Why you should care
It’s a curious look into the evolution of 20th century China.
When you walk up to the graying building complex on Shanghai’s Huashan Road in a former French Concession, the guards know exactly why you have come. One will hurry over, smiling, and hand you a flyer with a map of directions to the spot every lost-looking tourist walking past the gates is likely looking for: the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre.
But it’s worth the search expedition. Because one of the best things about Shanghai is not the Bund, Pearl Tower or Nanjing Road, but this museum tucked away in the basement of an unassuming building, spread out over three modest rooms filled with what is possibly the largest collection of Chinese propaganda posters anywhere in the world. Dating as far back as 1949, the 6,000-odd posters are a fascinating glimpse into 20th century China.
It started as a hobby for the museum’s founder, Yang Pei Ming, who began collecting the posters in the ’80s when China was in the early stages of opening up to the world. Posters that had long graced the walls of government organizations, museums, libraries and cultural centers were being discarded. Yang found the bulk of his posters around Shanghai, where the majority of them had originally been printed. “No other country has produced so many and such beautiful propaganda posters as China did,” Yang explains.
This extended glimpse into China’s past also lays bare the murkier side of history.
The vast collection can be divided into three main eras. First, the Maoist era after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when Chairman Mao Zedong called upon artists to produce work that reflected the nation’s transformation. Then the years of the Great Leap Forward in the late ’50s, and the unexpected disaster that was the Great Famine. Mao had declared that artists must paint aspirational pictures for the nation. This resulted in poster art moving away from themes of Soviet socialist realism and embracing specifically Chinese elements. Posters focused on milestones like the wildly disastrous Four Pests Campaign, opposed U.S. imperialism — with cartoon depictions of the country as a shrunken, green villain — and declared ownership of Tibet.
The third era — the Cultural Revolution and after — is when Chinese propaganda art skyrocketed, with woodcut posters and bold and expressive imagery. Themes included everything from the youth heading to work in the countryside to the country’s progress in science and technology to the “triumph” of human will over nature.
This extended glimpse into China’s past also lays bare the murkier side of history. A particularly eerie example: the reproduction of a 1953 poster depicting the “grand ceremony to mark the founding of the People’s Republic of China.” The original features Mao with a group of party leaders. However the 1956 reproduction features the exact same scene, but without party leader Gao Gang (who had been among the casualties of the first major purge within the Chinese Communist Party).
Each poster is accompanied by detailed information, mostly in English — visitors to the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre are predominantly foreign. The museum is featured in a couple of Western guidebooks and travel websites, but it’s not well-known at home — none of my Chinese co-workers in Beijing had heard of it. Yang says the interest among internationals is higher because local people are familiar with poster art. Nonetheless, I still consider it a small victory that I managed to coerce a co-worker to visit the museum on his latest trip to Shanghai. “It’s very interesting,” he said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “But why so hard to find?”
But hey, isn’t that the case with all the best treasures?
The Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.