New Stanford exhibit showcases propaganda posters made during China’s Cultural Revolution

About 50 posters, on view at the East Asia Library through April 24, show propaganda messages and artwork produced during Mao Zedong’s rule in China.

A new Stanford exhibition displays propaganda posters from Mao Zedong’s rule in China, offering a window into the country’s chaotic and bloody Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976.

1951 poster

This 1951 poster is titled “Celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Birth of the Chinese Communist Party.” (Image credit: Courtesy East Asia Library, Stanford University)

The exhibit, Modern Chinese Political Posters, is on view through April 24 at the East Asia Library. It features political posters from collections at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives and a privately owned museum in Shanghai.

About 50 posters, most of which date to the 1950s through the 1970s, depict colorful scenes of peasants, soldiers and working-class people with political messages that denounce capitalism and promote collective work.

“These are historic relics from a very chaotic time in China’s history,” said Ban Wang, professor of East Asian languages and of comparative literature, who co-organized a two-day symposium that kicked off the exhibit on Jan. 24.

Many images include idolized representations of Mao, the founder of the People’s Republic of China. The posters contain slogans like “Long Live Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought” and “The Invincible Thought of Mao Zedong Lights up the Stage of Revolutionary Art.” Some of the posters encourage citizens to lead their lives a certain way: “Marriage of Self-Choice and Working Together Bring about Happiness” and “Commit Our Blood and Lives to Defending the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee.”

1953 poster

This 1953 poster is titled “Marriage of Self-Choice and Working Together Bring about Happiness.” (Image credit: Courtesy Hoover Institution Library & Archives)

Led by Mao, China’s Communist Party seized power in 1949 after a long period of guerrilla insurgency followed by full-scale war. Mao then launched a revolution in 1966 that led to anarchy and the deaths of millions of Chinese over the next few decades, Wang said. Mao’s rule ended with his death in 1976.

Wang, who is originally from southern China, grew up amid that tumultuous time. He said he remembers witnessing violent fights in the streets and being forced to memorize Mao’s quotes in school.

The current Chinese government avoids drawing attention to that period and prohibits discussion of the revolution’s details in the news, online and in other public places, Wang said. In addition, many government records from the 1960s have been lost, destroyed or classified, making it hard for scholars to investigate that period.

“To understand China today, it is necessary to understand what the Cultural Revolution tried to achieve, if anything, and why its anti-bureaucratic energy went awry,” Wang said. “This time period still needs a lot more scholarly investigation, and these posters are an important historical record and tool in that effort.”

Some of the posters on display come from the East Asia Library and the Hoover Institution Library. But most are copies from the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre, which Jidong Yang, the head of the East Asia Library, stumbled upon while on a trip in China a few years ago.

“When I first saw the museum’s images, I was flooded with childhood memories,” said Yang, who grew up in Beijing. “Posters were powerful in the daily and the political life back then, and they’re still a dominant feature of modern Chinese society.”

Yang and Wang encourage further examination of the posters by researchers and those interested in the history of China.

“The rising global power of China should not be blinding us to the problems the country has faced and is still facing in its society,” Wang said.