Exploring Maoist Propaganda at the National Library of Medicine: A Glimpse into Archival Research

A Holst for BLOG

 by Abigail Holst

               My winter break following the fall semester of my senior year at Emory was what some would call unconventional. From January 4-9, 2016, I spent five days poring through the Chinese Public Health Posters collection at the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) History of Medicine Division in Washington, D.C. My visit to the NLM was borne out of my interests in the use of propaganda posters to convey health-related and political messages in China during the “four pests” campaign and 2003 SARS epidemic.

What is the “fours pests” campaign, and why does it merit scholarly attention? In 1958, Mao Zedong (founding father of the People’s Republic of China and former Chairman of the Communist Party of China) initiated a hygiene campaign designed as a means to eliminate the “four pests” – rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes – to aspire toward his ideal of a utopian socialist society and achieve what he believed constituted the requisite standards of cleanliness and hygiene therein. A concerted, highly coordinated, and foolhardy assault against nature, the “four pests” campaign is infamously known for its militaristic mobilization of human energy and unintended toll on the environment and human population. In a BBC news report titled, “China Follows Mao with Mass Cull,” Tim Luard noted an interesting connection between the imperative of ‘extermination’ in Mao’s “four pests” campaign during the late 1950s-early 1960s and the attempts to eradicate civet cats during the 2003 SARS epidemic in China.[1] My current research builds upon this observation by comparing rhetorical and visual elements in propaganda posters from these two historical periods of importance in China; in other words, my work explores the legacy of Mao’s veritable “ideological war on nature,” as evidenced by propaganda used during the recent 2003 SARS epidemic.[2]

The bulk of the primary sources for my research consisted of Chinese public health posters. My rationale for analyzing public health posters relates to the political, social, and rhetorical weight that poster propaganda has carried in China, historically speaking. As Johns Hopkins History of Medicine historian Marta Hanson stated, “public-health posters are a window into the history of medicine and the politics of public health.”[3] Public health posters present a vibrant means to explore the visual representations of public health campaigns in the past and present. In China, the use of propaganda posters for mass persuasion dates back as early as the fifth century B.C.E.[4] During the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and Cultural Revolution (1966-76) in China, poster propaganda became a fixture in daily life.[5] Mao held a firm conviction in the power of wall posters (such as Dazibao, or “big character posters”) to mobilize the masses and disseminate political rhetoric. The rhetorical themes and visual genres found in such posters – such as the use of moral/ethical appeals and traditional art forms like the Chinese New Year print (i.e. Nianhua) – merit investigation because they illuminate the power of rhetoric as a major means to mobilize the masses and achieve political ends.

As I discovered while conducting a literature review and searching for primary sources for my thesis, although there are multiple online databases and exhibitions featuring historical Chinese propaganda posters (such as Chineseposters.net), the volume of posters available on such websites does not begin to compare to the extensive array of posters available in the Chinese Public Health Posters collection at the NLM. The NLM acquired this trove of seven thousand Chinese public health materials (including items produced from the early 1900s to the SARS epidemic) in 2006. Dr. Paul Theerman, former chief of Images and Archives in the History of Medicine Division at the NLM, described the collection of posters as likely “the largest collection of Chinese public health posters outside of China.”[6]

After discovering that this resource existed, I decided to apply for a SIRE (Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory) Independent Research Grant in fall 2015 to fund a trip to D.C. the following semester. During my visit to the NLM, I spent approximately eight hours per day examining and documenting materials pertinent to my research. In the end, I accumulated nearly 600 photographs. As an archivist I became well acquainted with at the NLM remarked, I had started to “scrape the bottom of the barrel” on day four. By the end of my last day at the archives, I was told that I had finished looking through the majority – if not all – of the collection. As I’ve had previous experience with archival research at the National Archives in Atlanta, Georgia Archives, and the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, I felt sufficiently prepared prior to my visit to spend my time efficiently and properly document materials for analysis. Little did I know that the most challenging aspects of my research would follow my visit to the NLM.

While identifying and documenting pertinent materials proved to be a relatively simple task, the organization, synthesis, and analysis of my data presented unique challenges. For previous research projects, I’ve kept track of primary sources (e.g. newspaper articles) by using a consistent naming system (i.e., “Date of publication_Newspaper title_Author name_Article title.”) However, I realized that the archival materials I documented at the NLM contained or omitted different information. This made it difficult for me to devise a uniform naming system for my 500+ photographs. I ultimately decided to take notes on the photographs in a Google Document based on their original file names. The next challenge involved analyzing and categorizing my primary sources into different visual genres and rhetorical themes. I referenced secondary literature to identify methodology in visual anthropology, visual genres specific to Chinese propaganda posters, and analytical tools pertaining to linguistics. I found that the best approach was to consult academics from diverse fields, including: my faculty advisor, committee members, and other Emory faculty members. In the end, my decision to visit the NLM and collect primary sources proved to be indispensable to my thesis and challenged me as a researcher to continue to hone my methodologic, analytic, and organizational skills.

[1] Luard, Tim. “China Follows Mao with Mass Cull.” BBC 6 Jan. 2004. Web. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3371659.stm>.

[2] Shapiro, Judith. Mao’s War against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

[3] Hanson, Marta. “The Art of Medicine: Maoist Public-Health Campaigns, Chinese Medicine, and SARS.” The Lancet 372 (2008): 1457-8. Print.

[4] Lu, Xing. Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture, and Communication. Columbia: U of South Carolina Press, 2004. Print.

[5] Landsberger, Stefan. Chinese Propaganda Posters: From Revolutionization to Modernization. Amsterdam: The Pepin Press, 1995. Print.

[6] N.a. “Introducing “Health for the People,” An NLM Online Exhibition of Chinese Public Health Poster, Transparencies, and Pharmaceutical Ads.” NIH.gov, 04 May 2010. Web. 8 Oct. 2015. <https://www.nlm.nih.gov/news/chinese_posters.html>.

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