The Rise and Fall of the Chinese Propaganda Poster

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

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His face was painted usually in red and other warm tones, and in such a way that it appeared smooth and seemed to radiate as the primary source of light in a composition, illuminating the faces of the people that looked towards him. His image was considered more important than the occasion for which the propaganda poster was designed: in a number of cases, identical posters were published in different years but bearing different slogans in order to serve different propaganda causes. There was something in the images featuring Mao that struck a chord with the people. He somehow remained united with them, whether he inspected fields and factories, shook hands with the peasants and workers, sat down to smoke a cigarette with them, stood on the bow of a ship, dressed in a terry cloth bathrobe after an invigorating swim in the Yangzi River, or even when he headed a column of representatives of the national minorities, or floated above a sea of red flags.

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.

Mao also became a regular presence in every home, usually in the form of his official portrait. It is estimated that during the Cultural Revolution, some 2.2 billion of these official Mao portraits were printed, which means three for every person in the nation. Not having the Mao portrait on display indicated an apparent unwillingness to go with the revolutionary flow of the moment, or even a counter-revolutionary outlook, and refuted the central role Mao played not only in politics, but in the day-today affairs of the people. This formal portrait often occupied the central place in the home. Not only the man himself was made into a divine being; his portrait had to be treated with special care as well, as if it contained the divinity himself: nothing could be placed above it, and its frame should not have a single blemish.

Mao continued to be an enduring icon over the years, both in China and abroad. Andy Warhol, for example, made paintings on the basis of the official portrait of Mao. But such subversions of the image of the Great Leader did not, somehow, resonate in China. Many people revered him as before and he remained a regular presence in many homes. Even as late as the 1990s, any depictions of Mao that did not conform to the stylistic dictates of hong, guang, liang (red, bright, and shining) elicited surprisingly negative responses from the many elderly and even young Chinese I spoke with. The general opinion was that such a representation was simply "not done" for a leader of Mao's stature.

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Chinese Rose. Large Chinese character: Happiness