysis were re-emerging in the countryside. Large doses of didactic politicized art, both in the form of images and

p. 27

literature, were produced as serum for this inoculation process. The Party bureaucracy, in the meantime, tried everything in its power to block Mao's initiatives; because of the Party's obstructions, Mao became convinced that the CCP opposed him. Accusing the Party of 'revisionism', he turned towards the only organization he considered trustworthy: the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

The People's Liberation Army
The PLA had been active in the field of propaganda art during the anti-Japanese and the Civil Wars; in peacetime, the army largely followed the trends in the civilian arts world as the Party dictated them. The PLA increasingly was employed to bolster the personality cult around Mao, and thus to produce art that would contribute to the construction of Mao's god-like image. Already before the compilation of the Quotations from Chairman Mao (the 'Little Red Book'), Mao-supporters in the Army had turned the PLA into "a great school of Mao Zedong Thought": an organization that functioned along the ideological and political lines as Mao desired them. The army was the driving force behind the campaign to study Mao's Quotations. In the 1960s, the people (both in China and the West), were led to believe that a study session with the Quotations could create miracles. According to one contemporary Chinese observer, the Little Red Book "... 'supplied the breath of life' to soldiers gasping in the thin air of the Tibetan plateau; enabled workers to raise the sinking city of Shanghai three-quarters of an inch; inspired a million people to subdue a tidal wave in 1969, inaccurate meteorologists to forecast weather correctly, a group of housewives to re-invent shoe polish, surgeons to sew back severed fingers and remove a ninety-nine pound tumor as big as a football."

Model Soldiers
The PLA and its "fine work style" not only became objects of study; it also supplied most of the models that corresponded most closely to Mao's ideas about ideological correctness. In the 1960s, the number of such soldier-models increased. The best known of them was Lei Feng. His greatest desire in life was to be nothing more than "a revolutionary screw that never rusts". As a "little screw", Lei Feng performed many good deeds: he sent his meager savings to the parents of a fellow soldier who had been hit by a flood; he served tea and food to officers and recruits; he washed his buddies' feet after a long march, and darned their socks; he went all-out to show his devotion to the revolutionary cause. In short, he lived the life of a saint, or a saintly Boy Scout. He did not commit any great deeds by which he was remembered, but taught the people how to be happy with what they had, to obey the Party and to let the Central Committee, or better still, Mao himself, do their thinking for them. Lei was killed in an accident with his Army truck on 15 August 1962. Until today, a debate continues whether Lei has ever really existed.
Although Lei could be termed a nobody, he left behind a diary that became an object of national study. His diary was reprinted, photographs of Lei in action all of a sudden turned up, movies were made about his life, stills from these movies were turned into comic strips; posters bearing his image were produced in staggering quantities. It has always been something of a miracle that such an unprepossessing person could have made such an impact, and could have left so many pictures and written materials, even before he died.

The Cultural Revolution

Mao's attempts to regain power are one of the causes of the so-called 'Cultural Revolution' (1966-1976). Despite the name, the movement itself had little to do with culture: it was the climax in the power struggle between Mao and the Party.
From 1966, this movement, which was led by Mao from the top-down, gained momentum, and increasingly caused chaos and dislocation in the nation. The Little Red Book was distributed in millions and millions of copies; the Mao-quotes were studied, chanted, sung, and used as magic spells. The first 'big character posters' were pasted on walls, in which "anti-Party" elements, real or perceived enemies of Mao were attacked. 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 the summer of 1966,

p. 28

Mao was back in power, and the moderate policies were turned back.
From that moment on, the number of Red Guard Organisations, in which students and other youngsters organised themselves, exploded. Waving their copies of the Little Red Book, they travelled all over the country to preach revolution. The Party and state organizations practically ceased to function. Among the various Red Guard groups, a struggle erupted over the question who was truly a follower of Mao; in the years 1967-1969, this struggle escalated into a veritable civil war. The country and the economy were in a shambles. None of this can be seen in the propaganda posters of that period.
Mao quickly became disillusioned with his young supporters, whom he was unable to control. The urban youngsters were sent to the countryside, where they were supposed to gain 'revolutionary experience' from the peasants. In those areas where the 'rebels' refused to obey, the PLA was sent in. By 1969, the Cultural Revolution was officially declared to have ended. In reality, Mao's wife and her supporters took over power. They organized a number of radical mass movements in order to bolster their control over society.
Life in China in those years was definitely unpleasant. Every aspect of life and society was influenced by politics that seemed to change every minute. Although the economy slowly started to pick up, the situation remained bleak. There was barely enough food, and consumer goods were practically completely unavailable. But when we look at the posters of the era, we get a completely different impression.

