It would be easy to conclude that we liked nothing about China. This is untrue. There were two things we liked very much about Shanghai because they satisfied our desire to think about modern history and look at, and perhaps purchase, pretty textiles. See? We are easy to please!
Shanghai vexes because there appears to have been a concerted effort to ensure that nothing older than 20 years exists in the entire city. This is understandable. Shanghai is China's financial center and its desire to distance itself from China's Communist past (and present! They're still there!) is not surprising. But man, it makes for a boring city.
Thank Allah for Mr. Pei Ming Yang! He has spent the last 20 years saving China's propaganda posters from the recycling bin. He created the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre to display his collection, which holds thousands of wonderful examples of the form from the late '40s to the late '80s which is, to our mind, the most fascinating era of Chinese history. He lamented how hard it is to interest Chinese in this art form and how he thinks it's undervalued (not to us!).
He's organized his collection chronologically so the evolving trends in message, style and media are obvious. For example, the posters from the early 60's, the era of the great leap forward, the famine and assorted natural disasters, were printed on poor quality paper, with low quality ink. The posters from the mid-50's show the distinct influence of Soviet Constructivism but by the 70's, artists had rejected the style in accordance with the Chinese government's protest of "Soviet revisionism." Some styles, such as the woodcut, are uniquely Chinese and it made us wonder to what degree Chinese styles influenced Soviet posters, since we used to own a Soviet-era poster that is reminiscent of the Chinese woodblock style. The posters from the Cultural Revolution in the late 60's feature Mao prominently and show themes like relocation of students to the countryside and rejection of US imperialism. It's almost like he's preserved a slice of Chinese history and is storing it in the basement until someone starts to care again. He may be waiting awhile but Mr. Yang seemed to be a patient man.
Mr. Yang also has a very rare collection of Dazibao, or big character posters, from the Cultural Revolution. These are hand-painted wall posters displaying large Chinese characters but weren't designed to last a long time. He explained that the ones in the collection had been displayed at universities and denounced teachers or other students for being reactionaries. Being attacked in a big-character poster was enough to end one's career. A student during the Cultural Revolution, he had hung photos of the posters at his university and recalled what it was like to stand in front of them, reading denunciations of his fellow students and professors. Fascinating, you might think, and you would be correct!
Of course we bought some. We really wanted one from his collection from the late '60s and written in Uighur (the Turkic language spoken by the minority Uighur people of Western China) but it was one of a kind. He also had some for sale written in Tibetan, but they weren't in great shape. We settled on two.
The only thing we love more than propaganda posters are textiles. We found some of those, too, at the small shop Brocade County in the Jing'an district which sadly has no website. The very kind owner, Liu Xiao Lan, chatted with us for quite awhile about her small but good-quality collection of textiles from tribal areas of southwest China. Most of the examples she had were hand-embroidered pieces from Guang Xi province. Since so much in China is low-quality rip-offs sold by hucksters, it was refreshing to look at legitimate tribal pieces and talk to someone who agrees with us that textiles are like books that, if you know how to read them, you can learn about history and culture and the way different cultures interact with each other and exchange ideas.
We bought an embroidered piece that had been part of a bed cover. Xiao Lan told us these types of things simply are not made any more so the piece was probably 50-60 years old. It came from the Jin Xi area of Guang Xi province which is near the border with Vietnam, and was made the by the Zhuang Zu tribal group.
Had we known so many excellent textiles could be found in Southeast Asia, we might have started paying more attention to the region a long time ago.