Dispatches from China: Printing History


This will be the last installment of the Dispatches from China series of posts for a while (at least until we can find a regular correspondent). In closing up this series I wanted to reflect on the place ephemeral print occupies in Chinese culture as an artifact within a culture that has an extremely long history of sophisticated printmaking, but also as a means of constructing collective memory. With this in mind, I set about wandering  with my camera ready.


It turns out I didn’t have to wander far, any neighborhood that traffics in tourists will have posters for sale. Most of the posters are great examples of various stages of propaganda poster utilized during the thirty tumultuous years following the founding the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), while a few are advertisements from the relatively short-lived Republic of China.

For pocket change you can own an ‘authentic’ poster from the early days of the PRC. I say authentic because on closer examination most of what you’ll find on the street are off-set prints that have been meticulously aged (perhaps with tea?) to look the part of aged artifacts. The posters, whether real or not, contain great imagery from the early days of Chairman Mao when the artists were encouraged to turn away from a historic Chinese visual culture that had (so the story goes) supported centuries of oppression and instead make a new art for the people. This early work can be identified by the clear influence Soviet Social Realism had on the chinese artists; these were most often lithographic reproductions of history paintings. During the Cultural Revolution artists migrated back to the traditional form of the woodblock print; allowing the posters take on a more graphic quality, often using just red and black (hmm.. this work reminds me of someone).

Clearly I don’t have room and you don’t have time for an art history lesson, but if this is a topic that excites you as much as it does me, I would refer to you to Art and China’s Revolution exhibition at the Asia Society and the book by Melissa Chiu ).

One last thought to complicate matters, by and large the bulk of tourists on the streets of Beijing where these pictures are sold are Chinese tourists visiting their capital. The reception one of these posters must have to a survivor of The Great Leap Forward must be very different from the western view, perhaps of well-designed cold war kitsch.

More pictures and less words after the jump.

While in Shanghai I was able to visit the Shanghai Museum, considered by many to be one of the best museums of historic artifacts in China. In addition galleries of ceramics and scroll painting there was also a small gem of a gallery space given over entirely to the hand-carved stamps or seals. These are types of chops in red ink that you often see on asian woodblock prints and important documents. The didactic information in the show indicated that these came into vogue in the imperial court and never quite went out of fashion. Often carved out of stone or hardwood and printed using a red paste-like form of ink. For more information about the history of these seals or chops go here or here.



Such seals can also be found around tourist sites in China, in this case they are carved out of soapstone and make good novelty gifts.

The last stop on this tour of historic everyday uses of print in China, we come to the ration coupon. During the days of the planned or command economy (roughly 1950-1980) commodity coupons were in daily use for anyone wanting to purchase food staples and household goods. These goods were rationed by the government and the coupons allowed you purchaser your allotted amount.



An exhibition similar to the one I saw in Shanghai was reviewed in the China Daily (the english language daily newspaper) written by Liu Shinan. The quote below will provide some context for how the colorful coupons played a role in the daily lives Chinese during their in widespread use. To read the full article, which is informative and brief follow this link.

Of all the rationed commodities, the liangpiao (grain coupon) is the most striking in people’s memory, as it was the most important thing for everybody at that time. The average ration was 15 kilograms for a man and 13 kilograms for a woman each month, though it varied somewhat with age, profession and location.

When people planned to dine out or travel to other places, they had to make sure that their wallet contained at least one thing: the grain coupon. Failing to bring money with them would not pose a problem because they could borrow from a friend who might well have some spare cash. But borrowing a grain coupon would be very embarrassing because the ration was the same fixed amount for anybody no matter how wealthy they were.

Meat was even scarcer. When I was writing this article yesterday, I couldn’t remember how much the pork ration was. I asked my 85-year-old mother, and she answered without hesitation: “Ban jin per person per month.” (“Ban jin” means a quarter kilo.) She told me: “I remember when you got married, each of our neighbours donated a ban jin pork coupon so that your father and I could manage to prepare a decent wedding banquet.”



It was initially the infatalized colors and strong graphic, almost cartoonish, imagery that caught and held my attention, but the history of these marvelous printed ephemera only serves to add a complicated contextual layer. I keep trying to imagine how the powerful weight of hunger might feel attached to the one of the cute pig coupons (below).

Clearly I have no real conclusions to draw, but I hope my meandering past beautifully fake propaganda posters, ancient and new seals and vernacular food coupons might provide a useful look at the way the shifting context of China’s national project. Problematizing the way a nations state constructs, re-aligns, and debates it’s history is not a novel idea, but perhaps by using the dual lenses of Chinese culture and print ephemera there might be some insight into the construction on of our own American History Project.


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Categories: Interesting Printmaking, Print-related

3 Responses to “Dispatches from China: Printing History”

  1. Hi Amze,
    What a great opportunity for the rest of us to get a glimpse of China from a printmaker’s perspective. Thanks!

  2. RL Tillman says:

    Yes, I agree with Teresa! Most of us will never travel to China, but it’s nice to peek into the culture through kindred eyes.

    Amze, thanks for sharing this experience with us! It’s been a great series.