Nationalist-themed T-shirts have been making the rounds in China for a while lately, emblazoned with strong statements like "T*b*t in China, Torch in Heart," "I Love T*b*t, but I Hate the Dalai Lama," and "F*** CNN, Say No to Riots!" "Patriot," "I [Heart] China (Chinese flag in heart, or the Olympic logo)," "T*b*t was, is and always will be part of China," "My love for China is stronger than ever," "Don't Be Like CNN," "Listen to China's Voice" and "14:28" (the time the first Sichuan earthquake hit).
Many Chinese have felt that their country suffered unfairly under the blows of Western media earlier in the year, though world-wide sympathy for the Sichuan tragedy has softened the tone in recent weeks. Even so, the trend continues: It appears that T-shirts have become a popular way to make a political fashion statement in China. Most of the major media controveries in 2008 thus far (T*b*t, the Olympic torch protests, the CNN controversy and now the Sichuan earthquake) have been historically documented by T-shirts.
A recent Newsweek blog post, Chinese Pride: What the T-Shirts Are Saying, points out:
"In China, T-shirts aren't quite the teenager and college student uniform that they are in the U.S. You don't see as many young people wearing shirts for their universities and favorite bands. But T-shirts are catching on here, and they're providing a fast and cheap way for young people to broadcast their politics and national pride. National pride is being expressed in a lot of ways, such as Chinese-flag bumper stickers and instant-messaging icons, the T-shirts that young people are wearing."
In a country where freedom of speech, protests, and any public displays of dissent are kept on a tight leash especially with the upcoming Olympic Games, T-shirts appear to be a form of expression that is, is tolerated, though we're quite sure you won't see any "Free T*b*t!" T-shirts or "Remember Tian'anmen" shirts any time soon. As long as the political expression is more or less in line with state policy, the kids can wear whatever message they like, it seems.
In this light, it's interesting to read in Danwei's Souvenir of nationalism 2008 about the banning of message T-shirts from the early 1990s that were criticized by the powers that be because of their tone of individualist dissent. "In 1991, T-shirts printed with cynical messages such as "I'm fed up! Leave me alone!" and "Getting rich is all there is" began to appear in Beijing and soon became popular with young people.
They were known as 'cultural shirts'," writes Jeremy Goldkorn on Danwei. The shirts were soon banned. China Youth Daily said of the shirts: "Cultural shirts are not a Chinese invention, they are only a foreign trick borrowed from the West, where they have existed for decades.Westerners wear such shirts as an expression of decadent feelings."
Today, we see a different kind of state control, this time at the corporate level and with a complicated nationalist twist: Carrefour, under fire for reports that some of the French behemoth's backers were a bit too friendly with a certain famous Buddhist monk, ran into problems with Beijing Olympics organizers when they attempted to appeal to Chinese customers by requiring that employees wear T-shirts displaying China's flag and caps with the Olympic logo. Beijing Olympics organizers said the outfits violated copyright rules.
Another striking contrast between the early '90s and today is revealed in the China Daily article Gotta love those Love-China T-shirts: "A college student has designed all of the 100 Chinese surnames with the red heart, to show that 'all the people in China support our country whole-heartedly.' Each individual can choose his or her own surnamed T-shirt to wear and add more individualized features. Many big online shops, for example, taobao.com, eachnet.com and ebay.com, provide the product at a very low price."
Times have certainly changed, it would seem, but when we think about propaganda, the history of "big character posters" and other forms of mass participation in Chinese politics, we wonder if perhaps times have changed less than it seems. Are today's pro-China T-shirts reflective of a Party that has adapted to new circumstances, allowing certain levels and kinds of expression as long as they track with national goals and Party objectives?
To get a taste of the fascinating history behind China's historical use of words and images to reinforce national and Party messages, there's no better place to visit than the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Center. There you can see how these T-shirts aren't simply copying the long-running Werstern love affair with message T-shirts, but are also a clear continuation of previous generations' propagandizing. Take the iconography of the cutsey '[Heart] China' T-shirts (combined with the "hate" message). It's fascinating to see how heart imagery was used previously on propaganda posters during the war against Japan.
Anti-Japanese propaganda from the Nationalist party from 1937. "Millions of people all of one mind vow to exterminate the Japanese enemy."
And, tellingly, you can find old propaganda simply brought back to life on T-shirts:
Recent T-shirts available on taobao.com alongside 'I [Heart] China' T-shirts. This translates to: Follow our Chairman Mao, make our best efforts to advance. People who support T*b*t and Taiwan independance and the Japanese are all paper tigers. Curse them!
Below are a few more choice examples of old-style propaganda.
Smash the imperialist war conspiracy, forge ahead courageously to build our peaceful and happy life! (ca. 1950) The small figures below represent the United States and Great Britain.
Down with Soviet revisionism, ca. 1968. From iisg.nl.
Celebrating the People's Republic of China's National Day (1950)
I strive to bring glory to the mother country [1986 Olympics].
Beijing is awarded the Olympic Games of 2008. New Beijing, Great Olympics.Photos from Shanghaiist, Chinaposters.net, iisg.nl and Mark Vranicar.