The Rise and Fall of the Chinese Propaganda Poster

By Stefan R. Landsberger. Excerpt from the book 'Chinese Propaganda Posters'

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What defined them as propaganda art were the politically inspired slogans. These original works of art were reproduced in journals and magazines, and then reprinted as large- or smaller-format posters, and sometimes even turned into postage stamps. The large posters could be seen on the streets, in railway stations and other public spaces, while the smaller ones were distributed via the network of the Xinhua (New China) bookshops for mass consumption. Given the frequent changes in what was deemed correct, these political posters came to be more carefully studied than newspapers for spotting the subtle changes in tone, ideology, and slogans.

Propaganda art was one of the major means to provide examples of correct behavior.

The content of the posters was largely taken up with the topics of politics and economic reconstruction that dominated China after 1949. Hyper-realistic, ageless, larger-than-life peasants, soldiers, workers, and youngsters in dynamic poses peopled the images. They pledged allegiance to the Communist cause, or obedience to Chairman Mao Zedong, or were engaged in the glorious task of rebuilding the nation. As a result, most of the posters served strictly utilitarian, abstract goals: they glorified work and personal sacrifice for the greater well-being of the masses. At the same time, they paid scant attention to the personal and private dimension of people's lives, to rest and recreation.

The strong and healthy bodies of the people shown in the posters functioned as metaphors for the strong and healthy productive classes the State wanted to propagate. In the process, the gender distinctions of the subjects were by and large erased over time. The physical differences between males and females practically disappeared - something that was also attempted in real life. Men and women alike had stereotypical, "masculinized" bodies, which almost made them look like Superpersons. Their clothes were baggy and sexless, the only colors available being cadre gray, army green, or worker/peasant blue. And their faces, including short-cropped hairdos and chopped-off pigtails, were done according to a limited repertoire of acceptable standard forms.

The years of the great mass movements such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the subsequent Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when millions of people were mobilized into action, saw the climax in poster production. The propaganda poster reached the peak of artistic expression, both in form and content. In particular during the Cultural Revolution, politics increasingly took precedence over any other subject in propaganda posters. Chairman Mao Zedong, as the Great Teacher, the Great Leader, the Great Helmsman, and the Supreme Commander, seemed to have become the only permissible subject of the era.

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Soar, youth of the New China! On the rocket: China’s Youth No.1
Steeling ourselves in the strong gale and storm. On armband: Red Guard