‘Knock Down the Gang of Four!’: Caricatures in the British Library’s collection of post-1949 Chinese posters

Dr Amy Jane Barnes

Introduction

In 1942, at the Yan’an wartime base of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Mao Zedong (1893-1976) declared that:

‘There is in fact no such thing as art for art’s sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics. Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine’ (Mao 1965: 86).

This vision for art and its vital role in the dissemination and furthering of revolutionary zeal continued after the foundation of the PRC in 1949. Although hardly a new phenomenon in China,[1]  propaganda posters began to be mass produced with their manufacture and distribution based on the Soviet model.[2] These posters ‘struck a chord’ with illiterate and rural populations, ‘who were accustomed to “reading” messages conveyed visually through shop signs, New Year prints, pictures in the temples, flags and banners on the opera stage, and crudely printed fly sheets that began to circulate in the second half of the nineteenth century’.[3]  Cheap to produce and buy from branches of the state-run Xinhua shudian (the New China Bookshop), posters were an acceptable form of decoration in homes, schools, factories and state buildings. Immediate and didactic, attractive, bold and dynamic, propaganda posters were accessible vehicles for the dissemination of ideological campaigns and points of reference for political analysis and discourse.[4]

Towards the end of 2015, I undertook a three-month postdoctoral public engagement research position at the British Library. Funded by the British Inter-University China Centre (BICC) the goal of the project was to research and compile a catalogue of the Library’s collection of post-1949 Chinese propaganda posters (xuan chuan hua). Having mostly been collected since 2005, the collection is comprised of 89 individual items (at the last count), ranging in date from 1950 to 1982. The bulk of the collection was published in the mid-1960s, just before the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (wu chan jie ji wen hua da ge ming) (1966-1976).  The posters in the British Library collection can be categorised by a series of distinct themes, including revolutionary New Year prints (nian hua), so-called ‘chubby baby’ posters, and material eulogising Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976). But what I want to focus on in this blogpost, are a series of posters featuring serial caricatures and cartoons that satirise and attack the notorious ‘Gang of Four’.[5]

Who were the Gang of Four?

gang of four 1
A poster from the International Institute for Social History (IISH) Collection, featuring a red cross superimposed over portraits of the Gang of Four. Lu Xun Art Academy,  October 1976, ‘Resolutely overthrow the anti-Party clique of Wang, Zhang, Jiang and Yao!’ (Jianjue dadao Wang Zhang Jiang Yao fandang jituan!), BG E16/68 (IISH collection).

The Gang was headed by Mao Zedong’s fourth wife Jiang Qing (1914-1991). Jiang had assumed the role of Chinese cultural supremo in the 1960s, asserting her power and influence first over the performing arts, and later all forms of art practice. A sometime actress from Shanghai, Jiang held strident ideological views on arts and culture, and used her position to attack those in the cultural sphere who she regarded as rightists and bourgeois enemies of the state. Mao coined the name ‘Gang of Four’ for Jiang and a small group of her admirers: Zhang Chunqiao (1917-2005) – a propaganda chief in Shanghai; the literary critic Yao Wenyuan (1931-2005); and a Shanghainese organiser, Wang Hongwen (1935-1992). Together, they controlled the cultural scene and, for a time, yielded a great deal of influence over Chinese politics.  However, after Mao’s death in September 1976, Jiang and her Gang, fell rapidly from power. The blame for the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution was placed firmly at their door.

The British Library collection

Dating from the immediate post-Mao period (c. 1976-7), the British Library holds four Gang of Four-related posters and a slightly later sheet (published October 1980) from a newspaper entitled Feng ci yu you mo [‘Satire and Humour’], a title that clearly signals the spirit in which the caricatures were intended to be taken. The cartoons were intended to be viewed against the backdrop of the soon-to-commence trial of the Gang of Four.

