Case Study

Chinese Propaganda Posters

Why I Taught the Source

Visual images provide valuable material for the exploration of childhood, youth and history. Propaganda posters from the People's Republic of China (1949-present) are particularly rich, offering images that are both bold and subtle, and which many students find as nicely accessible sources to explore. The posters offer a sense of the ways in which a Chinese state and the individual artists it employed sought to use the image of the child to gain a broader public investment in political movements and to define new visions of the revolutionary cause, particularly during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Exploration of the imagery of children in these posters provides students with useful sources through which to explore the ways in which images of children would come to signify broader social and political meanings and to potentially inspire both youths and adults in their own definitions of self-identity.

Easily accessible online in the multiple collections, these posters serve as an excellent realm through which to discuss the idea of childhood in a historical context. I use these images as a means to explore the ways in which images of youth are consciously composed in the service of political movements set forth by the state, yet also the ways in which that imagery might hold multiple meanings for a diverse audience. In this manner, our class becomes a workshop for exploring the complexities of the image of the child and the genre of the propaganda poster itself, and in helping students gain a greater expertise of their own in working with visual culture as historians.

How I Introduce the Source

My workshop on Chinese propaganda posters is generally run in a two-session format. In the first class meeting, we discuss the Cultural Revolution itself. Here we explore assigned background readings on the event, including narrative overviews and a well-chosen text or excerpts from the memoir literature of those who experienced the period as young people themselves. Readings on the topic of visual culture and childhood have also proven quite valuable for our discussion. In this way, students gain a perspective on historical context of the images' composition, the Maoist rhetoric of the time, and on approaches to the analysis of images themselves. (See below for a list of relevant resources.)

In preparation for our group work on visual culture, students are then invited to choose a propaganda poster from available online sources (see below) and then compose their own analysis that will be shared with the class at our second meeting. This assignment generally takes the form of a 1-2 page written paper or an entry on their own personal blogs for the course. Students are instructed to consider the composition of the image, the messages it may have been intended to convey, and, indeed, messages its composer may not have intended yet which might be read by observers at the time.

Reading the Source

In our workshop meeting to discuss the images themselves, students work in groups of three. Together, they share the images they selected for their own analysis, using either a printed image or working together on notebook computers that they (or our academic institution) have available for the workshop.

Students are instructed to compare their own explorations of specific images and then to build a collaborative analysis of the three images they selected. In this way, the lesson is intended to promote both a deeper analysis of a chosen image and also, importantly, to encourage new observations and insights through a perspective that travels across the frames of multiple images. This comparative approach helps to show the complexity of seemingly simple propaganda as well as the ways in which theme and compositional approach would vary historically. Through these collaborative analyses, students also achieve a perspective on the diverse ways in which individuals may view an image as well as the complexity of meaning that a poster may offer. I have also invited students to find an additional image to add to their analytical mix among images of children that appear during China's subsequent reform period (1978-present) or even in comparative spaces such as within the realm of American advertising as a means to further the historical (and methodological) discussion.

Questions offered for students to consider include:

  • What are the key components of this image? Themes? What is the role of the child within the composition?
  • In what ways are different objects as well as colors and movement associated with the child?
  • How might adult viewers have seen this image when it was presented? In what ways might the image of the child have offered messages about self and society at that particular moment?

Depending upon the student selection of images, related themes may include evolving definitions of prosperity and happiness, of changing definitions of domestic space (or a reinvention, even a removal, of the same), and of the relationship between a mass media and personal identity.

Sample Images and Themes

The following three images are among ones that have been chosen by my students as the focus of their own creative and insightful analyses. The three images, which run in a rough historical order from the bountiful mid 1950s, to the Cultural Revolution years that saw young people forming Red Guard groups and pursuing revolution at the call of Mao Zedong, to a different image of a young girl and a presentation of new national aims that were announced during the reform period that followed under Deng Xiaoping. These images reveal the varied political and social messages that children and youth served to portray.

The first image, "The happy life Chairman Mao gave us, 1954," offers a domestic scene which appears surprisingly familiar to many students in its presentation of a happy family meal. Students have commented upon the ways in which children seem to symbolize the peace and material prosperity of China after the revolution of 1949. And yet, the prominence of the image of Mao himself is also noted – indeed, one student has insightfully observed that Mao himself appears to be joining the family at its very own dinner table.

The second image, however, presents a very different vision. In "Protect the great results of the Cultural Revolution, 1974," a cohort of determined youth in red armbands replace adults and offer their own voices to a new definition of the revolutionary cause through the posters and slogans they paint. Gender is a theme of particular value here, both in comparison with the first images and the one that follows. In this second poster, we find a determined teenage girl leading the way rather than serving the table.

Finally, the last image appeared following the arrival of a Chinese reform agenda and the end of the Maoist campaigns. This poster, "Studying for the mother country, 1986," presents a girl at the center of an image that invokes many of the official "four modernizations" (specifically, industry, technology, agriculture, and defense) that were proclaimed by a new leader, Deng Xiaoping, as the primary goals for building a strong Chinese nation. Students may explore the ways in which the busy detail of this image represents themes of industrialization, urbanization, national progress (as symbolized by a space program, among other projects), as well as the combined imagery of the flag, the doves around it, and, importantly, the tools that the girl herself thoughtfully wields.

Reflections

In our discussion of these images, conclusions sometimes vary and are often, in an analytically creative fashion, open-ended. The image of the child as one intended for a broad audience, and particularly for adults' own sense of meaning, often emerges as one conclusion. The images also reveal the equation of childhood with both a peaceful prosperity and, in Cultural Revolution imagery, a moralist heroism and mission. As seen in the reform period posters, the image of the child also would serve new mandates and concerns, including a program of economic and technological innovation that marks one definition of global modernity in the late 20th and 21st century.

In the process of reaching these and other insights, students also gain a valuable methodological experience in the historical analysis of visual imagery. Understanding the differences between images and texts, as well as the value of each among other forms of historical evidence, students can bring these same analytical tools to comparative contexts and resources.

Additional Resources

  1. Benson, Linda. China since 1949. London: Longman, 2002.
  2. Donald, Stephanie. "Children as Political Messengers: Art, Childhood, and Continuity." Quoted in Harriet Evans and Stephanie Donald, eds., Picturing Power in the People's Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999, 63–78.
  3. Morning Sun. (Website and documentary film on the Cultural Revolution.) Long Bow Group, 2003.
  4. Yang, Rae. Spider Eaters: A Memoir. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  5. Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages.
  6. University of Westminster. China Posters Online – Children.

How to Cite This Source

Susan Fernsebner, "Chinese Propaganda Posters," in Children and Youth in History, Item #269, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/269 (accessed April 23, 2014).

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