Cultural Revolution Art

In the years leading up to the Cultural Revolution, the Army dictated the guidelines for art: it should unite and educate the people, inspire the struggle of revolutionary people and eliminate the bourgeoisie. Art had to be revolutionized and guided by Mao Zedong Thought, its contents had to be militant and to reflect real life. Already by 1964, most of the paintings, New Year prints and woodcuts featured lots of red paint, army heroes (Lei Feng), Mao, and his thoughts. Proletarian ideology, communist morale and spirit, revolutionary heroism were the messages of a new type of hyper-realistic, politicized art.

Jiang Qing takes command
The examples provided by the Army were very much to the liking of Mao's wife Jiang Qing. Originally, she played no role of consequence in Chinese politics, but she became the ultimate artistic arbiter during the Cultural Revolution: her ideas became dogmas. The conceptual and theatrical conventions provided by a number of model operas and ballets that she supported became the standards in the visual arts. These operas and ballets included The Red Lantern; The Red Detachment of Women; and The White Haired Girl. After they were staged in Peking in May 1967, they became artistic models. Pictures from these performances were in turn reproduced as posters.
She formulated the principle of the 'three prominences', which should not only apply to the stage, but should be used in painting too: stress positive characters; stress the heroic in them; stress the central character of the main characters. Thus, the subjects were portrayed realistically, and, employing stage techniques, were always in the centre of the action, flooded with light from the sun or from hidden sources. Moreover, when we look at the propaganda posters of these years, it always seems as if we, the spectators, are looking upward, as if the action is indeed taking place upon a stage.
The visual arts were more and more employed to communicate the correct ideological standpoint and corresponding behaviour. Only a narrow range of subjects was considered ideologically safe, and art became politicized and stereotyped to the extreme. It was the first time that propaganda art became the most favoured vehicle for the transmission of party ideology; in those days the propaganda artists themselves were held in the highest esteem. Some posters did not deal with Chinese affairs. They called for support of the various wars and struggles for liberation and independence taking place in the world, for example, the war between America and North Vietnam.
Original works of art were reproduced in journals and magazines; they were reprinted as large-format posters, or in smaller formats, and some were even turned into postage stamps. The large posters could be seen in the streets, in railway stations and other public spaces; the smaller ones were distributed through the network of the Xinhua (New China) bookshops for mass consumption. Given the frequent changes in what was considered correct, these political posters became to be more

p. 29

carefully studied than newspapers for any subtle change of tone or ideology and use of slogans.
Not everybody was equally susceptible to the bombardment with visual propaganda that was part and parcel of the Cultural Revolution. Members of a Swiss delegation visiting China in the early 1970s were mystified by the heroic portrayal of the subjects in propaganda art and wondered about the usefulness of the portrayal of these superheroes in which, in their opinion, no Chinese could recognize him- or herself. Moreover, and despite abundant contemporary pictorial evidence indicating the contrary, the delegation members themselves did not see any propaganda posters in the houses of the workers they visited or passed by. And although the artists, through study of the concrete conditions in factories and rural areas, did their utmost to make their works as realistic as possible, it often happened that they were severely criticized by workers and peasants. They usually did not agree with the way in which machinery, workshop conditions, or other activities were portrayed.

