Back to Shanghai!

After a short flight back to Shanghai, during which we met a British ex-ballerina (who had a very interesting life story), we returned to Rock & Wood hostel. This hostel was like a little haven for us – excellent WiFi, comfortable rooms and a relaxing bar – the perfect way to ease ourselves back into the hectic bustle of China. Of course, no matter how good the WiFi is, there is still the Chinese firewall to contend with, which left Google and Facebook out of bounds and annoyingly for me, I found WordPress was now off limits as well.

The first night back we had dinner in a tiny café that was full of locals. As usual, we did a bit of sketching and it was quite nice to have the unreserved Chinese curiosity again to break the ice! The next morning we walked from our hostel through the French concession to the excellent Shanghai Propaganda Art Museum. Just down the road from our hostel, we passed a run-down building which had some wonderful red stone carvings on the wall of 1900-style European ladies and gentlemen with parasols. They looked out of place as it was quite a dingy street, but they were all the more striking and charming for that.

The Shanghai Propaganda Art Museum is a gem of a museum hidden away in the basement of a residential building. It is the only museum of its kind in the world and houses the largest collection of propaganda posters from 20th century China. The posters were hugely important in spreading the Communist message to the masses, especially as many people would have had no access to television. However, only a few have survived as they were usually destroyed when new ideas needed to be communicated. Yang Pei Ming started his collection in 1995 in order to preserve these beautiful works of art and the rich history behind them for future generations. The propaganda posters date from 1940 to 1990 and as well as the striking visual impact, the messages gave us a fascinating insight into Communist China in the 20th century. The posters had been painted by highly skilled artists; their eye-catching colours, bold line work, judicious use of imagery and carefully planned composition all served to stir up emotions and manipulate the viewer. The hero of the poster would invariably be depicted as towering above you, as if your viewpoint was from below, which automatically makes you feel humbled, whilst the enemy (usually the US) would be weedy and snivelling.

Many of the posters had anti-US themes. ‘US imperialism is a paper tiger’ showed stocky little children beating a paper tiger with guns and a hammer and sickle; ‘US is the rotten imperialism and the camp of reactionaries (1951)’ satirically used the style of Eisner American cartoons, depicting an American whipping a black man, a boy reading a lascivious magazine, a cowboy with a loose woman astride his horse, the Ku Klux Klan shooting a man and a big, fat US president sitting astride a skyscraper with money running through his hands. Others targeted the UK (1958): ‘Overpass UK in 15 years! John rides ox, I am on horse, what a shame if he wins the game!’ Which is quite right when you think about it – the UK is tiny in comparison with China, but the economics of the time did not reflect this. Now the horse has definitely won! Other posters aimed to spur on workers to heighten production in agriculture and industry: ‘More pigs for more fertiliser to obtain high yield of grain!’(1959). One of the most interesting for me concerned the Great Leap Forward, where people were encouraged to invest all their efforts into producing steel: ‘Hail for over-fulfilling steel production of 10.7 million tons!’ (1958). Factories lit up the night with blazing chimneys, and buckets of molten steel shot into the air like fireworks. It was this so-called Great Leap Forward which led to the famine of 1959-1961, as farms were neglected and grain left to rot in the fields. Many posters were aimed at encouraging citizens to support their Communist allies against the US, such as ‘Defend Cuba Revolution!’ (1962), ‘US imperialism get out of Dominican Republic! (1965)’ and ‘Strive to resist US and assist Korea to defend motherland with our grain, our money and our life!’ This last was in 1951, and references the proxy war whereby Communist Russia took control in the north and the US the south, resulting in the split of Korea. Of course there were the posters hailing Mao: ‘Chairman Mao is red sun in the minds of world people (1967)’, with Mao’s huge happy face shining benevolently down on a parade of people of the world clutching red flags and holding little red books aloft. Then there were the posters from the Cultural Revolution, ‘Change the school into a tool of proletarian dictatorship! (1975).’ The posters were without doubt enormously powerful and wonderfully executed. It would have been nigh on impossible not to be swayed by their content if they provided your only glimpses of the outside world.

The most moving though, were the ‘dazibao’, or ‘big character posters’ from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. These were posters made by the people. They would often start with a quote from Chairman Mao in red, and they were signed and dated by the author. Their purpose was to denounce people or things as contrary to Maoist ideology, and this would be indicated by a red line through the name. It was against the law to destroy or remove dazibao, but the accused or their supporters sometimes wrote over the denouncement in forceful calligraphy that expressed the anger, fear and paranoia prevalent at the time. People were encouraged to make these posters to criticise society and weed out undesirable ideas and many would target those close to them (including themselves) as well as teachers, employers and rivals. China used to be plastered with dazibao, but very few survived as they were ordered to be destroyed after Mao’s death. There were a couple of such posters in the museum. I have no idea what they said or who they were targeting, but one was overwritten and you could see the passion in the calligraphy. It must have been a terrifying time.

The final part of the museum was somewhat more light-hearted – a collection of ‘Shanghai Lady’ posters from 1920-1940. They were used to promote Western goods before the Communist movement, and the centrepiece was always a beautiful, often scantily clad, Chinese lady. The actual products, which were usually cigarettes and alcohol, took a back seat. Yet again, the artwork was superb, reminiscent of those old Pear’s Soap posters. Some of these artists would have gone on to paint propaganda posters.

As you can tell, I really found it captivating. Swinging from bewildering posters for Cultural Revolution approved ballet performances (female ballerinas in perfect arabesque pose wearing army uniform and holding rifles!) to posters full of hope for a bright future to the venomous dazibao, you can’t help but marvel at the tenacity of the nation, whether you agree with the politics or not.

After whiling away a good couple of hours in the museum, we continued our walk, ending up in the touristy Tian Zi Fang, a quaint network of alleyways lined with craft shops, bars and themed cafés. We had a quick look around a gallery dedicated to the Chinese impressionist artist, Ren Weiyin. In the 1950s, he used to run an acclaimed art academy, but five years before the Cultural Revolution, the authorities closed it down and Ren and his family were sent to a forced labour camp. They managed to escape after 9 months and when they returned to Shanghai, he was no longer allowed to paint for a living as it was seen as too bourgeois. To make ends meet, he became a shoe repairer, which he initially found degrading. He did this for 17 years, trying to make repairing shoes into an art form in itself, and doing his best to sneak out and paint when he could. He talked of walking out in the street to look at the dazibao posters and the confusion he felt. He spoke of being publicly denounced himself, and how despite the humiliation, he secretly felt pleased that someone had remembered him and thought he was worthy of an accusation. His paintings are full of vigour and are all the more interesting when you consider the circumstances in which they were made.

We carried on down the alleyways in search of the cat café, feeling curious about the concept and thinking we might enjoy some feline company. However, when we did find it, it looked a bit weird, with grumpy looking cats in little jackets being picked up and snuggled by suited businessmen, so we didn’t go in. We passed a teddy bear themed café, before plumping for a refined meal at a Japanese restaurant and a not so refined dessert at ‘Modern Toilet’. This scatological café was a four year old’s paradise, so it suited us quite nicely. The chairs were toilets with velvet seat covers, and each table was a sink with a fake turd in it, overlain by a pane of glass. The menu had an ‘appetising’ selection of toilet themed desserts. We went for a foamy hot chocolate served in a toilet shaped mug and a cartoon-like replica of something a dog might have left behind in chocolate ice cream form, served in a squat toilet shaped dish. It looked disgusting, but tasted lovely! The actual toilet in the establishment was disappointingly not restaurant themed. In fact, you could say it was bog standard…

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