Propaganda and Crafting the Self Image of a Nation

The title of this post might seem a little heavy handed… and I guess it is. But after my little adventure today the idea that propaganda has always been a means to shape how people (who are the objects of propaganda’s political and social aims) see themselves stands out to me. It makes sense that propaganda would provide a positive view for people to buy into; it needs to use that angle in order to work at all. I guess I knew all this years ago in the first years of my undergraduate education, but seeing it up close in a major museum in China was interesting.


I began the day attempting to see two significant art museums in Guangzhou, one of which is close to our hotel and one that’s a 20 minute drive away. I was given advice by a local that I could walk to the first one, but my efforts proved futile. It was an interesting hour and 15 minutes getting myself more and more disoriented and more and more lost in a strange city.


Eventually I found myself in a large train station with thousands of Chinese people and got into a line at the taxi stand. Once in my cab I gave the driver a slip of paper that a well-meaning woman at the hotel had written out for me in Chinese. After one failed attempt to get to the closer of the two locations, I gave him another line about the more distant museum and we made it there after 35 or 40 minutes.


The Guangdong Museum of Art on Er-Sha Island is a part of a large museum campus system on a beautiful island in the Pearl River right in downtown Guangzhou. The collection is primarily traditional-based semi-contemporary work. Most of what I saw was painting, printmaking, and large figurative sculpture from the 30s through today. They have significant holdings on display from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.


Just one aspect that I focused on during my 3.5 hour tour of the museum’s three floors was the way women were depicted in the propaganda era works on display. As you’ve noticed, I’m posting a number of details here to illustrate my point.


I am by no means an expert in Chinese art during Mao’s time, but I am aware of a variety of aspects of it. Getting to see these works in their country of origin and within their own context was a great experience. There was, to a piece, excellent craftsmanship in the work itself. The woodblock prints and oil paintings in particular were fantastic examples of the genre and time. I am sad to say that they were not all presented well, however. The framing was inconsistent – sometimes downright baffling (dozens of prints were matted with foamcore) – and many of the walls were scuffed and marked. In some rooms the arrangement of works seemed somewhat scattershot. But none of that can make one mistake the energy and physical presence of the best of the works on display.


These works were designed to present a powerful, healthy, vigorous and virtuous people. Look at the faces of these women I’ve posted: In one a young mother runs out to work in the early morning before dawn, implement in hand, her baby strapped to her back. In another, two women – stern-faced and sharp-eyed, look determined to defend their way of life… machine guns rest against their bodies. In perhaps the most recent example, three young women rest in dappled sunlight beneath the massive tires of some piece of heavy machinery; their labors afford them peaceful – and aesthetic – rest.


These propagandistic images succeed on a number of levels – they are expertly crafted illustrations, and so it makes sense that they utilize the visual language of illustration so well. They are illustrations of the regime’s aims and means. They functioned as didactic projections; they were the stained-glass window training centers of a new era. Yet they did more, as all propaganda does.


Artworks such as these offered viewers both a prescribed view they were conditioned to believe and a perspective that plays into what every human being wants for themselves. We want signifigance. We want inclusion. We want meaning. We want to be noble. In spite of the pernicious and sometimes evil ends to which propaganda of all kinds has been used I think we can agree that part of the reason that it works is that it gives an image of self-virtue that the human animal craves. In light of these things, can we blame any people of any time for  buying in? I see the faces of these women and I have to wonder what their lives were – or are, if some of them are still living – really like. I can, at the very least, absolutely affirm that they were valuable, they were meaningful simply as human beings. The lives they lived, their loves, their sorrows, were all knit together into a weaving of the human consciousness in time and space. They were beautiful and strange, and they tried to believe in something beyond themselves that was, in fact, unified with all that they were. We all seek this, and we all want to know that it’s real.

The horror of propaganda is that it uses our own innate desire to be embedded in a broader truth against us.

The Chinese Pencil

My wonderful daughter Miranda Grace tossed my pencil away – the one I’d bought expressly to use on this trip to China – and so I was forced to use my ball point pen for all sketches. But once we arrived in Guangzhou I found this silky little number and it’s giving me some nicer nuance to the quick sketches I’m doing in my journal.

