Representations of Ethnic
Minorities in Chinese Propaganda Posters, 1957-1983

By Li Yu
Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Conclusion | Bibliography | Poster Sources

Published by the MCLC Resource Center, Copyright 2000.


On May 2, 1942, Mao Zedong began his famous Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art with the following words:

The purpose of our meeting today is precisely to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and mind. (Lauder 1996)

His speech made literature and art into a component part of the Chinese Communist’s Party (CCP)’s propaganda machine whose sole purpose was to serve the revolution. Writers and artists became the mouthpieces and tools for the CCP to produce cultural products that would “unite” and “educate” the “people” to attack and destroy “the enemy”. After the CCP seized power in 1949, it became even more urgent for the new party-state to establish its legitimacy and authority through mass propaganda. The new regime’s grand narrative of the past, present, and future needed to be disseminated among a population composed mainly of uneducated people. It was against this historical background that political propaganda posters entered the cultural stage of contemporary China.

Although posters were not new cultural phenomena in modern Chinese history,2 the wide use of them for political purposes appeared after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, especially during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1967-1977).3 According to Scott Minick and Jiao Ping (1990), a new and dynamic illustrative style used usually for posters and magazine covers took the place of photography which had been heavily relied upon for propaganda purposes prior to 1958. While the realism of photography could be used to document the successes in harvesting and construction, it was not “the ideal medium for the creation of expressive and compelling imagery that would mobilize the nation” (106). The new illustrative style adopted and developed the Chinese folkloric and rural traditions. The result was the combination of realism and romanticism which produced images of a strong idealistic bent. Thus, the artistic features of political posters enabled them to become effective vehicles for conveying the ideas of the party-state.

Among the plethora of poster images, a good number are people of ethnic minorities. In the visual language of posters, their presence is typically marked by their colorful ethnic dresses, dancing movements, and hearty smiles. Although figures of ethnic minority people appeared far less frequently than their Han counterparts, their presence served as an important indicator of the official tendency toward hierarchical relationships of the Han and minority peoples. While previous studies on Chinese propaganda posters have dealt with the representations of women and children extensively, few have touched upon the representation of minority people.4 This paper is an attempt to fill in this academic blank.

At the heart of this paper is the proposition that ethnic minorities were used by the state as signifiers for various ideological concepts such as “prosperity”, “need for progress,” “stability and unity”, and “people” at different spatial and temporal junctures. Through examination and close reading of four sets of propaganda posters published in the period between 1957 and 1983, I will demonstrate how the images of minority people were appropriated by the state propaganda machine to serve the national agenda. Drawing on Roland Barthes’s model of mythical denotation/connotation, I argue that these posters made little attempt to tell the viewer anything about the ethnic minorities per se (except for their customs of dress, and their cultural markers such as horse riding, singing and dancing).Their true and fundamental signification was to impose themselves on the viewer as the presence of certain state ideological messages.

This paper will focus essentially on the representation of ethnic minorities, and the relationship of this representation with Chinese national policies. In other words, attention will be given to the encoding strategies used in the production of these images in relation with historical factors. Such an approach will inevitably run the risk of being deterministic. Analysis of how these poster imageries were received by the ordinary viewers of that time, both Han and ethnic minority peoples, would compensate for this deterministic tendency. However, due to the scope of this paper and the scarcity of data on this matter, I will leave the latter topic for later pursuit.


1. My sincere thanks go to Professor Kirk Denton for his inspiring discussions and encouragement in the process of writing this paper. I would like to thank Professor Mark Bender who has given me valuable help and guidance in the study of Chinese ethnic minorities. I would also like to thank my colleague Eric Shepherd, who not only proofread my paper and polished my English, but also gave me suggestions on the improvement of the ideas therein.

2. During the Republican period, calendar posters were widely used for advertising purposes. See Leo Fan for a detailed discussion on how images of women were appropriated as signifiers of modernity in these posters.  Propaganda posters with limited circulation were used both by CCP and KMT during the Republican period for political ends.
3. For a detailed discussion of the rise of propaganda posters in post-1949 periods, see John Gettings (1999), p. 27-31.
4. The only article to my knowledge is Harriet Evans (1999).  In this paper, she mainly deals with representation of women in posters during the Cultural Revolution.  In the section of “color, age, and ethnicity”, she points out the differentiated visual treatment of Han women and ethnic women.  Ethnic women are painted “in gay colors, dancing, waving ribbons, and always smiling” (74).  Seeing ethnic women as subalterns in the power hierarchy, Evans argues that the “othering” of ethnic women reinforces “the supremacy of the masculine Han center” (74).