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This paper examines depictions of Africans in China during the period when China moved to establish diplomatic relations across the African continent – the foundation of what would become Africa–China relations today. Chinese posters were early forms of mass visual interaction with (the image of) foreign nationals. They reflect how Chinese society viewed itself in relation to others as it developed a global awareness through domestic mobilization. This study investigates how Africa and Africans are depicted in Chinese posters and how they shaped and/or reflected discourses of the period. It also examines motivations behind the inclusion of Africans in Chinese posters, arguing that this largely had a domestic rationale. By historicizing the meaning-making process of the image of Africa in 20th-century Chinese posters, this paper demonstrates that Chinese posters informed public opinion by defining friend and foe, focused more on China and her Cold War entanglements than on Africa, and simultaneously challenged and reinforced some widely held stereotypes about the continent.
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For Peer Review
Visualizing Africa in Chinese propaganda posters 1950-1980
Journal:
Journal of Asian and African Studies
Manuscript ID
JAS-20-0645.R1
Manuscript Type:
Original Research Article
Keywords:
Chinese Propaganda posters, Africa-China relations, Cold War,
Multimodal-Discourse-Historic Approach, Africans in China, Media
Representations
Abstract:
This paper examines depictions of Africans in China during the period
when China moved to establish diplomatic relations across the African
continent – the foundation of what would become Africa-China relations
today. Chinese posters were early forms of mass visual interaction with
(the image of) foreign nationals. They reflect how Chinese society
viewed itself in relation to others as it developed a global awareness
through domestic mobilization. This study investigates how Africa and
Africans are depicted in Chinese posters and how they shaped and/or
reflected discourses of the period. It also examines motivations behind
the inclusion of Africans in Chinese posters, arguing that this largely had
a domestic rationale. By historicizing the meaning-making process of the
image of Africa in 20th-century Chinese posters, this paper demonstrates
that Chinese posters informed public opinion by defining friend and foe,
focused more on China and her Cold War entanglements than on Africa,
and simultaneously challenged and reinforced some widely held
stereotypes about the continent.
https://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/jaas
Journal of Asian and African Studies
For Peer Review
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Visualizing Africa in Chinese propaganda posters 1950-1980
“No art, however pure, can be created or
understood apart from the politics of its
time”(Mayo, 2001)
Abstract
This paper examines depictions of Africans in China during the period when China moved to
establish diplomatic relations across the African continent – the foundation of what would
become Africa-China relations today. Chinese posters were early forms of mass visual
interaction with (the image of) foreign nationals. They reflect how Chinese society viewed
itself in relation to others as it developed a global awareness through domestic mobilization.
This study investigates how Africa and Africans are depicted in Chinese posters and how
they shaped and/or reflected discourses of the period. It also examines motivations behind the
inclusion of Africans in Chinese posters, arguing that this largely had a domestic rationale.
By historicizing the meaning-making process of the image of Africa in 20th century Chinese
posters, this paper demonstrates that Chinese posters informed public opinion by defining
friend and foe, focused more on China and her Cold War entanglements than on Africa, and
simultaneously challenged and reinforced some widely held stereotypes about the continent.
Keywords
Chinese Propaganda posters, Africa-China relations, Representations, Cold War, Multimodal-
Discourse-Historic Approach
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Introduction
Propaganda posters have been and are being used to illustrate the formation of
engagements that led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the
Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and African nations, but often stops short at being used to
reference the period without examination of the posters themselves. Propaganda posters
produced between 1950 and 1980 had a significant African presence which raises questions
of why and how Africa was portrayed through this medium and its impact on knowledge of
African(s) in China. This paper examines the role of posters in knowledge production and
circulation of Africa in China. This was the first time images and narratives of the foreign
“other”, including from the African continent, were circulated to a Chinese audience on a
large scale. This played a crucial role in the meaning making process of the African “other”
and has implications for how Africa is viewed in China today.
The period under study, 1950-1980s, was the height of poster production and was
important for two reasons. On one hand, it was the early period of the PRC’s nation building
process and posters were mainly used to support this cause. On the other hand, this was a
time when several African nations had gained or were still fighting for independence, hence,
a crucial moment for establishing friendships in the hope of diplomatic relations. Looking
back at these posters today allows for an evaluation of Africa-China relations in the Chinese
imaginary, which may have implications for the broader discussion on Africa in
contemporary Chinese imaginations and Africa-China relations in an age of relative increase
in people to people contact. The mass production, dominance, and resilience of propaganda
posters during the first three decades of the PRC make them critical primary sources in
tracing the social and cultural history of China and its attitudes and relations with the world
and specifically Africa during this period.
