By Liping Bu
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011. This essay takes a look at a collection of hand-inked and painted posters on paper used as propaganda resources during the Korean War.
In spring 1952, in the depths of the Korean War, Chinese newspapers reported that American forces were conducting germ warfare against Chinese and North Korean forces and civilians. According to reports, vigilant citizens had spotted large quantities of fleas, flies, mosquitoes, and rats in unexpected places in Manchuria and the coastal city of Qingdao. Premier Zhou Enlai called upon the nations of the world to condemn “U.S. imperialists’ war crime of germ warfare.” Zhou’s charges tied the health of the Chinese people to the war effort in Korea. A Patriotic Health Movement was launched throughout China: the Communist Party mobilized the masses to eliminate pests to prevent disease and contribute to the war effort. Trained and untrained artists threw themselves into the creation of health posters to support the anti-germ warfare campaign.
The posters shown here, selected from two series, are the handiwork of unidentified artists from the Chinese interior, far from the theater of war. A title poster (right), in bold red ink and framed with a deep blue pattern, proclaims “Even Germs Cannot Save the Fate of the American Bandits.” Another poster (beneath, top left), “Flies Spread Diseases,” shows flies dropping American cholera bombs. Under them, at the bottom of the image, are the roofs of houses. The caption reads: “Flies like to live in cesspools and like to sing in front of people too; they carry countless germs and throw germ bombs everywhere.”
From the same series, another poster (beneath, top right) presents a domestic scene. A mother boils infected clothes and burns infected material. Her son kills a fly with a flyswatter. Her husband cleans the top part of the house. The caption reads: “Germs rely on pests as a way to spread diseases. To eradicate pests is to defeat the American imperialists.”
A poster from another series (beneath, lower left) shows a fleeing, wounded American who spits out rats and carries them by the tail. A rat clinging to his back wears a hat with a swastika, another wears a Japanese army hat, signifying that the American enemy is morally equivalent to the now-defeated Nazis and Japanese imperialists. Disease-bearing insects swarm beneath and behind the “rat-man.” The caption reads: “The American bandits, paying no attention to the just sanctions of humanity, openly dropped loads of germs on Korea, our country’s northeast, and Qingdao city.”
The next poster in the sequence (beneath, lower right) shows how to destroy the enemy. A soldier, doctor, and worker attack the rat-man with the weapons of their trade—gun, fumigation sprayer, and shovel. The caption reads: “Under the attack of the Chinese and Koreans, as well as peace-loving people all over the world, the heinous crimes of the Americans cannot save them from their inevitable defeat.”
The poster images are predominantly blue and black, colors that in Chinese art usually signify fearful things. The limited palette may also be evidence of a shortage of colored paint. The posters must have been frequently displayed: the paper is worn, wrinkled, and stained, and there are many tiny thumbtack holes in the four corners.
Liping Bu is Professor of History at Alma College. She has published extensively on public health and international cultural relations. Working with health images, she has created several online exhibits at the National Library of Medicine. Her recent book is Public Health and the Modernization of China, 1910-2010.