Thursday, March 12, 2009

Panda Propoganda

If not necessarily a record of China’s growth as a nation, the Propaganda Poster Art Museum in Shanghai is at least a unique view into the ideological growth of the Communist Party. A chronicle of propaganda posters from the Mao Era, the artwork enables viewers to construct a sort of timeline of events occurring within China and around the world during this time. Yet even with my limited knowledge of modern Chinese history, the world depicted in these posters feels more like a parallel universe from The Twilight Zone than anything close to reality: when I saw peasants happily working in the fields with baskets full of food, I guessed that at the time this poster was created, China was probably starving, or close to it. When hundreds of tanks, airplanes, and soldiers had their guns pointed toward Taiwan, I tried to imagine how threatening Taiwan and its American allies must have seemed.

More interestingly, the characters depicted in the propaganda posters highlight an interesting evolution in China’s perception of itself and its allies. Older posters prominently feature Stalin, Lenin, Marx, and Engels superimposed onto pictures of Chinese commoners, industries, or military, reinforcing the link between these older philosophers and China’s present reality. Eventually, perhaps as the relationship between China and its Soviet uncle declined, Lenin and the others are nowhere to be found, replaced by Mao himself as the ideological leader of China. Still later, one can observe through the posters as Mao transcends from mere human to a revered symbol of China as a whole.

Finally, my favorite poster was one of the last posters in the collection, a futuristic scene from 1979 that reminded me of the intro of The Jetsons. Set in a forest of futuristic buildings, the viewer is surrounded by warplanes, elevated railways, cars, bizarre helicopters, spaceships, and cargo trucks as they try zoom out of the poster and into my face, into the future, but they can’t quite make it. Even 30 years later, this utopian vision of a modernized China is still incomplete, and I’m not sure when, if ever, it will become a reality.

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