Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Problematic Propaganda and Fretting for the Future...

I made my way last Friday (9/March/2007) down the twists and turns of Huashan Lu towards the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center.

And I have wisdom to pass down to any unsuspecting pilgrims interested in walking down Huashan Lu: the road curves at one point even though there's no sign to warn you. So keep an eye out for the cross streets and, well, you won't wind up getting Shanghai'd (haha).

The museum entrance is is ominously placed in an inconspicuous looking apartment complex - the perfect setting for either a horror movie or soap opera. After some gesturing the guard showed me THE WAY...which was on a business card/map. The actual museum is in a basement complex - again the perfect setting for a horror movie. But aside from some very interesting propaganda posters, you need have no fear.

Though I could have sworn I saw one of the Mao poster figures blink at me.

Anyway, I chose two particular pieces to review/critique because I felt they could be connected by virtue of both being visions into China's future. It is obvious that the intended vision to be disseminated among the people changes over time and as I'll explain.

Ok so I would give the Chinese name for this first poster but I'm slightly embarrassed to admit that I don't know all the characters. Sorry folks. I can tell you the English name though: "Hail for Over-fulfilling Steel Production of 10.7 Million Tons". This was published in 1958 by an anonymous artist. The version you're looking at now was cropped by yours truly but if you feel so inclined you can find the original image here.

My first impression of it was striking: the dark colors of the factories in the lower background are contrasted by the illumination from what appear to be crowds of people and fireworks. Though if you look carefully, you will notice smokestacks all with fires ablaze, a telltale sign of continuous work and continuous progress. The question I would raise to the viewer is to imagine exactly what kind of progress is taking place. The China depicted in the picture is undoubtedly industrialized, but at the price of mechanization and a sort of sterility - apart from the working masses 'celebrating' their work there is no sign of life. And surely no sign of individuality which reinforces the mechanization that has undergone the workforce, ironically one of the problems of industrialization that communism in a pure form is supposed to address. If this is the intended future of China then it surely comes at a high price of the sacrifice of the individual. It is minor and probably in consequential in light of cultural differences, but notice that there are no stars to wish on and no faces in the crowd. I would say this detail alone is the icing on the cake as far as sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the state is concerned.

I actually know all the characters for this next image so you're in luck. Or maybe not if you don't care for Chinese. It is called "中华人民共和国千岁"(zhong1 hua2 ren2 min2 gong1 he2 guo2 qian1 sui4) or in English "Long Live the Chinese Republic". Again I have cropped the version you're seeing but you can find the original here.

This poster was made in 1979 and again presents a future vision of China, but one that is arguably both more confident and more positive overall. If you look carefully you will notice that we have yet another industrialized future (and this is an amusing 70s rendition in which I can't help but feel that all the technology depicted looks somewhat outdated nowadays - the helicopter is hilarious). Yet this future is much more service oriented with all the forms of transportation and seemingly more accessible to the people. You can see suggested Chinese superiority in terms of trains, cars, boats, airplanes, satellites, and even spacecraft. This last spacecraft is especially interesting as it suggests the inevitability of the expansion and success of the Chinese nation beyond its borders, carrying the country and its ideals into a new beyond. In the center lower foreground there is a tractor as if to remind the viewer where the People's Republic has come from and how the long history of China is inevitably interconnected with its presumably rich future. The sky is literally not even the limit as these seemingly highly industrialized ideals are starting to reach much beyond the sky. The city is again sterile in comparison to the previous picture, but not in such a bleak fashion. And it is surprisingly clean looking as compared to the previous picture. I would argue that the city is void of people because it has developed exponentially beyond the real life scenario where people must walk on the street - people are using highly developed transportation.

Overall I very much enjoyed my visit to the propaganda museum and would highly recommend it to anyone. This is a rare chance for both Chinese and Foreigners to see important contemporary history artifacts concerning the development of Chinese culture. The two pictures I mentioned especially strike a chord for me as I watch Shanghai be developed. Are we finally getting a glimpse into unfulfilled past Chinese dreams? If you take a look at the skyline on the Bund, it doesn't seem so far away from the second picture. The question I would again raise is not whether this is development is going to happen because it undoubtedly already is and will continue to do so - but rather, what kind of future will Shanghai and the rest of China ultimately have? Personally, I feel like Shanghai is destined for the second picture right now...and we'll have to wait and see as far as the rest of China is concerned!

I welcome any other analysis from anyone. Feel free to agree or disagree and write a comment ;]

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