It’s Just Propaganda

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.

These two could have been taken right from the book

These girls have more modern dress

The posters were gifts that were given to customers when they bought things like cigarettes or soap. The posters were actually considered low-class, not sophisticated Chinese art.

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.

These posters typically showed colorfully dressed, happy people dancing or farming

This poster says "Knowledge is Power" and references the exchange of information with Russia about space. It's particularly poignant I think in light of future events.

During the period 1957-62, 1 in 10 of the population was labeled a “rightist.”

This poster ushered in the Great Leap Forward in 1959

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%.

This rather ludicrous poster urges people to raise more pigs to make more fertilizer so they could grow more crops. Except there wasn't any food to feed the pigs and if there was a pig available it would have been eaten.

This poster was painted by a famous artist at the time. He was only given a few hours to complete it, so he used his own hand as a model.

Here's a poster of Mao and Khruschev meeting (and yes it does say no photo, but everyone was taking pictures and he didn't tell us to stop!)

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-71) the posters were all distinctly red-hued and bright and shiny.

They often depicted happy people leaving for the countryside

And working with tools, always it seems, with Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles

This was probably one of the more famous posters of the time

“Guns en pointe.”

This poster is actually a scene from a movie, “Red Detachment of Women”. It was the only movie that was allowed to be shown at the time.  I’m speechless.

Here's "swords en pointe." For 700rmb ($110USD) you can purchase the sound track to the movie on a record in the gift shop.

This is an example of graffiti art that would plaster the walls of buildings. In red at the top is a saying by Chairman Mao. Underneath is a criticism of someone with a rebuttal written over the top.

Attending a political meeting in the 60's

This was a poster in support of North Viet Nam during the Viet Nam War

This is an original painting (not a print) that Mr. Yang purchased for 250,000 rmb (almost $40,000 USD).

Very few posters of the painting above were printed because Mao's wife asked the artist to re-do the painting, making the people in the bottom left corner of the picture smaller. This was the poster that was released for mass printing.

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.

Posters were again more colorful and people centered.

This was a famous poster of the time--note all the references to technology, rather than farming.

Not sure what the poster of Einstein was about, but I thought it was interesting

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.

On the way home I saw this woman making great progress on a sweater, using the long double pointed needles so popular here, while tending her jewelry display. She was camped out, along with a couple of other vendors on the elevated walkway over Yan'an highway.

Even the street numbers on the buildings must be kept squeaky clean

Elevator Flowers

For more information about the propaganda museum go to 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.




About DECRYPTKNIT: knitter on the loose in Shanghai

Hi, I'm Marisa Newhouse, a former pharmacist (for a brief time during the Reagan administration) who's real calling was probably anything that has to do with cooking, plants, literature and especially knitting; hence my last and favorite job, working at Woolyminded, a wonderful yarn store. But now, I have moved half a world away to Shanghai where my husband will be working. Lots of people are interested in what we will be doing here and I have always kept journals of our travels, so I thought I'd do it the modern way and keep a blog.
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2 Responses to It’s Just Propaganda

  1. heidi says:

    I thought of the book Shanghai Girls right away-the poster look just as I imagined they would. What a wonderful collection.

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