By Marta Hanson ~
Originally published in Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine, 2011.
In 2005 the National Library of Medicine acquired more than fifteen hundred Chinese public health posters plus an assortment of other materials, mainly from the Communist era (1949 to the present). Among these riches is a charming set of eight block puzzles. The pictures on the sides of each block, when put together, make six scenes aimed at fostering revolutionary consciousness and teaching hygienic behavior through the cycle of a day.
Scene one: As a cat looks up at him and the sun rises through an open window, a boy brushes his teeth. He will next use the basin and towel behind him to wash his face. The dawn is to the new day as the boy is to the new political order: optimistic, bright, and full of promise.
Scene two: The boy joins his sister and older brother, walking on a country road. They stretch out their arms to exercise before school begins.
Scene three: In class the boy reads while other boys rub their eyes, which are strained from reading. A wall poster urges, “Protect your eyes; rest at regular intervals.” (The exhortatory poster campaign was a hallmark of the Communist regime.)
Scene four: The boy and his sister join a mass health campaign. He helps hold up a banner that says “Exterminate!” and shows drawings of a mosquito, fly, rat, and louse. His sister waves a flyswatter. One boy holds a pesticide sprayer; another carries a bamboo pole dangling a mousetrap. “Carry out sanitation to make things beautiful” reads a sign on a wall as they march past.
Scene five: Now home, the boy and his sister wash their hands and face. Their mother brings steaming dishes to the table as dusk falls outside the window. The boy looks to his mother, anticipating a tasty supper.
Scene six: Their blue jackets and red scarves hang on a rail, and it’s time to get ready for bed. The boy’s older brother bathes in a large red tub, and the ever diligent boy cleans the window as the sun sets. A green bucket and mop wait for cleaning up after bathing. Soon all the children will have a good night’s sleep.
The Number 10 Shanghai Toy Factory probably produced these blocks between 1960 and 1966. Since no posters of Mao Zedong are seen on the home, school, or village walls, the blocks likely were issued before the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), when Mao’s portrait became ubiquitous. The “Four Pests” banner suggests the years following the Great Leap Forward (1958–61): in May 1958 Mao ordered that “the whole people, including five-year-old children, must be mobilized to eliminate the four pests” (sparrows, rats, mosquitoes, flies). In March 1960 Mao replaced sparrows (targeted for eating too much grain) with lice.
The two-year campaign nearly exterminated sparrows in China. Without natural enemies to keep them in check, swarms of locusts proliferated, consuming large quantities of grain and contributing to a famine in which 35 to 50 million people died—among them children who participated in the earliest Four Pests extermination campaigns portrayed on these very blocks.
Marta Hanson, PhD has taught in the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University since 2004. Her book is entitled Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine: Disease and the Geographic Imagination in Late Imperial China. She writes about the history of disease, epidemiology, and public health in China; cur-rents of medical learning, regionalism, and pluralism in Chinese history; and East Asian arts of memory.