The Cultural Revolution Style
As in the Soviet posters of the 1930s, the hyper-realistic representations of ageless, larger-than-life peasants, soldiers, workers and educated youth in dynamic poses functioned as abstractions and dominated all artistic expression as ideal types. The heroic figures were usually boldly outlined, while the colouring tended to be varied and gay, a style which combines Chinese ink outline and Western colour shading.
These strong and healthy bodies functioned as metaphors for the strong and healthy productive classes the State wanted to propagate. However, the gender distinctions of the subjects were by and large erased. The physical distinction between males and females practically disappeared - something which was also attempted in real life. Men and women alike had stereotypical, "masculinized" bodies; they were dressed in cadre grey, army green or worker/peasant blue; and their faces, including short-cropped hairdos and chopped-off pigtails, were done according to a limited standard repertoire of acceptable examples.
The faces of rural Party secretaries and elderly peasants in propaganda art, for example, were often modeled after Chen Yonggui, the Party secretary of the rural model commune of Dazhai in Northwest China. Even in those posters that featured Mao, the Chairman appeared as a muscular super-person. The artists who were formerly engaged in producing propaganda art even today speak with disdain about those posters that were produced in what they call "a schematic way", and stress the need for a personal touch in the design of posters, even in the days when "politics took command".

Mao as a super model
Content-wise, the figure of Mao Zedong, as the Great Teacher, the Great Leader, the Great Helmsman, the Supreme Commander, his revolutionary role and his Thought, dominated the propaganda art of the first half of the Cultural Revolution, often to the exclusion of other subjects. Mao, of course, already had appeared prominently on propaganda posters dating back as far as the 1940s, despite his warnings against a personality cult. The intensity of his portrayal in the second half of the 1960s, however, was unparalleled. Mao simply was everywhere; his official portrait even hung in every home, often occupying the central place on the family altar, adding to the already god-like stature of Mao as it was created in propaganda posters.
Mao, then, seemed to be the only permissible subject of the era, the only model displaying behaviour that could be emulated. He could be depicted as a benevolent father, bringing the Confucian mechanisms of obedience into play. Or he was portrayed as a wise statesman, an astute military leader or a great teacher. Another group of posters visually recounted his illustrious historical deeds. His image was considered more important than the occasion for which the propaganda poster was designed: in a number of cases, identical posters were published in different years bearing different slogans, in other words, serving different propaganda causes.
But no matter how he was depicted, he had to be painted hong, guang, liang (红光亮, red, bright, and shining); no grey was allowed for shading, and the use of black was often interpreted as an indication of an artist's counter-revolutionary intentions. As the ultimate model, every detail of his representation had to be preconceived along ideological lines and invested with symbolic meaning. The artist Liu Chunhua who made the painting Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan explained the principles. This

p. 30

painting shows Mao in a traditional long tunic, carrying an oiled paper umbrella. "We placed Chairman Mao in the forefront of the painting, advancing towards us like a rising sun bringing hope to the people. Every line of the Chairman's figure embodies the great thought of Mao Zedong and in portraying his journey we strove to give significance to every small detail. His head held high in the act of surveying the scene before him conveys his revolutionary spirit, dauntless before danger and violence and courageous in struggle and in 'daring to win'; his clenched fist depicts his revolutionary will, scorning all sacrifice, his determination to surmount every difficulty to emancipate China and mankind and it shows his confidence in victory. The old umbrella under his right arm demonstrates his hard-working style of travelling, in all weather over great distances, across the mountains and rivers, for the revolutionary cause [...] With the arrival of our great leader, blue skies appear over Anyuan. The hills, sky, trees and clouds are the means used artistically to evoke a grand image of the red sun in our hearts. Riotous clouds are drifting swiftly past. They indicate that Chairman Mao is arriving in Anyuan at a critical point of sharp class struggle and show, in contrast how tranquil, confident and firm Chairman Mao is at that moment [...]." It is believed that more than nine hundred million copies of this particular painting were eventually printed; it was displayed at meetings and carried around during demonstrations, mass meetings and processions, and many found their way onto walls, next to the official portrait of the Chairman.
As a consequence of these creative rules, the more god-like and divorced from the masses Mao became to be portrayed. His face was painted usually in red and other warm tones, and in such a way that it appeared smooth and seemed to radiate as the primary source of light in a composition, illuminating the faces of the people that faced him. Not only the man himself was made into a divine being; his portrait had to be treated with special care as well, as if it contained the divinity himself: nothing could be placed above it, and its frame should not have a single blemish.
And yet, despite the apparent distance between Leader and Led, there was something in the images featuring Mao that struck a chord with the people, something recognizable that turned him into an EveryMao. The 'imaged' Mao remained united with the people, whether he inspected fields, shook hands with the peasants, sat down with them, and shared a cigarette with them; whether he inspected factories or infra-structural works, joked with the workers, and possibly shared a cigarette with them; whether he was dressed in military uniform, discussing strategy with military leaders, inspected the rank-and-file, or mingled with contingents of Red Guards; whether he stood on the bow of a ship, dressed in a terry cloth bathrobe after an invigorating swim in the Yangzi River; whether he headed a column of representatives of the national minorities; or received a delegation of foreign visitors; even when he floated above a sea of red flags.

