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.

Part 1: Ethnic Minority as Signifier for “Socialist Prosperity”

In the Chinese collective memory, the early 50’s has always been “the good old days.” In retrospect, it was indeed a productive and prosperous five-year period. By 1955, the new regime had made great achievements in transforming industry and commerce. Former privately owned industries had come under state control. Collectivization of agriculture had turned most rural households into lower producers’ cooperatives, in which twenty to twenty-five households pooled their land, tools and animals in production. The central government had achieved more centralization of authority as well. The year of 1955 also saw the best agricultural harvest since the CCP had come to power.The prospect of having a leisurely period to enjoy the harvest was, however, disrupted by Mao’s decision to enforce further collectivization that would establish higher producers’ cooperatives, in which all property was to be collectivized and peasants were paid for their labor according to their work points (Pye 1991). This move demoralized the peasants and only led to the decrease of agricultural production. In the urban areas, a drive was initiated to control intellectuals with a campaign against Hu Feng, a leading writer who criticized official literary policy. In May 1956, Mao initiated the “One Hundred Flowers” movement to invite criticism from intellectuals. The movement was abruptly ended with the Anti-Rightist Campaign starting in June 1957. The Anti-Rightist Campaign snared several million people, who were either labeled as “counterrevolutionaries” or sent to the countryside for “reeducation.”Some of the first images of minority people in the propaganda posters do not reflect this bleak picture of the reality in the latter half of the 1950’s. On the contrary, they project a colorful imaginary space full of happiness and hope. The poster “Share the Labor and Share the Fruit” (Gongtong laodong, Gongxiang chengguo, plate 1) designed by Cai Zhenhua and published in 1957 provides a good example of this use of minority images. In the center of the poster stands a tall and upright fruit tree with lush green leaves and red fruits. A host of beautiful white doves fly around the tree. Under the tree, around the large round trunk is a group of minority women dressed in their distinctive ethnic apparel, dancing happily in a circle. In front of them are three full baskets of fruits, apparently picked by them from the tree. In the distance, we see a vast field with trees scattered here and there.

The visual language of this poster resists a realistic reading: First, we do not know what kind of tree the picture depicts. The fruits in the tree look like peaches, but the ones in the baskets seem to be apples. In any event, this tree looks neither like an apple tree, nor like a peach tree. The shape of its leaves and its upright trunk make it look more like a pine. Second, the picture cannot be inserted into any temporal or spatial context. We do not know what time of year it is; nor do we know what place it is. The ten visible women (one is blocked by the trunk) are of the following ethnic groups (counter-clockwise beginning with the woman in pink shirt): Han, Yi, Dai, Uygur, Qiang, Gaoshan, Miao, Korean, Tibetan, and Mongolian. How they have come together from different geographic regions of China, and why they are dancing are both puzzling. The relatively larger space around this particular tree is also incongruent with the trees in the background. Apparently, the significance of this poster does not reside in its denotation: a group of ethnic women dancing happily around a fruit tree. It must be sought elsewhere.

The meaning of this poster becomes clear if the pictorial components are read as allegorically. The upright healthy pine-like tree symbolizes the new socialist system. The red-colored fruits (guoshi) it bears are the products (chengguo) of the socialist order. The lush green leaves and white doves promise a long and peaceful life for this social system. The roundness of the trunk, together with the circle formed by the surrounding women, creates a space of communal happiness (datuanyuan). The fields and sky in the distance are painted in yellow, which stands for a bright future and ultimate victory. The women, though different in terms of their ethnic dresses, share the same dancing movements and smiling faces. They are celebrating the successes and achievements of the new regime, maybe also their “liberation” from the “old society.” The colorfulness of their dresses, together with their happy facial expressions, substantiates Harriet Evan’s (1999) gendered reading of Cultural Revolutionary posters. Here, women, of both Han and minority nationalities, appear as the source of color, gaiety, and exuberance.

Evans observes that the ethnic woman “emerges as the exotic embodiment of a range of imaginaries, fantasies, and sublimations that the dominant discourse denied in the representation of Han women” (Evans 1999: 74). In this poster, however, we see a Han girl dancing together with the ethnic “other.” This is not to deny that there is hierarchical relationship in representation of female and ethnicity, but that here, the juxtaposition of a Han and ethnic women signifies a more important message of this particular poster. The women painted here represent people from all over China, from east, southwest, northwest, north, southeast, maybe even from Taiwan (the presence of a Gaoshan nationality woman). Their coming-together not only symbolizes the “one-heart-and-minded-ness” of the nation, but also anticipates the advent of “people’s communes” during the frantic years of the Great Leap Forward. In summary, the presence of ethnic minorities, in this case, ethnic women, carries the connotation of “socialist prosperity,” which is a highly idealistic version of the reality of that period. In addition, it also conveys the lofty ideal of a bright future for this “prosperity.”