Shanghai’s roaring commercial energy is its signature, but one of the most interesting places to visit there has little to do with moneymaking.
Nestling in the basement of an unremarkable apartment block in the French Concession area is the Shanghai Propaganda Art Center, a private collection of Communist Party (CCP) propaganda posters dating from 1949, the year of the Communist victory over Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, and 1979, when China’s “Reform and opening up” policy was getting underway.
During these 30 years, Chinese artists were told to create art in service of the CCP. According to Yang Pei Ming, the softly-spoken 60-year-old former university lecturer who collected the posters, this work was the only artistic outlet the artists had so they put their heart and soul into the work, transcending propaganda to create great art.
There’s a steady stream of visitors to the Propaganda Art Center. On the two occasions I visited, most were foreigners. Many Chinese are grasping the opportunity to make money and improve their material lives and have little time or inclination to rake back over the poverty, chaos and violence of the Mao Zedong era, Yang says.
“Between 60% and 70% of Chinese are focusing on materialism. When they have settled down they will talk about the past. When they get comfortable they like to talk history,” said Pei in an interview.
“Someday they will want to discuss the Cultural Revolution, but this art will not be an overnight taste for them. Now they have money, they want to buy art, but 798 style [798 is a modern art zone in Beijing]. They buy expensive stuff. If it’s not expensive they don’t want it.”
Yang Pei Ming in his Shanghai Propaganda Art Center
The posters are in a range of styles and have a variety of themes, including works clearly influenced by Soviet Realism celebrating industrial and farming achievement and posters attacking American and British imperialism around the world (France is spared because it set up a relationship with China in the 1950s, according to Yang. Britain did too, but still held Hong Kong). There is also the entire genre of Mao posters, depicting the “Great helmsman” and vast crowds of Chinese citizens brandishing his “Little red book” of quotations.
“There was so much history and art in these posters. They were rare. I saw it as my responsibility to put them together. It will be good for the education of young people in the future and also for our generation, which has passed through so many hardships,” said Yang, who lived through the Mao era and first encountered the posters about 10 years ago.
“Each poster tells a story and there were so many stories in these 30 years. Now there is money but back then there was only stories. It’s very difficult to pass some things on to people now.”
The standout works in Yang’s collection are the “Da zi bao”, or Big character posters”, which are Chinese characters scrawled in red and black ink an apparently chaotic manner onto paper (I wasn’t allowed to photograph them). They date from the Cultural Revolution, a 10-year purge of “capitalist elements” from 1966 to 1976 that caused millions of deaths.
To my western frame of cultural reference, they remind me of the kind of deranged creativity that, in films, police bursting into the houses of psychopaths and serial killers often find. The posters show the essence of violent hysteria and are powerful and terrifying. A calligrapher as well as a poet, Mao created the genre himself, Yang said.
“Mao dictated the Cultural Revolution as an art movement with paper and pen and his Dazibao was the most powerful artwork in the Cultural Revolution,” said Yang. “The Dazibao were a response to the violence, paranoia and chaos of the era. They had no link to any truth yet had a powerful ability to drag the physical world into their illusions.
“Mao was a calligrapher, artist and poet. Hitler was also an artist, but Mao was different. In China, most emperors are good writers but Mao was different. He demonstrated it. He said the poster was a revolutionary weapon.”
Yang has 500 such posters (the best of which are not displayed on his website). Those that can be found on the internet are mostly fakes, he says.
“People aren’t aware of this art because it’s rare. Politically people don’t look. And after so much struggling people feel bad about the past. Then, Da zi bao were everywhere but now you can’t see them. It’s modern art. It wasn’t done for money. It was political graffiti.”
Propaganda posters: “Firmly support US black people’s justice struggle” & “Vigorously respond to Chairman Mao’s great appeal to ‘Support the army, love the people’” (photographs from postcard prints)
Yet if the Chinese public has little interest in the Cultural Revolution, the same is true of artists, Yang says.
“Modern artists have seen some Cultural Revolution pictures in books. They have created Mao iconography. But they don’t have much knowledge. Some contemporary artists have more of a context with western art culture. Perhaps they have lived there for a time, have brought back its ideas. Only a few want to look at the Cultural Revolution. Eventually they will become more serious. They are artists so they need to be more responsible,” he said.
