Cadbury Chinese Poster Collection

The New Print Culture of 20th Century Shanghai

The New Print Culture of 20th Century Shanghai 
by Talia Shiroma (Bryn Mawr College '19)

A flood of print ephemera swept through Shanghai in the early 20th century. The introduction of new print technologies into the city sparked a publishing boom that began in the 1880s and lasted until the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). At this time, Shanghai was still a patchwork of divided territories occupied by Western colonial powers whose hegemonic presence was constantly transforming the city. First imported into China by Western missionaries in the early 19th century, new print technologies collided with the influence of foreign powers and the turbulence of the era to generate both new and old representational forms. Along with political posters, the diversity of print materials circulating in Shanghai included textbooks, newspapers, advertisements, literary and pictorial journals, calendar posters, and popular magazines, produced by individuals and groups who harbored various political sympathies and distinct visions of China’s modernity.

Shanghai’s first use of lithography-- “the ink-eating stone" [1] by 1976 heralded a new era of mass-reproduction. [2] Among all other imported print techniques, lithography quickly gained favor for its simplicity, low cost, and high volume of output. [3] Most important of all was lithography’s suitability to printing Chinese characters. This was due to its straightforward process: to execute a print, one drew on a flat stone with a water-resistant medium, coated it with solution, rolled an oil-based ink over the stone, applied paper, then ran it through a press. The techniques of photolithography and chromolithography (color printing), both present in Shanghai by 1904, [4] expanded the visual possibilities for printing and illustration. Simultaneously, the industrialization of lithography enhanced its reproductive power. By 1911, the year China’s dynastic Imperial system collapsed, there were 149 lithographic printing shops and publishers operating in the city. [5]

New print technologies were crucial to Shanghai’s modernity, but were not a new phenomenon in themselves. The history of Chinese woodblock printing dates to the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Wooden, clay, and metal movable type was developed by the eleventh century, although it was not commonly used due to the challenge of carving and assembling thousands of different Chinese characters. Woodblock printing remained the preferred technique. Illustrated books mixing text and image proliferated in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), when the cities of Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, and Jianyang all emerged as major book production centers. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the center of book publishing shifted to Beijing, the imperial capital. [6] Books were generally expensive to produce, particularly illustrated ones, and were therefore mainly used by the elites for most of Chinese history. [7]

Part of the transformative power of the new print techniques was that they allowed wider participation in modern visual culture. Lithography, which produced cheap yet high-quality image reproductions, facilitated the first illustrated periodical, Ernst Major’s Dianshizhai Huabao (1884-1898). It sold for five cents 分 per booklet, a price too high for working class people but certainly affordable for the city's burgeoning middle-class. [8] During the next few decades, artists took advantage of lithography to experiment with cutting social satire and Western-inspired illustrations. They published their work in pictorial magazines like Shidai Manhua (1934-1937), one of the many new visual publications intended for middle-class consumption. By the late 1920s, the magazine racks along Fuzhou road--the heart of Republican Shanghai's publishing and bookselling industry--swelled with a miscellany of illustrated newspapers, tabloids, and colorful pictorial magazines churned out by a variety of mostly Chinese-owned presses in the city. [9] As Shanghai’s ad industry developed, pictorial advertisements landed on the streets and jostled for attention among the traditional text-based advertisements and shop signs. This new environment facilitated the production and dissemination of another modern representational form: the mass-produced political poster. The simplicity and gestural quality of lithography allowed for the same type of formal experimentation in political posters as it did in contemporaneous art journals, and indeed, many of the same artists contributed illustrations to both categories. In the 1920s, the style of the Japanese manhua (manga) was adopted for many posters, while others embraced the Western design vocabulary of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and caricature.

Quick and cheap image reproduction proved a powerful way for political actors to reach illiterate members of the public. Consider this political poster illustrated by the famous Shanghainese manhua artist Lu Shaofei (1903-1995), HC2016-599 “da dao ya po zhen zheng nong gong de Gongchandang! 打倒壓迫真正農工的共產黨!”. Its violent imagery, clever disruption of pictorial boundaries, and flat, Art Deco inspired aesthetic are both pleasurable and provocative. The disembodied hand emerging from above clutches a blue-handled knife identified as “Guomindang,” the political party currently in power at the time of its publication circa 1927. This was a set of characters most viewers would recognize.  The blue knife strikes down upon a red hand, who opens its fist to drop another knife, red with blood, marked as “CP”: the Communist Party, who at this time was the greatest internal threat to the Guomindang’s political power. A beaten worker cowers beneath the vertical text of the poster, glancing fearfully at the red hand. Regardless of whether one can nderstand the main text of this poster-- “Down with the Communist Party, oppressor of the true workers!"--its visual message is legible and compelling. Organized in a sequence of events from top to bottom and right to left, the images read parallel to the Chinese text. The bright colors of political posters, produced with the new technology of chromolithography, helped these images stand out on crowded streets. Perhaps they even compelled William Warder Cadbury to pick up this poster.

[1] Christopher A. Reed, Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004): 79. 
[2] Ibid., 62. 
[3] Ibid., 98.
[4] Ibid., 62. 
[5] Ibid. 
[6] Tobie Meyer-Fong, "The Printed World: Books, Publishing Culture, and Society in Late Imperial China." The Journal of Asian Studies 66, no. 3 (2007): 795.
[7] Laikwan Pang, The Distorting Mirror: Visual Modernity in China, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007): 40. 
[8] Peter C. Perdue, "Shanghai's Lens on the New(s) Dianshizhai Pictorial-- 2 Issues from the First Year (1884): Introduction," (MIT Visualizing Cultures, 2015), Accessed January 4, 2019.
[9] Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999): 64. 


Lee, Leo Ou-fan. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999.

Meyer-Fong, Tobie. "The Printed World: Books, Publishing Culture, and Society in Late Imperial China." The Journal of Asian Studies 66, no. 3 (2007): 787-817.

 Pang, Laikwan. The Distorting Mirror: Visual Modernity in China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

Perdue, Peter C. "Shanghai's Lens on the New(s) Dianshizhai Pictorial-- 2 Issues from the First Year (1884): Introduction." MIT Visualizing Cultures. 2015.

Reed, Christopher A. Gutenberg in Shanghai: Chinese Print Capitalism, 1876-1937. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004.

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