A staffer going through boxes in a storage room at the University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies has discovered a complete set of 15 paper-cut propaganda posters from the early days of the Cultural Revolution. Carol Stepanchuk, the Center for Chinese Studies’s community outreach coordinator, fished them out of the clutter and showed them to faculty members who recognized them as rare artifacts to survive a turbulent era.
The posters were made using the ancient Chinese craft of paper-cut, decorative cuttings in red paper that are traditionally used as auspicious decoration for weddings, birthdays, Lunar New Year, and other celebrations. The detail and complexity of these posters make them superb examples of the art, but they are also of notable historical significance because they give a pictorial view of the Cultural Revolution from the perspective of fairly autonomous local artists in the southern provinces, far from the center of power in Beijing where artists were directly controlled by Mao Zedong.
Associate history professor Wang Zheng said the collection was produced at a small, folk art institute in the southern province of Guangdong, and it most likely wasn’t commissioned by Communist Party leaders. She said it shows how young artists at the time understood and related to the decade-long Cultural Revolution, and she plans to use one of the images in a book she is writing.
“They did not have embedded interests in the establishment, and the Cultural Revolution was to smash the establishment,” Zheng said. “The young ones who didn’t have power … likely identified with it.”
Given the joyous depiction of the destruction of China’s cultural heritage, Zheng’s assessment seems spot on to me. One of the posters, for instance, is entitled Eliminating the “Four Olds”. Launched by Mao and General Lin Biao, Mao’s second-in-charge and designated successor, in a speech from the Tiananmen Rostrum on August 18, 1966, the Destruction of the Four Olds was one of the first campaigns of the Cultural Revolution. The “Four Olds” are Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas, and the poster shows a brigade of Red Guards sledge hammering, trampling, burning, burying Chinese literature, film, religious iconography and cultural artifacts emblematic of foreign imperialism and China’s feudal past. The large flag in the foreground with the image of Mao on it reads “Rebellion is justified.”
Lin Biao’s presence is a key dating point. In September of 1971 he fled China after an apparent coup attempt only to die in a plane crash on his way to Russia. (Suspicious circumstances abound, needless to say.) That’s one of the things that makes this collection so rare, because even in China proper very few such posters survived since references to Lin Biao were destroyed after his death, and outside of China they’re even rarer.
According to Ena Schlorff, the Center for Chinese Studies’ program coordinator, the images were donated to the University of Michigan by U of M professor Michel Oksenberg who is thought to have secured the posters while doing research in Hong Kong in the early 70s. He joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1973 and he donated a large collection of materials, including these 15 pieces, when he left the university in 1991. Schlorff knew the posters were there — she had been Oksenberg’s secretary — so they weren’t lost, exactly, but it wasn’t until their rediscovery that the current faculty knew about them and recognized their particular importance.
Professor Wang plans to include one of the images in a book she’s writing about the Cultural Revolution. She’s also trying to track down the artists who did the painstaking cutout work to interview them about their experiences during the period.
The University of Michigan has no immediate plans to put the collection on display, but they have made me a very happy panda by digitizing all the posters and uploading high resolution scans of them for us all to marvel at the incredibly intricate work in extreme closeup.