chinese pop posters

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Compiled by Olivier Laude

The images you are about to see were collected 
over a three year period while working in China 
on a book project on traditional rural Chinese
Between 1989 and 1992, I traveled to China to document the
extraordinary beauty and refinement 
of Chinese vernacular architecture. 
If you were to go to any Chinese city 
and look for these posters (some are stamps) you most likely 
would not be fruitful in your search. 
To find such works of art you must travel 
to small towns and villages where they
are still sold, even though this is becoming the exception, 
not the rule. These posters are used to decorate 
the walls of schools, private homes and government institutions. 
They are produced by the central government 
in Beijing and reflect the many political changes 
of the past 47 years of communist rule. 
They are in many ways a very good historical record of the
economic, political and social turmoils 
China has undergone since 1949. 
They also are tools of 
the central government's propaganda machine. 
While some are quite ludic others reflect darker 
and more painful periods in
China's history. 

I have captioned those posters that were given to me by
certain individuals, some of which were victims 
or participants of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976): 
straight from their walls to my hands. 
Some of these posters had been on their walls 
for close to two decades. Posters in China serve many purposes. 
Some ward off evil spirits, celebrate the birth or desire 
for male offspring while others educate,
indoctrinate or simply decorate. 
To give you a brief background of the philosophy behind 
(the political posters in particular), we must travel
back to Yanan and 1942.

On the 2nd of May 1942, while still in Yanan, 
Mao Zedong delivered a speech on literature and art 
which shaped the way art was and is still produced in
China. Although since 1978 such ideology 
has subsided and more traditional
and contemporary iconography has made a come back; 
it is important to understand what China's most 
influential leader of the past 47 years (and beyond) 
had in mind when he discussed the roll of art 
in Chinese society. Please keep in mind that in 1942 
large parts of China were occupied by the
Japanese and what was not occupied by a foreign army 
was mostly ruled on by the Guomindang 
with Chiang Kai-Shek at its helm. 
The communists had regrouped in Northwestern China 
after the Long March and were building and
consolidating the power apparatus 
of the future government, army 
and institutions which have shaped China ever since.

May 2, 1942, Mao begins:

      The purpose of our meeting today 
      is precisely to ensure that literature
      and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine 
      as a component part, that they operate as
      powerful weapons for uniting and educating
      the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, 
      and that they help the people fight the enemy 
      with one heart and mind.

Mao states that he means to make clear 
that all communists must obey the
dictates of the communist party and adjust their attitudes 
as artists to produce works which extol 
the masses and facilitate communication between
mostly illiterate peasants and deliver 
the communist cadre's messages. 
Art, literature or visual arts must subjugate themselves
to the will of the party's ideology and the will of the people. 
Artists must become craftsmen of visual ideology.

Mao continues: "The people, too, have their shortcomings.
Among the proletariat many retain petty bourgeois ideas,
while both the peasants and the urban petty bourgeoisie 
have backward ideas; 
these are burdens hampering them in their struggle. 
We should be patient and spend a long
time in educating them and helping them to get their loads 
off their backs and combat their own shortcomings and errors, 
so that they can advance with great strides. 
They have remolded themselves in struggle or are doing so,
and our literature and art should depict this process."

This speech illustrates three pivotal issues which 
need to be highlighted if we are to understand 
Chinese popular art of the past 47 years. 
First, that the artist is a tool and the property of the state 
(no wonder the Chinese have such difficulty 
in understanding copyright laws). 
Secondly, in his speech Mao is alluding to petty-bourgeois 
as those who cannot shed their culture 
(traditional Chinese culture which he considered 
corrupt and feudal) and replace it anew with 
his vision of socialist utopia. This despite his best efforts 
was never really accomplished and is the reason
why we see a revival of more traditional themes 
like babies with fish and more traditional designs 
after Mao's death and Deng Xiaoping's ascent to
the throne. Thirdly, the concept of catering to 
an audience primarily made up of peasants, 
soldiers and cadres and the depiction of their efforts.  
A very illustrative and blandly educative approach to art. 
Forget intuition, creative impulses, urges, or muses, 
just put your skills to work for the

Finally to hammer this all in Mao concludes 
on the 23rd of May 1942 that: 
"We are Marxists, and Marxism teaches us that 
in our approach to a problem we should start 
from objective facts, not from abstract definitions....
We should do the same in our present discussion 
of literary and artistic work.... Today, writers 
(artists) who cling to an individualist,
petty-bourgeois stand cannot truly serve the masses 
of the revolutionary workers, peasants and soldiers. 
Their interest is mainly focused on the
small number of petty-bourgeois intellectuals."

These three paragraphs will, I hope, 
help you understand and appreciate these works of art 
for what they are. Thousands of artists toiled on
similar images and many more. Their efforts should 
be appreciated within the context of China's 
last five decades. They are less kitsch than one
might think, they represent an ideology and a people 
struggling to rebuild a society which for 150 years 
hence had seen nothing 
but misery.

In browsing through these images of revolutionaries, 
babies with peaches, generals on horses 
and babies with fishes I cannot help to think of how we
are shaped by the political and societal forces 
that represent us. Do we work for target audiences, 
are we surrounded with smiling babies and gaze
at white-shirted executives? Do we respond to 
the visual illustrations of the commercial interests 
that pay us? Do fine artists focus their
attention on a small number of the like minded? 
We serve ourselves while these works 
and the ideas they represent hold a mirror
to visual arts anywhere, and 
at anytime.