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China's Propaganda Posters Leave Colorful Legacy of Art and Insight

A Shanghai Museum exhibits cultural history told through posters

Some of the best insights into China's often-turbulent 20th Century history are from official government "propaganda" posters, like the brightly colored portraits associated with the events of the 1960s depicting heroic Chinese leaders, soldiers and peasants.

China's government began producing these posters in the 1940s. Many were discarded when a new political line gained popularity and widely assumed to be lost. But thanks to the tireless efforts of a Shanghai resident with a deep interest in Chinese history, thousands of posters, some quite rare, are now on display in a unique museum that's becoming a popular stop for Shanghai visitors.

Shanghai Poster Museum
Image: Shanghai Poster Museum

The 4,000-plus posters at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, the largest such trove in the world, are all from the personal collection of Yang Pei Ming, a retired travel industry executive now in his 60s. Long fascinated by China's rich graphical history, Yang began collecting the posters that played such a vital role in communicating government ideas decades ago.

Poster-collecting hobby becomes a full-time job

What was at first a hobby for Yang eventually evolved to become a full-time job. His motivation in running the poster museum is to remind the younger generation of China's recent past. "With the shift toward a more modern and forward-thinking China, it would be a mistake to forget our history," Yang says.

When most people imagine Chinese propaganda posters, they think of those from the period of the Cultural Revolution. But as the center makes clear, other styles have also been popular.

Shanghai Poster Museum
Image: Shanghai Poster Museum

Posters from the late 1940s and early 1950s, for example, are often in the industrial and monochromatic "social realist" school of the Soviet Union; soldiers and combat are common themes.

A little later, the posters took a much gentler turn, many showing toddlers romping in a playful style that wouldn't be out of place in a nursery school anywhere in the world. During other periods, it was common to depict Chinese athletes in vigorous sports like running, biking and skiing.

Political graffiti becomes museum-worthy artwork

Yang says some of his proudest possessions are the "Dazibao," pieces of calligraphy that functioned much like graffiti during the turbulent 1960s. Yang vividly recalls seeing the posters all over the Shanghai East China Teachers University during his student days there. Often slapped on to walls during the middle of the night, these posters weren't designed to last, much less be shown in a museum. Yang only found some because they were being used as wrapping papers for other objects he collected.

"Such posters were the most powerful artworks of the Cultural Revolution," he says on the museum's website, with many of them created by students denouncing teachers as reactionaries. "Each one represents the fear, violence, paranoia and chaos of that era."

Despite the many contrasting political ideas expressed in the different generations of posters, Yang makes sure that the museum itself espouses no particular political line. "I am very open towards different people with different views," he says. "I have lived through all the changes in China. My only wish for the future of China is peace and prosperity, with art and culture."

The museum is located in the basement of a Shanghai apartment building on Hua Shan Road, and draws as many as 100 people a day, usually visitors from overseas. The vast majority of reviews on Trip Advisor rate the museum as "Very Good" or "Excellent." One reviewer said the museum gave him "as much an insight into Chinese history as a trip to the Terracotta Warriors in Xian or to the Forbidden City in Beijing."

The museum's fame is spreading: This summer, a representative sampling of 120 of its posters will be on loan to Edinburgh University in Scotland for a special exhibit.

One of Yang's greatest pleasures is interacting with museum visitors interested in his country's history. "I will be happy if my small museum can contribute a little bit to the better understanding between the people in the world, especially between the U.S. and China," he says.