Chinese Posters: Art from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
by Lincoln Cushing and Ann Tompkins

China poster book cover

The Cultural Revolution in China produced thousands of powerful social and political posters exhorting the Chinese people in a sweeping transformation of Chinese society. These brilliantly colorful images of cultural celebration, industrial development, agricultural production, and revolutionary heroes were displayed in homes and public spaces across the country. Chinese Posters collects 170 of these posters and offers background on their social and political context and production. An essay by Ann Tompkins provides a personal account of living in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution.

Lincoln Cushing is the author of Revolución: Cuban Poster Art and is the editor of Visions of Peace & Justice: 30 years of political posters from the archives of Inkworks Press, He lives in Berkeley, California. Ann Tompkins lived and worked in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. She lives in Santa Rosa, California.

$19.95 pb • Chronicle Books, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-8118-5946-2
8 x 10 1/2 in, 144 pp, Please patronize local bookstores near you if you can, or order through the Powell's Books worker's union site.

Also see Ann Tompkins (Tang Fandi) and Lincoln Cushing Chinese Poster Collection, East Asian Library, U.C. Berkeley, and related article Red All Over in VOICE, American Institute of Graphic Arts magazine, and full TRIKONT interview with Black Panther Party members (portion cited in book).

Interview 10/22/2007 KUCI radio, moderated by host Dan Tsang.


"Revolutionary Chinese Posters and Their Impact Abroad" by Lincoln Cushing
"People, Poverty, Politics, and Posters" by Ann Tompkins
Nature and Transformation
Production and Mechanization
Women Hold Up Half the Sky
Serve the People
Politics in Command
After the Cultural Revolution
Index of posters by title

Excerpt from "Revolutionary Chinese Posters and Their Impact Abroad," chapter on "Artwork in China During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR)" by Lincoln Cushing

During the GPCR the arts, including posters, were defined by several guiding political principles:

1. Rejection of Western and classical Chinese styles.
The GPCR sought to build a new socialist nation without reliance on the values of foreign societies or previous corrupt domestic ones. This meant striving to create new, modern Chinese forms. Although the general style of Socialist Realist propaganda art was adopted from the Soviet Union and taught in most of the Chinese art schools, the Chinese worked to make the art and rhetoric uniquely their own.

2. Developing artwork from previously disenfranchised social strata and regions.
Formally trained artists were thought likely to harbor revisionist values (ones not supportive of fundamental class struggle), and a huge effort went into finding and supporting art by people who were workers, peasants, and soldiers. To a more limited degree, the GPCR encouraged art about and by ethnic minorities.

3. Rejection of “art for art’s sake.”
Art styles narrowed to a slim range of Socialist Realism, without abstraction or modernism. Art was expected to have some sort of productive social function or application. Artists did not sign their work, though most did get individual or collective published credit.

Some scholars have described the GPCR as representing a “lost chapter” of Chinese art history because of the narrow range of officially accepted forms (few media besides posters and theater were allowed) and the view that Party politics trumped artistic creativity. There are numerous examples of artwork destroyed, academic departments dismantled, personal careers ruined, and even imprisonment and death. Yet there are alternate views of the GPCR that recognize some of its positive contributions to art and culture, especially within the complicated trajectory of the Chinese revolution and its deep-seated class antagonisms. In spirit, many of these goals were laudable. For example, many countries struggle to keep their domestic arts production from being overwhelmed by foreign commercial media culture; even a modern Western democracy such as Canada has a national radio broadcast policy requiring that a percentage of its content be generated domestically. The state-sponsored encouragement of artmaking by ordinary citizens is a democratic ideal, one fostered in the United States during the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. And the concept that art should not be divorced from social needs and practice is a matter of long-standing debate within the art world, one hardly unique to the GPCR. Academic studies in this field are still rare, and given the polarized nature of the issues it is assured that future analysis will continue to be characterized by many differences of opinion.

Excerpt from "Revolutionary Chinese Posters and Their Impact Abroad," chapter on "Chinese Poster Resonance with Movement Communities" by Lincoln Cushing

The Chinese revolution and its visual depiction in posters inspired many people around the world, for a variety of reasons. Without even knowing the details of Chinese events, viewers could appreciate some of these posters as rare positive depictions of disenfranchised communities building a new society. From the students making posters during the May 1968 Paris uprising to the Black Panthers in the United States, groups outside of China paid close attention to the GPCR and its artistic output. These posters served as influential cultural tokens during the 1960s and ’70s, reinforcing the revolutionary spirit of numerous communities struggling for self-identification and social change.

Kathleen Cleaver, the communications secretary for the Black Panther Party from 1967 to 1971, remembers the posters distinctly:

Because China is so far away, we saw very few posters. What was influential was a style, a Chinese style. By 1967 there was a sense that Chinese art was reaching out to the African liberation movement and to the Black liberation movement, at the same time that we were getting in touch with their art. During the Cultural Revolution, few activists and revolutionaries in the U.S. had a really clear appreciation of Chinese history—they read things that Mao wrote and they read things written about Mao. But it was the GPCR and the posters, along with other things coming out of China at the time, that were part of the ‘vibe.’ They were ubiquitous—they symbolized the height of revolution. That’s enough. We didn’t have all the details. We’ll never get all the details.

(Excerpt from author interview, August 2006)

Kathleen Cleaver, San Francisco Black Panther Party office, 1968. Photo by Copeland, the Berkeley Barb.
Kathleen Cleaver, San Francisco Black Panther Party office, 1968
Photograph in Berkeley Barb by Alan Copeland

Freedom of the Press
Kirk Anderson,

Return to Docs Populi - Documents for the Public