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During the height of the Chinese Communist Party,
Mao Zedong believed in the concept of a continuous revolution in which people
must reaffirm their fidelity to the ideology of the party. This concept of a
continuous revolution meant that Mao Zedong could ensure the resiliency of the
regime due to the population’s commitment to Communism. In order to inspire a
revolutionary sentiment within the population, Mao used different forms of
propaganda such as posters and paintings to inculcate a feeling of collectivity
and emphasize the prowess of the party. 

In 1949, after the civil war between the Kuomintang
and the Communists, the communist party started to consolidate its power over
the arts in Yan’an (Laing 2). Art was originally conceived of as a part of the bourgeoisie
class and thus the party saw it as a threat to the stability of the regime.

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Artists saw their art as a form of personal expression, where they could
“harbor independent ideas” (Laing 2) from Communist ideology. The
Communist Party believed that artists should disassociate themselves from the
intellectual class and instead use their art to serve the masses. Mao thought
that in order for art to positively influence Chinese culture, it must serve a
revolutionary purpose so as to represent the broader ideals of the party (Laing
3). In order to motivate and mobilize the population towards the new future of
China, old forms of were to be “remoulded and infused with new content” (Laing
3). This allowed Mao to change the focus of politics from the past and direct
it towards the future. Thus, the usage of paintings and posters became
instrumental in pushing the policies that allowed Maoist ideology expand and be
accessible to the masses. 

From March 1958 to December 1959, Mao instituted
the Great Leap Forward in order to massively increase economic productivity
within China to show other countries that China was competitive in the global
sphere. After a century of humiliation, Mao was determined to demonstrate the
prowess of the People’s Republic of China to other countries. During the Great
Leap Forward, Mao’s aim was to promote the idea of collectivity with regards to
production values (Laing 30). In rural areas, private property was confiscated
by the government and redistributed equally to the peasants among collective
spaces in order to maximize economic labor and the importance of collectivity
(Laing 30). Artists were, likewise, expected to produce art at an exponential
rate. This meant there was a rise in political propaganda posters in order to
meet the demands of the party. In particular, the artists were supposed to
further the importance of political projects within their artwork during this
time period, such as the Four Pests Campaign. The Four Pests Campaign was a
movement sponsored by the government that encouraged the Chinese population to
kill the “four pests”: sparrows, mosquitos, flies, and rats (Laing 31).  In particular, You Longgu produced a poster
called Everybody get to work to destroy the Four Pests in 1960 that
depicts people eliminating these so-called pests because the government
presumed they were killing off viable crops. In reality, killing off the number
of sparrows caused an imbalance of predators to prey, which in turn caused the
locust population to rapidly increase, destroying crop fields. Posters such as
the one You Longgu created showed the influence of Communist propaganda on the
population where the people were able to overlook the logical fallacies in
Mao’s policies solely because it’s what the government told them to do. This
campaign proved detrimental to crops that were needed to sustain the Chinese

After the failure of the Great Leap Forward, party
leaders such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping began to question Mao’s economic
policy and believed that humans were intrinsically motivated by material
incentives rather than pure communist ideology (Schoppa 347). Mao felt betrayed
by this ideology and saw it as a threat to the stability of the Communist
regime. He decided to create a coalition that would help him take on the party
(Schoppa 349). This instigated the Cultural Revolution, which was a movement
that encouraged the purging of those considered either capitalists or “not true
revolutionaries.” During this movement, Mao mobilized young university students
to write anonymous posters expressing their grievances toward people not
committed to the ideology of the party. Mao used the revolutionary sentiment
within the students to target those in the party he saw as threats to the
stability of the regime. The students, eventually called the Red Guards,
followed the idea of a continuous revolution where Communist ideology must be a
self-reflexive praxis that was constantly in flux. Mao encouraged this movement
to the artists and gave talks in which the major points were:

“(1) the persistence of class struggle, that bourgeoisie and proletariat
are locked in a continuous battle for control of the arts, that the proletariat
must constantly be on guard against the inroads of the bourgeoisie, and that
art must reflect class struggle; (2) that art must serve the workers, peasants,
and soldiers; (3) that artists must integrate themselves with the masses and
study Mao’s works; (4) that the materials in the life of the people “provide
literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source”; (5) the
necessity of creating heroic characters that are “on a higher plane, more
intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal” and therefore more
universal than actual everyday life; and (6) that artists must make the old
serve and the new, the foreign serve China, and must weed through the old to
let the new emerge.”

