The Art of Revolution
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2017-05-30 02:15:17

Since the early 1990s, I’ve been collecting Chinese revolutionary posters. You’ve probably seen the ones I mean: vivid depictions of the country’s workers with muscles bulging, factories churning out steel and smoke, slogans commanding everyone to build a socialist paradise or venerate the teachings of Chairman Mao. At first, it was just a bit of fun. The next thing I knew, I was immersed in it. After more than 20 years, I have amassed the largest collection of Chinese propaganda posters anywhere in the world.

In 2012, my collection was formally accorded museum status. Three years later, my Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center was named one of the 10 best museums in China by TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website. When I saw how my tiny, privately run museum was able to squeeze its way onto the list, where it sits alongside some of the great national museums, I felt proud of what I had achieved. My years of persistence and hard work had paid off, and I had finally accomplished what I had set out to do.

Back when I first started collecting propaganda posters, China was in the early stages of opening up to the outside world, and was tentatively embracing the market economy. Various collectible items were popping up at weekend antique markets, with private buyers and sellers doing a brisk trade. Under the influence of the foreign art market, ancient calligraphy and paintings, considered worthless during the Cultural Revolution period, suddenly regained their value.

The basement of a residential building in Shanghai houses China’s only propaganda museum, where visitors can find thousands of posters from the Cultural Revolution era. By Zhong Changqian/Sixth Tone

But propaganda posters were another matter entirely. Daubed with extreme leftist messages, after the Cultural Revolution the vast majority of them were sent to paper factories to be turned into pulp. People were eager to erase the deep emotional scars of the Cultural Revolution, and few collectors were interested in printed propaganda from that period.

At the time, I was working for an international travel agency. As a result of my exposure to Western tastes, I found the posters quite intriguing. When I was younger, I had been strongly influenced by my elder brother, who liked collecting stamps, so I already had a penchant for collecting things. I was also living in Shanghai, which had been at the center of the Chinese publishing industry since the beginning of the 20th century, and had been the place where the majority of propaganda posters had been printed.

By the early ’90s, original propaganda posters from various publishing houses, print factories, and cultural organizations were flooding the market, and as a result, prices were quite low. Without realizing it, I found myself located in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right personal connections.

The frenzied decade of the Cultural Revolution saw the propaganda poster reach new heights as an art form. But it was also a point of no return.

Chinese propaganda posters were produced in a simpler, more idealistic era. At the time, Chairman Mao sought to impart his grand socialist vision to the Chinese populace, and posters were the best form of traditional media available to him. China already had an existing tradition of New Year pictures — poster-style paintings displayed during the Spring Festival — and the rise of Shanghai as a 20th-century trading hub saw the advent of calendars containing commercial advertisements.

Add to these factors the influence of the Western political posters that had circulated during the Second World War, as well as woodcut posters from the European communist movement, and the result was a rich and varied tradition from which to draw inspiration. After 1949, when the Communists reunified China, endless political campaigns meant propaganda posters fluttered like snowflakes through China’s skies. The frenzied decade of the Cultural Revolution, which took place from 1966 to 1976, saw the propaganda poster reach new heights as an art form. But it was also a point of no return.

During the 1950s and 1960s, art had to serve politics: It was seen as a tool for class struggle. Propaganda posters were the most direct and vivid expression of this ideology. Tens of thousands of artists worked in the service of a single political goal. I don’t think any country has ever witnessed an art movement that depicted everything that had happened the previous day in such a lively, meticulous manner. By the time the Cultural Revolution started, the minutiae of political life — no matter how insignificant — were all recorded on propaganda posters. Its immediacy was part of its charm.

The highest standard by which a poster could be judged was whether it had used the most effective artistic methods to convey the most “correct” political objectives. A generation of poster artists worked tirelessly and created no small number of artistic masterworks that would come to symbolize the era, as well as protect our memories of what happened next.

‘Soldiers and civilians rejoice for the New Year victory,’ painted by Shen Ruanjian in 1950. Courtesy of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center

‘Soldiers and civilians rejoice for the New Year victory,’ painted by Shen Ruanjian in 1950. Courtesy of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center

The history of Chinese propaganda posters can be divided roughly into three periods: the New Year Pictures period in the years immediately following the country’s reunification in 1949, the fantastical romanticism of the Great Leap Forward, and the “red craze” of the Cultural Revolution.

