Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Lake with No Name

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Lake with No Name

A True Story of Love and Conflict in Modern China

by Diane Wei Liang

Lake with No Name by Diane Wei Liang
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    Jun 2009, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Marnie Colton

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Chinese Propaganda Posters
At one point in Lake with No Name, Diane Wei Liang recounts her harrowing childhood experience bringing cabbage in from the frost, a yearly event that all the children at the collective had to participate in to demonstrate their strength and patriotism. Liang describes becoming ill with fever after carrying damp, cold cabbages for hours, and then listening to the radio announcers praise the heroic efforts of the peasantry in preserving the winter crop. As miserable as this task was in reality, it would have made the ideal subject for a Chinese propaganda poster, the state-sponsored artwork that dominated the Chinese cultural landscape until the late 20th century.

From the late 1940s through the 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party commissioned and approved a vast array of posters aimed at instructing the populace on everything from how to properly practice socialism and resist counterrevolutionaries to how to exterminate vermin and regulate fertility. Artists often created special posters to reinforce political campaigns, many of which had distinctive slogans such as "Up to the Mountains, Down to the Villages" (a 1968 campaign that forced college-educated young people in the cities to relocate to rural areas where they could aid the peasantry) and "Eliminate the Four Pests" (the 1958 attempt to kill flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows: this backfired, wreaking ecological havoc when insects ate crops due to a lack of predators).

Other posters portrayed heroes of the Communist party, usually depicting hale and hearty men who either smiled as they led Communist marches or wore stoic, determined expressions as they hauled ropes, drove tractors, and aimed guns. Many posters also glamorized military life in efforts to recruit new members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Indeed, Chinese Communist posters often showed soldiers mentoring young boys, and some even portrayed pre-school age children sporting full military regalia and brandishing weapons.

Because communism at least nominally considered women to be men's equals, posters also featured female soldiers, parachuters, construction workers, and tractor drivers. "Tractor girls" gained popularity in the early 1950s, after Soviet images of women operating these machines inspired the Chinese government to advocate mechanized agricultural work as a way for women to strengthen their bodies and contribute to the revolution. Such women were portrayed as vigorous and smiling, clad in loose-fitting yet sturdy clothing that eliminated all trace of femininity. This period in poster design proved short-lived, however, as women were soon relegated to smaller, less essential machines like threshers or to the more traditionally feminine sphere of the textile factory.

Poster artists soon made the transition from drawing "tractor girls" to drawing women engaged in home-making and care-giving activities such as nursing, teaching, and looking after elderly family members. Women did briefly rise in status when the government urged them to become "barefoot doctors" in the 1960s; claiming that the rural populace (the majority of China's population) was suffering from a lack of medical professionals, Mao Zedong decreed that one-third of the urban medical workforce relocate to the countryside. Unfortunately, many staff members with little or inadequate training were dispatched as jacks (or jills) of all trades and were expected to fix sewage systems, administer inoculations, and implement birth control policies, all while smiling joyfully and traversing rural roads in no shoes. As with many of Mao's policies, a significant gap lay between the blithe poster image and the harsh reality.

By the 1980s, propaganda posters began to lose steam as both a political and cultural force and have never regained their momentum. With television and the Internet now producing instructional programming and images, posters that exhort people to drive tractors and revere leaders seem like quaint relics of the past. However, they do continue to provide information about health epidemics, as evidenced by the posters produced during the SARS outbreak in 2003 ("Protecting yourself is protecting others. Spread love by caring and STOP SARS!") and those aimed at educating people about HIV/AIDS, a disease that the government had initially neglected to address.

Visit Stefan Landsberger's extensive archive for more images and information.

Article by Marnie Colton

This article is from the August 12, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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