Themes and Goals
This one-lesson unit examines Mao Zedong as a revolutionary leader through Chinese propaganda posters from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976. Both beautiful and powerful, these posters offer students a window on the cult of personality surrounding Mao and its place in the broader context of the Cultural Revolution. The lesson contains student readings and activities as well as introductory materials for the instructor and teaching strategies. It can be used either online or in the classroom.
Major themes of the unit:
Audience and Uses
This material could be useful in a variety of undergraduate courses including but not limited to:
Suggestions for using the unit:
Mao Zedong and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
Mao Zedong is remembered as the father of China ’s communist revolution, and he presided over what amounted to a series of revolutions in modern China. Mao was the leader of the Communist forces when they triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists in 1949 to form the People’s Republic of China. As Chairman of the Communist Party in the 1950s, he spurred on the Chinese people in the pursuit of economic revolution under the banner of the Great Leap Forward. And in the 1960s and 1970s he sought to remake Chinese society and culture yet again by ridding the nation of traditional elements and urging the country’s youth to pursue constant revolutionary struggle in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution had at least two goals for Mao. One was to restore his leadership position, which had faded in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Another was to create a society that truly reflected his socialist ideals.
Mao believed that political revolution could only follow cultural revolution — changing people’s patterns of thinking and everyday behavior was the first step towards true liberation. Arguing that China’s cultural-historical heritage was the greatest impediment to revolutionary change, he decreed that the “Four Olds" should be smashed — old thinking, old culture, old customs, and old habits. The Red Guards took on this iconoclastic mission with enthusiasm. Schools closed, and young people were free to travel and attack remnants of the old order wherever they saw them. Teachers were vilified, artwork was destroyed, books were burned, and lives were ruined as idealistic young people sought to realize Mao’s vision of a society freed from the deadweight of tradition.
Image Courtesy of the IISH Stefan R. Landsberger Collection
Mao was the guiding light of the Cultural Revolution. His image permeates the political posters of the period, radiating like the sun as he smiles down on China ’s grateful masses. As zealous members of the Red Guard sought to transform all aspects of Chinese life in his name, Mao was elevated to a god-like status. He became a model for the Chinese people, larger than life and said to be capable of tremendous physical feats. This personality cult ensured that his portrait or an image of his “Little Red Book," the accepted text of orthodox revolutionary thought, figured prominently in many of the posters of the period. People worked for Mao when they worked for the revolution and vice versa.
As revolutionary policy changed across the decade between 1966 and 1976, so did the depiction of Mao in the posters. These mass produced images of the great leader signaled appropriate behavior and thought in an easily understood visual idiom at a time when the entire nation was in a state of nearly constant flux and unease.
All forms of media and communication were tightly controlled during this period. Everything, from poetry to posters, had to reflect Mao Zedong Thought. Mao wrote poetry, gave speeches and produced written works that were edited and disseminated to provide guidance for almost any occasion or event.
Posters and the Revolutionary Message
Posters were an ideal means of communicating the revolutionary message to China’s diverse population. Newspapers and magazines were not of much use when addressing uneducated peasants, film was expensive, radio was geographically difficult, and live theater was available only to limited audiences. Speaking through mass produced images rather than written text, inexpensive posters were an efficient means of addressing both illiterate peasants and busy urbanites, and they were often the propaganda tool of choice. Estimates put the number of posters produced during the Cultural Revolution at well over two billion. Designed as weapons of revolution, these ubiquitous artifacts used compelling symbols to introduce new ideas, create allegiance, and inspire action.
Modern political posters were first widely used in China to mobilize the population against the Japanese in the late 1930s. In Yan’an, the Chinese Communist Party base from 1935 until the late 1940s, Mao brought together artists and presented his ideas on the purpose and methods of artistic expression. Artists were sent to the Soviet Union to learn Soviet methods. Influenced by their Soviet study and local Chinese use of woodblock prints and paper cuts, the Yan’an artists began to develop a genre of design that depicted the revolutionary lifestyle. Where Russian posters were often serious and concerned with modern industry and machinery, Chinese posters were generally sunny and bright, filled with smiling people carrying out Mao’s principles. The posters are warm and vibrant, often saturated with shades of red, an auspicious color in Chinese culture and the color of international communist revolution.
The Revolutionary Nature of the Cultural Revolution
Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was not a stereotypical revolution. Revolution can be defined as a mass movement or collective action that uses violent means to overthrow a government and other institutions of society. This definition would not include the Cultural Revolution, since the Communist Party remained in power after 1976. If we look at revolution in a broader cultural sense, however, it becomes clear that the Cultural Revolution was indeed revolutionary.
Mao sought to remake Chinese culture and society, and there is little question that China was fundamentally changed during the years between 1966 and 1976. To choose the most obvious example, in a nation that valued filial piety so highly, the elevation of young revolutionaries over their teachers, elders, and parents was clearly an event with revolutionary repercussions.
In contradistinction, however, we can see that the perhaps the most important power relationship in modern societies, state control over individual citizens or subjects, was either unaffected or perhaps even strengthened during this period. We are left, then, in much the same place as Mao, struggling to understand the nature of the relationship between political revolution, on the one hand, and cultural revolution, on the other.
Cheek, Timothy. Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 2002.
