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China’s hidden history on display

China’s hidden history on display

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13 November 2006

China’s hidden history on display

Economist Steven Lim has an unlikely passion for propaganda posters from Maoist China. Seventeen posters from his extensive collection are currently on display at the Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, to mark the fortieth anniversary of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

The posters depict images conveying China’s military might, the joy of the people, their passion for hard work, Chinese Communist Party initiatives and the people’s love for Chairman Mao.

One poster shows a model member of the Party’s youth wing amidst a group of smiling children and the slogan reads “Learn from Pan Dongzi, be the good children of the Chinese Communist Party”.

“Mao’s brand of hardline socialism was all about changing people’s consciousness and being a good human being, and these posters were aimed at getting people to do just that,” says Dr Lim, a lecturer at Waikato Management School whose doctoral thesis examined the Maoist experiment in economic development.

“But there’s a tension between a slogan like ‘Serve the people’ and actually earning enough money to feed your family. The propaganda images are all of happy well-fed families but that wasn’t the reality when I first went back to China just after the Cultural Revolution.”

In 1979, Kiwi-born Dr Lim made a trip back to his family home, an agricultural commune in southern China. “This is a prosperous part of China, and our commune had even hosted a visit by US President Richard Nixon,” says Dr Lim. “But there was sometimes not so much food to eat, and basic commodities could be quite difficult to get for most people.”

In China today, where Chairman Mao has been officially labelled 70% good and 30% bad, the Cultural Revolution he set in motion remains a sensitive topic, and there have been no official events to mark the 40th anniversary.

But Dr Lim says his friends in China were very supportive of his idea to hold an exhibition in New Zealand. And, he says, the exhibition seems to have resonated with the Chinese community and others in Hamilton, particularly people with an interest in China and its history.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen local Chinese families and old people visiting the university,” he says. “I saw one woman showing the posters to her children, and telling them what life was like in China during that time. I’m glad the poster exhibition has given her the opportunity to do that.”

The exhibition runs until Friday 17 November.


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