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How has poster art and advertising changed in 20th century China? What does it tell us about changing attitudes?
No one can deny that advertising is like a mirror of society. It sometimes communicates more about a certain time than one can read in history books because these graphical images allow us to make personal interpretations. By exploring advertising in China we can strongly enhance our knowledge about Chinese attitudes and political ideology in late nineteenth - twentieth centuries when China opened to Western influence and advertising began to develop and increase as a mass industry. Although, Chinese commercial advertising was influenced by western styles, it has never lost its traditional spirit. Scott Minick and Jiao Ping argue that by contrast to Western design, where the emphasis is more often on positive form to express that which is material, Chinese design traditionally emphasizes the absence of physical form in an attempt to stress the spiritual. In fact, it is said that the design to be revealed through absence of such a form in a Chinese work. They suggest that frequent reference is made to the qi, literally 'air' or spirit, transmitted through the work. A work that lacks this sense is considered incomplete. (1990, p.11). Indeed these features are still visible in the three main periods of advertising in China with clear differences in their goals and techniques accented by William M. O'Barr (Advertising & Society review 2007). These are: (1) Chinese advertising up to the end of World War II (2) The period of sponsored communist propaganda (roughly 1948-1980s), and (3) Contemporary China (i.e. China after the Open Door Policy began in the late 1970s). The development of Chinese commercial art is clearly seen through these periods.
At the beginning of the first period, Shanghai was the most modern metropolis in China where the East and West united. Advertising industry also made a big contribution to the growth of its economy. In addition, the Institute of Fine Art based on Western methodology was founded by Liu Hai-su in Shanghai in the early 20th century. It is important to mention that it was the first academy to accept both male and female students and the first to employ nude models (Scott Minick and Jiao Ping 1990, p.18). This suggests us that from then on Western ideas started to influence traditional Chinese attitudes not only in relation with art but with broader outlook to gender equality. The most advertised products visible in posters through the Twenties came from pharmaceutical, cosmetic and tobacco companies. They paid particular attention to the changing roles of woman, and eventually like in the West, smoking and the use of make-up became symbols of modern woman. Consequently, the mix of Western and more liberated Chinese ideas and painting techniques evolved to the Shanghai style. One of the most influential was Art Deco style (originated in 1925 in Paris) which was popular in Europe and America. This style (where dominated geometric, patterned compositions, primitive forms) were surprisingly compatible with traditional Chinese paintings where the view is two-dimensional. At first glance posters created in such style seem primitive however they radiate a deep spirit somehow, have visual strength which make the audience not only admire but think. Furthermore, in Chinese advertising there is a visual advantage to Chinese writing system where Chinese characters itself can be employed as ornaments while exhibiting the meaning. Also, combination of Chinese characters and a Latin script creates a harmony which bring a new expression to written message. Another perhaps the most popular type of advertisement in 20th century China introduced to Shanghai by Westerners was the calendar poster. These calendar posters called Yuefenpai in Chinese were of rectangular form with picture in the centre and the calendar placed along the sides or at the bottom. The most popular and important images of the posters were of pretty women. They were depicted in a modern way, stylish, sitting in Western interiors or in gardens, also as housewives with children. Ellen Johnston Laing states that 'advertisement calendar posters were everywhere; they were given as merchant's gifts, or sold in bazaar stalls on the streets; they were rewards to customers who purchased specified monetary amounts of products, or were offered to attract magazine subscribers. They decorated the rooms where ordinary people lived and dramatically changed the visual culture of early-twentieth century Shanghai' (2004, p.3). The interesting aspect of calendar posters is that
after borrowing Western techniques, traditional symbolism still remains. For example, in Seated Woman advertisement calendar poster for Lobowl Medical Company (1918) woman holds a peony, the traditional Chinese symbol for wealth and honour. (Selling Happiness p.108) The secret message is that woman enjoys a happy life while using advertised products. Such similar cultural symbols can be found in many Chinese advertisements and make them less superficial and more unique. Also, it is worth mentioning that the tremendous popularity of calendar posters made them useful tools for propaganda and political messages.
The second of the main advertising periods mentioned earlier began when the People's Republic of China was established in 1949. In the meantime, propaganda art was applied as one of the major means to dictate examples of behaviour which was favourable to the then government. Art and design once again came under tight supervision. Propaganda posters could be found everywhere - on blackboards, walls, railway stations, places where people lived and worked: houses, offices, factories. In advertising general political issues were to be closely linked with everyday life, however, posters were defined by themes of politics and economic reconstruction in certain times.
