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 3: Ethnic Minority as Signifier for “National Security”

One of the most important images in the visual lexicon assigned to the minority people, which remained part of the standard iconography throughout 60’s and 70’s, was that of “minorities on horseback.” This image represented the vigilant minority people (more often than not, border people on the northern Sino-Soviet borders) who were always on guard against external military threats. The visualization of the “minorities on horseback” emphasized their class and ethnic attributes: they were almost invariably peasant volunteers, dressed in their own ethnic attire instead of army uniforms, proudly astride the trotting steeds, with a waving red banner indicating their affiliations.To represent the northern border minority people as horseback warriors is, to a certain degree, a reflection of their belligerent reputation in the Han historical imagination. But this historical imagination is manipulated to serve the new national agenda in foreign relations. During the three decades after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the CCP experienced years of fitful and ambivalent relations with its “big brother” in the Communist bloc (Soviet Union). To use a marriage metaphor, their relationship from 1949 to 1964 underwent four stages: the “dating” stage when China allied with Soviet Union (1949-1953); the “honeymoon” stage when the two nations started all-around cooperation (1953-1956); the “bickering” stage when the two parties developed discrepancies (1956-1959); and finally the “divorce” stage when the bilateral relationship totally broke up (1960-1964)7. On the Chinese side, the causes for the “break-up” were the Soviet’s chauvinism, international territory disputes, and the two parties’ difference in terms of ideological orientations (Zheng and Shi 1994). From mid-1960’s, the Soviet Union became a major military threat on the Chinese northern border. The following paragraph provides a vivid description of the tension between these two socialist countries–

Originally, i.e., in the early 1960s, the sources often quoted state that between 12 and 15 Soviet Army and KGB border guard divisions were stationed in the vicinity of the Chinese border. After an extremely rapid reinforcement between 1966 and 1973, the number of Soviet frontier force divisions had been increased by at least a factor of three. A corresponding buildup occurred, though more slowly, on the Chinese side. This dramatic increase, taken together with the highly visible crisis described earlier, led in 1969 and 1970 to a wide-spread belief, in the West as well as in China and the Soviet Union, that there was an acute danger of war actually breaking out. (Hart 1987: 81)

Although reports held that the rapid and drastic increase in Soviet frontier forces in the late 1960s and 1970s was in response to Chinese verbal and military provocation,8 in the poster representations, what we see are the activities of the local peasant militia (minbin) who rise defensively to protect their homestead. In the “Little Red Guards on the Grassland” (by Se Leng Yexi, 1965, plate 6), six Mongolian teenagers are riding on four steeds under a red flag, which is embroidered with a yellow star (a symbol for the CCP). They are patrolling proudly on the green grasslands, followed by their shepherd dog. The same painter did another poster with similar motifs that was published almost eight years later. “Frontier Guards” (1973, plate 7) depicts a troop of Mongolian militia men and women under the leadership of a PLA cadre and an old Mongolian man, who are marching on the snow-covered grasslands to a shooting range. The waving flag they carry identifies them as a “militia branch troop.”9 “The Great Wall on the Grasslands” (Caoyuan changcheng, author and year unknown, plate 8) pictures a platoon of male militia admiring someone’s good shooting skills by examining a target carried over by one soldier. The red flag identifies them as belonging to a “militia company” (minbin).
A striking example of ” the minority on horseback” image can be found in “Border Cavalry” (Bianjiang tieqi, plate 9), published in 1978. This poster features a valiant Kazak female militia member astride a galloping white horse, shooting a Chinese AK-47 toward a target out of view. Her clothing is of the Kazak tradition: a jewelry-decorated cap with a bunch of owl feathers on top of it; a long red silk dress and a sleeveless jacket with embroidered hemlines; and a pink outfit under the red dress. Compared with the women in the background, her clothes make her look like a newly-wed10. She could also have been a skillful dancer. Her female body is set in sharp contrast with the gun in her hands, the black boots, and the ammunition bags around her upper body. The occasion seems to be a shooting competition between the militia men and women. In the background, a group of young and middle-aged men and women stand by, apparently intrigued by her outstanding skills. Among them are two male cadres, one in a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uniform and the other in Kazak attire. The PLA cadre is watching her approvingly. In the far distance are the towering Tian Mountain and a beautiful deep-blue mountain lake. The setting of the picture, together with the presence of the PLA cadre sublimates the Kazak woman into a warrior icon. Her value is in her emulation of the PLA soldiers’ bravery in defending their homeland.

To an audience exposed to the propaganda agenda of that time, the message of this poster is loud and clear: even women can and will take up guns to protect our beautiful country. With such brave people on the Chinese borderlines, any invasive attempts would be in vain. Here, a female minority body, still colorful yet no longer in gaiety, on the horseback instead of on the dancing floor, is turned into a warrior icon that becomes a signifier for national pride and security. The image of “minorities on horseback”, overall, carries the connotation of the inviolability of the Chinese territory and the invincibility of the Chinese people.


7. The periodization here is based on Zheng and Shi 1994.

8. Drawing on Harold C. Hinton’s study on Sino-Soviet relations, Thomas Hart relates that in the early 1960s, after Lin  Biao became the defense minister, the Chinese government sent armed patrols across the border into the “disputed territories” (Hart 1987: 94, note 30).

9. Thanks go to Professors Uradyn E Bulag, Nasan Bayar, and many others, who have generously offered their help to identify the Mongolian characters on the flag and translate them for me.

10. Kazak people are mainly distributed throughout the Kazak Autonomous Prefecture of Ili, Kazak Autonomous County of Mori, and Kazak Autonomous County of Barkol, all in northern Xinjiang close to the Sino-Soviet border. The population of Kazak people was 568,000 in 1958, and 800,000 in 1978. Kazak women wear long dresses made of red silk within the first year of marriage. They also wear a pointed hat which is felt inside with cloth, silk or satin outside (Du and Yip 1993: 81-82).