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 2: Ethnic Minority as Signifier for “Lack of Progress and Education

In the decade after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, a series of research projects was carried out to investigate the spoken languages, writing systems, and social histories of various minority groups scattered mainly on the border regions of China (Ramsey 1987). As a result of these large-scale projects, fifty-five ethnic minority nationalities (shaoshu minzu) were identified. To define an ethnic minority, Stalin’s four criteria for nationality were adopted: common language, common territory, economic ties, and a typical cast of mind manifested in a common culture (Heberer 1989: 30). One of the many objectives in the nationality identification process was to locate each group in a certain stage according to the Morgan and Marxist model of five-stage social development (primitive, slave, feudal, capitalist, and socialist modes of production). Most of the minority nationalities were identified as still stagnating in the feudal or the slave stages, while the Han communities belonged to the semi-colonial and semi-feudal stage. In other words, the Han nationality was more advanced both socially and economically. Thus, the task befell the “big brother”– the Han people — to help and bring the relatively more backward minority nationalities (the little brothers) to the socialist stage, and to ultimately march into the communist stage hand in hand.

This social project has been termed as a “civilizing project” by Stevan Harrell (1995). By “civilizing project,” Harrell means

a kind of interaction between people, in which one group, the civilizing center, interacts with other groups (the peripheral peoples) in terms of a particular kind of inequality. (Harrell 1995: 4)

“Inequality” here refers to “the ideological basis in the center’s claim to a superior degree of civilization, along with a commitment to raise the peripheral peoples’ civilization to the level of the center, or at least closer to that level” (Harrell 1995: 4). Distinguishing “civilizing project” from military conquest, Harrell identifies three “civilizing projects” in the history of the Chinese peripheral peoples (his term for minority nationalities): the Confucian Project during the Republican period, the Christian Project during the missionary period, and the Communist Project in the People’s Republic of China. Three metaphors, or strategies, were adopted by all of these three projects to legitimize and define their missions: the peripheral peoples were treated as women (the sexual metaphor), as children (the educational metaphor), and as ancient (the historical metaphor) by the civilizing centers.

This section will discuss how the “educational metaphor” is manifested in the representation of minority people in propaganda posters. The “texts” to be read include four posters featuring three minority nationalities from the northern and southwestern part of China. The first one, “Serf’s Daughter Goes to University” (Nongnu nü’er shangdaxue, designed by Pan Shixun, 1973, Tianjin, plate 2), depicts a beautiful day on the plateau. The sky is blue with a few pieces of white clouds floating around. Flocks of sheep are scattered on the greenish grasslands. The peaceful life in a small Tibetan village is disturbed by some important event. In the center of the picture, a young Tibetan woman is astride a white horse, surrounded by her fellow villagers who have come to see her off. On her right side is her white-haired father who can hardly hide his excitement. The daughter lowers her head and listens carefully to what he has to say. The denotation of the poster is crystal clear: the Tibetan people are happy and proud that their daughters (and sons) are going to universities under the new regime, a dream that they would never have dreamed of prior to the Communist take-over.

The second and third posters are set on the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia. In “The Spirit of Lei Feng is Passed On From Generation to Generation” (Leifeng jingshen daidaichuan, 1976, designed by Se Leng Yexi, plate 3), a group of teenagers surround their female teacher, eagerly listening to her rendering of the stories of Lei Feng. On March 1st,  1963 following Lei Feng’s death, Mao wrote the inscription “Learn from Lei Feng” which inaugurated yet another national wave to learn from the model soldier. In “The Grasslands are Connected with Beijing” (Caoyuan lian Beijing, author unknown, 1977, plate 4), three little children are huddling together around a radio held by an older “young pioneer” (shaoxian duiyuan). In both posters, the spirit of a Han/national hero (Lei Feng jingshen) and the spirit of the central government (zhongyang jingshen) are passed down to the grasslands from above, either through the traditional mode of storytelling, or by means of a “high-tech” medium.

The fourth poster, “Learn From Good Experience and Develop the New Mountain Areas” (Xuexi hao jingyan, jianshe xin shanqu, designed by Shan Xihe, published in Shanghai in 1974, plate 5), features the mountain areas in Southwestern China where the Yi peoples5 live. The occasion pictured is the transference of technological knowledge from the Han “big brother” to the Yi sisters and brothers. A man dressed in Han style uniform is standing behind a tractor, explaining things to a group of Yi men and women who are dressed in their ethnic attires. One of the Yi girls is holding a straw hat which has five characters written on its brim “nongye xue Dazhai” (“agriculture learns from Dazhai“). Another Yi woman and a man, ready to try out the experience they have just learned, are standing behind the wheels of two other tractors. The atmosphere is cheerful and jubilant.

In these four posters, the minority people are represented as “children” or “childlike.” The young Tibetan woman, a “daughter” of the oppressed class in the old society, is to be “adopted” by the new “educational father.” The Mongolian teenagers are eager to hear the Han stories and learn from the “spirit” therein. The shy and happy Yi women and men are learning new technologies from their Han “big brother.” The inherent message connoted by the juvenile images of the minority people is: only by following the example set by the big brother can the little brothers advance to the more developed state of the Han. In addition, the minority people stand as a signifier for the imaginary of “lack of progress and education” for China as a whole. It is a reminder to people all over China that the country is still backward because of the oppression and exploitation of “the Three Big Mountains” (sanzuo dashan)6, and to turn China into a communist state, they must first learn new science and technologies.


5. During the Nationality Identification Project carried out in the 1950’s, various ethnic groups with different traditions and languages were grouped together and given the name “Yi.” See Ramsey (1987).

6. “The Three Big Mountains” stand for feudalism, imperialism, and bureaucratic capitalism.