Propaganda in the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong


Over the course of this semester, this class has tackled aspects of China’s Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, the changes that occurred in its social classes and the doctrine of the “Continuous Revolution”. While it is undeniable that under Mao Zedong significant cultural and social changes occurred within China, it is the opinion of this paper that it is equally important to understand how such changes were brought about and sustained. Through the class lectures, some examples of practices that instilled the ideology of the Cultural Revolution to the general public included the use of socially repressive practices such as the repression of intellectualism, the revilement of capitalism and a focus on self-sufficiency and loyalty towards the state.

One aspect that was not tackled in-depth within the lectures was the use of various propaganda tools in order to shape how people thought of the state and their position in it. State sponsored propaganda through imagery and messages was instrumental in altering the cultural and social infrastructure of the country which helped to sustain the Cultural Revolution despite its various inadequacies (i.e. it created widespread poverty due to the faulty economic principles behind its inception and implementation). It is based on this that this paper argues that the propaganda utilized by the state under Mao Zedong was instrumental in creating and sustaining the Cultural Revolution despite its various drawbacks and ill-effects on the Chinese people.

Understanding the Use of Propaganda during the Era of Mao Zedong

The article “The Ideological Use of Meta-pictures and Visualized Meta-texts in Iconography of the Cultural Revolution” by Francesca Dal Lago delves into the use of meta-pictures and visualized meta-texts within the context of the cultural revolution of China in order to showcase how their use enabled Mao Zedong to better connect with what he termed as “the illiterate masses” by providing a medium by which his message of cultural revolution against the elite in power at the time could be conveyed (Dal Lago, 168-169). Her paper explained that the use of “visualized language” and pictures within pictures is actually not a new concept within the context of delivering messages to the masses of China; rather, it is actually recurrent feature in Chinese art and text (Dal Lago, 170). Taking this into consideration, it can thus be seen that in order to bring about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Zedong utilized a culturally familiar means of delivering his message of “equality to the people” in a way that has been effective in the past in influencing Chinese social thought.

How was the Propaganda Implemented?

When going over the work of Dal Lago, it can be seen that the use of visualized language within the context of the Cultural Revolution can be considered as a form of propaganda utilized on a massive scale using modern day printing technology. The ubiquitous nature of the visual mediums espousing the message of Mao along with the manner in which they were crafted (i.e. appealing to values that were in tune to what the masses wanted) enabled the dissemination of new socio-political ideologies that were meant to influence people towards the ideological thinking of Zedong. Dal Lago presents various examples such as the use of a portrait of an interior minister deep in thought while holding an unlit pipe and its subsequent replication in other paintings.

From a certain perspective, this use of paintings within paintings can be considered a Chinese version of iconography which is prevalent in various forms of classical European artwork wherein there is the subtle use of religious themes, representations and other similar symbols which are meant to showcase how a particular work is connected to a greater whole of work reflecting a particular type of social and religious thought. However, as presented in the case of Dal Lago, the Chinese version of symbolism and iconography is more “literal” in the sense that instead of utilizing hidden or passive symbolism as seen in the case of European artwork, what is done is a more “active” representation of a particular ideological belief by presenting a smaller yet almost exact duplicate of a particular symbolic piece of propaganda in another artwork.

This is a rather unique method of propaganda promotion in that it builds upon the previous impact of the first artwork and utilizes the intended message of that piece in an entirely new piece of art. One way of seeing the uniqueness of this method of presentation can be seen in the way in which the U.S. utilized visual language propaganda during World War 2. The now famous “Rosie the Riveter” image was utilized extensively in the case of the U.S. during World War 2 as a means of fostering positive attitudes of the general populace towards the war and having women take pride in their jobs.

Other famous types of visual propaganda at the time which are arguably as famous as Mao Zedong’s portrait in China can be seen in the “Uncle Sam” portrait which features an old man with white hair (meant to symbolize Abraham Lincoln to a certain extent) pointing outwards at the viewer with the slogan “we want you!” as a means of eliciting them to enlist. One immediate similarity that can be drawn between the case of China and the U.S. was the ubiquitous nature of Zedong’s portrait in classrooms, offices, homes and various other locations within China.

The reason behind the proliferation of his image and its connection with sustaining the Cultural Revolution was explained by Powell and Wong as a form of “big brother” imagery that was similarly utilized within North Korea by the Kim family wherein every home, government office and school building had several portraits of North Korea’s past leaders (Powell and Wong, 776). Through such a strategy, a semi-religious change occurs with the society in question wherein the individual within the image is continuously placed on a pedestal and given increasingly greater accolades to the point that their decisions are unquestioned due to their supposedly “greater” knowledge and intelligence” (Powell and Wong, 776).

What develops is a “cult of personality” wherein leaders often attain mythical status among the general public which helps to keep them in power since the social system continuously places them at the centre which makes an average person believe that the leader becomes an essential aspect of ensuring the continued existence of society (Powell and Wong, 776). Such a viewpoint helps to explain why the Cultural Revolution in China was able to flourish and the people of China continued to idolize Zedong despite the adverse effect his policies had on China’s economy and society.

