Yang Peiming is the director of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center. With about 6,000 original pieces, he is the world’s top collector of 20th century Chinese Communist propaganda. He chatted with Barbarian Subject about the China Dream posters.
“We are not interested in the China Dream posters here” he said. “Everything is computer work now. We are more interested in the historical poster art.” I showed him some photos of the posters in Beijing and he said “ah yes, yes, this is the style of Feng Zikai.” We walked over to a bookshelf and he pulled out a book of prints by Feng and leafed through it. He knew exactly which posters were being used and pointed them out.
I asked him how he defines the “Chinese Dream” and he gave a few thoughts, switching back and forth between English and Chinese, “what is a dream? It’s something we can’t see. Chinese kings and emperors have always made sayings and things like this, but actually, we don’t say ‘dream.’ I think this is 西方过来的 (from the West) like the American Dream. But actually, we don’t use dream like this.” He pulled out another book of prints and opened a page with a Mao-era poster on it. There were people marching over a bridge with the caption “Communism is Heaven and the People’s Commune is the Bridge.” Mr. Yang smiled and said, “see? it’s the same thing. They say these things about things and places that aren’t real.”
I asked, “so would you say the difference between now and then is that back then, the posters were projecting images and ideas onto you, but now with the China Dream, you are supposed to project whatever you want onto them.” He replied “yes I think so.”
Just as the word 宣传xuanchuan can be translated as ‘publicity’ or ‘propaganda’, and accordingly be assigned the desired connotation, 中国梦zhongguomeng is similarly flexible. If you choose “China Dream,” the direct translation, the connotation feels more nationalistic and perhaps vaguely challenging. “Chinese Dream” sounds more idealistic, friendly and widely aspirational, as if to say the Chinese people are just striving for the things we all want. 中华人民梦, specifically “the Chinese people’s dream,” is also used on some posters. The English text on the posters uses both translations, and there’s something almost genius in that. It’s just nationalistic enough for the Chinese audience, and just familiar enough for the foreign, especially Western audience. This, to me, constitutes outstanding modern propaganda – even if the graphics suck compared to the old stuff.
Mr. Yang talked some more about exhibits abroad in the months ahead and his growing collection of Dazibao, one of which he was an author of once upon a time. He didn’t say about whom, though. When I asked if he planned to add any “Chinese Dream” posters to his collection, he mad a face like he just walked into the Shanghai World Expo of Stinky Tofu and shook his head, “no, no, no, no. The modern artists are too wild. Maybe someone else can collect them, but I’m not too keen on modern politics.”
And with that, some Shanghai posters
The characters the boy is climbing on mean “civilized” here. They can also mean “civilization,” so he is climbing on civilization.
Pudong, Dongfang Road. Left sign, “accumulate merit by doing good deeds. Harvest auspiciousness. Gather small virtues, achieve great character.” Right sign, “Chinese Dream. My dream. Be bold in sculpting dreams. Be diligent in realizing your dream.”