An Agrarian Utopia
Already in the early 1970s, the extreme and religious presence of Mao receded. In propaganda posters, proxies such as Lei Feng and Chen Yonggui often replaced Mao himself, and his dominant position was taken over by the embodiments of his Thought. This did not diminish the adulation of Mao, who continued to lead the CCP as it was being rebuilt. The excesses committed by the people during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s were safely attributed to people scheming against Mao. And the army, formerly the "great school of Mao Zedong Thought", no longer functioned as a model for the people. Instead, the "fine work style" of the CCP and the masses were what the army needed to learn from.
The posters that did not feature Mao were devoted almost exclusively to idealized visualizations of life. They dealt with the 'new things' that were seen as the victories of the Cultural Revolution. They featured heroic images of workers, peasants and soldiers waving the Little Red Book and cheering on whatever mass movement was taking place at that moment. Or they highlighted the successes in industry (by showing the industrial model of the Daqing Oilfield) and agriculture (by showing the agricultural model commune of Dazhai), and other models of production, all of them basking, directly or indirectly, in Mao's glory.
Although large numbers of posters were produced that were situated in factories and were dedicated to the struggle for increased industrial production, indicating that this production was taking giant leaps forward, what seemed to predominate in the materials of the early 1970s were the scenes set in the countryside. These prints, seen through an idealized, urban lens, generally showed the successes of mechanized agriculture and water conservancy, groups of peasants engaged in harvesting

p. 31

bumper crops (of corn, cotton, red peppers, cabbage, and others), engaging in political study or participating in mass campaigns, or simply enjoying their improved lives. Moreover, they paid great attention to the productive roles that women could play. The latter were frequently represented as 'imitation boys', or as 'iron women' who engaged in precisely the types of back-breaking work previously deemed unsuitable for women; another female role was that of the 'barefoot'-doctor, a type of paramedics responsible for administering medicine in the countryside. Other materials were devoted to the contributions to agriculture that the students-turned Red Guards made while they received revolutionary education from the peasants. Amateur artists among workers and peasants were given nation-wide attention and became an accepted group of propaganda art producers. Although these amateurs were promoted as representatives of the innate creative genius of the masses, it was later admitted that they had received extensive professional help and assistance in "the composition of their pictures, as well as with the conception, presentation and skilful rendering" in their work. This help was often provided by the same artists that had been active in the years before the Cultural Revolution was unleashed.
The most well-known were the peasant-painters from Huxian, Shaanxi Province, who even became internationally acclaimed for their naive, colourful style in painting. Other "amateurs" whose work was reproduced on posters were the Shanghai No. 3 Glass Household Utensil Factory Revolutionary Committee Political Propaganda Group, Xuhui District Residential Building and Repair Company No. 3 Construction Brigade Revolutionary Committee Political Propaganda Group; the Lilda City Worker-Peasant-Soldier Propaganda Print Creation Study Group; the Dezhou Machine Tool Factory; the Dalian Red Flag Shipbuilding Factory; the Revolutionary Committee of the Jilin Provincial Movie Distribution Company; and the Dalian Electronic Parts Factory.
The pictures they made were figurative and realistic, almost as if photographs had been copied in painting. They painted in a naive style, with all forms outlined in black, filled in with bright pinks, reds, yellows, greens and blues. Their works succeeded in giving an acceptable image to a real-life situation that was quite different. Various books and journals that supplied information on how to draw human beings, agricultural machinery, and others, were published. Without doubt, these publications functioned as sources of inspiration for the amateur artists. They contained concise close-ups of workers, peasants and soldiers, young or old, male or female, at work or engaged in some other meaningful activity, sometimes from posters that had already been published, and were intended to provide good examples of how to represent human beings in art. In all probability, these source books were responsible for the stereotyped quality of the visual propaganda of this period.

