A Look Back at "Red China" Through a Collection of Artistic Posters from the '60s and '70s
To turn adversity into opportunity, I decided to study Mandarin in order to learn more about China. I did it by immersion in schools, and by working in farms and factories. Along the way, I witnessed massive changes as an exile, a farmer, a student, and as a China-watcher.
Over the years, I picked up various objects that formed my vast collection of memorabilia. Among them are reams of old calendars and advert posters that I acquired in Beijing’s bustling antique markets. These artworks, which span decades of periodic campaigns, mirror shifting tastes, and values in China’s modern history.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, advertisers used highly crafted posters and calendars to sell cigarettes, beer, and medicine. They featured beautiful Shanghai women in western-style hairstyles and fashion. These posters illustrate how Chinese cities back then were porous to foreign influence. Female movie stars endorsed new, washable, and colourfast fabrics of German invention and indigo dye. One poster advertises the Japanese Harumoto Soap Factory, apparently created for the Chinese market. The model wears a classic blunt bob and bangs, a timeless look that withstood fickle trends in the past century.
Women were portrayed in eye-catching, colourful oral apparel. These posters depicted the aspirational, chic life of wealth and overseas trade. Back in the time that predates cancer-causing research, Red Lion and Hatamen brand cigarettes were endorsed in posters that showed everyday family life with children and adults. One included a proverb to remind everyone, “In a bowl of rice or porridge, every grain comes from hard work.”
Some posters did not endorse products, but services. These portrayed nude women draped in sheer cloth, posing with a vase of flowers. Printed at the bottom of the ad was a street address—a not so subtle suggestion of the services offered. The decades that followed produced posters with a different message and tone. When Mao Zedong assumed leadership of the Communist Party in 1943, he ruled over China like an infallible god-king. He preached “class struggle” and, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, he enjoyed a personality cult. Posters extolled Mao’s omniscient leadership. One poster portrayed him as a beloved teacher surrounded by besotted peasants.
Billboards no longer tried to sell beer or cosmetics. Instead, they promoted politics and ideology. A poster features a soldier clutching a “red book”—Mao’s choice quotations and sound bites—and called on everyone to “learn from comrades and good cadres who are completely devoted to Chairman Mao’s line.”
Other communist leaders and model citizens also appeared in cameo roles in various posters. Hua Guofeng, Mao’s handpicked successor, is shown sitting with Mao, listening to the latter’s famous words, “With you in charge, I am at ease.” (Hua lasted barely a year as paramount leader post-Mao.) Proletarian hero Lei Feng inspired youngsters to study hard and emulate him. A student in a pink sweater examines a book with “Uncle Lei’s” photographs. In propaganda posters, movies, songs, and textbooks, pupils were taught to “combat selfishness,” to be loyal to Chairman Mao and the Communist Party, and to “love labour.”
I saw up close the latter half of the 10-year Cultural Revolution—the tumultuous political movement that Mao launched in 1966 to purge the Communist Party and country of “impure revisionist elements” and to revive revolutionary zeal. Mao sought to bring forth a New Man who would be selflessly devoted to serve the people and be loyal to the Party. Wherever I turned, it was Mao and his ought, the variety of Chinese Communism that Mao Zedong developed for realising a socialist revolution. They were in posters, billboards, schools, farms, and factories. They were on radio, TV, theatres, everywhere. Singing the East Is Red, a paean to the Chairman, was obligatory. Displaying sacred Maoist amulets—Mao pins, revolutionary posters, and the Little Red Book—was the norm.
In many ways, the Cultural Revolution was a national nightmare. It brought China to the brink of collapse. But one good thing came out during this period. Mao’s proclamation, “Women prop up half the sky” prompted a campaign to treat women as co-equal working members of society. Revolutionary posters showed New China women who fought for the same progressive ideals alongside men. The stereotypical glamourous temptress of the1930’s disappeared from posters. Taking her place were female Red Guards or “rusticated youth” sporting baggy trousers and army jackets with red armbands and Mao pins. is utilitarian, monochrome look dominated 1960s and ‘70s propaganda. A poster shows a young woman, paint bucket in one hand and rolled posters tucked under her arm, putting up “big-character” posters. e artist’s caption reads, “Stormy era.”
Older women in China commonly reminisce that while the communists did many terrible things, they made women’s lives better. They ended foot binding and concubinage, closed down brothels and legalised divorce. For years, I’ve witnessed China’s escorts in the ‘70s and ‘80s to treat women with respect, dignity, and equality.
China now refers to the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) as the “10 disastrous years.” The official verdict on Mao and the Cultural Revolution was adopted in 1981. While it credited Mao for his contributions to the liberation of China, it criticised him for leading the Cultural Revolution, which was deemed “responsible for most severe setbacks and heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the state and the people” since 1949.
In curious ways, my poster collection reminds me of the evolution of Chinese principles and morals. Some of the images objectify women and reflect the “bourgeois capitalist lifestyle” that the Chinese vehemently criticised during the period. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao called for the destruction of the “four olds”—old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. He feared “revisionism,” the return of the bourgeoisie and the revival of feudalism and its values that could threaten the new socialist order. In recent years, however, much of what he criticised seems to have made a triumphant return. Today, China is, indeed, one of the world’s biggest, lucrative markets for beauty products and luxury goods.
This article was originally published in Philippine Tatler Traveller Volume 16
- Images Florcruz Library