IMG_5216Here are two quick drawings I’ve done since obtaining this Chinese pencil… one of a three-wheeled car we saw back in Zhengzhou and one of Vivian (one of our guides). Click for a larger view. Perhaps more will come soon. I’ve done a few drawings of CaiQun and I’m also adding in a few details of hotel rooms, architecture, vehicles (as you’ve seen), and other interesting bits.



Pearl River Views

It’s been a nice couple of days in Guangzhou. Today was important as we had CaiQun’s medical check up done which is necessary for her to be admitted to the US. The TB blood draw was not pretty. But CaiQun overcame that and in the evening we all enjoyed a ride down the Pearl River in downtown Guangzhou. See a couple pics below – the Canton TV Tower (google it) was very impressive, as were the many bridges we passed beneath.

Tomorrow will be Zoo for the ladies… and art museums for me!



The Bikes (Trikes, Mopeds, Scooters, Etc) of China

I’ve been taking shots of the massive variety of small, mostly two-wheeled, vehicles we have seen all over China. Since scooters are banned in Guangzhou (where we are right now), I figured that my photo journal is mostly complete. Below are a number of my favorite finds throughout Beijing, Zhengzhou, Luoyang, and a couple from today in Guangzhou. Click to enlarge. Enjoy.




Gotta start em young!

IMG_4316Many of the scooters we saw had these handlebar sheaths like huge gloves…




There were dozens like the one above – they all seemed to be used as garbage containers…
















These massive trike dump trucks were all over the place… so strange!




You just had to stand in awe of the parents or caretakers driving around the dense traffic with one, two, even three toddlers balanced on their scooters – real skill there.


I have no idea what’s going on with the image above… We’re pretty sure those were not real babies in the back…






Snoopy scooter in downtown Zhengzhou…


It took me so long to get halfway decent shots of the little kids on scooters that I also drew a few sketches in case I never got a picture! Here they are:



PS: anyone who thinks Italy has the corner on dangerous levels of scooter action, I dare them to spend a week in Zhengzhou.

The Dragon Suit

She came to us in a dragon suit. I think we’ll keep this coat forever. Yeah, maybe Keith would say it’s a dinosaur suit, but this is China and thus dragon is more appropriate. Either way it’s awesome.

Note: the red dot on CaiQun’s forehead is a gesture wishing good luck to her in her new family. A touch for hope and peace.





Her Cities and Her Birth Mother

I think that our trip to Luoyang yesterday was perhaps the most striking event of our time in China. Yes, meeting CaiQun and bringing her into our family was huge. Yes, it was epic. But it was also, in a sense, just us; our family, our day, our moment. The trip to Luoyang was different, though.

The two and a half hour drive out of Zhengzhou to Luoyang was a movement through time, seemingly epochs of time. The entire landscape was transformed, from a never ending cityscape (reminiscent of Blade Runner in sights and sounds) to an otherworldly countryside supporting the bare bones of life, and then back again to the expanse of the city.

These Chinese cities are beyond anything I’ve ever seen. There is nothing I can write to explain it. There are no pictures that can capture it. Their scale is simply dumbfounding. Their energy and the rush of people and light and spreading haze of building upon building upon building are all just amazing. Eras slide over eras; Ancient China mixes with 60’s, 80’s and 21st century China from block to block. The density of the pollution is staggering, sometimes all but masking layer after layer of city infrastructure. Sometimes even INSIDE buildings one can see the haze and smell the bitterness of booming industry and internal combustion engines. It feels like a variation on the Wild West, almost, in the chaotic traffic, the forcefulness of all levels of transaction, and the way people flex themselves through the arteries and muscles of these dragon cities of China.

China is a force, and you feel it. This is post-WW2 America. This is the rising power of the Spanish exploration era. This is a “sun never sets on the British Empire” kind of energy. Rambunctious, basically untamed, powered by the weight of nearly 50 centuries of culture. No American city can mean what these cities mean. I thought the streets of Rome humbled me; Beijing, Zhengzhou, and Luoyang were even more humbling, though in a very different way that is hard to describe.