The Era of Hua Guofeng

The styles and themes that had been instrumental in propagating the image of Mao and in creating a completely false impression of the reality that existed in China, continued to dominate Chinese propaganda art well beyond Mao's death in September 1976 and the official end of the Cultural Revolution, which was proclaimed shortly thereafter. Hua Guofeng became Mao's handpicked successor. Hua was a relative outsider, and not well versed in the palace intrigues and power politics of the Party. To improve his standing, he tried to take over Mao's political legacy by uncritically adopting most of his policies by stating that "We firmly uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made and we unswervingly adhere to whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave", a statement also known as the "two whatevers". Hua understandably needed the artistic idiom that previously had been centred on Mao to bolster his own claims to power. Under his leadership, he had posters made that showed him in identical situations and locations as where the Great Helmsman had been immortalized. Various paintings were made and reprinted which featured Mao, including those that depicted Mao while handing over his testament to Hua. In other cases, Hua took over the position in works of art that had until then been reserved for Mao. All this was clearly done to support Hua's legitimacy as successor. Despite the indications that Mao's policies would continue in all fields, Hua's term of office did witness the beginnings of a massive rehabilitation of all those artists and intellectuals who had been prosecuted during the 'ten years of chaos' of the Cultural Revolution. Many of the artists who had continued painting in the idiom called for by the times, however, found it difficult to shake off the style they had been working in during the Cultural Revolution. Several of them complained that the bright reds and other colours they had had to use throughout the decade ruined their eyes.

p. 32

Propaganda art in the 1980s

However, within a few years, Deng Xiaoping slowly eased Hua out of his position, mainly because he could not provide a real alternative. Under Deng's leadership, the economic rehabilitation of China was taken up. This had grave consequences for propaganda art. Particularly important was the decision to do away with Socialist Realism. Alternative modes of creation now could be experimented with, a process facilitated by the new openness of Chinese society that became one of the hallmarks of the reform period. Propaganda themes became less heroic and militant, and more impressionistic, while bold colours were replaced with more subdued ones. Abstract images replaced realism; explicit political contents were replaced by a stress on economic construction, or even by ordinary commercial advertisements. Design and representational techniques borrowed from Western advertising were employed frequently. Although all these changes in style made the images less accessible to the more backward sections of the population, they greatly invigorated the overall product.
This demonstrated a reversal of the principles underlying the production of propaganda. In the 1950s, with help and inspiration from the Soviet Union, propaganda replaced the 'Shanghai Style' which was so greatly influenced by advertising. In the 1980s, the artists responsible for producing propaganda images seek inspiration in Western advertising, and try to avoid the blatant political contents of the past thirty years.
Propaganda art lost contact with the population. By consciously avoiding political or moralizing contents in their works, artists provided the people with visual materials that they considered more meaningful. These developments led to the disappearance of visual propaganda from the streets and State bookstores. With a rich choice of truly desirable paintings and posters available, nobody was interested in buying the political messages. A further blow to the use of propaganda posters was caused by municipal regulations, according to which the posting of posters was forbidden because it contravened environmental legislation.
Posters continued to be produced, but in ever decreasing numbers. They can best be termed as glimpses of 'living in a material world,' a far cry from the propaganda materials from the previous decades. Cultural Revolution propaganda usually exhorted people to give their utmost for the common weal. People were always seen to be engaged, as a group, in some form of meaningful activity. In the reform era, propaganda posters started to pay to attention to the propagation of 'wholesome,' individual spare-time activities.

Symbols of modernity
The population had to be made familiar with the political and economic changes taking place. The inspiration for powerful images to portray these changes had to be sought outside China. Once more, artists were allowed to look across the borders, specifically to the West, for examples that could invigorate the arts. The images that were presumed to indicate development included space ships, mono-rails and other representations from science fiction. Spacecraft in particular seemed to be ascribed with modernizing qualities, while the use of building imagery (construction cranes, high-rise buildings, and others) and agricultural abundance was a clear reference to the new policies promising change and prosperity. One other, crucial change took place. In early posters, the people could usually be seen as being actively involved in creating the rosy future which was to become reality under the CCP. To promote the mechanization of agriculture, for example, peasants were shown while actually operating agricultural machinery. In this way, posters contained information on how mechanization could be managed. The symbolic use of science-fiction imagery and silhouettes of high-rise buildings merely functioned as a backdrop for the messages of economic development of 1 980s posters. No people were actually shown while engaged in building activities, or while operating spacecraft. Of course, by using these visual elements in the sense of a far, but not unattainable future, by placing them, as it were, behind, and therefore outside of, the central action itself, the posters did get a truly utopian quality. At the same time, such a sudden change in style actually might deter people from precisely doing what the posters tried to let them do: construct these spacecraft, or high-rise buildings, and make the future which they represent, a tangible reality for everybody.

