Going Viral: the Changing Images of Health and Hygiene in Chinese Propaganda - SOAS China Institute

//Going Viral: the Changing Images of Health and Hygiene in Chinese Propaganda

Going Viral: the Changing Images of Health and Hygiene in Chinese Propaganda

By Avital Avina | 08 August 2023

Propaganda posters from the 20th century are famous, or perhaps infamous, for several reasons.  Often, WWII icons of Nazi Germany spring to mind, or the saccharine imagery of Rosie the Riveter and Land Girls modelling of proper behaviour.


In China, however, propaganda has very different connotations. The didacticism of xuanchuan 宣传 lends the propaganda poster a greater place in the political sphere of the Chinese citizen, particularly during the mid-20th century. Famous imagery of Mao Zedong as the Great Helmsman and Cultural Revolution imagery of violence and Red Guard rebels are only part of the complex history of the visual culture surrounding PRC political communication. Building the visual lexicon from the ground up, the CCP worked to promote their public communication through key visual linguistic style jargon and meaningful nodes of information that were readily comprehensible to their, by and large, illiterate audience. Everything from colour, clothing style, symbols, and more were transmitting meaning to the highly adaptable and visually aware citizen. This post explores the use of propaganda imagery to combat disease and promote hygiene in China.


In the early 20th century public health concerns grew exponentially, with epidemics and outbreaks of the plague in major centres such as the Shanghai International Settlement and the Japanese state of Manchukuo (Manchuria). Various methods of policing bodies and enforcing hygiene measures were taken in these areas by the ruling parties. Mask wearing, a measure we may be more familiar with the recent coronavirus procedures, became a common method across Republican China, though who should don the masks varies. 

Figure 1 - Stanley’s bilingual poster about anti-plague masks. Source: Stanley (1918: 254).

And it is here that we see some of the first visualisations of hygiene promotion created by Dr Arthur Stanley (1869–1931), the Health Officer of the Shanghai International Settlement. In figure 1, he shows the proper wearing of the mask and the written instructions on how to construct it. Other uses of the didactic visual were more in-line with the popular satirical manhua or cartoon style production. Illustrations such as those printed in news and magazines accompanied discussions of popular use of face masks and their intended wearers; the Mr Wang comic strip examined by John Crespi in his book on manhua, simply where shows the characters are shown wearing masks at a time that Shanghai is suffering from a meningitis outbreak. The masks aren’t always obviously referenced but are shown as part of the ‘everyday life’ of modern (urban) China, reaching through the fourth wall to engage with the lived experiences of the audiences. These early images, while not necessarily the ‘propaganda poster’ of popular parlance, set the scene for later propaganda uses and methods for spreading information about hygiene and disease in the PRC.


Following the CCP takeover of mainland China in 1949, the propaganda scene takes a pictorial turn towards the socialist realist and heavy-handed propaganda of the Maoist era. The satirical imagery is replaced by large print full colour images as well as multi-panelled visual guidelines with heavily moralistic and pedantic meaning components. First among these are the images from the Cold War-era Patriotic Health Campaign (1952), a movement whose political aims conflated the need for greater hygiene and health measures with alleged American germ warfare following the onset of the Korean War. This direct provocation to hatred and agitation propaganda was therefore able to succeed on two levels: scaremongering into increased engagement with domestic health campaigns and the foreign conflict agenda associated with the war.

Figure 2 - Everybody must take precautions against epidemics to smash the germ warfare of American imperialism! (1952) | 人人防疫, 粉碎美帝国主义的细菌战! Renren fangyi, fensui Mei diguo zhuyide xijunzhan! | Designer: Ye Shanlu; Landsberger Collection

This campaign simultaneously promoted mass inoculation, pest control, and other safety measures along with a patriotic fervour attached to the anti-imperialist sentiments of the time. We often use war metaphors when talking about mass movements, think ‘the war on terror’, but here, the CCP literally equated the two for a more powerful motivating dynamic. This dual messaging system can be seen in figure 2. Front and centre is a strong and muscular member of the proletariat, being vaccinated against the enemy—both the literal germs and the metaphorical American foe, here metonymically represented by the caricaturised US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson. Over the years, other campaigns of the Maoist era include more general hygiene issues and the Barefoot Doctor movement.


But the hygiene and health posters don’t stop with the end of the Maoist era. Campaigns and propaganda surrounding health issues continue to be a large part of the more contemporary era: with imagery addressing concerns about HIV/AIDS, SARS, and of course, the latest COVID-19 pandemic. The images art style changes drastically over this period, with the posters from the 1990s and early 2000s reflecting the overall trend towards photo-realism and montage, looking more like advertisements than what we think of as propaganda posters.

Figure 3 - Jiayou Wuhan [中国新冠疫情政策宣传海报] = [Chinese COVID-19 political propaganda poster collection]. Princeton University Collection

The COVID-19 imagery takes on yet another style. In a world of fast-paced internet memes and ever-changing visual language, the CCP maintains a surprisingly consistent visual vocabulary, one that builds on the Mao era lexicon while infusing the new illustrations with modern artistry and techniques. Perhaps the most surprising element of the new images is the adoption of the anime or manga style of art that can be seen in several posters. One of the most intriguing images used, looking at the trajectory of imagery, rather than stand-alone movements, is the image shown in figure 3. This poster embodies the Wuhan Jiayou (Stay strong Wuhan!) slogan of the early COVID era, but also bring in a flood of memory for those more familiar with Chinese visual history; there are striking similarities between this image and the early anti-imperialist and inimical imagery, particularly of the Cultural Revolution, where metonymical disembodied hands and feet stamped out the enemy of the day. Even the written slogan, ‘Fighting the Epidemic’, literally ‘the War of Resistance against the Epidemic’ kangzhan yiqing, harkens back to more literal war narratives of the 20th century. And the metaphorical tie-in to age old war terminology brings us full circle to the beginning of the PRC again.


The use of the visual, contrasts starkly with the A4 movement, the demonstration held late last year against the Zero-COVID policy in China, where protesters held up blank white pieces of paper utilising the meaningfulness of the empty visual icon.  According to a Times article, many observers have described the paper as a representation of everything protesters wish they could say but cannot.  In a visual world of overly didactic and heavily politically entrenched meaning, the blank statement of nothingness stands out even more as a protest to the all-encompassing political (visual) sphere of the Xi Jinping era.

Dr Avital Avina is Departmental Lecturer in Chinese Politics and Modern History at the University of Oxford. She works on the history and politics of modern China, with a particular focus on political communication, visual culture, nationalism, and violence.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.