Colorful Wood Block Prints from the Chinese Revolution of 1911: A Gallery of Artistic Propaganda Posters

When you think Chi­nese Rev­o­lu­tion, sure­ly you think of Mao Zedong and the People’s Repub­lic com­ing to pow­er in 1949, a his­to­ry that over­shad­ows an ear­li­er seis­mic event that over­threw the last impe­r­i­al dynasty and brought the short-lived Repub­lic of Chi­na into being. If your sense of this his­to­ry is some­what vague, you’re not alone—even those who know the events and the prin­ci­ple actors well are hes­i­tant to ascribe any defin­i­tive inter­pre­ta­tions to the 1911, or Xin­hai, Rev­o­lu­tion. “Sig­nif­i­cant thinkers and activists have… remained hes­i­tant in their final judg­ment on it,” writes Oxford University’s Rana Mit­ter: “Its mean­ing con­tin­ues to be high­ly con­test­ed… sep­a­rat­ed from any one path of his­tor­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion.”

There is a gen­er­al con­sen­sus, at least, among his­to­ri­ans of the peri­od and con­tem­po­rary chron­i­clers alike that the Xin­hai Rev­o­lu­tion was fore­most a strug­gle to mod­ern­ize the coun­try and get free of colo­nial­ist encroach­ments on Chi­nese self-deter­mi­na­tion. As in Rus­sia around the same time, the con­cept of polit­i­cal mod­ern­iza­tion had many dif­fer­ent mean­ings to the com­pet­ing fac­tions seek­ing to sup­plant the mori­bund impe­r­i­al sys­tem.

“Some hoped for a con­sti­tu­tion­al frame­work, i.e., par­lia­men­tary monar­chy,” notes Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas pro­fes­sor Anna M. Cien­ciala, “while oth­ers worked for a demo­c­ra­t­ic repub­lic. Most want­ed the abo­li­tion of the feu­dal-Con­fu­cian sys­tem; all want­ed the abo­li­tion of for­eign priv­i­lege and the uni­fi­ca­tion of their vast coun­try.”

This last hope would be dashed. The strongest fac­tion suc­ceed­ed in gain­ing sup­port from wealthy Chi­nese liv­ing abroad, who fund­ed the efforts of rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader Sun Yat-sen, a med­ical doc­tor raised in Hawaii who began in the late 19th cen­tu­ry “to devote him­self to polit­i­cal work for the over­throw of the Qing Dynasty” in order to “cre­ate a strong, uni­fied, mod­ern, Chi­nese repub­lic” with a social­ist econ­o­my. Despite sup­port from the mil­i­tary, the Repub­lic estab­lished in 1912 “proved a mis­er­able fail­ure,” Cien­ciala argues, and the coun­try frag­ment­ed under the rule of var­i­ous war­lords, then suf­fered through sev­er­al more upheavals and an attempt­ed Qing restora­tion in the ensu­ing decades while the Com­mu­nists con­sol­i­dat­ed pow­er.

Look­ing back at the events at the time, his­to­ri­an Peter Zarrow has attempt­ed to trace “the moment when the Wuchang Upris­ing became the ‘rev­o­lu­tion’… that is when gen­er­al opin­ion began to regard it as a move­ment that could over­throw the Qing and estab­lish a new gov­ern­ment.” Opin­ions were large­ly shaped, he writes, by Shang­hai news­pa­pers cov­er­ing what Bri­tan­ni­ca Blog calls “a hasti­ly and local­ly orga­nized mutiny” that first began in one of the three areas that make up the city of Wuhan. In cre­at­ing the nar­ra­tive of events, news agen­cies “imme­di­ate­ly print­ed illus­trat­ed sheets for a Chi­nese pub­lic avid for the lat­est news.” So writes the Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Dig­i­tal Library, who house a col­lec­tion of 30 such prints, like­ly “based on upon artists’ imag­i­na­tion.”

News agency reports of the Wuchang Upris­ing and sub­se­quent bat­tles in cities across Chi­na “gen­er­al­ly sup­port the Rev­o­lu­tion as a mod­ern­iz­ing par­ty, and hence some demo­niza­tion of the ene­my occurs in the prints, as was usu­al for pro­pa­gan­da prints of that and ear­li­er peri­ods.” What is notable is the degree to which broad themes of “moder­ni­ty” and “nation” show up, cre­at­ing a tri­umphant sense of uni­ty that seems to have been exag­ger­at­ed.

But this is the way pro­pa­gan­da works, in 1911 and today—“manufacturing con­sent,” to take Noam Chomsky’s phrase. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see it work in images that seem so quaint to us today, but which, at the time, pushed for­ward a rev­o­lu­tion­ary break with over two thou­sand years of dynas­tic rule.

See many more of these images at Princeton’s Dig­i­tal Library.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

14,000 Free Images from the French Rev­o­lu­tion Now Avail­able Online

Chi­na: Tra­di­tions and Trans­for­ma­tions (A Free Har­vard Course) 

The World’s Old­est Mul­ti­col­or Book, a 1633 Chi­nese Cal­lig­ra­phy & Paint­ing Man­u­al, Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online

Down­load 2,500 Beau­ti­ful Wood­block Prints and Draw­ings by Japan­ese Mas­ters (1600–1915)

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

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