p. 33

Changes in contents and representation
Propaganda must reflect reality, even in a society that has been changing as fundamentally as China was in the 1980s and 1 990s. A number of developments in the contents of propaganda art really stand out as they are so far removed from the practices of the past.
The first hint of the improvement in living conditions was the depiction of the greater diversity in clothing, both in material, design, cut and colour, that people, in particular women, wear in posters. Gone were the blue, grey or black uni-sex 'Maosuits' that demonstrated the people's proletarian outlook in the past. The accoutrements of the revolutionary past were traded in for running shoes, leather jackets and designer-suits for men, for more feminine dresses - including the Shanghai dress, with its high slits -, spiked heels and hot-pants for women. Gone were the chopped hairdos and ponytails of past posters, making way for hairdo's that were permed or styled in other fanciful ways.
More and careful attention was paid to private space, to the interiors of dwellings. Potted plants and flower vases returned to the Chinese living room and were no longer considered signs of bourgeois living. Previously, poster backgrounds only consisted of factory interiors, public reading rooms, classrooms, or rural scenes in the open air. In those few instances where the interiors of factories and industrial equipment in workshops were visualized in the reform era, these were modernized as well. Coupled with this development is the attention being devoted to the gadgets that make life more bearable: sofa's and radio-cassette recorders have become fixtures in every household. Indeed, the radio-cassette player became the most explicit symbol of modernization in the early 1980s, and was seen as an embodiment of success in the new era. The television set, another medium owned by ever growing numbers of people, has been represented only seldomly in the posters. Other personal possessions that do appear in posters, are personal jewellery and film cameras.
The greater freedom of movement resulting from the withdrawal of CCP-control over the everyday life of the people, and from the increase in disposable income, led to an increase in the ownership of motorbikes, mopeds, and cars. These means of mobility largely replaced the bicycle and the tractor that were featured in earlier prints. The crowded highways featuring in 1980s and 1990s posters clearly give the impression that motorized personal transport will be within everyone's reach within the near future.
Lastly, more attention was paid to consumption. Before, people were depicted while producing food; now, they could be seen while actually consuming it. This not only applies to staple foods, such as rice, and fruits, for examples oranges and apples; the can of soda, whether vaguely reminiscent of Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola or not, became a recurring theme.

Gender representation and the female image
The frequent portrayal of women in 1980s' posters coincided with the formulation of a number of laws to combat male chauvinism and safeguard the rights of women and children. The earlier prints showed an abundance of females, too, of course; after all, Mao himself had declared that women held up half of the sky. In Cultural Revolution posters women were often represented as peasants, reflecting the reality where women worked the fields; others showed them at work in factories. Aside from these obvious ways of representing women, they also frequently appeared as Party secretaries and heads of study groups. But the persons with real authority, the rural cadres or the foremen in the factories, usually were portrayed as men. This situation did not really change in the 1980s and 1990s.
In general, gender boundaries were redrawn in the 1980s, a process which continued in the 1990s. Women who in preceding decades were shown while engaging in typically masculine types of work in both society and production, thereby threatening the activities and positions by and large seen to be occupied by males, returned to their traditional, more 'feminine' roles of servants/waitresses, mothers and child-rearers. The need was no longer felt in official art to urge women to break through the traditional assumptions of gender inferiority; instead, they were exhorted to return to the stove. These exhortations were voiced with renewed vigor in the late 1990s, when female workers from bankrupt State industries who had been made redundant were called upon to take responsibility for the domestic side of family life and to return to the stove. And although being relegated to a more supportive role, the 'relative size' of women, the "way in which social weight - power, authority, rank, office, renown - is echoed expressively in social situations," did not change when compared

