Today I visited the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre for a guided tour by Mr. Yang Pei Ming, the owner of the museum, who has collected over 5000 Chinese propaganda posters over the years, mostly by purchasing them himself. He himself has an interesting story, having been in university at the age of 22 when the Cultural Revolution began. He was sent to the countryside for about 8 years to work in a canning factory. His only chance to get any books was when he came back to Shanghai once a year. At that time, he would trade oil from the canning factory for books that someone had in his basement. However, sometimes the books would be incomplete, having been ripped in half or not have their covers. His most prized book was a Bible that he discovered had been owned by a member of the Chen family, the greatest intellectual family in China.
I was pleased to see that there was a collection from the 20’s and 30’s of the Shanghai Girls, having read the book by the same name by Lisa See.
Artists who drew propaganda posters in the 20’s and 30’s had a lot of artistic license to use their imagination as they saw fit to depict they world as they saw it. They could include things in their paintings like art deco decorations on buildings or depict jazz musicians, things that were later considered bourgeois. Many styles were used like wood cuts and the folk art style.
From 1949 to 1953 the emphasis in posters switched to people; buildings and scenery were for the most part removed. This trend continued through 1956, which was a very peaceful period when it still seemed that Communism was going to be the great answer to China’s problems.
During the period 1957-62, 1 in 10 of the population was labeled a “rightist.”
There was a massive initiative to make iron in huge quantities, except no one knew how. The result was that all available metal was torn off of every available surface imaginable.
Unfortunately, the agricultural directives in Mao’s Great Leap Forward resulted in a terrible famine and by 1960 the population was reduced by 10%.
When Deng Xiaoping came in to power in 1976 the subject matter of the posters changed from revolution towards modernization. Propaganda materials were eliminated from all government offices, so posters were taken down and sent to paper recycling factories. That is why so few of these posters exist today. The style reverted to one similar to that of the 40’s and 50’s.
What struck me while viewing these posters is how succinctly they showed a country’s progression of thought, and it’s march through history, over a half a century of time. It was like looking through a giant flip book of history.
For more information about the propaganda museum go to www.shanghaipropagandaart.com. The museum is located at 868 Huashan Rd.; it is in the basement of Block B (no. 4), Rm BOC. Tel 86-21-6211-1845. Mr. Yang would love to give you a tour.