In the thousands of propaganda posters produced in China between the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949 and the early 1980s, the beaming face of Chairman Mao Zedong watches over a surreal utopia. Plump children dangle from trees like pears, babies fly rocket ships, and cheerleaders wave red flags in the streets. Each of these strange, colorful posters had a goal: to show the Chinese people what a glorious future they’d have if they united and followed the moral lessons the pictures illustrated.
Chinese Propaganda Posters, a new book from Taschen, compiles hundreds of these propaganda artworks and artifacts, many of them rare, culled from the collection of artist and designer Max Gottschalk. It’s probably hard for a modern viewer in the capitalist west to imagine how seriously these over-the-top images were taken in their time. Hung up in offices, factories, houses, dormitories, and on the walls of buildings, and printed with slogans like “Listen to Chairman Mao and be a good student of Chairman Mao,” the posters and their messages seeped into the national consciousness.
They helped create a cult of Mao, depicting him as a stoic superhero — also known as the Great Teacher, the Great Leader, the Great Helmsman, and the Supreme Commander — alongside his official portraits, of which 2.2 billion were printed during the Cultural Revolution. Instead of collecting posters of movie stars, some teenage girls collected posters of Mao, who is alternately shown as a divine being, smoking cigarettes with factory workers, and shaking hands with peasants.
“The posters had a great impact on my life,” Anchee Min, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, writes in the book. “They taught me to be selfless and to be loyal to Mao and Communism. To be able to feel closer to Mao, I filled my house with posters. I looked at Mao before I closed my eyes at night and again when I woke. When I saved a few pennies, I would go to the bookstores to buy new Mao posters.”
Such an obsession offers an extreme example of the political power of images — one that might make contemporary viewers question how they’re unconsciously affected by the images they see every day (is Donald Trump’s hair propaganda?).
Now, with many artists working outside (or against) the governmental bureaucracy and popular interest in politics at an all-time low, propaganda art in China has mostly lost its touch with the population. Since the turn of the century, propaganda posters have been replaced by other forms of mass art, like poster-sized reproductions of Western art and cheap calendar posters. “The images that once defined the image of China have disappeared,” Stefan Landsberger writes in the book. “Politics is dead, and consumerism is very much alive.” Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still dream of a future filled with flying space babies.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.