Tucked away in the basement level of a nondescript apartment building, the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center (Shànghǎi Xuānchuánhuà Yìshù Zhōngxīn, 上海宣传画艺术中心) is a remarkable private museum dedicated to documenting the collective spirit of Chinese communism as depicted on thousands upon thousands of striking posters in the years since the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic. A labor of love, the museum was founded by Yang Pei Ming, who grew concerned that both the art of the posters and the complicated history that they document were in danger of disappearing in a China that has increasingly embraced consumer capitalist culture since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.
Most visitors will recognize the basic style: Bold images of stolid young Chinese holding up copies of Mao’s Little Red Book or of soldiers fiercely staring down cartoonish capitalist monsters, all printed with plenty of red ink. Upon closer inspection, however, one comes to realize how much artistry went into the production of these posters and how styles changed over the course of the years, reflecting subtle and not-so-subtle changes in China’s political, cultural and economic climate.
Also, it’s refreshing to see that it’s not all stereotypical “imperialist running dog” bashing and blatant Mao worship—a number of posters depict everyday scenes of women buying stationery, children playing in villages, busy city streets and farmers bringing in the harvest. Yes, the style remains hyperbolic, but the popular Western image of a monolithic communist state softens and begins to dissolve as the visitor recognizes the individual human touch in many of the pieces, as well as the still-inspiring messages of universal brotherhood and justice that shines through in the best.
Yang Pei Ming is often on hand to discuss his collection and its historical significance—good, bad and ugly—with visitors, so don’t be shy about asking for more information. If you’re a fan of the genre or simply want a unique souvenir, bring a wad of RMB with you—many posters are for sale, with damaged or common pieces running around RMB150-450 and larger and rarer posters running well into the thousands of RMB.