The posters and
paintings’ message during this time period were quite blunt in representing
Communist ideology and even took propagandist qualities in order to mobilize
the masses to fight for a continuous revolution. In particular, the poster
named Hold high the great red banner of Mao Zedong Thought to wage the Great
Proletarian Cultural Revolution to the end – Revolution is no crime, to rebel
is justified the movement’s desire to prove their fidelity to the party and
demonstrated the obsession with Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Ordinary
students became criminals who “tortured and beat people, especially teachers,
principals, intellectuals and those with bourgeois backgrounds – sometimes to
death” (Schoppa 352).  These
intellectuals came to be seen as enemies of the people rather than individuals
working alongside the people. Mere speculation could mean that a person was
persecuted and beaten for possibly being a capitalist, which led to an increase
in group-think mentality within the general population. People kept reaffirming
their fidelity to the party by acting out violently in order to show that they
would fight for the Communist Party. Anyone who was so-called ousted by the Red
Guards, were considered these bourgeoisie intellectuals failures of the party
who deserved to be punished and exiled for being dangerous to the stability of
the Communist regime.

During the Maoist era, the Chinese adopted a style
of art called Socialist Realism, which was “couched as a narrative or anecdote,
for such pictures are sometimes intended not only to be seen but also to be
‘read'” (Schoppa 21). Even original forms of propaganda posters or paintings
were altered over time in order to fit the image that the CCP wanted to present
to the public and purify the party’s ideology. In particular, Liu Chunhua in
1967 painted a picture of Mao titled Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan where
Mao is shown as a young man. Mao’s journey to Anyuan was particularly
influential during this time period because it was an attempt to rehabilitate
the image of Mao after the Great Leap Forward. Mao’s image was tarnished by his
failed policies and needed to recommit people to the Communist ideals, which
led him to organize the Anyuan strike (Laing 68).  Mao is seen in ordinary robes in order to
show his solidarity with the masses. Political propaganda can only be effective
when applied over a long period of time (Mittler 484). Even after Mao’s damaging
policies, such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, the
signifier of Mao persisted. The mass-produced images of Mao revitalized his
image and inspired a nostalgic feeling to the public. To China, Mao became an
emblematic symbol of the political and cultural ideology that the population
must adopt and embody in order to meet the ultimate goals of the party. The
majority of the Chinese population was able to overlook the fact that Mao was,
in many ways, an ineffective leader because of the image he represented.

Eventually Mao became detracted from his political reality and was able to
transcend into a political legacy that China should aspire to.

The resilient cult of personality surrounding Mao
persists within Contemporary China.  For
example, a poster named Chairman Mao – the Reddest, Reddest Red Sun in Our
Hearts Is With Us, shows Mao meeting with the Red Guards and showing his
support for their efforts towards a continuous revolution. Within this photo,
Mao is at the center of the crowd with light emanating from him. The symbolic
nature of the photo showed that Mao became synonymous with the “true” ideals of
China. Within the photo, the Red Guards are holding up their red book up, which
includes quotes and lectures from Mao Zedong. This poster demonstrates the
overall obsession with Mao from not only peasants, but also young university
students. These kinds of posters persisted throughout the late 1990’s, which
became known as the “Maocraze” (Dal Lago 50). Even though Mao died on September
9, 1976 (Schoppa 361), he was revitalized during later decades in
the sense that “his icon has never ceased to be considered – both at home and
abroad – the quintessential representation of modern China” (Dal Lago 50). This
nostalgic desire for the return of Mao demonstrates the effectiveness of
political propaganda during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Mao successfully enmeshed cultural life with political life to the point where
every aspect of a Chinese person’s life became centered on Communism and
essentially Mao.

The intersection between political propaganda and
art demonstrated the omnipresent nature of the Communist party. The aim of the
Chinese Communist Party was clear: to produce a continuous revolution that
inspires the masses. The specter of Mao was able to, not only, influence his
time period, but transcend his influence into contemporary China. Through art,
Mao was able to inspire a revolutionary nostalgia within the population that is
purely based on his imagery. Although many were persecuted and harmed by Mao’s
policies, his legacy stood resilient in the face of facts. Art was essentially
an influential catalyst influencing and changing the perception of Maoist China
to fit true communist ideology.