AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Elaine Du

“Women Hold Up Half the Sky”: A Woman’s Role during the Cultural Revolution

There was a famous quote from Communist Party leader Mao Zedong claiming that “women hold up half the sky” during the cultural revolution. During these years – from 1966 to the time of Mao’s death in 1976- there seemed to be a sense of freedom and liberation for women. The leader of their country, their idol, had expressed his support for women to be treated equally as men. The Communist Party needed to get as many people on board with their agenda, and to do that, they needed some way to include the female population. The main way to show that women could now theoretically hold the same opportunities as men was through propaganda. 


Propaganda posters were extremely effective in portraying women in a positive light and creating a cult of diehard supporters of the movement. The nature of propaganda is anonymous; meticulously cultivated and distributed by government controlled institutions. For this reason, oftentimes there is no individual artist credited with creating a poster. There can be individual artists that create their art under very strict guidelines by the CCP that resembles propaganda, but for official, widespread propaganda posters were mostly left nameless. The style of these posters are often very cartoon-like. The figures are always dominated by a bright red/warm color background, and are pictured with either very fierce or overly happy expressions. There are often no shadows or any cool colors that suggest any emotion other than determination or happiness, creating flat characters with no depth (Lü).


 I want to discuss how these posters convey women’s role in the cultural revolution, and see if it was as progressive towards women’s rights as they claim to be. This is important because after Mao’s death in 1976, the cult of Mao seemed to die off, and we see his predecessor take over and change CCP policies. Before Mao rose to power, women were restricted to homely duties and taking care of children, but now they are pictured in these propaganda posters as strong and reliable, which was a drastic change for the country. The change in women’s roles during the cultural revolution was exciting for women who were being liberated for the first time.



Lü, Peng. A History of Art in 20th-Century China. Charta, 2010

Deng Shaoyi, ‘We Have Seen Chairman Mao’, 1974, oil painting



Propaganda Poster, Shanghai, 1976

With the sun in your heart, what is there to fear? Dare to sacrifice your youth with the people.”, Artist unknown, gouache on paper, Shanghai, 1976

For many years in the Communist Party’s reign over China, these posters were a way of connecting the government with its people. This propaganda-producing business usually churned out millions of posters annually, and had become so efficient at creating political posters that it would take less than a day to draft, print, and distribute new material for the masses to consume (Andrews, 2012).The purpose of these posters were to encourage the majority of society- the working class, peasants, farmers, and soldiers- to unite together as equals under one country. In this unity and idyllic society, everyone is treated as equals, which includes men and women. Mao Zedong explicitly states that “women can do the same as men”, and supports them in every way as long as it benefits the party (Evans, 1999). Women are allowed to dress, work, and have the same political power as men. This stance has given women the freedom to appear in artwork in the same company as men and give society examples of what their role is in this “new” China.

This poster below features a line of mostly young women with their arms linked to form a chain. They are forming a human dam against massive tides of water, withstanding the crashing waves with determined expressions. The caption below the poster reads: “With the sun in your heart, what is there to fear? Dare to sacrifice your youth with the people.”, and underneath that caption is another, saying “learn from the eleven educated youths of Shanghai’s Huangshan TeaTree Factory, who feared neither bitterness nor death.” (Evans, 1999). It is a gouache on paper, and is most likely a local propaganda poster. The fact that the image features mainly women goes to show how seriously women’s roles in Communist society were taken. They can bear the same hardships as men with equal resilience and determination. The main woman in the foreground of the work is clutching the “little red book”, a book of Mao Zedong’s sayings that the Red Guard often carried around. She is the only one in this poster whose face is showing fear. Though she appears as a “weak link” who allows the rushing water to pass by the human chain, she is still holding on and has a tight grip on the little red book, thereby solidifying her willingness to stand strong by her government and their beliefs.

Propaganda Posters

Generally speaking, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific artist that created propaganda posters in China during this time because many artists were not given credit for their work. Art was seen as a public service, and propaganda posters were government messages that were mass produced and highly profitable, so it seemed as though these pieces of art (called xuanchuanhua) were just generally coming out of the government instead of an individual. Contests were held at a nationwide level to select certain propaganda prints for the year.The mass production of these removed the personal and individuality of the artist out of the final product.  So, instead of identifying a specific artist for these propaganda posters, it will be easier to decipher this unique form of art through a theme, such as the representation of women during this era through these posters. The purpose of these xuanchuanhua were to relate and speak to the largest portion of society: the peasants, the workers, and the middle class. Women made up a large portion of those classes, and were encouraged to help the nation in their efforts just as much as men. In this particular example, “Long Live Chairman Mao”, is showcasing a celebration of the 1959 May Day Parade. This artist (one of few that was famous for specifically creating propaganda posters), Ha Qiongwen, needed to create an optimistic print in the wake of the “disastrous” failures of the Great Leap Forward, and so chose bright colors and a woman carrying a joyful child on her shoulder. This is the first of many examples where we see propaganda posters using a woman’s to uplift the community and being a pillar of support for the country.


Long live Chairman Mao | Chinese Posters | Chineseposters.net

Ha Qiongwen (b. 1925), Long Live Chairman Mao, 1959, gouache on paper printed as poster, 110 × 80 cm, shanghai people’s fine Arts publishing house


Andrews, Julia Frances., and Kuiyi Shen, The Art of Modern China, California: University of California Press, 2012


Elaine Du

Hi! My name is Elaine. I am a first year here at Union College. My hometown is Malden, Massachusetts. I don’t have a declared major yet, but I love learning about costume design and historical fashion. My interest in historical art was one of the main reasons why I’m intrigued to learn about how an entire country’s image was so controlled and calculated, given that art is used to express oneself freely. There are also a lot of people that I know who also grew up in Communist China as well, so I wanted to learn about how they lived when they were my age and how they saw the world through that perspective.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

Skip to toolbar