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Contextualizing Chinese Propaganda Posters
Propaganda is an institutionalized effort to influence perceptions and behaviours
(Jowett et al 1999:6). It exists in a continuum from “good” to “bad”, depending on the
intentions and agenda of the propagandist. As used here, propaganda is instrumental in
shaping perceptions and attitudes of the masses. This, in turn, influences how they interact
with the wider world. The use of posters for propaganda is not exclusive to communist
regimes. The use of propaganda posters in the Republic of China was already underway as
far back as the May Thirtieth Movement (1925) and during the era of Japanese occupation
(1937-1945) to mobilize support for resistance. Similarly, in the US and Britain, propaganda
posters were deployed as a marshalling strategy to recruit soldiers (especially minorities) for
the World Wars (see Pollack, 2016).
China’s last emperor of the Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911, followed by the
establishment of the Republic of China under a nationalist government after over two
thousand years of imperial rule. The government’s focus on military predominance, growing
societal inequalities, instability and prolonged wars contributed to the victory of the
communist party, which established a “New China” — the PRC (Chi, 1982, p. 3). The
establishment of the PRC in 1949 saw an upsurge in production and distribution of
propaganda posters to serve nation building efforts in a “New China”. The Chinese
Communist Party of (CCP) sought to create a new dawn on an ideological level, as it
believed ideological change was the foundation of all forms of societal change.
Propaganda posters documented (even if loosely) historical events (both what is and
what is not) in the early engagement of China with Africa, thus offering a relatively nuanced
view beyond official statements. In the early years of the CCP’s ascent to power, posters
penetrated various levels of society and could be seen in classrooms, factories, offices,
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homes, and dormitories. This near omnipresence can be attributed to posters’ ease of mass
producibility at low costs and with simple technology. Popular poster images were used in
branding and marketing various items such as bookmarks, cigarettes, mirrors, biscuits,
matches, and postage stamps (Landsberger, 2019), reaching a vast audience by becoming a
part of daily lives of children, women and men.
Posters provided societal role-modelling on how to be a good citizen under
communism. Propaganda posters were arguably used to disseminate the political ideology of
communism, a new system of governance in China, to a largely non-literate population. In
1949 when the CCP came to power, literacy was about 20% (Jowett, 1989), a legacy of
centuries of an elitist educational system which trained people for an imperial exam in order
to become government officials. Though it was possible for any adult male to sit the exam by
the early Qing dynasty, the time and money involved in preparation made it difficult for non-
elites and rich landowners to pass the exam. Formal education during this period was
administered privately through family, clan, and charity schools (Hu, 1984). During the
Republican period (1911-1949), however, there were unsuccessful attempts to centralize
education directed towards social change, which was an emulation of western models. From
the 1950s, the CCP began introducing reforms that would become “perhaps the single
greatest educational effort in human history” ( Peterson 1998, p. 3) towards the end of the
20th century. The period under study can be viewed as a transition period for literacy and
posters with their images and short slogans well suited for the targeted audience. Propaganda
posters served the purpose of interpreting ideologies and other government policies into
actionable instructions that could inform behaviour (Landsberger, 1994) towards government
and party. It brought visual life to official discourses and rhetoric in building the society
envisaged by the CCP while expressing the nation’s attitude towards other countries through
unambiguous construction of images of friend and foe.
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Artists were employed by the state, as were others in various sectors of the cultural
industry and were tasked to produce paintings for campaigns and mass movements. The state
offered ideological and artistic oversight over recognized artists who before 1978 were
mandated to create mass reproducible images (Landsberger, 2013). Some artists were keen to
join in and contribute to the process of nation building (Ginsberg, 2017, p. 183). Others, such
as Xu Bing, whose father was imprisoned and mother re-educated for having close
relationships with capitalists, needed to prove through their artworks that they were
“reformed” (Chiu, 2008, p. 107) and did not oppose the then current regime in any way.
Well-known artists were recruited to give the poster drive credibility and allay scepticism of
other artists about the party’s motives (Galikowski, 1998, p. 13). While most younger artists
specialized in propaganda posters (Gittings, 1999, p. 31), professional artists, who did not
want to be involved in production, turned to them during the “Great Leap Forward’s”(GLF)
high production quota requirements. (Galikowski, 1998, p. 98). The GLF (1958-1960) was an
unsuccessful attempt by the CCP under Mao to scale up industrial production with the
ambition of overtaking Britain in fifteen years through mobilization of the masses. It was
characterized by organizing people into communes with high production targets. This
resulted in placement of more emphasis on some sectors than others, emphasis on quantity
over quality of steel produced, exaggerated production records among others which climaxed
with a catastrophic famine that left millions dead (Peng, 1987).
Contrary to popular views of the totalitarian regulation of posters produced, both top-
down and bottom-up approaches were adopted in determining themes of propaganda posters.
