In neighborhoods across major cities in China, the imagery that forms the background of daily life takes the mold of an apple-cheeked young Chinese girl crouched down in peaceful contemplation. Charming and uncomplicated, the literal poster girl is the primary representative of the “Chinese Dream” (中国梦), a much ballyhooed campaign helmed by President Xi Jinping.
Since propounding the term at the National Museum in November 2012, Xi has referenced it in his inaugural speech as president, while meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, and in other forums bolstering his image as a popular leader and reformer for the masses. A panoply of themed activities have been rolled out, from essay-writing contests in schools to a nationwide photography contest sponsored by Xinhua News Agency to grants doled out by the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences for research on what the dream actually entails.
The campaign is most visible on billboards, street-facing electronic screens, and the ubiquitous stone walls erected around construction projects, where, plastered in vast rows, more than 40 posters can be found within a single kilometer. The folk art imagery and quotidian ideograms in the public service announcements are a broad summons for nationalist sentiment. Citizens are urged to look forward not only to – as Xi first defined the term – the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, but also the consolidation of the country under a shared sense of identity. The unambiguous subtext of the campaign is: The restoration of the nation’s glory rests in the party’s hands, and so the state must also.
Manufacturing the Dream
The bold socialist-realism propaganda of Mao-era mass campaigns featured blue skies, waving red flags and muscular raised arms. The Chinese Dream posters typically feature a stark white background, a QR code, a red stamp seal adding a flourished imprimatur, and a subtle frame of red text designating the folk art style and the government body responsible for their design (the Public Service Advertising Art Committee, which sits under the Civilization Office of the party’s Central Committee).
The posters are a post-Mao bricolage of Confucian morality, traditional Chinese ideals, socio-economic adaptations, historical grievances, and everyday social activities. Captions such as, “From morning to evening, approaching the dream,” are couched in non-ideological terms designed to amass wider appeal and mark a move away from hardline propaganda. Figures and tableaus draw from traditional hobbies, such as playing the zither, and emphasize rural livelihoods over urban lifestyles. Epithets and images extoll Confucian values of filial piety (孝) and benevolence (仁); other themes include thrift, economic prosperity, springtime renewal, and a Chinese way of life centered in honesty and sincerity.
The campaign adopts several folk art mediums, such as traditional Chinese paper cuttings, a practice hundreds of years old. The red cuttings come from Yuncheng county in Shanxi province, while the multicolored cuttings are sourced from Yuxian county in Hebei province. A number of Yangliuqing woodblock prints from Tianjin are used in the campaign, as well as Taohuawu wood carvings from Suzhou province. Red-cheeked figures such as the one in the campaign’s primary image are made by the Nirenzhang clay sculpture workshop in Tianjin. With innocent expressions and flushed cheeks, these comprise the posters’ most lifelike interpretations of the dream.
More than 1,000 paintings by Feng Zikai, an artist who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and posthumously rehabilitated in 1978, are used for the campaign. One, for example, depicts a man on a horse looking at a tree with a pruned branch. The slogan above reads, “Chinese culture and civilization will live on, without pause,” and is accompanied by a poem by Kun Yin. Short poems grace many of the posters, including the principal, which features one of 150 poems commissioned from popular blogger Xie Shaoqing.
Integrating ethnic motifs into the campaign are graphic peasant paintings from Longmen county in Guangdong and Wuyang county in Henan. Using bolder black outlines, playful scale, and geometric shapes to depict the simplicity of life in the countryside, these are distinctively influenced by ethnic minority art styles. The Han-centered campaign herein merges peripheral peoples into its vision of the nation-state, binding them to its shared destiny.
The posters form a model of morality and positive citizenship in the party vision, encouraging camaraderie and hard work, fostering care towards the elderly, and taking inspiration from a rural way of life painted as cheerful and idyllic. They are overwhelmingly populated by figures of the young and the elderly, evincing sentimentality and kinship via endearing tableaus of the past and inspiring visions of a community-based future. The overarching message is to invite participation in Chinese society rooted in Han ethnocultural forms of expression, maintaining the audience’s enthusiasm for and confidence in the state.
Illusion Versus Reality
The dream exists in philosophy and politics as a tool of revelation and illusion. Descartes wrote of similar sensations shaping linkages between dreaming and waking states, making it possible for all perceptions to be false. Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi proposed that a dream perceived as feeling real could be confused for reality. For its ability to convince the dreamer, or audience, of its potentiality, the dream has proved useful as a rhetorical instrument to drum up nationalist sentiment and regime support.
