Chinese Propaganda Posters
Stefan Landsberger, Leiden University, The Netherlands
George Mason University
This site showcases hundreds of Chinese propaganda posters. Of the three major websites devoted to this topic, Stefan Langsberger’s is perhaps the most comprehensive and well edited. (Three other sites that may be used in conjunction with this one are:  Picturing Power: Posters of the Cultural Revolution, by The Huntington Archive, Ohio State University, USA;  The Chairman Smiles: Posters from the Former Soviet Union, Cuba, and China by the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and  China Posters Online by the University of Wesminster) Landsberger is a historian at Leiden University and has spent more than 25 years building a collection of roughly 1,300 Chinese political posters—one of the largest in the world. This site is an outgrowth of Landsberger’s doctoral dissertation on materials published in the 1980s (the early post-Mao reform era).
The posters are neatly organized according to theme and/or historical periods or events. These include: “Early Campaigns” (1950s); the “Great Leap Forward”; “Models and Martyrs”; “Party and State Leaders”; “the People’s Liberation Army”; “National Minorities”; “The Mao Cult”; “Cultural Revolution Campaigns”; “Environment”; and “Population Policy.” Two additions in 2002 include the “Fifth National Census, 2000” and the “Beijing Olympics 2008.” Each individual webpage contains anywhere from one to ten poster images interspersed with accompanying text. Many of the webpages provide useful citations for sources from which this commentary was gleaned. Captions for each image (including a title and date of production) appear when holding the pointer over an image. One must click on the main categories to access the subcategories within. Although some categories (such as “Iron Women and Foxy Ladies”) are not as coherent as others and navigation can sometimes be confusing due to cross-referencing, the categories of organization on the whole work well.
The collection and preservation of these images and posters is of great value and Landsberger has done a great service by making so many of them available online. However, various aspects of the website’s design produce certain biases, of which readers/viewers should be aware. First, although Landsberger states that his site “is dedicated to the Chinese propaganda poster as it has been produced from 1949 till the present day,” the majority of the images presented are from the early 1970s to the present.
Second, at times there is a disjunction between the images Landsberger presents and his accompanying commentary. For example, in the section entitled “ New Year Prints (and chubby babies),” Landsberger argues that early Chinese Communist propaganda posters were heavily influenced by a more traditional genre of rural popular culture known as the New Year’s picture (nianhua). Here he assumes that a new hybrid form of poster emerged early on under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that was a thoroughly unsatisfying hybrid of more “popular” rural motifs and themes and the more sophisticated, urbane, and cosmopolitan concerns of Communist party cadres and intellectuals from the cities. There is nothing wrong with this interpretation of an urban-rural cultural split in and of itself; however, Landsberger does not supply the visual evidence to support his analysis. There are no images of traditional New Year’s pictures from the pre-1949 period with which one might draw useful comparisons. Second, all of the images that are presented are from the 1970s and 1980s. Landsberger does not seriously consider the limitations of his evidence, primarily because he acquired most of his primary evidence from state-run Xinhua bookstores in major urban areas rather than China’s vast countryside. In short, one should use caution when interpreting the images on this site in conjunction with the accompanying commentary.
Landsberger’s own written account (Confessions of a Poster Collector) of how he went about collecting these materials might be used to generate questions regarding the historical context in which these posters were collected. It can also help users assess the historical decline of state-sponsored propaganda in the 1990s as the transition to a market economy deepened. Comparisons between various socialist countries (such as Stalin’s Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba) as well as between the concepts of “propaganda” and “advertising” make good points of departure for classroom discussion. One might also compare these posters to contemporary advertisements or to World War II propaganda posters from various countries. A particularly useful strategy might be to focus on the power of images in shaping human desires for and conceptions of the “good life,” excitement, or happiness.
In addition to cross-cultural and historical comparisons, instructors may use these images as a means of helping students get a more concrete sense of the aspirations and the ideals (a certain brand of women’s liberation, land and wealth redistribution, general social justice) that inspired China’s socialist revolution and led to the successes (and the failures) of the CCP.