The former involved a directive from officials to which artists delivered. The latter involved
artists’ own creations they thought fit the ideological framework of the party state which they
submitted for mass production (Landsberger, 2013, p. 384). The socio-political climate and
demonization of the bourgeoisie and capitalism during the early years of the PRC shaped the
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tastes and appreciation of the general populace for art. People were conditioned through
exposure to images and radio propaganda to believe only revolutionary themed art had value,
reducing demand for artwork deemed not to serve the purposes of the revolution. The
audience, conditioned by the political climate, to an extent dictated the kind of art they
consumed to non-state recognized artists, who produced propaganda posters to meet the
growing demand. The focus of posters was, therefore, on mass production and distribution
and not evolution of new and varying themes (Landsberger, 2012).
In assessing the value of propaganda posters in the Chinese society, Landsberger
(2013: 392) draws on consumption figures to argue that posters provided the ‘right message
at the right time’, hence, their patronage. While official Chinese sources draw on the value of
the messages to stress public acceptance of posters, popular opinion today tends to deny their
usefulness. Those who lived through that period, tend to attempt discrediting its posters
because of their role in popularizing campaigns whose outcomes were undesirable. Some
publishing houses deny any involvement in poster production contrary to the available
documentary evidence by collectors (Landsberger, 2013, p. 386). A reconstruction of this
memory is, therefore, marred by various subjectivities and biases. It is important to
acknowledge that propaganda posters were near omnipresent in Chinese society and
penetrated various levels of the society. Looking back on the results of these campaigns,
people tend to discredit the process, whereas at the height of propaganda posters, people
looked to their much anticipated good. As posters were considered part of the political
agenda of the period, attitudes towards and denial of events of the political period will
naturally come with denial of its art form. From the early 1980’s shifting focus to economic
reforms, posters started to be gradually depoliticized. It was at this time Li (1983) wrote
about the society’s need for propaganda posters, but goes on to stress the need for
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improvement and de-politicization of posters as people sought less politically charged
posters.
Cold War Competition for the Third World
Iconographic depictions of Africa(ns) in propaganda posters are best understood
within the context of decolonisation and Cold War politics. The Cold War was an ideological
competition between Capitalism, represented by the United States-Western Europe (i.e.
NATO), and Communism, represented by the Soviet Union & Eastern Europe (i.e. the
Warsaw Pact), China and Cuba (since 1965), which intensified from after the Second world
war in 1945 till the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 (Westad, 2017, p. 1).
This period coincided with European imperial withdrawal from Africa and the
independence of several African nations which the United States and the Soviet Union saw as
potential for expanding the influence of their respective world orders. African leaders sensed
the potentially devastating effects if their new nations got drawn into the competition
between superpowers. Given their colonial past, newly independent African nations wanted
the opportunity to shape systems and forge relations that would work for them without
interference from either superpower.
The Bandung conference was an Afro-Asian conference held in 1955 (see Wright,
1956) on decolonisation among other issues. China’s participation was deemed delicate,
given its communist leanings, as the conference aimed to denounce all hegemonic ideologies
at a time when the Soviet Union was expansionist. The conference fostered Afro-Asian
solidarity and pushed to resist colonialism and imperialism in all forms. This aligned with
China’s domestic goal of ridding itself, and by extension the world, of all imperial influences.
China saw itself by virtue of its experiences (British, German, French, Japanese and Russian
expansionism from the nineteenth century to 1949) as a “natural ally” of the Third World
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(Latham, 2010, p. 267). As a staunch supporter of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism,
China’s stance is evident in the strong sense of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialism evoked
in propaganda posters in the decades preceding and following the Bandung Conference.
Mao believed supporting revolutionary movements in Africa was crucial for the
survival of China’s own revolution and ensuring international recognition as a revolutionary
leader which was important for assuring continuous revolution at home (Latham, 2010, p.
266). Though, largely, an ideological battle for dominance in world systems, the Cold War
was on the African continent a “hot war”, which translated into artillery and military support
for ideologically aligned countries and factions. Both superpowers sought to extend their
strategic global influence in Africa by control of minerals, oil, and agricultural resources.
China’s souring relationship with the Soviet Union and subsequent Sino-Soviet split in 1959
saw a deterioration of relations until clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops in 1969 on
Zhenbao Island (Chen, 2012, p. 182). The Soviet Union faced a challenge from China and
Cuba in its quest to be the main supporter for African liberation movements (Saunders and
Onslow, 2012, p. 224). China aimed to counter Soviet influences on the continent, while at
the same time, opposing American imperialism with the hope of emerging as a global
revolutionary leader (Latham, 2010, p. 260). China increased personnel and weapon supply to
north Vietnam and Zhou Enlai during a visit to ten African nations, invited commanders of
revolutionary battalions to train in China. The support rendered yielded little fruit as many
groups supported by China were either unsuccessful or had their regimes overthrown, as in
the case of Algeria (Latham, 2010, p. 274; Saunders and Onslow, 2012, p. 229).