The resources found on the Mao Zedong page and in the Further Online Resources section below provide useful background for a variety of purposes. Particularly good are Morning Sun (http://morningsun.org/images/index.html) on the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and its visual images, and Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Propaganda Poster Pages (http://www.iisg.nl/landsberger/)
Instructors may choose to lead the entire class in discussions of the images or to split larger classes up into small groups of 4-6 students. In the case of small group discussions, students may be asked to present their “reading" of a particular image or set of images to the class as a whole during the last 20-30 minutes of class time. Or, if the instructor chooses to forego in-class presentations, each student or group might be asked to submit a short written summary of their discussion.
Viewings, readings, and discussion questions for use in class, small groups, or in online web discussions are provided below. They are divided by topic.
In addition to the specific resources listed below, use the “Chinese Posters" section of the International Institute of Social History website, “The Chairman Smiles," for these discussion activities: http://www.iisg.nl/exhibitions/chairman/chnintro.php
Propaganda is information or ideas that are publicly disseminated to further a particular political cause.
This activity demonstrates how the work of others contributed to Mao’s cult of personality.
From the Picturing Power exhibition
Readings and Audio:
The emphasis here is on Mao’s role in leading the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
from the Picturing Power exhibition
Image Courtesy of the IISH Stefan R. Landsberger Collection
These materials focus on the question of leadership. Liu Shaoqi argues that supreme leaders should provide models of right behavior, an assertion that resonates with traditional Confucian notions of moral leadership.
from the Picturing Power exhibition
This section focuses on art’s role in revolution and politics.
Chinese political posters featuring Mao Zedong can be compared to posters found in other countries. Often, revolutionary leaders are used as cultural symbols. Chinese posters from the 1960s and 1970s are generally distinguished by their portrayal of Mao Zedong himself, or such symbols of the Cultural Revolution as his “Little Red Book." Using the information on “The Chairman Smiles" site, comparisons can be made to posters of revolutionary leaders of the Soviet Union and Cuba, as well as other selected national and revolutionary leaders from other parts of the world.
Sample Comparative Activity Using Cuban Posters
This activity shows how instructors might address the question of comparative revolution through political posters. The focus here in on Cuba, but a similar activity could be engineered around Soviet posters.
Image courtesy of the Collection IISG, Amsterdam
from The Sixties Project website
These resources are in addition to those found on the Mao Zedong Online Resources page:
The Chairman Smiles: Chinese Posters, International Institute of Social History
“The Cultural Revolution: A Terrible Beauty is Born," by Ban Wang (Chapter 6 from The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.)
Leaders and Role Models, Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington
Picturing Power: Posters from the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Indiana University
Posters from the Cultural Revolution (under Galleries) and Mao Quotes Factoid Generator (last entry under Feature Articles), Visions of China, CNN
Visual Culture and Memory in Modern China: Images, Modern Chinese Literature and Culture
Michael Wolf Collection of Propaganda Posters
These resources are in addition to those found in the Castro section of the Other Leaders Online Resources page.
The Chairman Smiles: Cuban Posters, International Institute of Social History
Cuban Poster Art Archive, Lincoln Cushing
Political Posters from the United States, Cuba and Viet Nam, The Sixties Project
These resources are in addition to those found in the Lenin section of the Other Leaders Online Resources page.
The Chairman Smiles: Soviet Posters, International Institute of Social History
Political Posters, Imants Kluss Home Page
Political Propaganda Posters from the Soviet Union, from the private collection of Gareth Jones
Revolution by Design: The Soviet Poster, International Poster Gallery
Russian Revolutionary Posters, Evergreen Review
Soviet Posters – Come the Revolution, University of Birmingham
Other Countries (including U.S., North Korea, Germany) and General Resources
The Art of Propaganda: Nationalistic Themes in the Art of North Korea
Nazi Posters: 1933-1945, German Propaganda Archive, Calvin College
Paper Trails: Exploring World History through Documents and Images:
Recruitment and War Bond Posters
Trenches on the Web: Posters from the Great War
World War II Poster Collection, Northwestern University Library
Andrews, Julia F. Painters and Politics in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1979. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.
Apter, David and Saich, Tony. Revolutionary Discourse in Mao's Republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Barmé, Geremie. Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader. Armonk, N.Y: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
Chu, Godwin C. Radical Change Through Communication in Mao's China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1977.
Denton, Kirk A. “Visual Memory and the Construction of a Revolutionary Past: Paintings from the Museum of the Chinese Revolution," Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 12, no. 2 (Fall 2000), pp. 203-235.
Fraser, Stewart E., ed. One Hundred Great Chinese Posters: Recent Examples of “the People's Art" from the People's Republic of China. Images Graphiques, 1977.
Galikowski, Maria. Arts and Politics in China, 1949-1984. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1998.
Holm, David. Art and Ideology in Revolutionary China. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
Landsberger, Stefan. “The Deification of Mao: Religious Imagery and Practices during the Cultural Revolution and Beyond," pp. 139-184 in Woei Lien Chong, ed. China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution - Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counternarratives. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.
Landsberger, Stefan. Chinese Propaganda Posters: From Revolution to Modernization. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.
Meisner, Maurice “Iconoclasm and Cultural Revolution in China and Russia" in Gleason, Abbott, Peter Kenetz and Richard Stiles, eds., Bolshevik Culture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Powell, Patricia and Wong, Joseph. “Propaganda Posters from the Chinese Revolution," in Historian, Summer 1997, vol. 59, issue 4, available through EBSCO online database.
Stambler, Benita. “The Electronic Helmsman: Mao Posters on the Web." Education About Asia, Spring, 2004.
Sullivan, Michael. Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.
Wolf, Michael; Duo, Duo; Min, Anchee. Chinese Propaganda Posters: From the Collection of Michael Wolf. Koln; London: Taschen, 2003.