Wonderfully Kitschy Propaganda Posters Champion the Chinese Space Program (1962–2003)

Playmates 80

A joint oper­a­tion of five par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries and the Euro­pean Space Agency, the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion is an enor­mous achieve­ment of human coop­er­a­tion across ide­o­log­i­cal and nation­al bound­aries. Gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple born in the nineties and beyond will have grown up with the ISS as a sym­bol of the tri­umph of STEM edu­ca­tion and decades of space trav­el and research. What they will not have expe­ri­enced is some­thing that seems almost fun­da­men­tal to the cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal land­scape of the Boomers and Gen Xers—the Cold War space race. But it is worth not­ing that while Rus­sia is one of the most promi­nent part­ners in ISS oper­a­tions, cur­rent Com­mu­nist repub­lic Chi­na has vir­tu­al­ly no pres­ence on it at all.

But this does not mean that Chi­na has been absent from the space race—quite the con­trary. While it seems to those of us who wit­nessed the excit­ing inter­stel­lar com­pe­ti­tion between super­pow­ers that the only play­ers were the big two, the Chi­nese entered the race in the 1960s and launched their first satel­lite in 1970. This craft, writes space his­to­ry enthu­si­ast Sven Grahn, “would lead to Chi­na being a major play­er in the com­mer­cial space field.”

Since its launch into orbit, the satel­lite has con­tin­u­ous­ly broad­cast a song called Dong Fang Hong, a eulo­gy for Mao Zedong (which “effec­tive­ly replaced the Nation­al Anthem” dur­ing the Cul­tur­al Revolution—hear the broad­cast here). The satel­lite, now referred to, after its song, as DFH‑1 (or CHINA‑1), marked a sig­nif­i­cant break­through for the Chi­nese space pro­gram, spear­head­ed by rock­et engi­neer Qian Xue­sen, who had been pre­vi­ous­ly expelled from the Jet Propul­sion Lab in Pasade­na for sus­pect­ed Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thies.

Roaming Space 62

Before DFH‑1, the nation­al imag­i­na­tion was primed for the prospect of Chi­nese space flight by images like the poster just above, titled “Roam­ing out­er space in an air­ship,” and designed by Zhang Rui­heng in 1962. This strik­ing piece of work comes to us from Chi­nese Posters, a com­pendi­um of images of “pro­pa­gan­da, pol­i­tics, his­to­ry, art.” Images like this one and that of a Chi­nese taiko­naut at the top—“Bringing his play­mates to the stars”—from 1980, appro­pri­ate imagery from the tra­di­tion­al nian­hua, or New Years pic­ture.

Moon Palace 70

This fan­ci­ful style, which “catered to the tastes and beliefs in the coun­try­side,” became the “most impor­tant influ­ence on the pro­pa­gan­da posters pro­duced by the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty,” who began using it in the 1940s. The poster above, “Lit­tle guests in the Moon Palace,” dates from the ear­ly 1970s, after the launch of DFH‑1 and its sis­ter satel­lite SJ‑I (CHINA‑2).

Heaven Increases 89

As you can see from the 1989 poster above—“Heaven increas­es the years, man gets older”—the CCP con­tin­ued to use the nian­hua style well into the eight­ies, but in the fol­low­ing decades, they began to move away from it and toward more mil­i­taris­tic imagery, like that in the image below from 2002. With dif­fer­ent col­ors and sym­bols, it would look right at home on the wall of an armed forces recruit­ing sta­tion in any small town, U.S.A.

Continue the Struggle 02

Like many U.S. advo­cates for space trav­el and explo­ration, such as the increas­ing­ly vis­i­ble Neil deGrasse Tyson, the CCP has used space as a means of pro­mot­ing sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­cy. In the poster below, “Uphold sci­ence, erad­i­cate super­sti­tion,” space imagery is used to bring much-per­se­cut­ed Falon Gong adher­ents “back into the fold” and to oppose sci­ence to reli­gious super­sti­tion.

Uphold Science 99

Although some of the imagery may sug­gest oth­er­wise, the Chi­nese space pro­gram has devel­oped along sim­i­lar lines as the U.S.’s, and has been put to sim­i­lar uses. These include the use of space explo­ration as a means of uni­fy­ing nation­al­ist sen­ti­ment, dri­ving sup­port for sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy fund­ing and research, and push­ing a vision of sci­en­tif­ic progress as the nation­al ethos. In 2012, the same year that Sal­ly Ride—first Amer­i­can woman in space—passed away, Chi­na began select­ing its first female taiko­naut, mak­ing their space pro­gram a venue for increas­ing gen­der equal­i­ty as well.

Warmly Welcome 03

It was only very recent­ly that the Chi­nese space pro­gram suc­cess­ful­ly com­plet­ed its first manned mis­sion, send­ing its first taiko­naut, Yang Liewei, abord the Shen­zhou 5 in a low earth orbit mis­sion. Although the achievement—as you can see in the poster above com­mem­o­rat­ing a vis­it of the taiko­naut to Hong Kong—marked a moment of sig­nif­i­cant nation­al pride, there was one encour­ag­ing sign for the future of inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion: though you can­not see it in the pho­to, Yang wore the flag of the Unit­ed Nations in addi­tion to that of the People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na.

See more of these fas­ci­nat­ing works of pro­pa­gan­da at Chi­nese Posters

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“Glo­ry to the Con­querors of the Uni­verse!”: Pro­pa­gan­da Posters from the Sovi­et Space Race (1958–1963)

Sovi­et Artists Envi­sion a Com­mu­nist Utopia in Out­er Space

Astro­naut Suni­ta Williams Gives an Exten­sive Tour of the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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