China’s influence and support in African revolutionary struggles was relatively
rhetorical as it did not have the economic capacity to engage in weapons supply competition
with the Soviet Union or with Cuba in sending armed troops. As several African nations had
already attained independence by the mid-1960s, external support extended into internal
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struggles between insurgent groups with different ideological viewpoints. China’s support for
some competing factions resulted in weakening its influence on the continent as moderate
leaders tended to lose trust and break relations with the PRC (Latham, 2010; Westad, 2017,
p. 248). As China embarked on extended domestic political campaigns in the 1960s, it was
increasingly isolated internationally (Westad, 2017, p. 235), hence, an even greater need to
foster the “Bandung spirit” and to gain recognition. This recognition, on one hand, was to
gain legitimacy internationally, as the PRC had to compete with the Republic of China which
already had diplomatic relations with several nations. Domestically, it dispelled the idea that
it was less legitimate than the “Other China”(Hong, 2005) by reinforcing its legitimacy as a
“leader of the world’s revolutionary movement”.
In summary, the PRC came to power at the height of the Cold War which was
characterized by a global (re)positioning of nations. China’s Cold War entanglements
necessitated and facilitated the inclusion of the foreign “other” in propaganda posters, thereby
expanding themes of posters beyond the domestic, in part to reflect China’s place in and how
it related to the outside world during this polarized period.
Data and Methodology
This paper is based on analysis of 50 Chinese propaganda posters on Africans
produced from the late 1950s to mid-1980s. The posters were obtained from archival
fieldwork conducted at the Shanghai Propaganda Art Centre between 2019 and 2020,
International Institute of Social History (IISH) & Landsberger collection at
Chineseposters.net, Paul Pickowicz Collection at UC San Diego Library online, and Chinese
social media platforms.
The posters under study are not exhaustive but representative in their thematic and
periodic distribution. Poster production focussed not on diversity of themes but in production
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numbers. These numbers ranged from a few thousands to over five hundred thousand copies
per poster depicting African subjects. The fifty posters represent distinct images of the
African subject found across the various archival collections visited. Selection of posters was
grounded in historical contextualization of visuals’ inter-relations with historical events such
as the Suez Canal crises, Congo crises etc., as well as captions to identify, determine, and
classify posters depicting Africans thematically. As focus is on Africa, posters of other Third
World nations and African Americans serve as context but are not included in the analysis.
Posters are viewed within the historical, socio-politico-cultural context of China as it relates
to the African continent.
Posters were the most effective and affordable form of mass media in China and
served to mediate knowledge of other peoples and societies. Against the background of Stuart
Hall’s (1997, p. 15) representation theory, this paper views visuals as an integral part of
meaning making process, hence, central to how audiences made sense of Africans and other
foreign nationals. A combination of Multimodal Discourse Analysis (Kress and Van
Leeuwen, 1996; Machin, 2007) and Discourse-Historical approach (Wodak, 2015) are
adopted to achieve an in-depth reading of the visual while grounding posters in their
historical, political and social context.
Africa in Chinese Revolutionary Discourse
Revolution was a dominant theme throughout the first three decades of the PRC.
Anti-imperial revolution was the foundation of friendship and subsequent diplomatic ties the
newly established PRC forged with emerging nations in the Third World. Propaganda posters
captured this theme extensively with the idea of Comrade-in-arms against oppressors
persisting throughout this period despite significant social, economic, and political changes in
the Chinese society at the time. Africans were depicted as guerrilla fighters alongside Asians
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and Latin Americans (see figure 2). Though experiences of countries differed significantly,
these posters claim “sameness” on an ideological level. Mao’s thought is portrayed as a
central binding element of revolutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America by providing
ideological enlightenment that guided the struggle. This is seen in the centralization of the
“Little Red Book” among African guerrilla fighters, which seemingly played a more essential
role in “saving” the continent than the fighting men (see figure 1).
Figure 1. Chairman Mao is the great liberator of the world's revolutionary people. Designer
unknown, 1968. BG E16/339 (IISH)
Subjects look down at the book as opposed to the viewer. Drawing on Halliday,
Machin refers to this as the gaze ( 2007, p. 110). Establishing eye contact with the viewer
creates an interaction which not only engages but also solicits an emotional response. In Fig.
1, subjects look not at the audience but the book. This kind of image is referred to as an
“offer” image which gives the viewer information they are free to analyse as opposed to
engaging with the viewer. Looking at the viewer individualizes and humanizes the subjects,
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whereas its absence suggests this poster is not about the individuals but something or
someone they represent, “Africans”.
The image is depicted vertically, with the angle of interaction from below. This
strategy makes objects appear bigger and dominant. The viewer “looks up to” the image
instead of “looking down on” it, were it viewed from above. This angle of interaction
suggests actors are powerful, an idea supported by the artillery they wield. The target of
prominence, dominance, and power here is not the people, but the book they hold, and the
angle of interaction makes visible the book’s title, “Selected Works of Mao Tse Tung”. It
occupies the focal point, receiving attention of all the people such that it is impossible not to
draw viewers’ attention.