“It’s the same everywhere. Technique is seen as most important. The stories are told by critics,” he added.
The same is true in literature, according to satirical writer Yan Lianke, who railed against Chinese writers’ apparent lack of desire to engage with traumatic events in China’s recent past at a literary festival talk in Beijing.
“Chinese writers should all feel guilty, no one can say we did our duty,” he said. “Between 1949 and now there have been many big events that were not dealt with. In the Great Leap Forward, 30 million people died. There is very little literature written about it what actually happened in the Cultural Revolution. That’s why Chinese writers, when faced with their own history, should hang their heads and apologise to the Chinese people.”
He added: “The worst thing is not that we are not allowed to write about it [the suffering of ordinary people] but that we have lost the ability. We have lost the ability to represent reality.”
Yan Lianke speaking at the Bookworm Literary Festival in Beijing
Neither does the Chinese political establishment much fancy delving into the past. Its recently re-opened National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, which took more than a decade and nearly US$400 million to turn into a showcase of history and culture, has exactly one photograph and three lines of text referring to the Cultural Revolution, according to this New York Times article. A short walk away, the giant Mao portrait still dominates the north end of the square, while his embalmed body is on display at the south end.
“The party wants to determine historical truth,” the New York Times was told by Yang Jisheng, a historian whose book on the Great Leap Forward famine, which caused about 30 million deaths, was banned in China. “It worries that if competing versions are allowed, then its legitimacy will be called into question.”
For this reason, Party leaders are also nervous of art, said Yang.
“The government doesn’t want to spend money on art. Everything is still developing. The leaders privately like art. But they are unsure of the relationship between art, society and people. It’s very hard to control.”
[A bit of a deviation, but this is also in evidence in the Arab world, now roiled by a wave of protest for democracy. The UAE is far from democratic but positions itself as promoter of culture. However, much of the best modern art exhibited there has the kind of rebellious spirit that isn't allowed in the country's media.]
As a result, the Chinese authorities are spending a lot of money on faux-culture, such as traditionally-themed shopping districts, Yang said.
“At the moment new cultural things should either be ultramodern or have some kind of traditional element. But it all ends up looking cheap. They spend lots of money on this stuff but in the future it will be a disaster and no one will be interested,” he said.
But the past won’t go away. There was a fascinating article in the Global Times recently about Lin Yuntao, whose father was killed during the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and who took his revenge last November, more than 30 years later, by stabbing to death one of the men he believed to be responsible.
“The Cultural Revolution is still a mystery,” said Yang. “It will be an interesting subject for research. There will be discoveries. There are so many stories to create art from. Chinese contemporary artists will have a very big historical responsibility in the future. They should be a mirror to reflect a period in history.”
Yang is pragmatic when discussing his own experience of the Cultural Revolution: “We who lived it are both unlucky and lucky. Unlucky because we suffered and lost our youth and the freedom to pursue petty bourgeois pastimes. Lucky because we lived through a unique period.”
He himself says he doesn’t think about the Cultural Revolution too much – “It’s good to forget. If you don’t it will be heavy on your soul” – but he also says that at the age of 60 one should “tell the truth”.
On my first visit to Shanghai in 2008, he offered a more personal perspective (I don’t have notes and the following is paraphrased).
During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese like Yang were told to be good citizens and tell the truth. But they saw that those who told the truth got into big trouble while those who lied did well. Some people, like him, chose not to say anything – they didn’t want to lie but we did want to survive. He recalled that when Mao died in 1976, it was very strange to go out onto the street because no one knew if it was safe to smile or not. His collection of propaganda art posters is his way of telling truths that he couldn’t tell back then.
And the rest of the world is interested in this truth – Yang said there are plans for about 100 of his posters, including some Da zi bao, to be exhibited in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum this year.
“International art collectors are not stupid – they look for Chinese contemporary art because they know this history. Sooner or later there will great masterpieces, it’s just beginning,” said Yang.
“The time will come when art is not just about money but also history. Money is everywhere, this is unique. The government doesn’t talk [about recent historical events], which makes it more secret, more interesting. I’m very confident and I hope I can be the first to explain this.”