Shanghai: Poster poise of old China

By Duncan Gillies

High-rise future looks forward, but Communist-era posters tells a fascinating tale, writes Duncan Gillies.

One of more than 6000 propaganda posters printed between 1940 and 1990 and displayed at the Propaganda Poster Art Centre in Shanghai.
One of more than 6000 propaganda posters printed between 1940 and 1990 and displayed at the Propaganda Poster Art Centre in Shanghai.

If you want to get an idea of how quickly Shanghai is growing, go to the dizzying heights of one of the city's more futuristic-looking buildings. But to get an idea of how life was before the skyscrapers rose and the city made its estimated 370,000 millionaires, go underground.

In the basement of an apartment building in what was once the French Concession, Yang Pei Ming has collected more than 6000 propaganda posters from 1940 to 1990, plus hundreds of Shanghai Lady Calendar posters from 1910 to 1940.

The Propaganda Poster Art Centre is a private museum and owner Yang's labour of love. He began collecting the posters in 1995, worried that if nobody acted many would be lost along with an important part of China's history.

It is a small centre so you won't see his whole collection on display. But the chosen prints represent the changing styles and the messages Mao Zedong's Government wanted to spread. There are images of proud peasants, happy workers, triumphant soldiers and mean, twisted and corrupted Westerners.

As Yang explains on a display at the entrance to the museum: "Posters were not only designed to meet the demand of the Government, but to also be embraced by the masses."

It's fair to say Mao wasn't big on freedom of artistic expression and many prominent artists were publicly humiliated or tortured during the Cultural Revolution. He wanted artists to create art for the people, but it had to be the art he wanted.

It was posters created by the people, however, that helped bring the era of propaganda posters to an end in China.

The Democracy Wall in Beijing was where, from 1978, people would paste "big character posters" - poems, essays and messages to the Government.

But, when a former Red Army soldier, Wei Jingsheng, put up his poster called Fifth Modernisation, which called for democracy, others found the courage to criticise the system, the country's leadership and to call for democracy. By the end of 1979, the Democracy Wall was shut down and in 1980 it became illegal to post big character posters, while propaganda posters were sent to paper recycling factories.

"This," Yang explains, "is the reason why so few original propaganda posters remain today, and thus become so precious."

The centre, in the basement of an apartment block, is not something you are likely to stumble across. Once inside, you are not allowed to take photos. Happily, you are not going to face any hard-sell tactics by vendors trying to make money out of tourists.

But there are prints and postcards for sale that all tell a tale and are an interesting insight into the way life was in China not so long ago.

For a view of modern Shanghai, it's better to get above ground. A trip to the observation deck on the 100th floor of the Shanghai World Financial Centre, whose design earned it the nickname the Bottle Opener, is both educational and entertaining.

An introductory video compares the growth of Shanghai with other major cities, impressive when you consider the commercial district of Pudong was mostly farmland in 1990.

Once the lesson is over, you walk to the lift on a floor made of large square tiles that light up in different colours like some disco dream from the 70s. The light show continues in the lift as the colours race down the ceiling and walls as you rise from the first to the 95th floor at a speed of 10m a second.

At the 100th floor, 474m up and just 20m from the top of the building, you get an idea of the vastness of the city and how quickly it continues to grow. The outer suburbs stretch out in the distance while a terrifying stone's throw away construction on the Shanghai Tower continues.

When it is finished next year, at 632m it will be the world's second tallest building after Dubai's 828m Burj Khalifa.

Shanghai sees itself as a city of the future, and when it comes to making that point the sky's the limit.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily direct to Shanghai from Auckland. Around Yunnan, Air New Zealand connects with Lijiang via Star Alliance partners Air China and Shenzhen Airlines.

Further information: See shanghaipropagandaart.com.

Duncan Gillies travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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