China or Mao (represented by the book) is centralized and foregrounded, while Africa
(represented by the people) is backgrounded. This suggests unequal power relations between
Africa and China, expressed through ideological dominance as shown in fig. 1. There is no
overt depiction of traditional African clothing but seemingly “global” everyday clothing. The
man to the left is dressed in a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) style uniform and wields a
Hanyang M1935 bayonet on a Chiang Kai-Shek rifle, while the man behind him wearing a
grass woven hat wields a spear. This contrasts between a “modern” China and a “traditional”
Africa reinforces power relations and attempts a construct of Chinese identity through
juxtaposition.
En groupe representations fail to individualize and humanize subjects (Machin, 2007,
p. 118). Though close-up, individual features of the people are not easily discernible due to
collectivization within a group shown as a homogeneous entity. The homogeneity of Africa
is contrasted with the individualization of China through the book. The decision of the artist
not to have many books draws all attention to one book and makes it a rare and valuable
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commodity. The fact that Africans are depicted reading is an interesting observation since it
challenges western stereotypes of Africans as illiterate and unenlightened at the time, while
highlighting the importance of ideology in liberation struggles. Though these men are strong
and armed, they are not the liberators but as the subtext reveals, “Chairman Mao is the
liberator…” not with arms but with the book.
Figure 2. Vigorously support the anti-imperialist struggle of the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin
America. Designed by Zhou Ruizhuang 1964. BG E3/724 (IISH)
The theme of Africans in revolution posters, when compared with domestic revolution
posters in China, show interesting differences. Firstly, most people in domestic revolutionary
posters are clad in PLA uniforms, whereas in the internationalized version only Mao Zedong
wears the uniform. Secondly, there are hardly any Chinese nationals in internationalized
revolutionary posters. This absence points to the focus of these posters being on foreign
revolutions at a time when domestic armed revolutions had been successful. Though
addressing foreign revolutions, they were often about China’s purported positive ideological
impact on these revolutions. This was an idea disproportionately presented as the driving
force of these revolutions against imperialists in the Third World.
The number of posters on African revolution reached its height during the cultural
revolution (1966-1976), and accounts for about a half of the posters in this dataset due to
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ramped up production from the GLF onwardsi. One significant difference, however, is that
Mao’s portrait, Mao’s “Little Red Book” or both appeared in almost all posters on Africa
produced during the Cultural Revolution. The significance of this lies in the observation that
direct depiction of Mao is barely seen in posters of other periods. This coincided with the rise
of Mao’s personality cult (see Leese, 2011) during the Cultural Revolution.
Mao was at a crossroads where socio-economic, socio-political results of his
ambitious developmental policies during the GLF yielded catastrophic results. This led to a
loss in faith by cadres, and a questioning of his legitimacy at the Lushan conference by
trusted comrade-in-arms Peng Dehuai (see Li, 1989) in 1959. In response to his waning
acceptance and in an attempt to restore legitimacy, Mao and his close associates launched the
Cultural Revolution which placed emphasis on his personality and ideology. Posters
reinforced the validity and instrumentality of the ideology of Mao, signified by the “Little
Red Book” and Mao portraits, which were still effective in “liberating the world”.
Posters show that Mao and his ideas have been accepted by the “world” of oppressed
people as the solution to their imperialist oppression. The term “world” is used more
frequently as opposed to more specific references to Africa, Latin America, or specific
countries. Posters tend to seek legitimacy, acceptance of, and credibility for Mao’s ideology,
and by extension, policies at home by universalizing their perceived acceptance through
propaganda posters. The “Little Red Book” in various translations—English, French, Arabic,
Vietnamese, appears in posters of this period. Numerous posters between 1964 and 1965
rekindle the idea of “awakening of an oppressed people.”
‘It’s a wonderful life’; Domestic Utopianism and Foreign Exchanges
There was an increase in posters of domestic life, flourishing economy, and “happy”
people from 1961.This was shortly after the end of the Great Famine (c1959-1961) which
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compounded and/or was one of the results of the GLF. In recovering from unspeakably hard
times, there was the need to instil hope (Ginsberg, 2017, p. 195) that “costly” sacrifices of
citizens would yield fruits in the form of a better livelihood. This “good life” had “friends
from afar” such as Africa, Latin America, and Asia as well as ethnic minorities coming to
bear witness. Diplomatic and official delegations began to emerge in posters from this time.
