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34 The great victory at Langfang

Dai Ze

January 1975
Poster 77.5 x 53cm
Shanghai People’s Publishing House
Courtesy of Harriet Evans, collection of the University of Westminster

Dai Ze was born in Japan in 1922. In 1942 he went to study art at the National Central University, and in 1950 he became a teacher at the Central Art Academy. He produced many famous oil paintings with historical narratives. His works are in collections at the National Museum of China and the National Art Museum of China, and in 1994 he held a solo exhibition in New York. The original painting in this poster is at the Museum of the Chinese Revolution in Beijing. The prints made from it have the note ‘Museum of the Chinese Revolution provided the draft’ at the bottom.

This painting is not strictly a propaganda poster. It is, instead, a teaching resource. During the Cultural Revolution, all sorts of posters were published for schools to use. This poster was used to accompany the teaching of Chinese modern history (1840-1949). On 2 August 1900, 20,000 troops from the Eight-Nation Alliance followed the canal from Tianjin to Beijing and at Langfang were surrounded and defeated by the Boxers. The Victory of Langfang is seen as one of the great Chinese military successes of the early twentieth century.
The history paintings that Dai Ze made in his early period are relatively realistic, but this poster exhibits the style of historical posters from the Cultural Revolution. The forces for good are painted red. Not only are they wearing red clothing, but their skin is also tinged red. They are well built and masculine, which is characteristic of New Year posters. The troops from the Eight-Nation Alliance on the other side are painted in white, and are faded, tiny, powerless. This painting reflects the official line on the Boxers, giving them the stamp of heroism and patriotism, and depicting them as invincible, while imperialism is in retreat.
The layout is very theatrical. The valiant soldiers in the centre of the poster are situated in a blank expanse, and there is almost no extraneous description to distract the attention of viewers. Railway sleepers form a stage, which makes the big flag of the Boxers and the commander underneath it stand out from the massed troops, while also creating depth in the painting. The railway sleepers also give a female soldier an exalted position. The ‘Red Lantern Group’ was a section of the Boxer movement formed by women, but in this picture they are given an importance that is in excess of their historical significance. This serves the central government’s advocacy after liberation of gender equality in order to promote and increase production. It differs from Eugène Delacroix’s iconic Liberty Leading the People (1830) in that this woman is tightly clothed, and her expression could not be construed as feminine. The same face could be seen on the Red Guards in other propaganda posters of the time.
In the foreground, the gua on the smock of the soldier brandishing the spear points to the historic origins of the Boxers, who fought against foreign troops between 1898 and 1901. The spiritual beliefs of the Boxers were based on the traditional Chinese philosophy of the bagua, the set of eight symbols (gua) whose meaning is found in the Yijing, also known as the Book of Changes. The Boxer troops fighting in Langfang came mainly from the Dadao (Big Knife) Society, a militant secret society that formed during the Qing Dynasty. They identified with the gua which is associated with water (kan 坎). The popular revolution came as a result of tough living conditions following many years of drought in the area. The Dadao Society ‘worshipped red’ and their typical attire was red headband, red flag, and red smock. However, the flag that occupies centre position of the painting is the yellow flag of the united Boxers. The soldier wearing black clothes in the bottom left corner of the painting represents another branch of the Boxer militia, the Duimen (from the dui 兑 gua), or the ‘black group’, who had a reputation of extraordinary valour in battle.

Throughout the 1950s China built many museums which required large numbers of historical paintings. The task of painting this type of picture was usually given to a specialist art work unit, and the teachers of the art colleges were usually the driving force. Dai Ze as a teacher and artist at the Central Art Academy took advantage of the times to create a large number of historical paintings. This painting was painted at the later stage of the Cultural Revolution. In the early part of the Cultural Revolution, teachers from the Central Art Academy were almost all sent for labor reeducation and could not paint. The artist was a professional oil painter, and has obviously been influenced by Western painting techniques. In stark contrast to Chinese traditional painting, he pays a lot of attention to anatomy. The two principal characters are painted with extreme clarity with respect to their musculature, which demonstrates the influence of Western drawing styles.