The posters, similar in style but each from series produced by three different publishing houses, are comprised of sequential, bitingly satirical caricatures in brush and ink (with some photo montage). They comprise the work of different artists and caricaturists, who depict Jiang and her clique as engaging in devious actions, or as subjugated and humiliated villains. This group of posters represents the propaganda poster in transition, reflecting the ideological shift from Cultural Revolution to the Reform Period’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – the key tenet of Deng Xiaoping’s premiership that saw periods of economic reform and the ‘de-Maoification’ of the cultural sphere.[6]

For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, the art reproduced for dissemination in poster form was figurative (the socialist trinity of worker, peasant and soldier was a key theme) and dynamic. Colours were bright. Red, which symbolised revolutionary spirit, predominated. Slogans were strident and unequivocal.  As Evans and Donald (1991: 1) evocatively describe, these posters give us a sense of what people saw during the Mao years. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), ‘[they] were ubiquitous in public and private space. They were displayed on billboards and classroom walls and in clinics, workspaces, and domestic spaces … they were inescapable’. Posters were absolutely ‘central to the political culture of the time’ ,[7] and they are ‘a major visual text central to the processes of constructing meaning and practice’ .[8] Indeed, the former journalist John Gittings writes of the posters he saw during a visit to China in 1971, as being visual ‘points of reference … emphatic and exuberant, often stating topics with greater emphasis and clarity than our own guides’.[9]

However, the subject of this blogpost – the Gang of Four posters – are quite different in tone and style. Gittings (1999: 36) notes that when they ‘featured as targets of poster attack’, the Gang and their crimes were ‘lampooned’ in cartoon form, in an echo of earlier campaigns against purged Party leaders – the best known of which is A Crowd of Clowns (Weng Rulan, 1967) – and the dazibao [‘big character posters’] that publicly denounced and criticised their targets.[10] It is into this category of political caricature that the posters in the British Library collection – and other similar examples – fall. Pozzi (2018) has coined the term fenci xuanchuanhua (‘caricature posters’) to describe this genre – a term that ‘comprises both their content and their function’. Yet perhaps, they owe more to the ‘big character posters’ (dazibao) pasted on walls and buildings, which served as a public means of expressing complaints against officials and policies, and which were often used during the Cultural Revolution to denounce individuals accused of bourgeois activities and behaviour. Indeed, it was a dazibao written by Mao Zedong and directed at his political rivals in August 1966 – ‘Bombard the Headquarters’ – that launched the wave of persecutions that characterised the early years of the Cultural Revolution.

With titles like ‘Thoroughly expose and criticise the Wang Zhang Jiang Yao anti-party clique’  (British Library, ORB.99/40 (2)),[11] and ‘Deeply expose and fiercely criticise the “Gang of Four”, the armed forces oppose the disorder of their heinous crimes” (British Library, ORB.99/40 (3)),[12] the latter no doubt targeting a readership of servicemen and women – the intent of the posters is explicit. Through text and image, the posters visually signalled this new post-Mao/post-Gang era to the Chinese people and compelled them to direct all their anger for the calamitous failures of the Cultural Revolution at Jiang and her cronies.

gang of four 2
An original painting of a similar style of caricature as depicted in the British Library posters. Here, Jiang Qing is shown taking a photograph of Marshal Lin Biao pretending to study Mao Thought. Behind him is a sword named ‘571 Plan’ (571 gong cheng), which refers to Lin’s supposed plan to launch a coup d’etat in 1972. The implication is that Jiang collaborated with Lin in the plot to overthrow her husband. Guangzhou Xiangqun Printing Agency (Guangzhou Xiangqun yin shua she), c. 1977, ‘Let me take a shot of you’ (Ni chui wo pai), DS778.7 .W446 no.65 (CUHK Digital Repository).

In one cartoon (British Library, ORB 99/40 (2)) Jiang, wearing her characteristic black-rimmed glasses and bun hairstyle, dynamically whirls around an athletic hammer (or is it a wrecking ball?), accompanied by the caption ‘Old Performer’ (lao yiren); likely a reference to her former acting career. Another on the same sheet, which depicts Jiang in insect-form devouring a corn-on-the-cob, is titled ‘Female locust’ (nu huang). The poster, ‘Overthrow the careerist Jiang Qing’ (Da dao ye xin jia Jiang Qing) (British Library, ORB.99/40 (4)), features a cartoon of the members of the gang, squashed beneath the weight of a giant fist emblazoned with the characters for ‘Knock down [the] Gang of Four’ (da dao si ren bang) – the meaning here is self-explanatory. Other cartoons in the series show the Gang living it up in luxurious surroundings at the expense of the Chinese people, quaffing from goblets and bottles of alcohol, or taking a leisurely boat ride, during which Jiang is attended to by her cronies, who fan her with palm leaves and supply her with yet more wine.  There may be further implicit meanings within these images: as I am not a proficient reader of Mandarin, I may have missed the subtleties and culturally-contingent meanings of some of these captions.

gang of four 3
A detail from ‘Supernatural Wind and Evil Matron’ (Yao feng he yao po), c.1976-7, DS778.7 .W446 no.69, CUHK Digital Repository.