An important observation is that there were barely representations of visiting Heads of
States but rather of various delegations from African nations to observe technological
advancement in agriculture, industrialization, sport, and women communes or as “tourists”
witnessing developments and advancements in China. This reflects prioritizing the masses
while maintaining Mao as figurehead of the Third World liberation. Landsberger (2012),
however, points out that, tourism was not a viable industry due to the closed nature of the
country, hence, “tourists” might have gone sightseeing while on official exchanges. Posters
of this period show major infrastructural development and industrialization, featuring state of
the art transportation systems, railways, aircraft, cargo trains, buses, cargo trucks and
automobiles, as well as numerous factories meant to drive the economy (see fig. 3). Massive
theatre arenas with people enjoying performances, while banners read “Literature and Art to
serve Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers” (fig. 4) served as a reminder that art/entertainment
should offer the much needed education for the largely non-literate workers, peasants, and
soldiers to raise their revolutionary consciousness and confidence as they fought the enemy
as stipulated in Mao’s speech at the Yan’an forum on Arts and Literature in 1942 (Mao,
1975, p. 21).
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Figure 3. The new look of traffic. Designed by Zhang Yuqing 1966. BG E13/883 (Landsberger
collection).
These exchanges are laden with depictions of utopian advancement of Chinese
society. Images of fruits, vegetables, and well-fed children evoke plenitude, fruitfulness, and
prosperity. The life and society portrayed did not reflect reality, as various political,
economic, and cultural movements brought much to a halt. It was an alternative depiction of
“the life hoped for”, an idealistic, utopian one. Africans as well as Asians and Latin
Americans were those visitors from foreign lands whose presence bore witness to the
prosperity of China. It also created a notion of role-modelling of China whose successes other
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emerging nations longed to emulate and replicate. This idea is buttressed by the presence and
juxtaposition of Africans with visiting ethnic minorities in almost every utopic representation.
Like their African counterparts, they are clad in traditional attire, hence an exoticization (see
fig.4). Development, happiness, and a harmonious society was a tool for legitimacy and
making Han Chinese society attractive to ethnic minorities in the nation building process.
Figure 4. The Great World in Shanghai. Designed by Zhang Yuqing 1966. BG E13/820 (Landsberger
collection)
Sports played an important role in Afro-Asian exchanges. With the organization of
Asian-African Table Tennis Friendship Invitational Tournament, sports was a less radical
way to “win hearts and minds” of the Third World (Hong and Zhouxiang, 2013).
Sportsmanship was used to foster friendship and strengthen bonds between nations and sports
delegations from these nations were featured in posters and postal stamps. These posters do
not show participants in competition but rather focusses on the social aspect of sport i.e.,
interacting with their Chinese counterparts (fig. 5) or with Chinese leaders (fig. 6). This
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corroborates the fact that the emphasis of these events was on amity over competitiveness.
The aim for China, was not to win trophies but friends via display of a goodwill through
interaction with people from other countries, in the hope of fostering good relations from the
grassroots. This is one of the early forms of government backed people-to-people interactions
as a steppingstone for strengthening diplomatic relations and/or as groundwork for
establishing these relations.
Figure 5. The silver ball conveys friendship. Designed by Liu Baoquan 1973. BG E15/972
(Landsberger collection)
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Figure 6. Premier Zhou with athletes from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Designed by Li
Minsheng, 1979. PC-1979-002 (Private collection)
Discourse of Aid
From the mid-1960s onwards, posters show a gradual shift from predominance of
ideology and a harmonious society to a blend of ideology and “action”, depicting what China
was “doing” in Africa. These include construction of the Tanzania-Zambia railway
(TAZARA) in the 1970’s ( see Hall and Peyman, 1976; Monson, 2009) and activities of
barefoot doctors on the continent among others.
As interaction increased, more concrete depictions began to emerge. There is a
corresponding increase in specificity in references to countries as opposed to the continent,
and an increased realism of images of African subjects. This referential specificity came at a
time when the PRC contributed to colonial/post-colonial struggle by sending support to
groups in Angola. At home, rhetorical support continued with a mass rally held in Tiananmen
square during the Congo crises in 1965, this was one of the few of such rallies which featured
songs and performances among others (Eisenman, 2018).
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Figure 7. Saviour. Designer unknown 1968. PC-1968-s-001 (Private collection)
Medical aid depicted Chinese medical personnel popularly known as barefoot doctors
in African communities. The term “Barefoot doctor” was made official in 1968, referring to
part-rural healthcare worker, part peasant who worked in rural communities. In 1981, they
had the opportunity to sit an exam to qualify as village doctors and the program was
discontinued in 1985 (Fang, 2012; Landsberger, 2013). Medical personnel were sent to
various African countries despite shortage in China (Latham, 2010, p. 267). The reference to
healthcare workers sent to African countries as barefoot doctors, on the one hand, suggests a
semblance of the continent to rural China. It also evokes a sense of geographic distance,
while revolutionary posters as discussed in an earlier section try to evoke sameness. There is
an ambivalent depiction of Africa both as a close comrade and a distant “other”.
As this was at the height of the Cultural Revolution, these doctors were either
depicted as clad in PLA uniforms or had a “Chairman Mao badge” on their white coats. Fig.7
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shows a PLA uniform clad medical personnel, African women, children, and a man “looking
up to” a portrait of Mao Zedong with the inscription “Long live chairman Mao”. Mao’s
“saviourhood” is internationalized by duplicating domestic discourse onto a foreign audience.
