China propaganda art evokes a revolution, now past

Collector Yang Pei Ming has converted a Shanghai basement into a makeshift museum to display some of his 5,000 posters.

Yang Pei Ming has more than 5,000 propaganda posters and believes he has amassed the world's largest collection of Chinese revolutionary art.

Asked to pick the most significant example, he picks out a poster from 1952. "Build a New China," Mr. Yang reads, guiding a shaky finger under the Chinese characters that float alongside a garish drawing of Mao Zedong. The late Communist leader towers over a mob of furious workers, which in turn looms over a terrified, portly man in a Western-style begging for his life on a factory floor. "Fight Against Illegal Business People Who Violate the Nation's Development."

Yang quietly adds, "That was the campaign that killed my father."

The soft-spoken, bespectacled Yang has single-handedly established the Propaganda Poster Art Center in the tiny basement of a Shanghai apartment block to chart three turbulent yet secretive decades in modern Chinese history, from the establishment of Mao's communist dictatorship in 1949 to the gradual opening up of the nation starting in 1979.

His makeshift museum is not officially sanctioned by China, nor does it attract more than 500 visitors a month. The artform, while largely a thing of the past, captures historical moments that still resonate, often negatively, with Chinese.

"Even now, these posters are largely taboo in China. Many political campaigns are still fresh in the older generation's mind, especially the Cultural Revolution. For now, most would prefer to forget. It's just too sensitive," Yang says.

Yang himself would rather discuss the aesthetic merits of Chinese socialist art than share his political views. But he makes an exception for the Wu Fan, or "Five Anti," persecutions of the early 1950s aimed at rooting out "capitalists."

His father, he believes, became a victim through mistaken identity. "The police came searching for my uncle, who had been a lawyer. But they took my father instead, and he never came back. They told my mother it was suicide. I ask you, why would he do that? He was a happy man with four children."

Nestled in Shanghai's former French Concession, Yang's museum is packed with social-realist representations of strapping, apple-cheeked farmers harvesting bumper crops, of little red book-waving students striding purposefully inland to learn from the peasantry and "Take Roots In The Countryside For The Revolution." Boyish, optimistic People's Liberation Army soldiers polish their rifles ("Definitely, Thoroughly, Wholly, Completely Wipe Out The Enemy That Dares To Invade") and industrial workers ponder the cruel exploitation of preliberation times ("Never Forget Class Bitterness; Always Remember National Hatred").

"Many young people have no idea about the past," he says. "These posters are not just works of art, they allow us to make sense of history. They help us understand who we are today."

A tour guide by profession, Yang's passion for propaganda came about by accident when a Hong Kong friend told him that old posters were popular in Hong Kong and "there was money to be made." Yang bought some from a seller who thought him crazy to pay for them. It turned out that Yang's friend had actually meant tobacco-advertising posters. "I felt a little foolish," says Yang with a smile. But an interest had been kindled.

Though Mao famously stated political power came from the barrel of a gun, the canny Great Helmsman also recognized the might of pen and paintbrush, declaring art should be used solely to advance ideology and attack enemies of the state. Mobilization of the nation's artists, designers, and printers resulted in one of the greatest poster campaigns in history.

Even during periods of hardship and political strife, the utopian posters flew off state-owned printing presses.

"Posters would be distributed to every danwei [work unit] with each new political movement," says Yang, chuckling. "And the movements changed often."

Artworks from the 1958-1960 Great Leap Forward - a push to increase industrial output that resulted in a dreadful famine - depict basket-busting grain yields and a rosy future. Posters from the 1950-1953 Korean War that killed hundreds of thousands of under-equipped Chinese troops, many from freezing temperatures, exhort Chinese to "Kill Marines As You would Snakes In Your Home."

But for Yang, times of stability yielded some of the best art, as the artists had more time and confidence to be creative. Ha Jing Wen's idyllic 1964 poster "Be a Red Seed. Take Root Where the Motherland Needs You, And Grow Leaves and Bear Fruit" depicts an urban youth transplanted to the countryside and bubbling with fresh-faced good health.

With the launch of Premier Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in 1979, three years after Mao's death, the clanking propaganda-poster presses finally trundled to a silent halt.

These days, interest in the posters is growing from overseas collectors, who value their kitsch, ain't-revolution-quaint quality. Yang has begun to sell his doubles to foreigners who pay between $100 and $1,000 per poster, depending on rarity and condition. At these rates his cache is worth upwards of $500,000.

Although few mainland Chinese have any interest in political posters for their artistic or historical significance, says Yang, they are recognizing their worth.

"Now, when you see a picture of Mao in somebody's home, it is more likely being kept for its monetary than its ideological value."

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