Written by Cassie Lin
I came across a lot of names when cataloguing the poster collection, names of the artists, printed at the bottom of each poster, some appear more often than the others. So I began to wonder – who are they, what are their life stories, and their artistic pursuits behind these reproductive and strongly stereotypical propaganda posters, especially when they were living through war and social turbulence?
Jin XueChen and Li MuBai are 2 names often appeared on the posters. Together with another artist Jin MeiSheng, they were known as the “Three Pillars of Calendar Posters” in 1920s Shanghai. As one of the earliest commercial hubs in China, Shanghai breed a large number of companies and brands at that time, and calendar poster was the main advertising method. These calendar posters often feature images of women with gentle body curves in fashionable outfit, promoting mostly cigarettes and beverages.
Jin XueChen (Left) and Li MuBai (Right)
Coca Cola Calendar Poster from the 1920s
After joining the ZhiYing Studio in Shanghai in 1928, Li MuBai and Jin XueChen formed their partnership that lasted decades. The two created many commercial calendar posters together – Li would sketch the human figures, while Jin would paint the clothes and accompanying scenery. After 1949, the establishment of Communist China, the Li and Jin partnership shifted their products from serving a commercial purpose to a political one. Both of them joined the Chinese Artist Association, and contracted on a special basis by the Shanghai Poster Publishing House. In their later works, cigarette holding beauties were replaced by political figures and proletarian characters. In 1956, Li and Jin were requested by the publishing house to establish the Mubai Painting Studio to train young artists.
‘Mao Meets Model Labourers’ by Li MuBai and Jin XueChen, 1964
‘The News Came Suddenly that She had been a heroin’ by Li MuBai and Jin XueChen, 1978
Ha QiongWen is another name largely appears in the poster collection. Unlike the former calendar poster masters Li and Jin, Ha represented another division of those propaganda poster artists. He studied in the Fine Art Department of Chong Qing Central University, joined the People’s Liberation Army after graduating in 1949, and worked for the Army’s Cultural Department in Beijing. Ha was later transferred to the Shanghai People’s Fine Art Publishing House in 19955, where he became one of the most prolific poster designers at that time.
Our collection holds one of Ha QiongWen’s most controversial poster ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’. In 1959, the publishing house assigned a task to Ha for creating a poster to celebrate the 10th anniversary of establishing Communist China. Ha didn’t follow the stereotypical style of propaganda poster and painted political figure and a praised crowd, instead, he created an image of a mother and her daughter, immersed in the ocean of pink flowers and gazing upon a Huabiao (a ceremonial column used in traditional Chinese architecture) in Tian’an Men Square afar. Ha’s metaphoric portrayal in this poster ‘Long Live Chairman Mao’ caused him a lot of troubles during the socio-political movement – the Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s. He was accused of depicting a woman wearing ‘bourgeois’ outfit, and not showing an image of Chairman Mao explicitly. Ha was attacked as the “Top Celebrities of the Literature and Art Black Line”, and often dragged out as an object for public abuse during each “criticism session”. Despite the humiliated mistreatment and a suicide attempt during the period of Cultural Revolution, Ha QiongWen remained active as a poster designer until his retirement in 1992.
‘Long Live Chaiman Mao’ by Ha QingWen, 1959
The era of propaganda poster is disappearing, along with these great artists created them. It is an absolute shame that the Chinese propaganda posters are more emphasised by their political value, rather than its creativity in visual arts. I guess it’s the inevitability of history, but it’s worth remembering their names, no matter how easily to be neglected, when you are checking out the posters, those names are printed at the bottom of each piece.
Cassie Lin is a doctoral student at the University of Westminster. She previously worked as an archive assistant at the University of Westminster’s Chinese Poster Collection, now renamed the China Visual Arts Project Archive.