The Chinese Nationalists launched the Northern Expedition in 1926 to unseat the ruling Beiyang government. They swept north to Beijing behind a phalanx of pamphleteers. In Hankou, central China, the Religious Tract Society (RTS) watched jealously as the Nationalists, “using our means and improving upon them,” brought the revolution to pass. Propaganda, the General Secretary of the RTS concluded, had established the new masters of the Middle Kingdom. The Nationalists had made language and imagery subservient to their purpose of winning the masses. Could not Christians adjust their tactics to inaugurate the Kingdom of God? The General Secretary issued a challenge to his fellow believers: “Do propaganda work for [your] Lord and Master.”
Seemingly in response, between 1927 and 1951, millions of Christian prints entered the Chinese market. Copied onto the cheapest paper and put on walls with starch and brooms, the large (109 cm x 76 cm), brightly colored posters briefly attracted attention before they crumbled in the rain or were covered by a more current notice. Yet, these “silent preachers” diligently portrayed a Christian vision of China’s national salvation. Hanging in tearooms, shop windows, at local temples, or unfurled for street preaching, Christian posters were innovations in mass-produced art. They were aesthetically appealing, symbolically rich, yet easily comprehended.
Protestant Christian propaganda intentionally aimed to topple China’s other ideological systems. Some images were explicitly produced to take the place of ancestral tablets or posters of the kitchen god. Others were crafted as substitute blessings to hang on doorposts.
Some images more directly challenged the political systems of the day, depicting Jesus orchestrating China’s transformation. In them, it is his modern army of evangelists that routs China’s enemies of foreign aggression, greediness, and superstition.
These Christian prints depicted an alternative vision for China’s salvation. The kingdoms of this world, whether Nationalist or Communist, would fade before the kingdom of Christ. Viewers now had to choose: Would they stake their lives and their hopes for the country on religious or political systems that could only end in destruction, or would they enthrone Jesus Christ as Lord, whom the posters promised would save the nation?
Posters of Urgency
Christian propaganda expressed urgency. Image after image invited people to grasp the crisis they and China faced. This was not a time to dither. There was not a moment to waste. Immediate action was required both for personal salvation and for the sake of the country. Time was running out. A giant cross with a clock superimposed over it accentuated the point. Drawing on Chinese cultural associations between a clock and death, the poster explained that now was the moment of decision, for “you do not know what [tomorrow] will bring.”
Yet, the salvation of the individual was not the only thing at stake. In subtle but clear ways, the posters exposed China’s desperate situation. A poster like “Sin the Enemy of Man” at first appears to address rather standard vices of an individual: alcohol, opium, prostitution, and gambling.
However, the man ensnared by these sins would have been recognizable not just as an individual but as a metaphor of the Chinese nation. For at the back, in a green shirt and holding a spear to the neck of the poor man, is a masked figure. Beginning in the 1920s, images inspired by Marxist-Leninist teachings circulated in China with such masked men.
They always conveyed a clear message: Westerners, especially missionaries, could present themselves as “civilized” men and women but, in reality, they were monsters. Foreigners were particularly sinister, so the propaganda went, because their treachery was hidden behind high-minded ideals. What appeared to be an offer of assistance to China through education, agricultural modernization, and medicine, was in fact a ploy—nothing more than a cover for cultural imperialism and economic exploitation. National salvation, this early communist propaganda suggested, began by recognizing the reality of foreign aggression hidden behind the mask and expelling the evil force from the country.
Chow Chih Chen, the Religious Tract Society artist who composed “Sin the Enemy of Man,” used this iconographic clue of a masked man to help viewers realize that his poster was not simply about the moral shortcomings of an individual. Chow turned the poster into a parable of China’s national condition. He pictured the entire nation as chained and ensnared by what many had assumed to be harmless leisure activities—only various kinds of amusements. Yet in its epicurean reverie, China had rendered itself incapable of resisting the foreign powers that held a deadly spear to its neck. The poster warns, “The wage of sin is death.” Such a poster sent a clear message to those who had eyes to see. National salvation did not lie in revolution, modernization, or military strength. Unless China escaped its self-induced dissolution, duplicitous foreign powers would make sure China ceased to exist. It was imperative that the nation turn to Jesus immediately. He alone had the power to break the bonds that held China captive.
