The Role of Museums in Defining Propaganda

Before coming to China, my understanding of the Communist Party’s record of information and media control suggested that Beijing’s museums, a key venue through which the party’s spin on historical information would be disseminated, would exclusively keep in line with party doctrine, especially in representing controversial events in the Communist Party’s history. Further, I suspected that this party line would revolve around presenting a thoroughly idealized version of the history of the Communist Party, either by ignoring or misrepresenting incidents that would embarrass the party, such as the Great Leap Forward. Most importantly, I expected Communist Propaganda to follow a clear, unified narrative, emphasizing the role of the people, and asserting a unified national identity even in the face of obvious differences between China’s minorities. I certainly expected silence on many of the more controversial actions of the Communist Party, namely the Kuomintang, Great Leap Forward and the Tienanmen Square Massacre, but also expected some degree of misinformation intended to redefine these events in less polarizing terms. Especially given China’s history of propaganda during the Cultural Revolution, I expected to see this trend continue through China’s museum system.

China’s Censorship and the Role of Museums and Monuments
Since the Communist Party took power, the People’s Republic of China has maintained an extensive program of thought control via censorship and propaganda, largely administered by the Central Committee Propaganda Department and by regional Party Committees’ Propaganda Departments (Liu, 36, 34). To view the extent of China’s propaganda program’s effect, one only has to visit Tienanmen Square. Certainly in western media, Tienanmen has become a symbol for China’s suppression of rights, such as free speech, after a student protest was attacked by the military in an attempt to suppress dissent, an act which was itself suppressed in most, if not all, Chinese media. In addition, Tienanmen houses the Tomb of Chairman Mao, which while not controversial in and of itself, is a place where many Chinese tourists honor Mao’s memory, despite his role in starving millions of Chinese during the Great Leap Forward. Despite Tienanmen’s indelible ties to censorship and human rights, I found that many Chinese still openly admired Mao, and viewed Tienanmen as a tourist destination. When I visited Tienanmen, I noticed that even on a rainy day, the square was packed with tourists taking pictures in front of the Tomb of Chairman Mao (Field Journal). Based on the tourists’ happy expressions and eagerness to take pictures, I concluded that the act of taking a picture in front of the Tomb of Chairman Mao was an intensification ritual intended to reinforce ideals of patriotism, despite, or perhaps in spite of, Tienanmen Square’s tragic history. In addition, each visitor seemed to willfully ignore the near-omniscient police present throughout the square, suggesting that ignoring Tienanmen’s history played a role in the intensification ritual, as each visitor gave tacit support to China’s constant surveillance and censorship by ignoring its most obvious manifestations (Field Journal).

While Tienanmen exemplified the society censorship has created, museums are a key part of the system that upholds the Communist Party’s worldview. Museums serve as one of the most important focal points through which these topics are presented, as many museums incorporate science, news, and are one of the key forms of education. For my research, I studied four Chinese museums, two in Beijing and two in Hohhot. In Beijing, I began by researching the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution to understand what I assumed would be the most extreme propaganda, as the military was directly involved in each of the controversial events I hoped to analyze. Unfortunately, the museum’s main exhibits were all closed for renovation, leaving me to use their website as an overview of the museum’s content. I also researched the National Museum, which provided insight into how the Communist Party presents itself through museums. Finally, in Hohhot, the Inner Mongolian Museum and General’s Residence demonstrated regional differences in the strictness of information control through their more relaxed attitudes towards presenting controversial material.




A Map of Beijing, with the Museums I Studied Represented by Blue Dots, From Left to Right: Military Museum, Tomb of Mao, and National Museummap2A map of Inner Mongolia, with the Museum of Inner Mongolia Museum Represented by the Blue Dot

A Map of China with Cities I Researched in Marked by Blue Dots, with Inner Mongolia on the Left and Beijing on the Right

The Museums and their Role in Establishing a Propaganda Narrative


The Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution displaying a U2 Spyplane captured by China
The Military Museum (军事博物馆 – Junshi Bowuguan) located a few subway stops west of Tienanmen Square (天安门广场 – Tiananmen guangchang), has been tied intrinsically to propaganda from its inception as one of Beijing’s symbols of state power. The museum was built and opened to the public as part of the tenth anniversary of the Communist Party’s victory over the Kuomintang. The building itself carries strong overtones of almost soviet-esque architecture, with its monolithic, imposing facade crowned by a 6 meter tall representation of the emblem of the People’s Liberation Army. Once inside, the museum’s courtyard was dedicated to a show of Chinese military power by displaying not only Chinese tanks and planes, but foreign models captured during the defeat of the Kuomintang. Although I was unable to examine their exhibits due to renovations, the Military Museum demonstrated its bias through the names of its exhibits, dedicating halls to “The War to Resist Japanese Aggression” and “The War of Liberation of China” (Military Museum). Although these are the commonly used names for these wars in most of China, calling World War Two The War to Resist Japanese Aggression bespeaks a clear focus on local issues to the point of excluding international context and perspectives, which in turn suggests both the deep scars Japan left on China’s cultural psyche, as well as China’s cultural tendency to view itself as 中国, The Middle Kingdom, or the center of the world. Similarly, describing the Chinese Civil War as The War of Liberation of China is a clear attempt to disenfranchise the Kuomintang (国民党 – Guomindang) by portraying them as demonic oppressors, even going so far as to describe the People’s Liberation Army as having the “support of all the Chinese people” in overthrowing the allegedly corrupt Kuomintang government (Military Museum).

