Preserving Mao-era propaganda art

For a museum housed in the basement of an apartment in Shanghai, the Chinese name sounds pretty official: the Shanghai Yang Pei Ming Propaganda Poster Art Museum. It’s a name given by the government this March when it finally recognised the efforts of Yang, who unveiled his private collection of posters in one modest room in the building in 2002.

The tall, jovial Yang, prefers the name he himself gave: the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre (SPPAC).

Now housed in three large rooms, the museum is a place for both the lover of history and someone who appreciates poster art.

Yang began collecting artwork since 1995 during his travels within and outside China. It was around that time that the Chinese government decided to dispose thousands of posters – most used as propaganda for the Party during the reign of Mao Zedong – preserved in libraries and universities across China.

“If you have nothing to show, young people will not ask questions,” Yang told me when I met him at the museum, adding: “I am trying to store history and cultural heritage.”

There are 6000 artworks in the museum of which around 300 to 400 are on display at a time.

The collection of propaganda art is broadly divided into three periods: 1949-57, the initial years after the founding of People’s Republic of China; 1957-65, during and after Mao-led Great Leap Forward era and 1966-76, the years of the Cultural Revolution.

Each era has recurring motifs. The Great Leap, for example, is depicted in the posters through factories and workers with heavy fists and forearms. “They depict workers who are both ready to work and fight,” Yang said, taking me through periods of Chinese modern history.

The initial style was adopted from the drawing method followed by propaganda artists from USSR at that time. Many posters show Communist revolutionaries from other parts of the world like Cuba and other Latin American countries. The common villain in the artwork: the United States of America. One artwork shows aggressive and armed Chinese children running towards two hapless US soldiers, quite clearly in mortal fear of them.

Yang also has hundreds of posters from the pre-revolutionary era. Pride of place is the collection of posters under the title “Shanghai Ladies.” Many of these show women with full figures sitting inside gardens, in front of ornate homes or near gushing waterfalls. These artworks also act as advertising posters for many products like soaps, cigarettes, beer, cosmetics, tea and mosquito repellents.

“But after the revolution (in 1949) the style in which ladies were shown in the artwork earlier changed. Their depiction became more Chinese.”

There’s not much India in the posters except in one from the ‘50s where a turbaned Indian is shown as part of a happy group of men and women; it’s titled ‘peaceful coexistence’.

The only other poster with an Indian motif – which I picked up for a few hundred Yuan – was a movie poster in Chinese of the Rishi Kapoor and Jaya Prada starter ‘Sargam’. In Chinese, it became “Ya Nu” or the “Mute Girl.”

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