A Revolutionary Etude

History professor Paul Pickowicz was once a poor graduate student in China. At age 25 in 1971 – during the middle of the Chinese Cultural Revolution – the only luxury he could afford was political propaganda posters. They were around 10 cents each then, printed on low-quality paper, and Pickowicz quickly amassed about 100 of them, creating a collection that is now on display in Geisel Library until March 24.

Erik Jepsen/Guardian
Michael P. Lee, a computer engineer from Taiwan, examines a Chinese Cultural Revolution poster. The poster illustrates the three powers of the revolution: the peasant, the farmer and the soldier. Soldiers were the idealized class at the time, while the intellectual was cast out from society by the government.

One can’t help but notice these posters when walking onto the main floor of Geisel. Splashes of bold, red Chinese characters command attention even if you can’t read them. Fiercest of all are the images on these 35-year-old posters. The militant imagery, the veneration of Chairman Mao Zedong, the devotion to country and the intense expressions on the subjects’ faces are alluring.

The posters are realistically drawn, yet almost comical at the same time. They recall an era of Chinese history where Mao was widely deified and there was a fervent spirit of liberation in the air for the proletariat.

“”The first reaction of most young people is that they laugh; it seems very exotic and otherworldly and funny,”” Pickowicz said. “”When I got those posters, there was nothing funny about them. The challenge for viewers is to forget the humor and try to understand my point that no one thought it was funny at the time. What do you see in the posters that is upsetting? Dark? Grim? Some are quite disturbing.””

Erik Jepsen/Guardian
The exhibit in Geisel Library holds posters from the collection of history professor Paul Pickowicz, who bought them as a graduate student.

Pickowicz is specifically referring to one of the posters that shows a throng of thousands of people carrying Mao’s “”Little Red Book”” in their hands. There are people up front, who are the leaders of this parade. It seems mild enough. There is, however, an atomic bomb exploding in the background. The people’s faces show no fear; instead, the bomb is lauded as a good and positive thing for China.

“”[The development of the atomic bomb] shows the creativity and genius of Chinese people, that ‘We can’t be beat,'”” Pickowicz said. “”They were very proud of it. That kind of poster would not appear now. People would be terrified.””

This collection of Chinese propaganda posters was just one aspect of the UCSD Libraries’ weekend-long event, “”Remembering the Chinese Cultural Revolution,”” to reflect on the revolution’s 40th anniversary. This multimedia event featured films, book talks, lectures and a panel discussion about panelists’ personal experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Jim Cheng, head librarian of the International Relations and Pacific Studies Library and one of the creators of the event, experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand.

“”I went through the Cultural Revolution when I was 9 in 1966,”” Cheng said. “”I was sent to the countryside for re-education and my dad was put in jail … I was labeled as a ‘black cause.’ I was rejected by the Red Guards. I couldn’t join them nor the People’s Liberation Army.””

Cheng’s intention in speaking about his traumatic experiences, however, was not to criticize the Cultural Revolution but to present it from an objective and academic point of view. According to Reiney Adams, a coordinator for the event, the emphasis was on the cultural implications of the Cultural Revolution and the actual experience of it.

“”To review this event gives Americans a way to learn something – how can a nation be so manipulated by just one person?”” Cheng said. “”How can they be so devoted to one cause without seeing the consequences?””

The topic of the Cultural Revolution is a controversial one; people from intellectual families, like Cheng, experienced re-education camps, while the working class experienced government programs aimed at their self-empowerment.

“”We want to cause controversy and have people think about it – why did this happen?”” Cheng said. “”We are open to any different views and perspectives. If they feel offended, good! We just want to display the original [material] so people can discuss it. The truth is the result of discussion.””

The films shown at the event were just a sampling of UCSD’s impressive collection of underground Chinese films. Cheng began collecting these films for the library eight years ago by making frequent trips to China, resulting in the current collection of about 500 films.

According to Cheng, UCSD has the only library in the world that even owns an underground/independent Chinese film collection. Ironically, some of the films shown at the event have never been seen in China due to government censorship. The 2006 film “”Red Snow”” is one example.

While the movie made its North American premier during day one of the event, it cannot be shown in China because of its strong sexual content, the portrayal of the Communist Party officials and its retrospection of the Cultural Revolution – a very sensitive topic for the Chinese government and filmmakers alike.

“”Remembering the Chinese Cultural Revolution”” is more than just a display of UCSD’s remarkable film collection and Pickowicz’s propaganda posters. It was also an opportunity to use the revolution’s anniversary to understand the economic miracle China has become today.

History professor Joseph Esherick, who is also one of the editors of the book “”The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History,”” said, “”This is 40 years after the revolution. It’s far enough where we can look at it from a distance but not far back enough where it couldn’t have been experienced by people living today.””

He explained China’s present booming economy in light of the Cultural Revolution: “”China wouldn’t have such enthusiasm to embrace capitalism if they haven’t seen the Cultural Revolution go so terribly wrong,”” Esherick said.

According to Esherick, young college-age people need to know about China and its role in the world presently.

“”It’s a country we can’t ignore,”” Esherick said. “”If you want to understand China’s present, you have to know its past.””