Beijing’s National Museum (国家博物馆 – Guojia Bowuguan), located directly on Tienanmen Square, displays a similar, if not less militaristic architectural style as the Military Museum. The National Museum shied away from controversial exhibits, instead using its main gallery to present a collection of paintings displaying the exploits of the ideal Communist Party cadre. The portrait gallery occupied a spacious, minimalist gallery, with paintings along the walls and a few statues in the center. The paintings’ styles ranged from traditional brush painting to Socialist Realism, while the subject matters ranged from distributing propaganda leaflets to fighting against the Kuomintang. Although the paintings covered a wide variety of topics, each one focused on a communist party member, either a cadre or a soldier, aiding the people through his work for the party. This seemingly nameless Cadre performed his tasks with an unflinching stoicism, even as he stood posed next to his wounded comrades-in-arms in many of the war paintings. What was most surprising to me was finding that even in what is clearly intended to be a propaganda piece on the strength of the Communist Party’s cadres, the paintings clearly depicted them as human, with many dead or dying on the battlefront, and all of the cadres clearly suffering on their Long March. This admission of fallibility ran contrary to my expectation of blatantly false Orwellian propaganda, and perhaps reflects a greater understanding of the realities of life under the Communist Party’s rule in the greater populace that would render such obvious propaganda useless. Although I did not have the opportunity to interview visitors to the Beijing National Museum, I would assume based on their attitudes that they valued the paintings primarily for their artistic or political value, as they did not participate in typical tourist behavior as I defined based on my research in Tienanmen square. Unlike the visitors to Tienanmen Square, the tourists visiting this gallery were more contemplative, taking pictures of the paintings without including themselves.


The Museum of Inner Mongolia, Exhibiting its Modern, Western Architecture

Inner Mongolia’s museums tended to present a more neutral perspective on China’s history while presenting propaganda oriented more towards idealizing Inner Mongolia’s history and demonizing its enemies, instead of the targets prescribed by China’s Communist Party. During our visit to Inner Mongolia, we had the opportunity to tour Hohhot’s Museum of Inner Mongolia (内曼谷博物馆 – neimangu bowuguan), which despite largely catering to Chinese tourists still attempted to globalize itself by displaying an extremely Westernized architectural style, as well as incorporating English into many of the signs and exhibits. The Museum of Inner Mongolia dedicated an exhibit almost exclusively to Anti-Japanese propaganda, something strikingly absent from Beijing’s museums. This exhibit, titled Fire on the Steppe, seemed particularly dedicated both to vehemently criticizing the puppet state of Manchuria and glorifying those Inner Mongolians who fought against it. The exhibit opens with a statue of three Mongolian charging on horseback to defend their homes, clearly an appeal to nationalism and Mongolian horse culture. The museum continued by contrasting the war-like, invading Japanese and a Mongolian woman tending to the wounded. Although the depictions avoided the Yellow Peril caricatures that defined America’s contemporaneous propaganda efforts in favor of propaganda grounded more in historical fat, there was still a single-minded dedication to turning popular opinion even further against the Japanese, something I found noticeably absent in Beijing’s museums. I attribute Beijing’s museums’ avoidance of overt anti-Japanese propaganda to their more international clientele, where such, admittedly justifiable, xenophobia would be frowned upon. These differences seemed to be primarily attributable to geographical context, as Hohhot and Beijing’s museums clearly catered to their respective clientele, Hohhot’s blend of Inner Mongolians and almost exclusively Chinese tourists, compared to Beijing’s hugely international tourism industry. In addition, Hohhot’s distance from Beijing accounted in part for its variation from the party line.


