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A History of the Maoist Propaganda Poster + Depicting a China That Never Was

Moving and provocative, the posters are extraordinary for their art and baffling for the often deliberately erroneous story they tell of Mao’s China

At first glance, you might think the Maoist era artwork at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre in Shanghai, China, was a collection of mid-20th-century travel posters. Vibrant colors, seemingly happy people, and almost aggressively cheerful backdrops offer a vision of an ostensibly functioning, even thriving, China, but look a little closer—literally and historically—and it’s clear the picture is often far from realistic.

Founded by collector Yang Peiming, who is also the museum’s director, the collection boasts over 6,000 pieces (just a few hundred are on display at any given time) and covers the period from 1910–1990. This is quite an accomplishment given that he started acquiring them in 1995, by which time the government was destroying propaganda materials. “Most local people don’t like the look of them!” Yang joked of the posters during an interview in Shanghai, adding that their lack of popularity, especially in the ’90s, made for a “good opportunity to get the good ones. I’m lucky. Success is good timing, good location, good taste.” He believes that in some cases, it’s possible he has the only existing copy.

Among the most intriguing posters—and the ones which are documented in this article—are those that chronicle the era of Chairman Mao Zedong. Moving and provocative, the posters are extraordinary for their art and baffling for the often deliberately erroneous story they tell of Maoist China. Given that they were meant for a largely illiterate population, the importance of their imagery can’t be underestimated. In a sense, they chronicle not just a political career, but a China which, in many ways, never truly existed.  

The museum’s posters cover not only the major events of the time, but also an array of styles, from colorful graphics with an almost “Mad Men” esthetic to handmade posters featuring Chinese calligraphy. Although not covered here, the museum also has an extensive collection of woodcut posters as well as other paraphernalia like Mao busts. Many of these items can also be purchased in the gift shop.

Of Mao himself, Yang opines, “Mao used paper to do a revolution. Everything else—WWII, etc., used guns or weapons, but this time, it’s a revolution inside a revolution. He wanted your mind, your soul.” And yet, as Yang, who lived through the epoch himself, is quick to point out, he’s “not angry at anyone. Just enthusiastic about art. I want to make Chinese art history more complete.

“Hail to the Bumper Harvest,” 1959

Billed as a scheme to industrialize China with lightning speed, the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961 approx.) is considered by many to be one of the most disastrous economic and social experiments of all time. In an effort to modernize the country and make it an industrial competitor on the world stage, Chairman Mao implemented a plan to turn the country’s private farmland into communes, working peasant communities day and night at record pace, and in many cases, quite literally to death. The grain from this work was then exported or, in some cases, made into alcohol to use as fuel in missile tests. The amount of grain that would be taken from the commune was based on numbers that had been knowingly inflated by officials; little, if any, was left for the commune workers to use for food.

Although the posters of this time show happy, contented, healthy-looking workers enjoying hard work and the spoils of a bountiful harvest, in fact, after just one successful year, close planting, ineffective agriculture techniques, and severe weather conditions resulted in paltry harvests and widespread famine. Workers were left to simply die in the fields from overwork and malnutrition while others resorted to eating the bark of trees. Still others resorted to cannibalism. It was a situation about which Mao was fully aware.

“Achieve Good Harvest Every Year,” 1964

Originally a five-year plan, the Great Leap Forward was so ruinous that it was brought to an end after roughly three years. Although figures vary, it is thought that by the time the program was over, some 38 million people had died (although many feel that figure might be closer to 55 million). Most died through starvation, but many were killed by execution after speaking out against Mao’s policies. Once those policies were abolished, grain production began to rise again dramatically. To this day, the Great Chinese Famine is considered the worst famine in human history.

“Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in the Heart of the People of the World,” 1967

Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, more commonly known as “The Cultural Revolution,” took place from 1966 to 1976 and was essentially a bid by Mao to restore himself to political power after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward. In many posters of the time, a gleaming Mao is seen as “the red sun in our hearts,” almost always hovering symbolically above the country’s citizens.

Also of note in posters of this era, is the very conspicuous prevalence of Mao’s “Little Red Book.” A compilation of Mao’s quotations and speeches, this small book was distributed to the entire Chinese population and was all but required to be carried by every citizen when in public. Among his more famous quotations was “A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Dazibao, 1966

Though perhaps less flashy than other posters in the museum, the collection’s dazibao, or “big-Character” posters are interesting for their history, as well as the way in which they were acquired by the museum. Ubiquitous on the streets of China throughout the Cultural Revolution, they were, in a sense, the Twitter of their time. Used as a way to spur political action or even incite violence, they were also conduits through which specific individuals—mostly politicians, teachers, and people in positions of power, be chastised and shamed publicly.

Notable is the fact that they showcase the art of Chinese calligraphy. Mao himself was known to be an expert calligrapher. 

Rather than collecting these posters intentionally, Yang came across them quite by accident when they were used as packing material for other artifacts he’d obtained for the museum.

“Bombard the Capitalist Headquarters” 1976

This 1976 poster, entitled, “Bombard the Headquarters,” or “Bombard the Capitalist Headquarters,” as it is also known, references a quote from Mao that was used on a dazibao, or big-character poster, of his own some ten years before. The poster was a rallying cry to readers—mostly students known as “The Red Guards”—to go after his political adversaries.

During an August 1966 rally, Mao made clear his support of the Red Guards, in effect prompting them to physically and verbally attack everyone from his opponents to teachers to anti-Maoist family members, and essentially turning them into his own paramilitary force. They responded by publicly embarrassing, torturing, and murdering by the thousands. At one point, Mao even sent specific names and addresses of people he wanted killed directly to the Red Guards.

Although Mao initially forbade the police to intervene, even chiding the Red Guards for not unleashing enough havoc for his taste, by the end of the month, Mao had a public official denounce the violence he, himself had essentially incited. The period became known as “Red August.”

According to Yang, the 1976 poster above is one of 10 different posters issued to commemorate the anniversary of the Cultural Revolution.

“The Red Detachment of Women” 1971

First performed in 1964, two years before the start of the Cultural Revolution, “The Red Detachment of Women” ballet was one of the yangbanxi, or “eight model works,”* as they were more commonly known. A pet project of Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was an actress in her youth, the works were a collection of operas, plays, and ballets in which powerful leads were replaced with proletariat heroes and heroines. The model works were virtually the only Chinese entertainment allowed during the Cultural Revolution and thus, were played and performed repeatedly.

 “The Red Detachment of Women” became something of a symbol of these works and is still performed today. Based on a 1961 film of the same name, the ballet was performed live for President Nixon during his historic 1972 visit to the country.

*By the end of the Cultural Revolution there were thought to be as many as 18 model works, yet the term “eight model works” has survived as a sort of shorthand way of describing them.

All posters courtesy of Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre.

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