Posters were an important part of the propaganda machine in China. They were used to support the policies of the government, and designed to be understood by all, whether literate or not. For outsiders they can be a useful tool in understanding the history of this dynamic country. For collectors of the art, a knowledge of the history is vital for recognizing a genuine antique poster.
Many countries in the world make use of art for propagandist purposes. China is a master of this, with a flurry of propaganda posters going back to at least the 1935. This is even before the setting up of the People’s Republic in 1949, with Mao Zedong as President, at the end of the civil war when Chang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang withdrew to Taiwan.
Collectors in the west find these posters fascinating and some change hands for exorbitant prices. A number of dealers operate on the internet, including Hinky Import and zitantique.com. In China, you can still pick them up in the antique markets of the cities. If you can’t find any in Wud’s Nanchan Antique Market, it might be worth a trip to Dong Tai Road and Antiques Alley in Shanghai. If you happen to be in Beijjing on a weekend, you should find some in Panjiayuan market.
But it can be difficult to know if posters are genuine. Some experienced collectors can tell by the look, feel and smell of the paper. Another important aspect is to be aware of recent Chinese history.
That way, you can recognise what the poster is about and whether the details are correct. For example, many posters show people waving the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao’s Quotations. This could not have happened before it was published, so if the poster is dated before 1964, it has to be a fake.
To Western eyes, some of the subjects of these posters can seem inexcusable in view of what was happening in the country at the time they were produced. When Mao Zedong was introducing his new policy on agriculture in his first five year plan starting in 1953, its aim was to transform the rural peasant society into a collective of cooperatives, with farming mechanized and under movement control. But those governing were not farmers and often made mistakes. The propaganda messages of good harvests contrasted starkly with the reality of famine and starvation in the rural areas as the years went by.
One of the new policies was an edict to kill sparrows because people in power thought they raided the grain and affected the harvest. A famous propaganda poster shows a young boy aiming with a sling shot, while a girl beside him holds a string of dead trophy sparrows. It was a common pursuit for children of the cooperatives. But in fact, the sparrows fed on the insects that would otherwise feed on the crops. They were important protectors of the fields and when they were hunted out of existence, a plague of locusts devastated the harvest in 1958.
Posters at this time, and during the following few years, were also used to show the value of hard work contributing to the national good. Mostly they showed men and women operating machinery as the government pursued industrialization in order to compete with the outside world and enhance the economy.
On yet another theme, stirring expositions of marching men and women with various weapons exhort the people to follow their flag and fight western imperialists who invade their neighboring countries. This sort of art refers to the invasion of North Korea by the Americans supporting of South Korea, a conflict in which communist China took a vital part in the early 1950s. This theme could be seen as on a par with the famous British posters stating “Your country needs you”, at the time of the First World War.
There’s also another kind of Chinese poster from the Korean War period, one that seems more sinister. These posters depict General MacArthur, leader of the US endeavor in Korea, personally inflicting horrible abuse on the women and children of that country. In one he is seen in caricature holding aloft a blade dripping with blood, over a mother and child. This is not totally unexpected, since Macarthur’s determination to overrun and conquer all of North Korea, including up to the Yalu River, the border with China, was what finally stopped the Chinese dragging their feet about getting involved in this war.
Before the formation of the People’s Republic, China was involved in another war, with Japan. Earlier posters were aimed at defeating Japanese imperialism, rather than that of the west. These early posters were simple depictions that suggested what they were showing, rather than using the complicated designs and colours that came later, which were often realistic in their portrayal of the idealistic content.
When the cult of Chairman Mao was at its height, many posters included him being revered by children and adult sections of the population alike. But the posters were not only about China and its own people. They were also encouraged to support communism and the proletariat in other parts of the world. Russia was originally an inspiration, and later it was accused of a revisionism that betrayed the spirit of communism. Posters displayed support for Americans demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, and for the people of colonized countries in Africa and elsewhere.
Although Mao Zedong had retired as President of the People’s Republic in 1959, he remained Chairman of the Communist Party of China and retained significant power and influence. By 1965 though, others were taking a more prominent role, and this probably encouraged him to begin another revolution against what he saw as an elite, privileged class that was developing around the country. It was peopled by academics, engineers, scientists and senior management in factories and businesses. The aim of the Cultural Revolution was to achieve a classless society in which everyone worked together equally. So you get posters of agricultural activities with captions such as, “Ruralise the intellectuals”.
During the Cultural Revolution though, the style of some of the posters changed. They became simple again, using mainly just black on white, with some red additions for highlighting purposes. Perhaps this reflected the cultural shift away from looking up to talented artists and instead placing more value on the collective work ethic.
Many of the posters depicted the now infamous Red Guards, young people who were recruited during this time to ensure loyalty to the new creeds, and root out and punish anyone who didn’t fit in with it. These Red Guards were to develop into uncontrolled bands, who made their own decisions and were responsible for much abuse of innocent people, causing death and destruction wherever they went. They even attacked foreign nationals and burned down the British Embassy.
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