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.


Through the compelling images of propaganda posters, the identity of the ethnic minority people is constructed as “little brothers and sisters” being taken care of by the Han “big brother” in the socialist big family. The realism and idealism work together in these propaganda to transform the images of minorities into signifiers of the homogenized, collective ‘people’, whose responsibility is to work hard to bring prosperity to the nation and to be on guard to protect the socialist nation from any imperial invasions.

The representational strategies in the Chinese cultural context discussed in the above sections are not limited to propaganda posters alone. In other visual forms such as films, we see the occurrences of the same encoding strategies. Paul Clark (1987, 1988) notes the differentiated treatment of the northwest and southwest minorities in post-1949 mainland films: class conflict and foreign espionage are emphasized in films portraying Xinjiang and Inner Mongolian minorities (the “hard” areas), while more love themes are expected of films about southwestern ethnic groups (the “soft” areas). Both the sufferings and the happiness (songs and smiles) are played up by the filmmakers to strengthen the portrayal of class oppression of the old society and of the new ethos of the new society. Overall, the minorities are represented in a homogenized fashion as the “exotic other” to satisfy the expectations of the dominant Han movie watchers.

The mythological use of ethnic people for political ends is not limited to China, nor unique to the past. In the post-WWII Soviet Union, political posters of Stalin found him surrounded by a group of people (often smiling) of different Soviet nationalities, which signifies the new Soviet imperial ethos (Bonnell 1997: 253). Roland Barthes (1972: 118) provides a classical example of how an image of a black soldier giving the French salute is encoded to signify the concept of “French imperiality.” Images of the “minorities” (most notably those of African-Americans and native Indian-Americans), used by the mass media to express hegemonic ideological concepts, abound in the American visual lexicon. The most recent and maybe the most dramatic use of the ethnic minority for national agenda occurred in the inauguration ceremony of Chen Shuibian as Taiwan’s tenth president (Simon, 2000). An indigenous member himself, Chen’s inauguration was dotted with performances of local tribes. When the ROC national anthem was expected, it was groups of local tribes’ musicians who stepped up and sang their traditional songs. When the national anthem was finally sung, it was sung by the hottest pop star, Zhang Huimei, also a member of one of the local tribes. In Chen’s speech, the diversity of the Taiwan culture was emphasized and celebrated. The presence of the various ethnic groups’ performances, as well as the validation of Taiwan’s diversified cultural elements, was clearly a political move toward the “independence of Taiwan.” It is not a bold speculation to say that myths of the ethnic peoples through visual channels will continue to be propagated again and again on the world’s political stage.