The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre is a tourist attraction. TimeOut calls it one of Shanghai’s best museums and a “must-see”. This is the description from my dog-eared 2008 guide:

a stunning collection of original posters from 1949 to 1979 [with] images of ruddy-cheeked Chinese peasants crushing imperialist Uncle Sam underfoot.

propaganda shopping bag
Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre shopping bag. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The museum sits in the basement of a residential tower. Just 3 rooms large, its contents are the result of a one man mission. Yang Peiming began collecting in 1995 when he realized

all the government organizations deleted the propaganda materials due to the political reasons.

Yang’s website is a marvel of propaganda speak. The posters purportedly depict heroic sagas, countless victories and monumental struggles. To him, these posters embody both art and insight into a significant historical era.

My favorite part, however, is the array of Shanghai Lady posters and calendars. All my own Shanghai Lady paraphernalia comes from Yang’s gift shop. I have a Shanghai Lady poster book, a full-sized cigarette advertisement and this snazzy shopping bag.

curated history

In the Western world, we expect propaganda collections to be a statement about a period of time long over. That statement can be tongue-in-cheek or deadly serious. Red Star over Russia, A Revolution in Visual Culture 1905-1955, falls into the latter category. Intended to mark the centenary of the October Revolution, this Tate Modern exhibit is designed for viewers with no direct knowledge of the events of those days.

Large scale posters, contemporary photography, grainy film reels showing Trotsky still a favored son, the Soviets designed these images to have a maximum visual impact. As The Observer art critic Laura Cumming put it:

steel worker propaganda
“Path to October” by Valentna Kulagina (1905). Photo credit: Karen Kao

a Soviet poster should be able to bring a running man to a halt. These posters were urgent news in graphic form for a largely illiterate country; they also brought modernism directly into the old culture of icons. They appeared in stations and cafes, on city walls and trams. 

And then there are the mug photos. During Stalin’s Great Terror, 1.6 million were arrested and 700,000 of those sentenced to death or the gulag. You could say that the Red Star exhibit is a way of reckoning with that bloody past.

museum of the cultural revolution

I went to the exhibit, hoping for some physical link between Soviet-style propaganda and the version that blossomed on the Chinese side of the border. Mao Zedong adopted Soviet Socialist Realism as his own cultural policy. He then modified it to meet his own purposes.

Take, for example, the Cultural Revolution, that most hysterical of time periods in modern Chinese history. Propaganda reached its high point in that era. Shouldn’t there be a museum dedicated to that time?

In fact, there are two. One is located in Shantou, in the deep south. It consists of commemorative plaques and re-created tombstones. While there are cemeteries in China that hold victims of the Cultural Revolution, Shantou is said to be:

the only public memorial in China commemorating the victims who died or suffered grave harm from the atrocities of the decade-long period that began fifty years ago [in 1956].

And then there is the Jianchuan Museum Cluster to celebrate all things Mao. You can find photos, propaganda posters and memorabilia here. There’s even a display of dozens of clocks. Each clock is painted with propaganda pictures and Mao quotations. All clocks strike the hour in unison.

Both museums opened in 2005. Then, shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, the Shantou memorial shut down. The official reason was repairs. Those repairs consisted of a literal cover-up, using propaganda posters promoting socialist core values.

Meanwhile, the Jianchuan Museum Cluster flourishes.

personality cults

So it’s safe to say that the cult of Mao is alive and kicking. You can still find his portrait hanging in family homes. Or visit his wax effigy in the mausoleum at Tiananmen Square. You can speak to Chinese alive today who worship Mao as a demigod, as Ruben Terlou did in his documentary Langs de oevers van de Yangtze. (In Dutch but the photos are great, too.)

propaganda poster
Beijing Zoo propaganda poster. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The first time I was in China, I saw propaganda posters everywhere. I took this shot at the Beijing Zoo in the summer of 1984.

The last time I went to China, I can’t recall seeing any more of these kinds of posters. Shanghai was a city of glass towers and high-end shopping malls. The masses were no longer to be found in the fields and factories but rather behind desks at banks and brokerages.

Perhaps that, too, was a form of propaganda and I just didn’t realize it. Nowadays, these things are much clearer.

xi jinping thought

Last October, the Chinese Communist Party voted to enshrine Xi Jinping into the Chinese constitution. Xi now holds a status equal only to Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. His ascension marks the official start of the third “new era” of modern Chinese history. The first era was the age of Mao and wresting control over China away from the barbarians and capitalists. The second era was the gilded age, when Deng’s reforms ushered in a period of unprecedented wealth. Now we have the third age, complete with “Xi Jinping Thought”, when China will become strong again.

These days, the locals joke that it’s easier to give directions in Beijing using slogans rather than street names. New York Times journalist Javier C. Hernández reports:

Looking for a bank in central Beijing? Walk past the screen proclaiming, “The people have faith,” take a right at the poster glorifying President Xi Jinping and cross the footbridge with the banner declaring a new era of prosperity for China.

Winnie the Pooh
By A. A. Milne (writer), E. H. Shepard (illustrator) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The people may be having a laugh but not Xi Jinping. He banned all images of Winnie the Pooh from the Chinese internet when the lovable bear became a meme for Xi. Can a new version of the Little Red Book be far behind?