In China, the dream materialized as a rallying slogan for the 2008 Beijing Olympics: “One World, One Dream” (同一个世界同一个梦想), signifying a unified international community and China’s spotlighted position within it. Facing current socioeconomic realities, growing income disparity, and minority unrest, Xi’s Chinese Dream diverts attention towards a harmonious future bound by shared ethnocultural identity, wherein every member is able to reap the benefits of a flourishing national economy.
This dream is negotiated through existing tropes, such as the Confucian virtue of filial piety and springtime. Championing folk culture and simplicity, posters are characterized by a sense of nostalgia and populism, communicating both belonging and proximity to the dream. In this way, the campaign instrumentalizes the grey area between dream and reality, populating it with inoffensive and everyday imagery to incorporate the widest possible swath of the population into the party-state vision.
Same Bed, Different Dreams (同床异梦)
Last June, at a conference addressing the future direction and reforms for the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi said, “Winning or losing public support is an issue that concerns the Communist Party’s survival or extinction.” Viewing the campaign in this context aligns with the leitmotif of his time in office heretofore: streamlining bureaucracy and consolidating party control over state apparatus and an increasingly pluralized society.
Xi’s campaign must contend with the diverse and restive interest groups that compromise stability within the state and thus threaten the ruling party. These groups include: a “black collar” stratum of business elites anxious about government regulation and limitations on their economic power; the expanding “white collar” class with quality of life concerns, such as environmental degradation, resource scarcity, food safety, and public health security; vulnerable social groups, such as migrant and other “blue collar” workers, who are increasingly politically conscious and disquieted about wages and workplace rights; as well as ethnic minority groups agitating for space in local decision-making processes and other modes of independence.
With their innocuous imagery and non-ideological slogans, the posters are designed to charm each of these groups without addressing prominent criticisms. Calls for thrift and a vision of shared prosperity encourage a collective attitude towards China’s sizable financial resources and GDP growth; avoiding Mao-era motifs and Marxist homilies allows the campaign to sidestep the uncomfortable tension between the party’s embrace of the capitalist class and its communist beginnings.
In short, the regime is answerable to disparate groups wrestling with shifts in fortune, outlook, and quality of life since China’s opening up in the late 1970s. The all-encompassing Chinese Dream and its inescapable posters instill a “we-feeling” in the audience, fostering loyalty to the state above individual agendas. The ménage of commonplace scenes, folk culture, and shared nostalgia propagates an impression of collective memory among the populace, infused with sentiments of sameness.
That the campaign is splashy but never aggressive also has international implications: Those nervously eyeing China’s rise will find little hostility or hubris in its inward-looking messages. A World Dialogue on the Chinese Dream was convened in Shanghai in December 2013, featuring such prominent speakers as Kenneth Lieberthal and Martin Jacques; among three roundtables was one called “The Chinese Dream and Peaceful Development.”
An Impermanent Dream
In 2013, a study by Harvard Business School faculty found that 41 percent of netizens associate the Chinese Dream with the people, versus 23 percent with the nation-state, with the most prevalent blog posts interpreting the dream as one bettering society as a whole. This is the intention of the campaign as an instrument of the party-state apparatus, but despite mustering interpretations from the masses, the Chinese Dream should not be considered a product of the public.
The construction of belonging proponed by the posters is analogous to the dream concept in politics: imagined, but made to feel authentic and present. One of the campaign’s most interesting characteristics is how it refers to China. Instead of the usual characters for state (国家), it adopts the characters for motherland (祖国); the latter is more in line with popular nationalist discourse, which in the post-Mao era increasingly couches the country in terms of ethnocultural integrity, instead of the body politic defined by the party-state.
The term “Chinese Dream” will likely exit public discourse when Xi steps down from his post in 2022, relegating it to a pile of other leaders’ trademarks that belie sensitivity to a particular climate. Like Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Peaceful Rise,” the “Chinese Dream” is tailor-made for securing the party’s control at a precise point in history. As Chinese society grows more diffuse, the party will readjust the modalities of national identity to bind the populace to the state, and its dream, as it stands today, will dissipate.
As one top university professor, who wished to remain anonymous, said of the campaign: “I think the next leader of the CCP would definitely drop Xi’s slogan to have his own in place. There is no doubt about it. The China Dream has a 10-year shelf life.”
Joyce Lee is currently a master’s student at Peking University, completing a dual degree in international affairs between PKU and LSE.