In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Art and Posters

  • Introduction
  • Reference Books
  • Calendar Posters (yuefenpai) and Commercial Design

Chinese Studies Political Art and Posters
Shaoqian Zhang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0152


Underlying all political arts and posters are questions about social-political culture and its creation of visual art. Consequently, more and more scholars have taken an interdisciplinary approach in which the study of political art and posters combines a variety of issues in art history, social-political history, and communications studies, including artistic practice, aesthetic influences, production and distribution techniques, reception (the impact of political art on the target audience), and politics and government. As purveyors of political messages, the arts have had a long history in China and are closely intertwined with other cultural and religious practices. Political elements are pervasive in Chinese landscape paintings, nianhua (New Year pictures), portrait paintings, and architecture. Yet, the practice of mass-produced political art and posters was a modern phenomenon, significantly determined by technological developments in production and circulation. By the end of the 19th century, Western cultural influences, entering through treaty ports, brought modern printing techniques into China, giving birth to a modern press and launching the production of commercial posters that would prepare the nation to embrace a culture of mass-produced political art. The production of modern political art and posters in China was closely associated with war and revolution, and it demonstrated a critical connection between endemic visual sensibilities and evolving politics. Various political movements in the 1910s and 1920s endorsed the practice of using political illustrations, cartoons, and propaganda posters to influence mass audiences. Techniques for producing and distributing political posters were further refined in the course of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War of the 1930s and 1940s. After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, political art and posters were a ubiquitous accompaniment to daily political development, reaching a culmination of the form during the Cultural Revolution. The PRC period also witnessed the institutionalization of the format, through the Ministry of Culture. Popular themes included the happiness and prosperity of life in a Communist society, the cult of party leaders and their policies, and the condemnation of state enemies and other targets of political campaigns. As a form of visual persuasion, Chinese political posters have exhibited a variety of artistic influences, both domestic and foreign, including nianhua, paper cuts, pre-1949 advertisement posters, Japanese woodblock prints, Art Deco, German expressionism, Russian constructivism, and socialist realism. This article prioritizes works of political art and posters as products of “social, political and military history,” focusing on mass-produced art whose goal is to influence the general population, especially political posters (xuanchuanhua). These have been produced by a variety of techniques, from woodblock and lithography to digital forms on the Internet. But a few basic works on Chinese modern and contemporary art with political elements are also referenced. The bibliography focuses almost exclusively on modern and contemporary political images, covering diverse media such as paintings, posters, woodcuts, cartoons (manhua), and illustrations. It privileges political posters over other genres, and it touches briefly on traditional nianhua and paper cuts. It neglects entirely certain types of political art, namely, architecture and urban planning, maps, cinema, television, drama, photography, and contemporary Chinese art by individual artists or political activists.

General Overviews

There are two primary approaches to reading political art and posters. The first is to treat them as fine art objects with political elements; the other is to employ moderate or minimal visual analysis and treat them as xuanchuanhua (political poster), symbols and reflections of specific social-historical situations. Most xuanchuanhua books and articles place much heavier emphasis on the post-1949 period, especially the Cultural Revolution. This section divides the overview books and articles into two categories: one on art and the other on xuanchuanhua.

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