The use of propaganda throughout Chinese military and social history is immense. Propaganda in China can be tracked back thousands of years, but it has been most effectively and extensively used in 20th century China. Inspired by the Soviet and Nazi states, propaganda was used as the key ‘control mechanism’ of the Chinese Communist Party. Thought reform, indoctrination, and ritual humiliation of anti-communist ideological figure-heads were key elements of Chinese propaganda. Often in the form of posters, these bright and colourful political doctrines decorated the streets and homes of China. Mass produced imagery was highly effective in China for at the time as high illiteracy rates, and different dialects between each village meant that verbal and written communication was often futile.
China at the beginning of the 20th century was under the rule of its last Emperor within the Dynastic system. It was under heavy European influence, and the frustrations of its people were beginning to manifest themselves in open rebellion. The Manchu family were despised, and the Dynastic system was crumbling. It was in this environment of social upheaval and discontent the growing political ideology of communism could gain real momentum.
By 1911 The Manchus had finally been overthrown in the Chinese revolution, and China was thrown into the warlord era. Two opposing co parties evolved during this time in China, one was the Kuomintang usually referred to as the KMT or Nationalist Party, and the other was the Chinese Communist Party lead by Mao Zedong. The KMT party was originally lead by Sun Yat-sen who was interested in westernizing China. Through initial superior numbers and western support the KMT was able to subdue if not defeat the warlords and hold power over China. However Sun Yat-sen eventually turned to the soviets for support, adjusting his ideologies accordingly towards communism, when Western nations were unwilling to back him. Fighting between the Chinese Communist Party continued for almost 50 years. After the Japanese invasion and occupation from 1937 to 1945, fighting continued and, weakened by their efforts in the war, the KMT was defeated by the thriving Chinese communist Party. The KMT withdrew to Taiwan where it still governs separate from mainland china to this day.
Colour holds a very important symbolic role in all propaganda. As we see with this image of the defeat of the KMT the red flag of the Chinese Communist Party triumphantly flies above the rubble. The colour blue is the opposing colour that represents the KMT soldiers and also strangely, the skin colour of the Japanese. This Japanese propaganda poster was made during the Japanese occupation and is an attempt to turn the Chinese people against the Nationalist Party. The KMT is depicted in the blue uniform being funded by the devil hiding behind a friendly western mask.
The symbol of the KMT is a white sun on a blue sky symbolizing the spirit of progress. The Communist Party goes one step further and replaces the sun with Mao himself, radiating out over his people.
Mao’s entire control mechanism was based upon his apparent connection with the everyday people of China. Mao realized that the first point of contact between the people and his party was through the army. With this fact in mind, he enforced strict discipline in his soldiers with orders to be polite and helpful to the villagers they encountered. Mao’s image of being the people’s army was so effective that it not only won the hearts of the villages but also their sons to join his Red Army, which was later strategically renamed the People’s liberation Army.
Propaganda posters supported this connection between the Red army and the people. In the poster The army loves the people, the people support the army, the army and the people are as dear to each other as members of one family the Red Army is depicted in a rural landscape working alongside the farmers on the land. In the foreground a Red army soldier being offered sustenance by a peasant woman. The two figures occupy equal space in the composition, and stand facing each other at the same level. If you notice also in the background despite the serious physical labour, the communist red flag is still held high by one of the working soldiers. Scholars have later revealed however, that when recruitment and food stores were low, the Red Army was known to kidnap and blackmail recruits families, and steal food from villages. Unsurprisingly, these facts did not make it into the government approved history books.
In 1934 Mao was to achieve one of his greatest victories to seal his position in the hearts of the people as the rightful leader of the Chinese Communist Party. KMT forces under the military direction of German General Hans von Seeckt put the Chinese Communist Stronghold in the Jiangxi Provence under a long and drawn out siege to which the only option remaining for the Communist Party was to retreat. Blamed for creating the situation, Mao was demoted from the leadership position and the Party followed the poorly conceived straight-line retreat strategy of Russian Agent Otto Braun resulting in mass loss of life. Reappointed as leader, Mao embarked on what is argued to be one of the greatest military feats of all time.
His strategically winding and unpredictable retreat, which came to be known as the Long March. Despite being a extraordinary military feat, Mao along with Otto Braun, incurred massive losses. The march began with 80,000 men and after massive 10,000 kilometers of arduous terrain, battles and starvation, a mere 8,000 arrived at their destination in Shaanxi a year later.
Massive amounts of propaganda has surrounded and glorified Mao’s Long March, telling the people of their leader’s great intellect and compassion for his people despite the loss of 72,000 men in the process. Most of the propaganda follows the format of a giant Mao looming over his marching army gesturing to the horizon guiding his people with a slight smile of confidence, patience and kindness.
25 years later in 1961 Ying Yeping and Wang Huandong created a traditionally painted eight part scroll depicting the events of the Long March. The painting is highly idealized with no depiction of death or dirt despite the extreme conditions these soldiers faced. The red flag also remains tall in snow, rain and rapids. The interesting thing about these paintings is that they have no mention of Mao or any of the other leaders in the March. By this point in time, Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ regime had temporarily shifted the focus of the propaganda away from Mao himself.
The Long March its self has been used over and over again in Chinese propaganda as a rallying call for the great achievements of communism. One of the mantras of the communist party was according to Chinese historian Sun Shuyun, “If you find it hard, think of the Long March; if you feel tired, think of our revolutionary forbearers … nothing compares in difficulty with what they did.”
Even in 2006 the Chinese government released a film titled ‘My Long March’ to mark its 70th anniversary. The film follows the story of a young solider who loses his father on the March but is inspired by the great Mao to continue on.
Posters may be the most well known form of Chinese propaganda, but the Chinese Communist party truly covered and controlled all the communication media imaginable. Education, opera, literature, music, radio, television and even history were all controlled and directed to encourage a certain way of thinking determined by the Party. During the Chinese Civil War both sides utilized propaganda, but to very different extents. The Chinese Communist Party quickly realized the power of propaganda to mobilize the people and it has been said that this power contributed significantly to their ultimate victory over the KMT.
The success of the propaganda images disseminated throughout the Chinese civil war and beyond truly demonstrate the power of the visual arts not just as a means of documenting war but of its power to have real influence over the outcome of war. Although many of us will not agree with means and messages these images promoted, their success in mobalising a nation is undeniable.
‘Long live the great, glorious, and correct Communist Party!’
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