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From The Asian Reporter, V23, #16 (August 19, 2013), page 11.
Chinese Posters is timeless and brilliant
Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
By Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins
Paperback, 144 pages, $19.95
By Josephine Bridges
The Asian Reporter
China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a period of only a decade from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, "is one of the most controversial and charged subjects in twentieth-century political history," write the authors in the Introduction to Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Likewise, the Socialist Realist images produced during that period and collected in this gorgeous volume may stir mixed and conflicting feelings, straightforward as the goals of the movement that fostered them may have been. Proceed with caution, but by all means proceed.
Chinese Posters begins with words and ends with pictures, but you can feel free to begin where you wish and skip around as you like. The introduction, a brief history of the revolution, is followed by a pair of essays written by the authors. Lincoln Cushing’s "Revolutionary Chinese Posters and Their Impact Abroad" is a scholarly work that nonetheless invites the reader in with its first line: "China has the oldest printmaking history in the world, a vibrant tradition centuries before Gutenberg developed the groundbreaking concept of moveable type." Small wonder that they "were supposed to educate the masses, to convey the party policy and Mao Zedong’s thought, but they were also beautiful artwork."
Ann Tompkins not only lived in China during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, she was a participant in the movement, and her essay is informed by her personal experience. "As a teacher from abroad," she writes, "I was working under a department named the Foreign Experts Bureau and thus, with no other qualification, was deemed a ‘foreign expert.’" Within a year, the author, along with three colleagues, wrote a dazibao (big-character poster) asking the Foreign Experts Bureau "Why Is It That Foreigners Working Here at the Heart of the World Revolution Are Being Pushed Down the Revisionist Road?" When she left China in 1970, Tompkins thought the "Cultural Revolution was coming to an end."
The posters themselves are organized into seven sumptuous chapters, beginning with "Nature and Transformation." According to Cushing and Tompkins, "It is easy to miss the subtle clues at first glance — but every one of the landscape paintings from this era includes features of human development, such as power lines, agricultural terracing, and soldiers on maneuvers." A poster called "Opening canals in the mountains" is an example of this subtlety, while "Don’t depend on the heavens" on the facing page couldn’t be more direct.
"Production and Mechanization" features the determined, radiant worker archetype for which Socialist Realism is known. "Intellectuals participate in labor" and "Planting rice by machine is wonderful" show the reader the difference eight years can make in agricultural practices. The "Women Hold Up Half the Sky" chapter contains delights such as three generations of women thrilled as "Electricity reaches our village" and, on the facing page, a markswoman in "The army and the people guarding the border together are a wall of iron."
Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who was respected for helping the Chinese during the resistance to the Japanese occupation in the late 1930s, makes an appearance in the "Serve the People" chapter, as does a group of children hiding behind a door as a man with a white beard emerges and asks, "Who cleaned up the snow for me again?"
In "Solidarity" we learn that China "took a keen interest in the social upheavals occurring in the United States ... especially the movement for racial equality." A gorgeous poster called "People all over the world unite to defeat American invaders and their running dogs" spans two pages and bristles with indignant faces of many colors and ethnicities.
The posters in the chapter "Politics in Command" are largely exhortations to do everything from "Study hard by coal oil lamp: Get a clear direction for the continuing revolution" — soldiers reading in a tent — to "Fight well in the peoples’ war to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius" — a triad of the proletariat armed with brush, broom, and shovel.
Finally, "After the Cultural Revolution" presents a "fundamental reassessment" of the revolution. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Benjamin Franklin were all nobly depicted in Chinese posters in 1981. Traditional subjects — birds, flowers, classically beautiful women, and misty landscapes — also make appearances here.
A bibliography, index, acknowledgements, and a technical note move the book toward its close, yet the very last page in the book is a poster, and it just might give you goose bumps, no matter what you think about the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Chinese Posters is timeless and brilliant.
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