Harriet Evans is Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies, and Director of the Contemporary China Centre, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages, University of Westminster. She is author of Women and Sexuality in China: Dominant Discourses of Female Sexuality and Gender since 1949 (Polity Press, 1997), and The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). She co-edited Picturing Power in China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution (Rowman and Littlefied, 1999) with Stephanie Donald, with whom she has recently co-curated an exhibition in Sydney on 'China and Revolution: History, Parody and Memory in Contemporary Art.' Evans is currently working on an oral history of urban change in central Beijing and is recipient of a Coreach award to set up a research network with European and Chinese scholars on local practices of cultural heritage.
Posters of China's Mao era evoke complex and contradictory responses from their audiences. Across their status as a mass–produced visual exhortation to strive for a collective ideal, their capacity to excite middle-aged longings for the lost dreams of youth, and their enduring power as visual reminders of a regime of terror, they occupy a prominent place in contemporary imaginaries, Chinese and global, of China's communist revolution. During the years of their production, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), they were arguably—at least in quantitative and spatial terms—the most important visual means through which the Cultural Revolution was created and carried out. Since then, their images have been widely revisited in commercial publicity, red tourism, private collections and contemporary art practice, all testifying to their power of appeal.
In this paper, I argue that these posters' capacity to evoke a multiplicity of responses lies in their ambiguities of address. Based on interviews with poster artists, private collectors and curators, I suggest that the ambiguities present in the structure, composition and colour of the posters go a long way to explaining how they simultaneously evince memories of horror and pleasure amongst their contemporary audiences. Notwithstanding their overt message, designed and fine-tuned by the party authorities, many of their images, including well-known if not iconic images, were consciously produced as a means of fulfilling ideas and aspirations that transgressed their immediate content. Their presence in private collections and displays today suggests complex subjectivities that defy the poles of either condemnation or nostalgia for the Maoist past. Posters of China's Mao era thus emerge as a specific instance of the ambiguities defining China's 'red legacy'.