An estimated 2.2 billion official portraits of Mao were printed during the Cultural Revolution
to further the cause of rebuilding his personality (Landsberger, 2013). African doctors are
seen working side by side their Chinese counterparts, challenging popular discourse of
Africans, while depicting African agency. Working together facilitated knowledge exchange
concerning diseases and treatment methods peculiar to the region.
Mostly produced by art groups of railway construction companies, the TAZARA
project is the major infrastructural project in Chinese posters. One poster foregrounds a
Chinese railway worker while in the distant background are local communities going about
their daily activities. Another shows a completed TAZARA railway line weaving its way
through hilly ranges as bystanders wave goodbye. Unlike in the previous paragraph, these
posters do not take into account the numerous unskilled and skilled local workers who
worked with Chinese construction workers on this laborious project. The focus is on the
agency and role of Chinese workers while diminishing collaborative work environment that
led to some form of interaction among workers from China, Tanzania, and Zambia. As the
project is also referred to as “the friendship railway”, a depiction of how it fostered
interactions at the grassroots is essential.
Gendered Discourses: African Women in Propaganda Posters
“Women hold up half the sky”.
Female inclusion and equity were of importance to Mao, prior to the establishment of
the PRC. This is evident in the passage of the Marriage Law as the first official act of the
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PRC in 1950. Its implementation, however, as revealed in later years, came with numerous
challenges and problems for the women it was meant to protect (Leader, 1973).
Liberation of women was unified with that of the working people (Evans, 1999, p.
63). Mao declared inclusiveness and equity in pay for jobs and advocated that the call to “all
citizens” for nation building could only be complete with inclusion of women in all aspects of
the nation building process (Wang, 2011). Though still in the minority, women were shown
as active subjects in all spheres of the society, including posters involving international
subjects.
To eradicate gender differences, Chinese women, especially in revolutionary
posters, dressed like men. This attempt not “to see” gender tended to make
masculinity the default gender by which women attempted to emulate. Thus,
betraying its purpose and reinforcing the dominance of masculinity. Women in
revolutionary posters have, thus, been referred to as “duplicates” of men and are
indistinguishable in some posters (Li, 2009; Wang, 2011). Former Red Guard, Yang
(1997, p. 135), recalls girls dressed in the full regalia of the red guard while rejecting
anything that made them identifiably girls as “bourgeois”. Personal identity and
individuality were lost in the communality of being a Red Guard.
The portrayal of African women differed significantly from that of Chinese women.
African women, especially in revolutionary posters, were distinctively marked by their
clothing with particular focus on the headgear which made them stand out from their male
counterparts and consciously assigned traditional gender features/roles. This is even the case
in sporting events, where the African woman is the only one out of other women (from Asia,
Africa, and Latin America) competing in skirt, blouse, and headgear. African female clothing
(and fewer men clothing) has vibrant colours. Evans (1999, p. 73) suggests that at a time
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when domestic dress code of revolutionary cadres in China was predetermined, use of colour
downplayed the role of women as serious revolutionaries, while Lefkowitz (2017, p. 32)
suggests the predominance of red and yellow hue as “representative of the CCP”. Colours of
clothing of Africans are predominantly yellow and red, which are not usually worn as single
hues due to their cultural symbolism (i.e., red used in funerals symbolizing mourning) see fig.
3&4.
These colours are, however, positive in Chinese cultural colour symbolism; yellow
represents power, royalty and was a preserve of imperial families, while red symbolizes joy,
happiness and in this case revolution. In Chinese iconology, therefore, this could point to a
call on the rightful heirs of the land to rise and liberate themselves from colonialism and
imperialism through revolution. Though of sinister cultural significance, these colours are of
political importance across the continent, symbolic of a Pan-African stance while reiterating
the sufferings and stories of individual nations but seldom used alone in clothing as used in
Fig. 2 & 3. This suggests a limited understanding of Africa in China beyond its political
struggles. The globalization of colour symbolisms through strikes, uprisings, pop culture, and
festivities such as valentine’s day has, however, made some originally tabooed colours more
acceptable.
The masculinization of female Chinese revolutionaries and effeminization of African
female revolutionaries is more striking when African female revolutionaries are depicted
alone. In fig.8, an African woman is armed with a rifle and a determined demeanour but
carries a baby on her back. The use of children in posters across themes reinforces the
socially assigned maternal role as one of women. It suggests that however involved women
were in the revolution, they still were assigned “feminine roles”. Long Xuli’s (1964)
sculpture, “African Mother”, has striking similarities to figure 8; an African woman with a
child on her back, gun in hand, turning slightly to look at her sleeping child. The sculptor’s
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essay on this piece of art explains the motivations and challenges faced in the creation of his
work. According to Long, he was inspired by learning about women revolutionary fighters in
Cuba, incorporating the gun to symbolize revolution and the child to symbolize that which a
mother would fight for, her child and her life.
