Propaganda posters can leave a lasting impact. For Shaomin Li, the Chinese artist, economist, and dissident, they are particularly meaningful. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, surrounded by the posters that he now collects. As a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army, Li also had to create them. Now, some of his collection is on display in a new exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.
“For my generation, our education was pretty much Mao’s revolutionary class struggle ideology, which was propagated by the posters,” says Li, in an email interview. “It has left such a strong indelible imprint on us that many of us may still subconsciously follow Mao’s tactic in our lives. For example, many contemporary business leaders in China attribute their business success to Mao’s thought.”
Li grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a 10-year period of destruction and upheaval in China. It was launched by Mao Zhedong in 1966 as a way to reassert his rule and galvanize the Communist revolution, with a devastating impact. The death toll is usually estimated at one million, although one study suggested it could be as high as eight million. It also encouraged the eradication of the “Four Olds”—old “things, ideas, customs, and habits,” through which classical literature, art, and architecture were damaged or destroyed.
“Whenever I think about that era, the scene in my mind is a red ocean of posters, with high-volume speakers blasting fighting slogans and songs praising Mao,” recalls Li. “It was surrealistic. The masses were totally mobilized by Mao to destroy everything that was not revolutionary. Remaining calm and normal was dangerous and was viewed as crazy and abnormal.”
“Shaomin Li’s collection really traces how the Communist Party penetrated all aspects of life in China during this period, and he brings unique insights because of his…
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