A Statue Damaged During the Cultural Revolution in the General’s Residence

The General’s Residence in Hohhot was the most traditionally Chinese museum of the four, as it was a historical household converted to a museum. The General’s Residence is a Chinese home, wide and low with vast courtyards dispersed throughout. Within it were wax replicas demonstrating how some rooms were used, and plaques giving historical context by telling the life story of the General’s family. Because the museum was originally the palace of a high ranking Qing government official, it contained the General’s collection of art, which provided some insight into how historical art was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution. In the General’s Residence, our tour guide was happy to highlight that a statue we passed was vandalized as part of the Cultural Revolution’s attempts to create a new, exclusively communist culture, which was my first realization of exactly how broad the reach of the Cultural Revolution was. By acknowledging of the irreparable damage caused by the Cultural Revolution, even in an informal spoken capacity, the young tour guide, and by extent the museum, made a very unusual choice to broach the societal taboo against so much as mentioning the Cultural Revolution, let alone criticizing it. It seems that only in recent years that an increasingly globalized youth, fully aware of the restraints imposed on them and inspired by the media produced by the youth that suffered through the Cultural Revolution, is willing to speak out against the Communist Party, albeit only quietly. The Hohhot General’s Residence continued its subtle criticism of the Communist Party by emphasizing the Kuomintang’s role in incorporating Inner Mongolia into China, an emphasis far removed from the party line of describing the Kuomintang as an illegitimate government hiding from the strength of the Communist party’s righteous rule as they were portrayed in both Beijing museums.

Much like my experiences in China suggested a China not unified under a single Chinese identity but a coalition of distinct cultures, China’s museums did not exclusively present information according to the Communist party line. In addition, the choice to employ lies of omission instead of outright lies suggested an acknowledgment that unbiased opinions were more readily accessible, and that any easily invalidated statements would discredit the museum as a source of legitimate information.While Beijing’s museums tended to ignore controversial information, their propaganda was defined more by omissions than outright lies. This trend ran contrary to my predictions, as I expected to find the exhibits full of stereotypically Orwellian propaganda, proclaiming the success of programs such as the Great Leap Forward in clear defiance of historical fact. This restraint in and of itself suggests that the Communist Party is moving towards a more realistic presentation of its history, perhaps as an attempt to maintain credibility in the face of the increasing availability of information unfiltered by the Communist Party through the internet, available through easily accessed proxy servers. Regardless of the cause of these variations in propaganda messages across China, the existence of any variation in a country with such strong national power calls into question the Communist Party’s dedication to complete censorship. The variety of views expressed in China’s museums suggest that, while nowhere near the scope of Mao’s Hundred Flowers Movement, there is a slowly unfolding cultural acceptance of freer speech. However, instead of internal reform pioneered by politicians such as Deng Xiaoping, this cultural opening seems to have been necessitated by the information age itself, where propaganda is becoming increasingly self-evident, as well as less strict controls further from Beijing.

Works Cited
Liu, Alan P. L. Communications and National Integration in Communist China. Berkeley, CA: Center for Chinese Studies of the University of California, 1971. Print.
The Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution. The Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution, 2011. Web. 2 Aug. 2013.

Field Journal Transcription


The atmosphere around Tian an Men also bears analysis. Despite the weather maintaining a steady, moderate drizzle, the square was still full of visitors, presumably from both Beijing proper and China’s outlying regions. Wandering throughout the square were wandering touts, offering professional photographs for tourists. Each invariably carried a large camera, generally all mid-priced models, suitable for tourist photographs, not national geographic. Each photographer also carried signage displaying past work, which served as both advertisement and menu for out of towners who might have trouble with mutually unintelligible dialects, Although I did not see any of these photographers at work ,their prevalence suggests they draw some business. Besides the lenses of tourists and photographers, the square was under constant surveillance by dozens of surveillance cameras, if not hundreds, with each lamp post sprouting at least three, but sometimes as many as five or six. Equally present were the security guards, with at least three guarding each face of each building with many interspersed throughout the park, erving equally as guard and information kiosk. These guards tended to be situated on elevated platforms, with an umbrella meaning they never needed to leave their post.


The contradiction between the enthusiastic photography each tourist participated in and their total, willful ignorance of the police presence casts doubt on the sincerity of the ritual. At its surface, the act of taking a picture served as an intensification ritual between the photographer and subject, as the photographer extends a favor to the subject by memorializing their existence, at a given place, and at a given time. By capturing an otherwise transient moment of comraderie, namely visiting Tiananmen, the photographer expresses a hope that the sentiment will become as permanent as the image. Similarly, by including Chairman Mao or the CCP symbolically through placing his mausoleum or a patriotic statue in the photograph’s background, the photographer chooses to shape the moment’s sentiment as a distinctly patriotic one, connecting both photographer and subject in a Value Reiteration, namely a patriotic one. However, by this logic, wouldn’t a picture next to the PLA cadre bravely sacrificing his youth to guard his fallen chairman’s body be the ultimate expression of patriotism? the public’s complete avoidance suggests they choose to keep their distance from the government’s representatives, even when engaged in patriotic veneration. Either this suggests a certain hollowness to the photographer’s ritual, wherin the act of photography is simply theater for the government’s ever-watchful eye, or perhaps is a telling sign that the Chinese political climate has engendered a certain brand of Orwellian double-think, where the photography ritual simultaneously intensifies the participants’ love of country while consciously ignoring the symbolism of an enormous police presence, eager to arrest troublemakers, as I have personally witnessed. The fact that this ritual sincerely expresses fear and love for the Chinese government is perhaps the most telling evidence that in public space, there exists not only state encouraged propaganda, but an populace at least willing to accept it, at least superficially.