After the liberation of mainland China in 1949, Mao called upon all of China’s painters, regardless of what artistic school they came from, to participate actively in a campaign that aimed to change the form and purpose of New Year pictures. These artists added elements of political propaganda to traditional images that had previously centered on the hopes and aspirations of Chinese farmers, such as good weather and future prosperity. The campaign produced tens of thousands of posters, which were displayed all over the country.

The question of who painted these posters remains one of Chinese art history’s great mysteries.

Despite their unfamiliarity with the concept of propaganda posters, contemporary Chinese artists nevertheless set out to prove their commitment to the new China through their art. They set their brushes to work, and the posters they produced display wondrous imagination. Works from this era are remarkable in their variety, and in my opinion, represent the peak of Chinese revolutionary art.

In Shanghai, “calendar artists” produced posters heavily influenced by their own so-called Shanghai School, whose adherents were influenced by the realism and subject matter of Western visual art. Shanghai School artists produced many of the earliest propaganda images of Mao. Due to the limited capabilities of the contemporary publishing industry, the majority of these works were quite small. This did not stop them from being highly diverse, however, as at that time a fixed model for the form had yet to be decided upon. Unfortunately, few of these works have survived to the present day, making them exceedingly valuable.

During the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1960, Mao’s calls for “a combination of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism” and the “nationalization and popularization of artistic creation” led to a schism between the art of Chinese propaganda posters and that of its socialist realism-inspired Soviet counterparts. The movement led to the creation of a large quantity of excellent artwork done in a specifically Chinese style, art that also met the political needs of the movement. It was during this period that the technical and creative skills of Chinese revolutionary artists, including the famed Ha Qiongwen, reached new heights. At a time when the Cold War was at its height, paintings calling for resistance to imperialism and the United States left a deep impression on those who viewed them.

Beginning in 1966, the Cultural Revolution and the formation of the Red Guards saw the fevered, unchecked production of woodcut print posters. Relatively simple, eye-catching, and quick to produce, they were the most direct form of propaganda yet. They also held to highly uniform standards of detail, coloring, and, especially, sloganeering.

‘The completion of the Zhi Bu railway is a great victory for Maoist thought!’ painted by the Buyang District revolutionary committee in 1970. Courtesy of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center

‘The completion of the Zhi Bu railway is a great victory for Maoist thought!’ painted by the Buyang District revolutionary committee in 1970. Courtesy of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center

Filled with passion and adoration, the creators of these posters poured their hearts into their art, toiling devoutly for the cause. The majority of the artists behind these posters were young graduates of fine arts academies in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and northeastern China. Some professional artists also contributed their own works to the movement.

Most of the posters lack a publishing number or even an artist’s signature, and even today the question of who painted them remains one of Chinese art history’s great mysteries. The Cultural Revolution was a kind of mass psychosis, one that finally, painfully, exhausted itself. And yet a number of artworks managed to survive the period, all the way to the present day, where they hopefully serve as a reminder not to forget the lessons of history.

I consider my propaganda posters part of Chinese heritage. It is essential that we teach young people about them, so we can avoid the mistakes of the past.

At the time of the Cultural Revolution, I was an English major at East China Normal University in Shanghai, and I personally experienced many of its major events. I remember how it started just as summer vacation was set to begin. The students were all called back to campus to participate in the various movements, writing and pasting up big-character posters professing devotion to the revolution and denouncing so-called enemies. I also had to attend struggle sessions, where I saw class enemies paraded, hounded, and humiliated in front of other students.

The main events of the Cultural Revolution were all inextricably tied to pen and paper. Viewed from the perspective of contemporary art criticism, the Cultural Revolution can be seen as a kind of street art exhibition of a scope unparalleled in human history. Looking back, it was as if our entire generation lost the ability to think critically overnight, as we haplessly rushed off to answer the siren call of revolution.

Now, few of these posters have survived to the present day. Museums and cultural organizations, both in China and abroad, rarely have good collections. My museum houses over 1,000 works, including roughly 300 from each of the three periods mentioned above. It is the only such collection in the world.

The most important Chinese author of the 20th century, Ba Jin, wrote in his nonfiction collection “Random Thoughts” that many people during the Cultural Revolution “have not survived, but they have passed their love, their fire, and their hopes to us, and through us will pass them down to future generations.” I consider my propaganda posters part of this heritage. It is essential that we teach young people about them, so we can avoid the mistakes of the past and work for a brighter future. I hope these works will always be a feast for the eyes, one capable of stirring feelings of deep beauty and even deeper self-reflection.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh. 

(Header image: ‘Thousands of families become one with the city, as if in spring,’ painted in 1960. Courtesy of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center)