p. 34

with the days when they still held up half the sky. In official art, man and woman usually stand as equally tall as before. Female subjects started to use eyeliner, lipstick, and rouge. This was an obvious reflection of the increased interest in personal beauty, whereby a number of women started to spend at least half their income on clothing, accessories, cosmetics and hair styling. More and more, the apparent preference for a more Eurasian female look became visible, judging by the large number of posters featuring this. They should be seen as an echo of the urban social reality of the 1980s and 1990s where women in urban areas had various types of cosmetic surgery performed, by which part of the upper eyelid was excised, or a silicon strip was inserted in the nose. As such, 'pretty girl' pictures entered the world of propaganda art in a big way, perhaps in a further attempt to make its message more attractive to the population.
The frequent visualization of young girls is caused by another development. Parallel with the 'one-child' campaign, which started in the late 1970s, the population at large had to be convinced that girls had the same economic and emotional value as boys. This was to offset the traditional, but still widespread desire to have sons, and at the same time to try and bring to a halt the infanticide of baby girls, a practice that has led to an unbalanced composition of the population.

Portrayal of power
Deng Xiaoping decided to do away with the leader worship as it had been practised in the past. Before the Cultural Revolution started, he was one of the few who criticized Mao for basking in the adoration of the masses. He himself succeeded in becoming a Chinese supreme leader who only rarely appeared on propaganda posters. The decision initially posed a problem for the visualization of political power, and therefore of the Party itself. Non-personalized symbolism was found in the emblem of the State (Tian'anmen); the CCP's logo of hammer and sickle; and the symbol of the nation (five yellow stars on a red background). The only exceptions to Deng's veto on leader portraits were those featuring the leaders who had collaborated with Mao during the revolution.
Of course, political reality dictated that the image of Mao himself, as the founding father of the People's Republic, continued to be used. His image, after all, continues to overlook the Square of Heavenly Peace in Peking and there are other indications that he is here to stay for quite some time. Over the years, the Great Teacher, the Great Leader, the Great Helmsman, the Supreme Commander has become something of a legend; and in a way, he has come full-circle. This can be seen from 1994 New Year pictures that show him surrounded by exactly the same traditional symbols of good fortune and "superstitions" (Chinese money or American dollar bills, fish, lotus flowers, fat babies, etc.) that the CCP had attempted to stamp out in his name. Even as late as 1997, memorial calendars for 1998 were published devoted to Mao. It should not be a surprise, then, that according to the results of a survey in the China Youth Daily, the official journal of the Chinese Communist Youth League, published in April 1995, 94.2% of the 100 thousand respondents considered Mao the most admired Chinese personality.

Propaganda art in the 1990s

Only with Deng's retirement from public life after the Tian'anmen Incident in 1989, the Propaganda Department finally saw an opportunity to build up a cult around the "Chief Architect" of reform. In November 1992, after Deng had made an inspection tour of the Southern, most advanced and prosperous provinces, a portrait of him was released as a poster, done in typical brushwork style. A year later, posters appeared that featured Deng's more remarkable remarks ("We should do more, and engage in less empty talk", amongst others), against a backdrop of either a photo montage of a modern city skyline, or flower arrangements reminiscent of the 1950s. In a way which resembles the famous Mao Zedong/Hua Guofeng posters of 1976, Deng's chosen successor Jiang Zemin appeared, together with his patron, in a poster released in 1995. Another poster, published in 1997 with Deng and Jiang, was said to have been taken off the market shortly after publication for reasons unknown. With Deng's demise in February 1997, the market was flooded with "Deng posters". People did not simply buy the images; trinkets, memorabilia and outright kitsch, such as watches bearing Deng's portrait, were also quite en vogue for a while. It seems as if Deng, with his health decreasing, was less and less able to keep the Party propaganda machinery - and Jiang Zemin - from using him as a propaganda object.

