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31 Learn from the workers, farmers and soldiers

Revolutionary Army of Jilin Luxun Academy of the Arts

Poster 53 x 77cm
Courtesy of Harriet Evans, collection of the University of Westminster

This propaganda poster is obviously characteristic of 1967. In this year a large number of propaganda posters were made from black and white woodblock prints filled in with red.
At that time, different art academies such as the Shanghai Theatre Academy, Central Art Academy, Guangzhou Art Academy and the Luxun Art Academy all had professional artists making propaganda posters. The author of this poster is marked as ‘Jilin Luxun Academy of the Arts’, but after 1950 the Luxun Academy of the Arts was broken up into the Luxun Fine Art Academy and Shenyang Music Academy, both in Shenyang, not in Jilin. The ‘Jilin Luxun Academy of the Arts’ here is perhaps a symbolic name that has been adopted by a Red Guard group from the Jilin Professional Arts School.
The main character in the picture wears typical Red Guard clothing: a green army cap, green army fatigues, an army belt around the waist, a red sleeve band around the left arm with ‘Red Guard’ printed on it, a red book in the hand. The Red Guard was a national, self-propelled mass organisation of mainly university and middle school students formed during the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’, and first appeared in Beijing in late May (some argue early June) 1966. Mao viewed the young students as a shock force to propel the Cultural Revolution, and met with red guards eight times in 1966, thereby demonstrating his support for their activities. On the woman’s back is a backpack, showing that she is about to go into the countryside to ‘stir up revolution’. When the Red Guard organisation was first established, it would go about ‘destroying the old, building the new’ through attacks on cultural and social institutions. In 1968, the peak of the Red Guard movement had passed, as Mao wished to control and limit them. At the same time the serious economic impact of the Cultural Revolution meant that cities had no way of resolving the problem of employment for new graduates. Mao’s solution was to send students into the countryside, and so emerged the slogans of ‘Learn from workers, farmers and soldiers’ and ‘Unite with workers, farmers and soldiers’. At the end of 1968, the Central Committee formally called on young intellectuals to ‘go up to the mountains and down to the countryside’.

From the poster’s slogan it can be determined that this painting is a propaganda poster by a Red Guard group. The heroine is the same as in other revolutionary propaganda posters. She is in the bloom of youth, strong and stocky Her massively strong hand holds up the sayings of Chairman Mao. Physically, she is without identifiably feminine attributes. Female Red Guards were called ‘female generals’, the message being that they were soldiers before anything else.

In the bottom left-hand corner of the picture we can see a tractor working in a field. Beside it is a high voltage electrical pole, and a little further away is an electrical station billowing thick smoke. A group of youths is raising up the Red Guard flag, suggesting that they are going to set out for the village. At this time, they are going to the village to ‘disseminate the sparks of revolution’. They would not have foreseen that the vast majority of them would only return ten years later, and with great difficulty.