Posters of Decision
Few things could communicate the necessity of changing direction better than posters with two different roads. It was a common visual tool in China for simplifying a person’s choices. Cartoons, like the one that appeared in the newspaper Shenbao, put people at a crossroads. To the left is a road designated “enemy products.” It is the road to perdition. To the right is a road named “national products,” which points to “national survival.” Everything hinged on a choice. Which road would people take?
Christian propaganda posters only slightly modified the scene. They seldom depicted people paused at a crossroads; rather, they showed individuals who mindlessly wander past the fork in the road, continuing in their selfsame direction. Christian posters proclaimed that, if the wanderers did not heed the street signs around them, the results would be catastrophic. “Look, You Blind!” shows that various types of Chinese people, who could represent the entire nation, follow the “wrong road.” They are a half step away from going over a cliff and about to plummet to “eternal death,” as the sign on the road warns. Yet, even at this last moment, it may not be too late. If people would just heed the road signs, things could turn out much differently. There is a different path, an ascending path, one that leads to an eternal reward. Sinners just need to make a decision to change course now and a crown of glory would be theirs.
Posters of Salvation
Many Christian posters warned that if China and its people did not decide to change directions, disaster awaited. Their feet were already on the edge of the abyss. Other posters, however, portrayed the critical moment as already past. The people of China did not need to make a choice, but rather needed to be rescued. Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism had failed to preserve the people in safety. Thus, stuck in a pit, the people waited for a savior.
In Protestant posters, salvation always came through the cross—a firm anchor to hold on to. The cross was the life preserver people could cling to in order to survive. Nothing else would suffice. Although others in China promoted various economic schemes and political solutions, Christian propaganda insisted that only the cross of Jesus could transform the nation and its people. Its auspicious red color promised not only a new beginning but immediate blessing. The ill fortunes of China could be reversed if it would just grab hold of the cross.
Christian propaganda posters provide a view of what Chinese Christians believed about their faith and how they tried to make it attractive to their compatriots. In hundreds of posters collected at ccposters.com, one can see how Chinese Christians vied for the soul of the nation. They believed Christ could transform China and depicted his marvelous acts of salvation in a variety of ways. From clocks and masks to roads and crosses, Christians deployed common propaganda symbols of the day to point people in a new direction: to national salvation through Jesus Christ.
Editor’s Note: As part of our content sharing agreement with Christianity Today, an updated version of this article was published on November 15, 2022 and is available in English and Chinese. See links below.
- ^ J. Sidney Helps, The Annual Report of the Religious Tract Society for China, 1925-1926 (Hankou: Religious Tract Society, 1926), 13, emphasis added.
- ^ The Annual Report of the Religious Tract Society for China, 1926-1927 (Hankou: Religious Tract Society, 1927), 7.
- ^ The Annual Report of the Religious Tract Society for China, 1931-1932 (Hankou: Religious Tract Society, 1932), 8.
- ^ Dongfang zazhi (July 1925).
- ^ Ka-che Yip, Religion, Nationalism, and Chinese Students: The Anti-Christian Movement of 1922-1927 (Seattle: Washington University, 1980).
- ^ Shenbao, May 4, 1933, reprinted in Weipin Tsai, Reading Shenbao: Nationalism, Consumerism and Individuality in China, 1919-1937 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 123.
All images of Chinese Christian posters are courtesy of Chinese Christian Posters.
Daryl R. Ireland
Daryl R. Ireland is a Research Assistant Professor of Mission at Boston University and the Associate Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission. He led a team of researchers in collecting, digitizing, transcribing, translating, and tagging hundreds of Chinese Christian posters which are now available online at Chinese …View Full Bio