Old Cultural Revolution Posters And The Stories Behind Them

Jules Nadeau, a freelance writer living in Montreal, shared with me several posters of the Cultural Revolution from his collection. I didn’t grow up with these posters, but have seen them many times in news, books and movies where the Cultural Revolution was concerned.

I asked Jules if if he could write something about these posters, and was extremely grateful that he said yes. Here are his words.


By Jules Nadeau

I spent a fabulous time in the PRC in 1979 as a consultant for a film crew. We were shooting an in-depth three hours documentary on the railroad network and this was the year I acquired my collection of political posters. In retrospect, I find the most interesting artifact is the one showing Chairman Mao Zedong saying in a paternalistic way to his protégé Hua Guofeng: “With you in charge, I’m at ease.” Other drawings eulogize the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune and the Communist Party.

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Mao Zedong and Hua Guofeng

However Hua Guofeng (1921-2008), the “designated successor”, was himself about to be excommunicated by the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and that iconic poster was about to be withdrawn from all Xinhua State stores. A Wuhan university student purchased the whole set in 1978 and offered it to me as a token of friendship. It’s only now that I revel in the possession of these red archives.

The National Film Board

The affiches were obtained in Wuhan because this is where our Montreal crew of five was based for an unforgettable six weeks in the antiquated Shengli (Victory) hotel, sort of five-star establishment of the late 70’s. So we spent a lot of time in the European style train station of Hukou. We interviewed numerous employees during their working hours and their leisure time at home. We were also interested in young and old passengers boarding the socialist green wagons. George Dufaux, a reputed film director at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), saw these travelers as genuine representives of the one billion inhabitants of the vast land. Just weeks before the “one couple one child” policy was introduced.

We were only three years away from the passing over of the Great Helmsman and the official invalidation of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Party cadres were still trying to outsmart the visiting medias. They were thus trying to show us the best side of the socialist Motherland. But Georges Dufaux was clever enough to concentrate on railroad people because that gave us the opportunity to interview all kinds of hiking people, in other words common folks who were not selected, “briefed” in advance or instructed to make politically correct declarations.

Surprise, spontaneity and frankness was our hush-hush motto. I acted as consultant for this purpose: discern the genuine speech from the Orwellian “doublespeak”. It was my fourth foray across the bamboo curtain in four years. (With the provison that we did not want to be ideologically attacked as the Italian director Michelagelo Antonioni was vilified following his 1972 film Chung Kuo (Zhongguo.)

No matter what the NFB was well considered by the Chinese authorities partly because of the fame of Norman Bethune. I often underlined to our hosts that the revolutionary doctor practiced for a few years in Montréal before leaving for China. “The father of my former magazine editor in Montréal was a patient of Bethune. In 1975 while visiting Shijiazhuang hospital I shook hand with a venerable veteran who had personally known Bethune”, I repeated. Such statements from the “foreign expert” were music to the ears of our railway blue collars. Ottawa established diplomatic relations with Beijing long time before Washington did.

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Cultural Revolution Poster

The Junior Brother of Deng Xiaoping

Personalities? I saluted the brother of Deng Xiaoping. How come? I knew that Deng Ken was the deputy governor of Hubei. The evening of the National day, October 1st, we saw several high cadres parading through the lobby of Victory hotel. One of them bore a striking ressemblance with Deng Xiaoping. “Is this the younger brother of…”, I asked one of the staff. Following the positive answer from a shy waitress, I went straight to him and offered him a blue fleur de lys pin Made in Québec. Deng Ken seemed surprised for a few seconds but he smiled and gave me a polite xiexie nin! Thank you! (My teamates did not believe me when I reported the coup d’éclat!

In 1979 there was a huge Railway Ministry in the PRC with some 2,400,00 staff. Workers plus all their relatives. The “iron rice bowl” for all. In Beijing, I was granted an exclusive interview with Minister Guo Weicheng (a former PLA General of Manchu origin). Quite an honor! In Wuhan, in an effort to get closer to the local cadres, genial Georges Dufaux had a wonderful idea. Instead of offering maple syrup or traditional handicraft to our hosts, he imagined to carry over a miniature locomotive with colorful wagons. The kind of toy that would drive any kid crazy. Needless to say, the responsible leaders were amazed to see the mini-train circle and circle around in the dining room. More clinking glasses! Touché!

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Cultural Revolution Poster

Our Online Documentary 

Thanks to Bethune, the interview at the top and the magic electric train, people-to-people rapports were warming up. A senior comrade we learned to trust, the guy who like to chit chat with laowai (foreigners), went as far as inviting our Gang of Five to his home for dinner. “This is unique!” I told my NFB friends. Mr. Zhang and his gentle wife (a physician) prepared some delicious dumplings (jiaozi) in gargantuan quantities. Georges Dufaux, Serge Lafortune, Richard Besse and the interpreter Elizabeth Lowe (Canadian student in Beijing) really savored the meal. That was gold to us: an informal visit in a private home. Unrehearsed and impromptu!

Shopping for dictionaries and art books was a lot of fun. We went for haircuts just for smelling the atmosphere of a post-cultural revolution barber shop. I also guided the crew to the Liberation photography studio. This is where we had our corporate pix taken. In my case, with a proletariat cap and a working class vest, I tried to look like a bona fide member of the popular masses. When I look at this shot nowadays, I think I almost succeeded. Except for my high nose and the thick moustache that betray me… No  Chineseness at that level!

Dufaux was not able to edit the film down to less than three hours. The personal testimonies about the day to day life in China and the canonical statements coexist side by side. “We will show the viewers what the authorities want them to see. Let the spectators judge by themselves” confided the experienced director to me. The three-part documentary called Guidao: On the Way can now be seen online on the web site of the National Film Board. The vintage posters can also be admired on this blog. Quite a different planet… almost 40 years ago! Wuhan now has a grandiose train station. The Victory hotel is a mere paper souvenir. People are also different. And trains move much faster between Wuhan, the ground zero of the Wuchang Uprising of October 10th 1911 Revolution and the post-1949 capital city of Beijing.

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The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec. 

Author: Fan Wu

Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit www.fanwuwrites.com

3 thoughts on “Old Cultural Revolution Posters And The Stories Behind Them”

  1. Jules, thank you very much for sharing these posters. I have two stories to share with you. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I saw my neighbor’s son, who was probably 8 years old, writing “英明领袖华国锋” (The Brilliant Leader Hua Guofeng) over and over again on his homework notebook with a grumpy face. He had flunked a test and as a punishment had been ordered by his teacher to write this phrase one hundred times. My other story is about Bethune (白求恩). As you know, Mao wrote an article about him called “In Memory of Bethune.” As a required reading, it was in our textbook and we had to recite it by heart. To this day, I still remember some of the passages. I heard that Bethune Memorial House in Ontario is popular among Chinese tourists. Do Canadians visit this place?

  2. Hi Jules, I translated your article to my parents tonight and they say you are a great witness for modern Chinese history. 1979! You saw what I have never seen in my mother land! Isn’t it amazing? I have noticed you tried not to judge/comment on the things happened in China back to that time. Instead, you chose to describe the facts then ‘let the audience judge by themselves’ just like the documentary filmed, which makes your words more effective and thought-provoking.

    Miss Fan, do you mind me sharing this article with my friends in China? I think other Chinese young adults will be more than happy to read such valuable experience from a lovely foreigner during that unique era of China.

    Again, thank both of you for sharing with us 🙂

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