Publishing Posters Before the Cultural Revolution

By Kuiyi Shen

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 12, no. 2, pp.177-202

Full-color propaganda posters, as a unique art form, existed in China for almost forty years, from the early 1950s to early 1990s. Propaganda pictures, however, were not actually new in 1949–the Communists very successfully used woodblock printed posters in their struggle against the Japanese between 1937 and 1945 and continued to deploy them against the Nationalist party in the1940s. Nevertheless, the development of the genre into the most widespread form of Chinese visual art, the one that totally changed the aesthetic standards of an entire generation, is an extraordinary story. This article presents a brief history of the propaganda poster department of China’s largest art publisher, Shanghai People’s Fine Art Publishing House, and recounts the successes and failures of its most famous poster designer, Ha Qiongwen, whose career spanned the entire institutional existence of the department for which he worked. Prize-winning posters were essential components of the cultural memory of an entire generation of Chinese. Now they serve as a magic mirror to remind us how art can be manipulated as a political tool, and both how effectively it can teach idealistic and socially-beneficial values, and how convincingly it can fool people.