A Look at the Remarkable Propaganda Manuals of Mao-Era China
With the launch of M+ Matters: Post-1949 Visual and Material Culture in China this week, here’s a look at a fascinating example of visual culture in Mao-era China: visual propaganda manuals.
Throughout the Mao period, a large volume of mass-produced image reference manuals were issued by state-owned publishing houses. They were filled with pages of images, fonts, motifs, decorative borders, and other graphic elements. The aim was to instruct amateurs and professional artistic-workers on how to create images—and, in most cases, how to create visual propaganda.
These reference booklets and manuals contained graphic elements to be used in posters, newspapers, and other visual outlets. Although not all of them were overtly propagandistic or political in nature—such as the below manual, filled with floral motifs and imageries that were based on more traditional artistic productions—many of them absolutely were.
Take the below page, for example, showing images of people holding Mao’s little red book in front of large propaganda and handwritten posters, rallying the crowd around them with impassioned speeches:
Some manuals were themed around topics that the state wanted to create certain narratives around, such as agriculture, military, science, and sports. The below image comes from a manual on agriculture-related imageries, showing standards of how to depict farmers and life in rural areas:
There were also manuals intended for very specific propaganda outlets. The one below, for example, was for ‘blackboard-news’ (heibanbao), publications that were written and drawn out by hand on publicly displayed blackboards.
Blackboard newspapers were one of the most popular ways in which government rhetoric was transmitted to rural areas in China. They were cheap to produce, and their public nature meant that they became the main point of information in villages, allowing for easy dissemination of propaganda messages. The blackboards would contain news about, for example, production output, political campaigns, and announcements about public health.
Through the manuals, the state encouraged amateurs to contribute to the production of political content. Author Anchee Min, in her essay ‘The Girl in the Poster’, describes how, as a schoolgirl, she was in charge of the blackboard newspaper at her school and copied images from one of these manuals—Samples of illustrations and decorative designs for newspapers and magazines—for the newspaper headers. She writes, ‘Week after week, month after month and year after year, I tirelessly drew pictures’. In the below booklet, you can see the grid that has been drawn out by the original owner; a technique used for copying and magnifying the images:
The overall effect of these manuals was standardisation: making all visual language conform to a standard set by state-approved organisations. Artists and designers who created propaganda were not celebrated as individuals; rather, they were celebrated as part of a collective effort.
The image reference manuals are an excellent example of how design and artistic practices became subsumed within the political agenda of the Communist Party, and how deeply its visual language entered people’s everyday lives. These widely circulated manuals were, like the one Anchee Min owned, flipped through and used by thousands of ordinary people, and can give us an idea of what everyday visual culture and objects looked like in this period.
M+ Matters: Post-1949 Visual and Material Culture in China takes place on 5 July at Asia Society Hong Kong Center. If you have any questions or comments about this post, please feel free to contact us!
Image at top of post: The Worker's 'Masthead Reference Materials' Editors, ed. , 工人‘報頭資料’編繪組編 Gongren ‘Baotou ziliao’ bianhui zu (ed.), 毛澤東思想宣傳欄報頭資料 [Maoism Propaganda Column Masthead Reference Materials] (3rd edition) (Shanghai People's Publishing House, 1971), 28.
* All titles in this selection of publications are translated from Chinese by M+.