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 4: Ethnic Minority as Signifier for “National Unity”

In the period from the end of the Cultural Revolution to the early 80’s, the dominant image of the minority people in posters changed: the “childlike images” and the “warrior images” almost disappear from the propaganda posters’ field of vision. In their stead, came the return of the earlier “dancing and singing images,” reflecting new political priorities. In the posters of this period, minority people merge together with Han people, signifying the “unity” of the people. We see images of ethnic people dressed in their traditional clothes, singing and dancing with the Han people together in a crowd. During the few years in Hua Guofeng’s regime, these “unity” images were used as tools to legitimize Hua’s personal authority. In the post-Hua years, however, these homogenized images were more connected with the imaginary concepts of “people” and “solidarity.”In the early seventies, Hua Guofeng (1921-), originally a local official in Hunan Province, was hand-picked by Mao Zedong as his successor. Shortly after Mao’s death in September, 1976, Hua allied with the moderate faction in the party and arrested the “Gang of Four”. He soon gained control of the party, the state, and the army. Loyal to Mao, Hua adhered to “whatever Mao had said” and continued the “leftist” policy orientation. He refused to rehabilitate Deng Xiaoping, who had been persecuted by Mao, a decision faced the opposition from Deng’s supporters. When the propaganda machinery worked hard to denounce the “Gang of Four,” it also sought to build a personal cult around Hua Guofeng. In the propaganda posters of that period, a parallel can be found between the artistic techniques used to halo Hua and those used to consecrate Mao.The pervasive use of minority people in the Hua cult posters, however, stands as a unique feature, compared with the Mao cult, which very rarely uses minority images. In the poster “Chairman Mao Trusted Chairman Hua Completely; the People and Army Warmly Endorse Him too” (by Liu Renqing, published in Beijing in 1976, plate 10), the portraits of Mao and Hua are held next to each other by the representative of the workers, peasants, soldiers, intellectuals, and the ethnic people. Here, in addition to class, ethnicity has been used as defining features to mark “the people”. When articles in important party and state organs reported the parades across China to celebrate Hua’s rise, posters portrayed such scenes in their vivid visual language. “Warmly Celebrate Comrade Hua Guofeng’s Becoming Chairman of the CCP Central Committee; Warmly Celebrate the Great Victory of the Smashing of the Gang of Four’s Evil Plot to Usurp Political Power” (artist unknown, 1976, plate 11), “Chairman Hua, the People of All Nationalities Warmly Love You” (artist unknown, 1978, plate 12), and “Heartily Support the Wise Leader Chairman Hua” (by Liu Nansheng, published in Xinjiang in 1978, plate 13) are such examples. The legitimacy and authority of the new leader is endorsed by the presence of the ecstatic “people of all nationalities.””Chairman Hua Comes to Our Tibetan Family” (by Liu Zhisen, 1978, plate 14) exemplifies the renewed personal cult ethos that came to penetrate Chinese symbolism of power after Mao’s death. In the wooded area of peach trees, extends a piece of red exotic carpet. On the beautiful carpet, Hua sits amiably with four Tibetan men and four Tibetan women who are listening attentively to what he is saying. One woman is pouring tea out of an exquisite tea pot. A young man is holding a notebook, ready to take down  Chairman Hua’s every word. Beside them are a peach tree full of peaches and a full basket of peaches.11 The presence of two other women talking secretly in the background diffuses the focus of the picture a little bit and hence adds a light atmosphere to the foreground where Hua is seated. The poster sends a message that Chairman Hua cares for the people and the people love him.Why would minority people become an eligible representative for “the people” at this particular historical juncture? There can be many possible answers to this question. One possibility is that during the Cultural Revolution, minority people were harshly persecuted. Thus, the minority people became the signifier for the “sufferings” that a lot of people (both commoners and party cadres) had undergone during the Cultural Revolution. The pictorial representation of their sanction of Hua’s regime would convince the still doubtful viewers that Hua was the wise new leader of China. The peach, in the poster discussed above, symbolizes longevity in the Chinese folk tradition. However, this auspicious sign did not bring good luck to Hua, who was soon defeated by the Deng faction on the Chinese political stage.12

While Hua slowly lost power on the political stage, his image also disappeared quietly from the public’s vision. His portraits, which used to be hung side by side with Mao’s, were taken down from public places. “The people”, and “the unity of people of all nationalities” came to the foreground and became the recurring themes of many propaganda posters. “Long Live the Unity of All the Nationalities” (Gezu renmin datuanjie wansui, authored by Gao Quan and Yang Keshan, published in Tianjin in 1979, plate 15), and “Unite as a Family” (Tuanjie you’ai yijiaqin, author unknown, 1980, plate 16) celebrate the cordial relationship between the Han and the minority nationalities.

“Love Socialism” (Ai shehuizhuyi, 1983, plate 17) features an abstract tree of socialism. The colorful flying birds form the leaves of the tree, while the balloons stand for the fruits. On the top of the tree, surrounded by the leaves, is the “hammer plus sickle” symbol for the Communist party. The trunk takes the colors of red and yellow, two colors on the Chinese national flag. On the trunk, eight characters are written in black bold font “Renmin shi guojia de zhuren” (People are the masters of the nation-state). At the base of the tree are a group of people of all nationalities dancing and singing happily. Compared with “Share the Labor and Share the Fruits” discussed in the first section, the artistic style of this poster is more abstract (and modern). However, the two share striking similarities in terms of pictorial structure. Both feature a healthy, fruitful, and upright tree as a symbol of socialism. Both trees are surrounded by a group of ethnic people singing and dancing at the base. Both subordinate “the people” to “socialism”, by putting them under the tree, dancing and singing around it. The most obvious difference between the two is that in “Love Socialism”, the beautiful future, symbolized by the leaves and the party symbol, becomes more abstract and farther to reach. Perhaps, this speaks to the more sober and realistic regime under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.


11. The Tibetan plateau does not seem to be a place that produces peaches.  Are these peaches supposed to be brought by Hua to the Tibetan people? Or are they presented to him by the Tibetan people?  In any event, realism does not seem to be an issue here.

12. Thanks to Professor Kirk Denton for pointing out this ironic turn of fate for Hua Guofeng.