But back to Luoyang.

We were there to finalize some exit documents for CaiQun (this could only be done in her hometown) and to visit her orphanage (to take pictures of children for soon-to-be adoptive parents and to deliver donations). On the drive there, and especially while we were in the city itself, I was struck by the fact that there was a very good chance that we were within just a few miles (perhaps even closer) of CaiQun’s Birth Mother. She was there, in that city, somewhere. This truth moved me very deeply, and as I’ve thought about this woman over the last few months my heart and mind are so soft toward her. I am incredibly thankful to her.

I feel as if I’ve seen her face in the thousands of women I’ve seen in China. There are so many different types and styles, so many different eyes. There are so many different looks to them, so many different personalities. I’ve wondered – is this her Birth Mother’s face? Is this her Birth Mother’s hair? Is this her Birth Mother’s voice?

Those voices are so rich and strange to me; I love hearing them though I cannot understand. Their mouths and teeth split the cold air and their dark hair frames their outgoing words, which are only resonant sounds to me. But these sounds are the sounds of a woman who chose to give birth to CaiQun. She didn’t have to do it. But she did. And when I hear the women of China speaking, when I see their faces and glimpse their striking eyes, I am so thankful that she gave us CaiQun.

She is a woman of ancient, majestic lineage. Luoyang is a city of emperors, one of the oldest capitals in all of China (and therefore in the entire world). For thousands of years, as the river wound through it, people have lived out their lives, built a culture and a mindset, and crafted a history that is awe-inspiring. It all led, in some small way, to the fact that this woman became pregnant with CaiQun and, for reasons we will never know, had to give her up.

I do not fault her for this relinquishment of her daughter. I do not judge her or look down upon her. Who, after all, held my little one in the deepest, most intimate parts of her own body for 9 months? Who, with perfect divinely-appointed ability, provided nourishment and safety for those months? Whose body drew CaiQun into embodiment, coaxing her from infinitesimal tininess to personhood? Who gave our daughter blood oxygenated by breathing the Chinese air? Whose lungs did that work? Whose muscles and hormones? She is blessed to me.

I think about the months her body spent weaving and sewing CaiQun together. I think about the contact her womb had with the face and hands of the little girl I hold right now. How could I not be reverential toward this woman who gave her most inner physical being as a shrine for my daughter’s growing form, for her bones and brain and fingernails? How could I not be thankful toward her? How could I not honor her?
And so yesterday I felt the gargantuan weight of time, of generations of people who lived on that land and built it up. And I felt – in the midst of all of those large abstractions – the incredible value of one woman, one life, one choice, one birth, one newborn’s cry.

We are eternally grateful for CaiQun’s Birth Mother. We are thankful that we got to see her home city to learn just a tiny bit of what life was like for her first couple years. Though she waved goodbye to her orphanage, she won’t wave goodbye to her heritage. We’ll store up all of these things in our hearts to share with her as she grows and, perhaps, she will walk the streets of Luoyang again soon.

Maybe she’ll pass within a few miles of her Birth Mother and somehow that woman will know that CaiQun is safe and well.


Family of Four, Day One

I am emotionally and physically exhausted. Completely wiped out.

Both girls are sleeping peacefully next to each other right now. It’s a glory to see. There were some tears from CaiQun tonight, but also (after a while) smiles, laughter, and even finger pointing to tell Dad where to go and what to do.

A great day.

So many of the people I’ve known, worked with, studied with, taught, or been taught by have supported us in many different ways thru this journey. I am incredibly thankful for you all. As each one likes, comments, or otherwise acknowledges us at this time I feel a huge wave of thanks. This wouldn’t have been possible without a couple hundred people getting behind us. THANK YOU for little moments like the one pictured here – CaiQun drawing on my Kindle after nap time. Awesome.


First Firsts

First bottle as a Ballou, first nap as a Ballou. First totality as a Ballou. Much more to come later on – from how she came to us dressed like a dragon to how new sisters shared snacks. All in time. We are napping now. :)