Understanding the Differences in Propaganda

What differentiates the American method of visual propaganda with the Chinese version was that neither “Rosie the Riveter” or “Uncle Sam” were featured within other forms of propaganda art at the time. Rather, for new types of propaganda message, it was often the case that entirely new pieces of visualized language were created with little in the way of “active symbolism” that can be seen in the reproduction of artwork within artwork as seen in the case of China. What this shows is that the visual representation of propaganda and cultural ideologies within the context of China’s propaganda artwork is unique. For example, Dal Lago in his concluding statements in the article presents the Han Baoku poster where people viewed the incomplete “dazibao” yet know what it represents and what it is supposed to be. This means of showcasing a familiar symbolic piece yet showcasing how it was being created and represented creates a setting where viewers are “invited into entering the picture” (Dal Lago 191).

By presenting what can be defined as a “utopian image” in the pictures and using pictures within pictures that have been utilized extensively in the past, Dal Lago presents the notion that this creates a means of “bringing people into the ideology” by creating a series of images that appeal to the people without outright explaining their meaning through rigorous text. This method of visual propaganda that was implemented by Mao Zedong can definitely be considered effective since he was able to appeal to the “illiterate masses” in a manner that could be immediately understood instead of relying on extensive verbal arguments that could have been forgotten or not even understood.

Propaganda and its Effect on the Masses

The propaganda model within the context of the Cultural Revolution in China as presented by Rapp states that the content produced by state media is invariably aligned with the inherent interests of the political and economic elites in that the produced content supports the current sociological and ideological biases that this specific sector of the population espouses (Rapp, 160-165). Through such support, this in turn impacts the perception of viewers who rely on the media as a means of information regarding daily events around them. This was seen within the way in which the Cultural Revolution was fostered upon the masses and helped to influence the way in which they viewed the changes that were occurring around them (Min’An, 1-3).

The correlation between the propaganda model and the power of the media can be summarized on the impact of irrational exuberance as a means of influencing the behaviour of a state media audience. Irrational exuberance can be defined as the means of by which an individual moulds their behaviour on the actions of other people. It is defined as being “irrational” since some individuals tend to take things at face value resulting in their opinion being swayed by outside media without necessarily considering the other side of the issue. This was seen in the case of China during the time of Mao Zedong wherein there was insufficient levels of consideration towards alternatives and instead people merely followed the pattern of behaviour espoused by those around them and thought that it was the right way to behave.

Media Ethos and the Propaganda of the Cultural Revolution

Media ethos refers to the way in which the media shows itself to the general public. In a way, it is a method in which the media presents an “image” to their viewers so that their opinions coincide with those of the media on the basis of the media being an expert in portraying factual news. This particular “image” refers to the media’s “character” in the sense that media is attempting to persuade a group of viewers of the righteousness of their statements based on their inherent character (i.e. as a supposedly unbiased presenter of news). In the case of the state and the promotion of the Cultural Revolution, this took the form of the media attempting to convince people of the “righteousness” or “validity” of their statements and what they present on the basis of the image that they are portraying, namely, as individuals that have a great deal of experience and knowledge regarding news and current events (Min’An, 1-3).

It is this argument on the basis of a projected image that is a cause for concern since basing it on a movement’s knowledge and experience alone does not justify the action itself. This is an important aspect in understanding why examining propaganda is useful in understanding how the Cultural Revolution came about since it shows that it is possible for the state to utilize its image as a purveyor of unbiased news to actually portray biased news with the general public believing otherwise (Markert, 239-248). For example, a person may argue for the righteousness of a cause on the basis of their knowledge of the event yet this attempt at persuasion may in itself be self-serving for the person/company that is attempting to persuade other individuals. The Cultural Revolution is an excellent example of the power of propaganda since it showed how media ethos is actually self-serving towards the creators (i.e. the state or media companies) since it justifies their actions under the basis of a righteous cause yet in the end is more beneficial to them than to other individuals (Markert, 239-248).


Based on what has been presented in this paper, it can be stated that the propaganda utilized by the state under Mao Zedong was instrumental in creating and sustaining the Cultural Revolution despite its various drawbacks and ill-effects on the Chinese people. What must be understood is that through the propaganda model, it can be seen that the ethos Zedong espoused was a type of “artifice”, meaning that it was created, manufactured, made, constructed etc. It can be considered as a type of surface image which may in fact have an entirely fictitious relationship to what is actually true.

One lesson from the Cultural Revolution is that the way which an idea or concept is “packaged” drastically changes the perception of the audience towards accepting the idea itself or the validity of its statements. As such, without the use of propaganda to bring about and sustain the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it is unlikely that it would have gained sufficient ground or lasted as long as it did. Overall, it can be stated that this paper was successful in accomplishing the goal of showcasing the importance of propaganda in China’s Cultural Revolution.

Works Cited

Dal Lago, Francesca. “The Ideological Use of Metapictures and Visualized Metatexts in Iconography of the Cultural Revolution.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 21.2 (2009): 167-97. Print

Markert, Friedrich. “The Cultural Revolution-A Traumatic Chinese Experience And Subsequent Transgenerational Transmission: Some Thoughts About Inter-Cultural Interpretation.” International Journal Of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 8.3 (2011): 239-248. Print.

Min’An, Wang. “The Chinese Cultural Revolution, Deleuze and Desiring-Machines.” Theory & Event 16.3 (2013): 1-3. Print.

Powell, Patricia, and Joseph Wong. “Propaganda Posters From The Chinese Cultural Revolution.” Historian 59.4 (1997): 776. Print.

Rapp, John A. “Continuing The Reevaluation: Four Studies Of The Cultural Revolution.” China Review International 16.2 (2009): 160-165. Print.