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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Images of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
By Paul Pickowicz

In January 2007, UCSD Special Collections opened an exhibit of Professor Paul Pickowicz’s Mao-era posters.

The man is holding a book of Mao’s writings, which are represented here as a weapon in the war on nature.

On June 23, 1971, I broke U.S. law when I walked across the border from British colonial Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. There were no diplomatic relations between the United States and China and my U.S. passport was not valid for travel there. A month later on July 24, I walked back across the border separating China and Hong Kong. My very first trip to China was over.

Mao as God: Mao is depicted here as a god-like figure adored by the people of the whole world.

I had gotten a glimpse of Guangzhou, Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou, Beijing, Yanan and Xian, and spent nearly four hours with Premier Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. There were almost no foreign visitors in China at that time, and the hotels where I stayed were empty. There was no television and I was often followed by as many as 100 curious people when I went walking in the large cities. Many people told me they had never seen a foreigner face to face.

In summer 1971, China was smack dab in the middle of Chairman Mao’s catastrophic Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and its terrors would not end for another five years. I was 25 years old and working on my Ph.D. in Chinese history at the University of Wisconsin—a poor graduate student with almost no money, and so I took notes and as many photos as I could. Lots of things were for sale, but I could not afford them—with one important exception. Cultural Revolution political and propaganda posters were everywhere and they cost less than ten cents each in the bookstores.

A one-party election organized by the state shows smiling voters giving 100 percent approval to the Communist Party.
This action poster celebrates the Chinese soldiers who fought in the bloody skirmishes along the Chinese-Russian border in early 1969.

I was struck by the boldness and militancy of the posters, and I collected nearly a hundred. The colors are bright but the quality of the paper is poor. So I kept them tucked away in a closet for the next 36 years. Once in a while I pull out a few to show to my students and they love them. These days, almost everyone, especially young Chinese, thinks they are very funny. But take a close look. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally, the posters reveal many not-so-funny dimensions of Chinese life during the Cultural Revolution.

I’ve been back to China many times since 1971. Needless to say, China has changed in some very important ways. Here a MacDonalds, there a Wal-Mart. Here a laptop, there a Starbucks. But close inspection of the posters I collected in 1971 reveals ongoing connections between China’s “revolutionary” past and its “globalized” present. More than a few Mao-era legacies and habits are alive and well today.

An aggressive poster shows an intimidating military stance toward the regime on the island of Taiwan.

A psychedelic representation of an uprising of African-Americans in Washington, D.C.

Paul G. Pickowicz is distinguished professor of history and Chinese studies at UC San Diego.


Paul Pickowicz

Multimedia Event on Chinese Cultural Revolution to Be Held
at UC San Diego

"I was struck by the boldness and militancy of the posters, and I collected nearly a hundred. The colors are bright but the quality of the paper is poor. So I kept them tucked away in a closet for the next 36 years."