Why you should add the Shanghai Propaganda museum to your list

OK, so maybe you love museums, maybe you don’t. Either way, we can probably all agree that sometimes museums get boring.

But not the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre.

The name alone sparks interest because, propaganda. Also, how many people can say they’ve been to a museum based solely on communist art depicting severely slanted and often misleading political views? Probably not many.

And what makes it even greater is that getting there is just as weird as what’s inside the museum.

Getting there

First off, get the address in Chinese. Unless you speak Chinese. (If you haven’t already read my tips on traveling in China and why doing this particular thing is so important, read it here). TripAdvisor’s got you on the address translation and map just in case.

Most importantly, though, don’t expect to see anything that looks like a museum when you get out of the taxi, or whatever mode of transportation you take. Since this rare collection of more than 300 pieces of propaganda art is one man, Mr. Yang Peiming’s personal collection, it’s in a basement of an apartment complex. Literally. There are several, very regular looking, high-rise apartments, most with no non-apartment markings on them whatsoever. That said, if you’re not Chinese, the guard likely knows what you’re there for and will just hand you a little business card with the museum’s details on it and point you in the right direction, which is what happened to me.

What’s inside

Entry costs 25 yuan ($3.62), and it’s cash only, as many things in Shanghai are. This place is also the only institution in China, or anywhere, dedicated the collection and research of Chinese propaganda posters. The pamphlet they give you on entry says:

This display of propaganda posters offers a stunning perspective on the thirty years of history following the establishment of a new China. This is a remarkable era of successive triumphs and extraordinary travails.

During the Mao Zedong era, whatever Chairman Mao said was it. Period. So even for artists who might otherwise have been painting flowers and landscapes, propaganda became their work. Ballerinas were only allowed to perform eight different shows, at least one of which saw them decked out in Chinese soldier uniforms and pointing guns while on pointe.

Posters on display said things like: “US is the rotten imperialism and the camp of all reactionaries.” The poster was from 1951 and depicted a cowboy kissing a girl on a horse and a man beating a slave wearing black face—drawing on the darkest, or most salacious ways of the American people, as the Chinese saw it. Or at least the way they wanted citizens to see it.

Others said things like: “Communism is better than heaven” (1958) and “Firmly support US black people’s justice struggle” (1963).

The posters are deep, moving and disappointing even, to see views so firm and fixed and know that the general public couldn’t Google what was going on or read the newspapers to get their own answers and form their own opinions about their country, and the world.

Some posters, however, were really kind of funny. When China and the Soviet Union were buddy-buddy, there were lots of posters depicting the Chinese alongside people from the USSR shaking hands or smiling or both. The best one, though, was of two men, one from each nation, holding hands in front of two partridges in a pear tree. I don’t kid.

What I got from it

Two things, really. One, it’s always good to find places that are in weird locations or feature something that’s a little bit weird, because those are usually the gems, like this was. Two, despite the absolutely asinine political situation in the US right now, at least (for the most part) we can make choices about what to believe, read other news, find “alternative facts” (OK, I kid!). But seriously, it’s an interesting time, to put it mildly, but at least we’re still free-ish. And since that propaganda poster owner is probably set for life on what he’s making off of that collection, someone should start stockpiling those “We the pussy” and “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” posters from the respective Trump protests. Those would really make for a riveting poster art center 50 years from now.