Spring 2008

Paper tigers [extract]

Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

By Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins
Chronicle Books, $19.95

It is difficult to determine which totalitarian or democratic nation during the twentieth century produced the greatest amount of visual propaganda. If, however, one can measure this by posters per capita, the safe answer would be the People’s Republic of China. During the period known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76), many thousands of unique artworks (usually conforming to a dozen or so basic themes) were produced by the Communist party and various cells throughout China . . .

While these Communist Chinese posters lack the subtleties of even the earliest Soviet propaganda (before Socialist Realism of the 1930s), they are nonetheless fascinating for the narratives they tell. They are rousing tales of workers’ struggle, popular revolution, anti-imperialism and, of course, cultish swooning over the ‘Great Leader Chairman Mao Zedong’. Mao reportedly never brushed his teeth, but you would never know it from his toothy smiles in the posters.