p. 35

Lacking Credibility
In the reform era, posters have lost their credibility and appeal, and increasingly are considered to be old-fashioned. Yet, they continue to be produced, for example for special events, although overall their numbers have decreased dramatically. After the Tian'anmen Incident of 1989, propaganda posters featuring Lei Feng and other models were re-introduced by the leadership in an attempt to once again educate the people in the image desired by the Party. Obedience and other qualities were stressed that no longer corresponded with the harsh reality of mass unemployment, cut-throat competition, and increasing inequality. Indeed, in a society in the throes of realizing "socialism with Chinese characteristics", where assertiveness is increasingly valued, the people could gain little by following examples of self-sacrifice. In fact, many Chinese have long considered Lei Feng as a joke.
This may be the reason that over the years, the image of Lei himself has undergone a number of official re-stylings while echoes of his obedient persona continued to resound. He has appeared as a homeowner, as the possessor of a savings account, and in many other guises. Most recently, he even was touted as a possible patron saint of the private entrepreneurs. Hailing a laid-off worker who had opened a shop of his own, the official China Daily said he possessed Lei's "lofty spirit", and continued that "As times change, the interpretation of the Lei Feng Spirit has also been continually enriched and has now far exceeded the narrow scope of altruism. It can always have new definitions suited to the demands of the times." Something similar happened with Mao Zedong, not exactly an admirer of private enterprises, whose picture was hung behind the shop counters of private entrepreneurs to bring good luck to their business.

Socialist spiritual civilization
Aside from presenting timeworn and well-tested behavioral models such as Lei Feng, posters have been given a major role in the creation of a socialist spiritual civilization. The concept was first mentioned in December 1980, but it was taken up with renewed enthusiasm in the 1990s. Broadly speaking, it should consist of the raising of the people's political consciousness and morality, and the fostering of revolutionary ideals, morality and discipline, all with communist ideology at its core.
This new cultural system should reflect the economic modernization process that indisputably has changed society, and combat the negative social aspects of commercialism and consumerism that have creeped in. The attempts to create this 'Socialist Spiritual Civilization' failed to produce visual propaganda with the clear instructions for behavior that the Chinese people have grown so accustomed to. They learn more from commercial advertising.
The educational materials published to inculcate this new spiritual civilization are by and large directed at adolescents attending school. Other publications not only introduce "Famous people, famous sayings" (a multi-sheet series published in 1993-1996 including Marx, Einstein, Hegel, Aristotle, Mao, Deng, and others), but also give general exhortations to be industrious, assist the police and security forces, protect the environment and love science.

The Hong Kong Handover
Of a completely different order are the posters produced to commemorate the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty on 1 July 1997. This historical event has been celebrated in a series of educational materials specifically designed for use in middle schools. They show the bauhinia, the 'new' national flower of Hong Kong; Jiang Zemin shaking hands with the 'chief executive' who was picked by Peking to replace the British Governor; pictures of Hong Kong's famous and spectacular skyline; and, of course, the crack PLA-units which have been sent down to defend this newly acquired part of the sacred motherland.
Other striking images published for the occasion include a poster extolling the 'One Country, Two Systems'-paradigm, which - again - featured Deng, surrounded by 'images of China' (Tian'anmen and others), looking down on the Hong Kong office of the Bank of China. In a poster showing the new leadership group of Hong Kong, Chinese poster artists have once more turned to the photo-realist style so popular in the 'amateur' art of the early 1970s.

p. 36


By opening its doors, China and its people have come into contact with the largely Western-inspired desires and aspirations for a better future, as shared by the world community. Judging by the images that have been used in the 1980s and 1990s, the days of the information age, deep space exploration and automation have arrived in China. The ideas that these elements embrace have struck root in the Chinese consciousness, and have gained a life of their own. The Party has not been able to provide appropriate propaganda for life in a society in the throes of modernization. The leadership continues to define the population's well-being largely in terms of austerity, discipline and obedience to Party-rule, and to see successful modernization as something that is dependent on its own ability to maintain order. These calls are contradicted by, and conflict with, the bombardment of TV-images of conspicuous consumption, of events and developments taking place all over the world the people are confronted with on a daily basis. People have become aware that ideologies other than communism may be more successful and less demanding in bringing about modernization and don't buy the Party's messages any longer.

Be that as it may, the first fifty years of the People's Republic have left us with a body of materials that enable us to get a glimpse of how China saw itself, and its future, over the years. It can serve as an illustrated supplement to the dry facts and figures of modern Chinese history.

p. 37

Search this site