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35 I accompany granny on her way to night school

Sun Xuecheng

July 1973
poster 53 x 77cm
Tianjin People’s Art Publishing
Courtesy of Harriet Evans, collection of the University of Westminster

Sun Xuecheng was from Yantai in Shandong. He was a professor at Yantai University, until his death in 1995. He is perhaps best known for the 1989 public sculpture Old Man of the Moon.

The theme of this work comes from the once popular revolutionary play ‘Story of the Red Lantern’, with some slight changes in interpretation. In the foreground a young girl lights a lamp. One of the heroes of the play is Li Tiemei, a young girl who carries the red lanterns to carry out the Revolution to fulfill the wish of her grandmother and father. However, here the granddaughter lights the way for her grandmother. In ‘Story of the Red Lantern’ the light used was a signal lights for trains. Here it is a horse light. Horse lights were used in stables, and had strong wind resistance. In the history of revolutionary propaganda posters, horse lights were used from the Jinggangshan (Mount Jinggang) period when they were used to symbolize that the lit flame of revolution could not be extinguished.
Also symbolic is the little girl’s rain coat and her grandmother’s umbrella. In the famous work Mao Zedong goes to Anyuan (1968), Mao also holds an umbrella, symbolising that a revolutionary will not be stopped by storms. Filled with the drive and spirit to boldly forge ahead, he is always ready to take on the tribulations and tempests of revolution.
The book that the grandmother holds in her hand is The Communist Manifesto. The national campaign against literacy began in China in the 1950s, and the number of posters painting old people studying was large. However, the grandmother here is going to night school to study Marxist-Leninist theory, which differs from the texts depicted before the Cultural Revolution.
At the bottom of the poster is written ‘become involved in the struggle to criticize Lin and Confucius’. In July 1973, Mao declared that Confucianism was backwards. In linking criticism of Lin Biao with criticism of Confucian-Mencius thought, the aim was to oppose negation of the Cultural Revolution. Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen and others began the ‘Criticise Lin and Confucius’ movement in January 1974, which lasted around 6 months, and used it to undermine Zhou Enlai. The historical context of this poster is the period after the ‘Criticise Lin and Confucius’ movement and before the fall of the Gang of Four.

The main character in the poster on the wall is very masculine, holding a typical pose from Cultural Revolution iconography. The miner’s lamp on his head signifies that he is a worker. The message communicated is that revolutionary theory arms ordinary working people, as well as children and old people.

The painting style of this poster continues the ‘New Year poster monthly calendar’ style that was popular in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. The monthly calendar was an advertisement for businesses that brought together the popular New Year poster with the ‘annual poster’ for the seasons of the lunar calendar. Initially, they showed traditional Chinese themes. Later, they were mainly of pretty women dressed in the latest fashions. The artistic technique used detailed Western style pencil sketching and watercolours to make lifelike representations with bright, clean and fresh hues. Companies would give a large amount of them to their customers before Chinese New Year and people would use them as New Year posters, hanging them in their homes for checking dates and lunar seasons. In this way they became known as ‘monthly calendars’. In 1952 after the formation of the Shanghai Peoples Art Publishing, the ‘research group for the creation of New Year posters’ was specially formed. It recruited the artists who were originally creating ‘monthly calendars’ to create New Year posters that represented themes of New China, while at the same time training new artists, and thus formed a formidable troop of New Year painters. Most of the artists of the 1960s and 1970s had received training from art institutes and often directly employed Western painting techniques, but in terms of aesthetic they attempted to be ‘pretty’ in order to satisfy the aesthetic requirements of the ordinary masses.