The only poster in this set that deviates from the established form described above, is ‘Satire and Humour’ (British Library, ORB.99/40 (5));[13] a partially colour-printed newspaper supplement, which was published and distributed in the People’s Daily (Renmin ribao) some years later than the others, in October 1980. This demonstrates that anti-Gang of Four sentiment was still in full swing some four years after Mao’s death and their downfall, but that by 1980, the tone had somewhat changed. Here, the Gang are ridiculed rather than directly attacked. They’re made figures of fun, absurd characters for people to poke their fingers at and laugh; loathed, but no longer feared, perhaps? The anti-Gang caricatures here feature alongside other cartoons. There is politics here, but also lighthearted fun; possibly emblematic of the more relaxed political context and cultural changes taking place in China under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.

In conclusion, this short exploration of anti-Gang of Four caricature posters has sought to cast light on an overlooked genre of post-1949 art from China. From a Western perspective, we often dismiss the visual culture of authoritarian regimes as moribund and stagnant. And yet, these caricature posters help to challenge this view, demonstrating that there was diversity and inventiveness in the visual culture of this tumultuous period of Chinese history, even if it was given over to ideological motivations.

Amy Jane Barnes is a freelance academic, curator and soon-to-be coach for final year PhDs and early career researchers. She has a background in Asian art history and museum studies, and received my PhD from the University of Leicester in 2010. She has worked in museums as a curator and researcher, and in academia as a lecturer, tutor, researcher and programme manager. In addition to her freelance activities,  I am also a University Teacher in the School of the Arts, Loughborough University and an affiliate of King’s College London. Find her on Twitter at @AmyJaneBarnes

Notes

[1] See Gittings 1999: 29-30.

[2] Gittings 1999: 29.

[3] Gittings 1999: 29.

[4] Gittings 1999: 28.

[5] A note on illustrations: Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to illustrate this post with images of posters from the British Library’s collection, due to its understandably strict adherence to copyright law. See my December 2015 blogpost for BICC for further details. I would like to extend my thanks to the International Institute for Social History for the permission to use representative examples from its collections. Images from the CUHK Digital Repository are used under a Creative Commons license.

[6] See Landsberger 2008: 54.

[7] Evans and Donald 1999: 2.

[8] Evans and Donald 1999: 2.

[9] Gittings 1999: 27.

[10] See Evans and Donald: 1999: 8.

[11] Che di jie fa pi ping Wang Zhang Jiang Yao fan dang ji tuan.

[12] Shen jie meng pi si ren bang fan jun luan jun de tao tian zui xing.

[13] Feng ci yu you mo.

Bibliography

Evans, Harriet and Stephanie Donald. 1999. ‘Introducing Posters of China’s Cultural Revolution’. In Evans and Donald (eds), Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., pp. 1-26.

Gittings, John. 1999. ‘Excess and Enthusiasm’. In Evans and Donald (eds), Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., pp. 27-46.

Landsberger, Stefan. 2008. ‘Designing Propaganda: The Business of Politics’. In Zhang, Hongxing and Parker, Lauren (eds), China Design Now. London: V&A Publishing, pp. 53-55.

Mao Tse-Tung. 1965. ‘Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art’. In Mao Tse-Tung, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung: Vol. III. Peking: Foreign Languages Press: 69-98.

Pozzi, Laura. 2018. ‘The Cultural Revolution in Images: Caricature Posters from Guangzhou, 1966–1977.’ Cross-Currents e-Journal June 2018 (No. 27). https://cross-currents.berkeley.edu/e-journal/issue-27/pozzi, accessed 11 September 2018.

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