The Rise and Fall of the Chinese Propaganda Poster

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

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Propaganda art under reform

The decline in the popularity of propaganda posters started in the early 1980s. Under Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao Zedong at the helm of the People's Republic, the economic rehabilitation of China became the Party's main consideration, to the exclusion of anything else. Moreover, China opened itself to the West. From now on, the aim was to design and producepropaganda that created public support for the new, multifaceted policies that made up the reform package. At the same time, political orthodoxy still had to be upheld and the leading role of the Party within society had to be maintained. In the process of doing this, the people had to be made aware that the modernization policies were to stay, and would not be revoked in the near future. Where Mao's continuous efforts at mobilization in the name of revolutionary movements would have been unthinkable without posters, the second revolution that was engineered by Deng could do well without them.

These developments had enormous consequences for propaganda art. Propaganda themes became less heroic and militant, and more impressionistic, while bold colors were replaced with more subdued tones. Likewise, the slogans employed were less strident and militaristic, and more normative in content: the people were no longer called upon to struggle against enemies or nature, but instead were urged to adopt more cultured, hygienic and educated lifestyles. Abstract images replaced realism; explicit political contents was replaced by an emphasis on economic construction, or even by ordinary commercial advertisements. Design and representational techniques borrowed from Western advertising were frequently employed. Although these changes in style may have made the images less accessible to the more backward sections of the population, they greatly invigorated the overall product.

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.

The themes of the posters that the government continued to publish can at best be termed glimpses of "living the good life in a material world." All this was a far cry from the propaganda of the previous decades. After all, propaganda must always reflect reality, even in a society that has seen such fundamental changes as China has done since the 1980s. A number of developments in the content of propaganda art really stand out because they are so far removed from the practices of the past. The improvement in living conditions was reflected in the greater diversity in clothing, both in material, design, cut, and color, that people wear in the posters. Gone were the blue, gray or black uni-sex 'Mao-suits' that previously had vouched for the people's proletarian outlook.
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