University of Westminster

Picturing Power: Posters of China's Cultural Revolution

by Harriet Evans, Stephanie Donald and Anna Johnston

What colour was the Cultural Revolution? What did it look like? What did people see around them as they went to work, to political meetings, or to play? Posters were produced in vast quantities after the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Some were huge pieces of art and propaganda produced for display outside in public places, but there were also small-format posters sold cheaply for display in people's homes, in schools, in meeting rooms, in factories, in clinics, in nearly every kind of building. The poster was an inescapable part of the scenery, bringing the Revolution and its ideas into people's homes and ensuring that the slogans ringing in people's ears were linked to equally familiar images. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution decade (1966-1976), a particularly intense period of political activism and one that marked the pinnacle of influence for the poster as a form of mass media. Most posters of that period, as in that immediately preceded it, had a political message, and this was often explicitly stated in the accompanying text.
Some were used for different purposes, such as to promote public health and other social campaigns and to encourage people to behave like the model citizens portrayed: to work hard, study hard, and be thankful for the benefits of living in the New Society. To reinforce this message, some showed the hardships of life before the Communists came to power. Others celebrated the struggle of subalterns - the ordinarily oppressed-for liberation. The messages embedded in the posters, as well as the visual grammar these works constructed, were also spread through a variety of publications and material objects that contained related or identical pictures and slogans. Posterlike images found in and on everything from pictorial magazines to postage stamps to children's building blocks and biscuit tins. Until recently many of the works had spent most of their existence stored away in a dark cupboard, like the ghosts and demons of the "10 years of chaos" - as the Cultural Revolution era is now often called in China. A large selection was seen for the first time, in the exhibition Picturing Power: Posters of China's Cultural Revolution held at the SoFa Gallery, at Indiana University (August 24-October 3, 1999), by a very different public from the originally intended one, accompanied by a display of assorted ephemera that feature posterlike images from the same period. Unlike those who paint for posterity, the creators of these posters never imagined that their works would one day be displayed in a museum.Yet the posters have become historical artifacts, as have the accompanying ephemera, which came from a collection held at Indiana University's East Asian Studies Center. Together they provide us with a window onto scenes from a world that no longer exists, but that continues to exercise a powerful influence on collective and individual memories and identities.
Contemporary spectators who did not live through the Cultural Revolution may approach the posters with detached interest and enjoyment. Most of them are at least decorative, many are striking and even the really bad ones have the appeal of kitsch. Other viewers may feel nostalgia for the excitement of the Revolutionary 1960s and early 1970s. This was a period when China seemed to some to offer a way out of the impasse of US-Soviet hegemony, and when the words of Chairman Mao, the "Great Helmsan" of the Chinese Revolution, were quoted on Western campuses.
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