- Picture from http://studyinchina.universiablogs.net
I’ve mentioned that the Yuyuan Gardens were our second-favourite place in Shanghai. They’re beautiful and lovely to visit, but there was something else in Shanghai that, for us, kicked Yuyuan to the curb. And that was the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Museum, which is bizarrely and rather inconveniently located in the basement of a residential building in the French Concession area.
We took the metro to a station we believed was vaguely nearby, and walked from there. Fortunately my sense of direction and map-reading abilities led us to an unremarkable set of low-lying [for China – maybe only eight floors] apartment buildings. We fumbled for our guidebook, looking for the Chinese translation of the name to show the security guard, but he was clearly familiar with the only reason that tourists have to enter the building parking lot. Before we could ask anything he handed us a couple of little bits of paper with a map telling us how to find the right building.
We didn’t really know what to expect. We’d first thought it would be a ‘proper’ museum, thoughts that were dispelled when we arrived at the address. Then we thought it might be someone’s private collection. As it turned out, it’s somewhere between the two. It was a labour of love by a private citizen, who collected the incredible series of posters shown in the museum. Originally a private museum, as the collection increased so did the museum which has now been officially licensed by the government.
It cost 20 RMB each to get in, and no photography is allowed. Arrows point in the direction of visiting, and big signs explain the museum in English and French. The walls are covered in posters, arranged mainly chronologically, and each item is labelled with information of varying degrees of usefulness. It was fascinating. It was incredibly interesting to see the evolution of style, from the cutesy British-influenced posters of the 1940s to the development of a uniquely Chinese style through the 1950s, to the growing influence of the USSR and the stylistic change to identifiably Russian-looking posters bearing messages in both Mandarin and Russian cyrillic. Many posters showed Mao with the sun rising behind him – identifying him as the emperors of old China were shown – or showed the proud bust of Mao before Lenin, Stalin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, suggesting the evolution of communism, reaching its pinnacle in Maoist ideals – Mao learning from the leaders of old and improving, perfecting the concept and its practice.
Of course, I’m a little cynical about that and I think it’s fair to say that very few people believe that Chinese Communism is an ideal form of government. Nonetheless, these posters offer such an insight into the government’s mindset at the time, and what they wanted the people to believe. Posters printed during the Cultural Revolution translate to congratulations to the farmers for exceeding their grain quotas – which didn’t happen, and millions starved. Others, particularly in the 1960s, show American soldiers as green-skinned black-taloned demons, and China’s military crushing the inferior, weak American army. As relations normalised with the USA these posters disappear.
Later posters on display include hand painted posters with denunciations, which were pasted on public streets for neighbour to denounce neighbour, child to denounce parent, and communities to break apart at the seams. Plain paper broadsheets with violent red calligraphy, even unable to read what was written it’s easy to feel the fear these must have caused. They’re abrasive and brutal, and there aren’t a lot left – those that remain are left because someone thought to collect them.
The museum also has a lovely collection of the well-known 1930s Shanghai Calendar Girls prints, and a strange collection of Mao busts. They have an excellent gift-shop attached where you can by replicas in various sizes for reasonable prices, and even some originals. They have books cataloguing their collection, and almost all the posters are available as postcards. These being within our budget, we both left with a packet of postcards. If you’re in Shanghai, this place is truly unmissable – even for those who don’t have a particular interest in history, it’s a very different insight into China’s history than the usual museums full of ancient artefacts.