Acknowledging knowing little about Africa, the sculptor constructed his image from
studying in libraries; where he learnt African mothers carry their children on their backs.
From propaganda posters, the sculptor incorporates the headscarf to further conceptualize the
image of the African woman. The idea of a mother fighting for her child is seen in an earlier
poster of a Chinese mother from a fishing village, armed with a harpoon and carrying her
baby on her back going to fight the invading enemy while her husband was away fighting at
the war front (Xiao, 2002: 85). This suggests that the idea of the revolutionary mother already
existed in China and might have well been extended as a theme to African women at a time
when it was no longer used in Chinese revolutionary iconography. Thus, a construction of an
Africa whose “present” is China’s “past”.
There is a dominant depiction of African women as active revolutionary fighters in
the colonial resistance of the 1960s. In the 1960s/70s, African women participated in
revolutionary and post-independence insurgency struggles in various capacities across the
continent. They not only took part in combat but also collected intelligence and organized
food resources for fighting troops from Angola to Eritrea and from Mozambique to
Zimbabwe, some of which activities were supported by China (Utas, Persson and Coulter,
2008; Saunders and Onslow, 2012, p. 534; SAHA, no date) .
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.
Figure 8. American imperialism, get out of Africa. 1966. Designed by Wu Min. BG E39/872
(IISH collection)
The geographic choice of women in posters was mainly from sub-Saharan Africa. On
the other hand, the poster representations of African men were based on subjects of African
societies stretching from Algeria to Egypt. This could also be revealing of insistence on
“traditionally African clothing” as a marker for African women, of which North African dress
code, which is culturally Arab and perhaps did not fit existing conceptualizations of African
dress culture in China. Subjects were, therefore, carefully selected to avoid ambiguity. Doing
so, however, discounted diversity on the continent and reinforced a much narrower view of
African dress culture. These colourfully clad women, when put side by side similarly clad
ethnic minority women, suggests the subalternization of these “exotic” women and depicts a
sameness in difference.
Conclusion
How Africa is portrayed historically in China has implications for how it is viewed
and perceived today as both a friend and a distant other. Propaganda posters involving
Africans did not occur in isolation but played into the general narratives of posters as a mass
movement in China. They either sold an ideal; utopian representations of society, an
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ideology; Communism with Chinese characteristics and Mao’s thoughts, renegotiated public
opinion via publicity, recorded historical events, as well as institutionalized the discourse of
friend and foe.
Propaganda posters about Africa tell us more about China than they do about Africa.
The African presence in visual discourse forms a part of China’s narrative, particularly of
internationalizing revolution. It shows a shift from ideological to more concrete actions of
China in Africa. Slogans and captions tend to rid posters of ambiguity in the message
projected. Some make overt that which is implied in images, while others use slogans to link
posters with existing government discourses, however remote they may be. A modifying role
of texts in revolutionary posters is stating clearly that the enemy/imperialist is America. This
buttresses Cold War competition for the Third World and its influences on international
rhetoric in China.
In posters of African revolutions, however, America is still the imperialist from whom
Africans must be freed. Meanwhile, there is no mention of colonialists such as Portugal,
France, Britain, and Spain etc., some of whom in the 1960s and 1970s still colonized
countries in Africa despite resistance. Thus, revolutionary posters were more focused on the
Cold War rivalry and were an extension of China’s fight against US-Western hegemony, and
less concerned with the actual “enemies” their revolutionary friends were fighting.
Portrayals of Africa in Chinese communist discourse veer off some popular narratives
of Africa in the West, while focusing on themes pertinent to China’s continuous revolution
and quest for recognition as an ideological leader of the Third World. It reinforces some
widely held stereotypes while challenging others. The image of the African revolutionary
highlight’s African agency in their independence struggle not as a helpless, hopeless people
needing help but as needing ideological leadership from Mao and China for the fruition of
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this revolution. It depicts Africans as literate, as opposed to the persistent image of the
illiterate African, but this serves to highlight the consumption of Mao’s ideology.
Aid provided to Africa was not to lead to a civilizing mission but to liberate the
continent from the west. Thus, posters served not only to challenge some long held globalized
stereotypes about Africa but using the challenge of these to serve a domestic goal. This is
seen in the centrality of China in almost all these depictions and has implications for how
Africa was imagined at the time and perhaps has significance for how Africa is viewed today
as brothers needing help to right the wrongs inflicted on the continent by western
imperial/colonial powers.
Note
i In 1958, Large production targets were pledged by various provinces during a national
conference in Beijing: Hebei, 100,000; Hunan, 350, 000; Hubei 2 million (see Galikowski,
1998: 85; Fine Arts, 1958)
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