A History of the Maoist Propaganda Poster + Depicting a China That Never Was

Among the most intriguing posters—and the ones which are documented in this article—are those that chronicle the era of Chairman Mao Zedong. Moving and provocative, the posters are extraordinary for their art and baffling for the often deliberately erroneous story they tell of Maoist China. Given that they were meant for a largely illiterate population, the importance of their imagery can’t be underestimated. In a sense, they chronicle not just a political career, but a China which, in many ways, never truly existed.  
Of Mao himself, Yang opines, “Mao used paper to do a revolution. Everything else—WWII, etc., used guns or weapons, but this time, it’s a revolution inside a revolution. He wanted your mind, your soul.” And yet, as Yang, who lived through the epoch himself, is quick to point out, he’s “not angry at anyone. Just enthusiastic about art. I want to make Chinese art history more complete.
The museum’s posters cover not only the major events of the time, but also an array of styles, from colorful graphics with an almost “Mad Men” esthetic to handmade posters featuring Chinese calligraphy. Although not covered here, the museum also has an extensive collection of woodcut posters as well as other paraphernalia like Mao busts. Many of these items can also be purchased in the gift shop.
Founded by collector Yang Peiming, who is also the museum’s director, the collection boasts over 6,000 pieces (just a few hundred are on display at any given time) and covers the period from 1910–1990. This is quite an accomplishment given that he started acquiring them in 1995, by which time the government was destroying propaganda materials. “Most local people don’t like the look of them!” Yang joked of the posters during an interview in Shanghai, adding that their lack of popularity, especially in the ’90s, made for a “good opportunity to get the good ones. I’m lucky. Success is good timing, good location, good taste.” He believes that in some cases, it’s possible he has the only existing copy.
At first glance, you might think the Maoist era artwork at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre in Shanghai, China, was a collection of mid-20th-century travel posters. Vibrant colors, seemingly happy people, and almost aggressively cheerful backdrops offer a vision of an ostensibly functioning, even thriving, China, but look a little closer—literally and historically—and it’s clear the picture is often far from realistic.