Way back in the pre-Deng Xiaoping days of full-on Maoism, there was not a house in China that did not boast at least one official portrait of the Party Chairman. Wearing one of his eponymous jackets, with those twin hillocks of hair surmounting his skull, he gazed benevolently down on his subjects like a Sino-Communist Christ. According to this not-so-little red book, some 2.2 billion portraits of Mao were produced during the Cultural Revolution – which is to say, around three per person. The workers would gaze at his countenance and devote their thoughts to how best they could serve him and, by extension, the glorious People’s Republic. How those long March evenings must have flown by.

But if Mao was an inescapable presence in China as a whole, it seems that in the propaganda posters of the period, at least, he took a back seat. Martyrs such as Dong Cunrui – who used his body as a support post for explosives while blowing up a bridge – were the lesser saints of this secular religion, and were portrayed in gouache or oils as role models for everyone to emulate. Of course, such images, with their overtones of adventure and heroism, would be most likely to appeal to the malleable minds of children (one poster of soldier Huang Jiguang, throwing himself into a hail of machine-gun fire, could have come straight from a Seventies Action Man box). Maoism recognised, at least as much as Ignatius Loyola did, the necessity of converting children at a young age, and it is the beaming ranks of Chinese youth who are the other principal presence in these posters. With their wholesome smiles and Western-style clothes – traditional dress having been outlawed – they are reminiscent of figures in Norman Rockwell paintings, albeit with one difference: a smiling 6-year-old boy by Rockwell was unlikely to be carrying a huge Hanyang 88 rifle.

It is ironic that these Communist posters should, in places, evoke the graphic style of Atomic Age American commercial art. This is largely due to the thoroughness of the Cultural Revolution, which bulldozed traditions in favour of a vaguely Westernised modernity – the only vestiges of the “old ways” in this book are a few acrobatics- and New Year-themed pieces. But the greatest irony of all is that the posters – with such stirring slogans as “Revolutionary rebels of the municipal technical training course, unite!”, “Concentrate your hatred into the soul of your weapon and annihilate the American aggressors!” and the priceless “People of the lower class are the most intelligent” – now fetch high prices in the ultra-capitalist collectors’ market.

First published in World of Interiors issue 256. Reproduced with permission.

Chinese Propaganda Posters

by Michael Wolf et al  (Taschen)

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