First of all, the
Propaganda posters by providing easily understandable visual information were designed to support attitudinal change.
The great leap forward (1956-60)
Agriculture, military and sport, patriotism, nianhua New Year picture, education, politics.
Revolution. Folk art; glory to workers peasants soldiers; Mao; leaders.
Particular groups: woman (equal to men), friendship with other ethnics - inter national relations, children (future)
Bright future - science and modernization; industry and commerce
Many of the artists had been designers of the commercial calendars that had been so popular before the People's Republic was founded.
Art and design once again came under tight supervision.
In the early 1950, the printing industry was nationalised (p.3)
Posters varied in technique, in composition, and in color and in many instances evoked visual links with traditional Chinese painting (guohua).(3)
Interpretations of at least what people saw everyday.
For many people who lived through the experiences graphically represented in the posters, these images are harrowing reminders of a painful past.
They are graphic reminders of mass insecurity, arbitrary violence, and personal trauma.
It may also be the pleasure of nostalgia, bitter as well as sweet.(5)
Posters about women's status include vibrant scenes that range from local sports competition; to a two-woman operated television station; to girls doing embroidery.
Many posters give general advice on how to live.
Cartoons(manhua), illustrated strips ( lianhuanhua), woodcuts( banhua), New Yer prints (nianhua) and paintings in the traditional style (guohua) were the recognised forms of visual art production; all of these except the guohua were routinely used for propaganda work( 30)
The cheerful faces and bright color contrasts of the New Year style were incorporated into many posters even if they were not labelled as nianhua.(32)
During the Great Leap forward traditional themes and techniques (door gods and papercuts) had been successfully modernized to celebrate the People's communes. (41)
Socialist realist style
The portraits and posters can be classified into those that feature Mao directly and those that represent him indirectly. (124)
Portrait and poster at expressed totalizing power, while badge art, which combined an optimistic aesthetic with political functionalism expressed individualising power.
2,2 billion portraits of Chairman Mao.(125)
Many Cultural Revolution posters, particularly those of the Red Guard years, display violence. (127)
Many posters, however, narrow the distance between Mao and the crowd. (128)
Mao begins in the posters as an emblematic figure elevated above the rest of humanity or else as an affable companion of adoring Red Guards. (35)
After Cultural revolution the image of Mao Ze-dong in posters, lapel buttons and book covers, became synonymous with the transformation of China and the purging of what were considered to be anti-revolutionary bourgeois elements.
"women hold up half the sky" was the slogan that dominated Party rhetoric on women during the Cultural revolution. "Times have changed" pronounced Mao Zedong in one of his famous dicta on women, "women can do the same as men" (63)
Almost all the art, literature, films, operas and ballets produced during the Cultural Revolution featured women in conventionally masculine roles and appearance as militant fighters or political activists. (64)
Gender "sameness" defined according to the masculine standard.
They are young, healthy, strong and invariably dressed in the same kinds of clothes as men. (66)
In terms of social class, as well as gender, female stood for the less privileged. (73)
A child carried a basket of peaches signify longevity.; The popular "fat baby" (pang wawa)
The images are generally unambiguous, highly coloured, and strongly composed.
Healthy, happy, and, above all, positive in whatever action they are engaged in within the frame. (79)
Through an appeal to adult nostalgia for ideal childhood. Their contribution to the image is partly active, but they are also heavily constrained. (80)
In some posters, therefore, the apparent freedom of childhood is channelled into national concerns "revolution", "fighting for the country", under the watchful eyes of those looking at the image. (82)
Children epitomize the claims of the state and the desires of their parents.(86)
Icons of political activism - Mao badges, "little red books" and weapons - are replaced with the paraphernalia of Deng Xiaoping's Four Modernisations: science equipment, symbols of wealth (fu), reading books.
These motifs and patterns suggest certain symbolic changes in cultural practice.
Succession and nationhood are central themes of poster representations of children
The use of children as political messengers, carrying the power of the word, is refined to the point where their representation is itself a message of political optimism and revolutionary success(ion). (87)
Children naturally are copying the world in which, and and people among whom, they live.
Children as political messengers to society.
Signifiers of hopeful future
Potential of children