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The Art Of Chinese Propaganda

Nov 9, 2012
Originally published on November 16, 2012 12:17 pm

The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center lies buried in an unmarked apartment building off the tree-lined streets of the city's former French Concession. There are no signs. You have to wend your way through apartment blocks, down a staircase and into a basement to discover one of Shanghai's most obscure and remarkable museums.

The private collection features about 300 brightly colored, Mao-era propaganda posters stretching from the founding of Communist China in 1949 to 1990, which includes some of China's darkest political days. The museum, which has been open for a number of years but finally received an official government license last spring, is a labor of love.

Its owner, Yang Peiming, began buying up the posters in the mid-1990s as they were being thrown away en masse.

"The propaganda poster is very, very unique," says Yang. "They describe the history with so many detailed pictures. This is interesting, because it is art plus politics."

Many posters feature heroic, cartoonlike figures with political slogans to rally the masses. The images are triumphant, even if the events they depict were often disasters.

Take a poster from 1958 showing a Chinese man on horseback racing past a portly British soldier in a pith helmet on the back of an ox. One of the poster's slogans says China's economy will surpass Great Britain's in 15 years. The poster was a rallying cry for Mao's Great Leap Forward, which forcibly collectivized agriculture.

It was a catastrophe that that Yang calls "crazy."

"We got a famine disaster and people [didn't get] enough to eat," says Yang.

At least 30 million people died in the resulting famine.

Yang says the posters help Chinese appreciate the country's recent boom years by recalling the mistakes and suffering of the past. "If we want to taste the sweetness, you have to know what is the taste of the bitterness," he says, using an old Chinese slogan.

Because the museum is not well-known — most Shanghainese have no idea it exists — it doesn't attract crowds.

"It's a hidden treasure," says Ruby Leung, who grew up in Hong Kong and visited one recent weekday.

Leung's favorite works are a series of nearly identical posters first dating to 1953. They show Mao standing atop Tiananmen, Beijing's main imperial gate, announcing the creation of the People's Republic of China, flanked by fellow party leaders.

What fascinates Leung is how officials in the background vanish with each new rendering. It's the political equivalent of the children's song "Ten Little Indians."

Yang explains the first figure to disappear is a senior party official named Gao Gang.

"He was sold out by Stalin," Yang explains to Leung. "Stalin told Mao that your Gao Gang wants to replace you, so that made Mao very angry."

Gao was purged and committed suicide in 1954.

Next to go was Liu Shaoqi, China's president. He was labeled a traitor in the late 1960s and died in prison.

"So, Liu Shaoqi disappears in the third edition replaced by another man," says Yang, who likes to explain the posters' historical context to visitors.

Leung, who now works for Citigroup in New York, says her mother was sent to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao turned Chinese society on its head.

So the posters have a personal resonance. "It is a good opportunity for me to understand more about my country," she says.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's Shanghai correspondent.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Inside an unmarked gate just off a tree-lined street in Shanghai sits one of the city's most obscure and remarkable museums. It's called the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center. The private collection features about 300 brightly colored, Mao-era propaganda posters from some of China's darkest political days.

The museum has been around for a number of years but finally received an official government license last spring. Our Shanghai correspondent, Frank Langfitt, recently visited and he sent this report.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: There are no signs for the Propaganda Poster Art Museum. It's actually buried in a warren of apartment blocks here in Shanghai. And I'm going to try to find the right door. OK, so we're heading downstairs to the basement, there again not a single sign. (Speaking foreign language).

YANG PEIMING: My name is Yang Peiming.

LANGFITT: Yang Peiming is a travel business operator turned art collector. His museum is really just two basement apartments. The posters lining the walls stretch from the founding of communist China in 1949 to 1990.

PEIMING: The propaganda poster is very, very unique. They describe the history with so many detailed pictures. So I think this is interesting because it's art plus politics.

LANGFITT: Many posters feature heroic, cartoon-like characters with political slogans to rally the masses. The images are triumphant, even if the events they depict were often disasters.

Take a poster from 1958 showing a Chinese man on horseback racing past a fat British soldier in a pith helmet on the back of an ox. A slogan says China's economy will surpass Great Britain's in 15 years. The poster was a rallying cry for Mao's Great Leap Forward, which forcibly collectivized agriculture. It was a catastrophe.

PEIMING: We got a famine disaster, and people not enough to eat. Crazy.

LANGFITT: The resulting famine killed at least 30 million people. Yang says posters help Chinese appreciate the country's recent boom years by recalling the mistakes and suffering of the past. He explains with an old Chinese saying.

PEIMING: If we want taste sweetness, you have to know what is the taste of the bitterness.

LANGFITT: Ruby Leung is one of the museum's scattering of visitors today. She grew up in Hong Kong and works for Citigroup in New York. She's fascinated by what she sees.

RUBY LEUNG: It's great. It's a hidden treasure, honestly.

LANGFITT: Pick out one that really struck you and show it to me, please.

LEUNG: I haven't finished all of them, but first of all these three.

LANGFITT: She points to a series of nearly identical posters first dating to 1953. They show Mao standing atop Beijing's main imperial gate, announcing the creation of the People's Republic, flanked by fellow party leaders.

LEUNG: And some of the people, like they disappear in different versions.

LANGFITT: Indeed with each new rendering, a figure vanishes. It's the political equivalent of the children's song "Ten Little Indians." Yang explains the first figure to disappear is a senior party official named Gao Gang.

PEIMING: He was sold out by - I think by Stalin. Stalin told Mao, say Gao Gang want to replace you, so make Mao very angry.

LANGFITT: Gao was purged and committed suicide in 1954. Next to go was Liu Shaoqi, China's president. Liu was labeled a traitor in the late '60s and died in prison.

PEIMING: So, Liu Shaoqi disappeared in the third edition, replaced by another man.

LANGFITT: Leung says her mother was sent to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao turned Chinese society on its head. So the posters have a personal resonance.

LEUNG: It's a good opportunity for me to understand more about my country. And these are, like, firsthand materials, which I like a lot.

LANGFITT: Yang says he built his collection - he has 6,000 posters in all - because he admires them as art. But he also knows the human costs of the political campaigns they supported. When Mao cracked down on capitalist Shanghai in the early '50s, the communist authorities jailed and interrogated Yang's father.

PEIMING: (Unintelligible) and eventually, you know, suicide. And we don't believe because (unintelligible).

LANGFITT: Earlier this fall, the newest art museum chose nearly 20 pieces of Yang's to exhibit, but they weren't his propaganda posters. Instead, the museum chose other works: old advertisements featuring Shanghai ladies from the '20s and '30s. Yang says some curators don't think propaganda posters are art and still find them too politically sensitive. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.