Ride an Elephant and Happy Lunar New Year!

The Cotsen Library is home to an international poster collection that depicts children and reflects childhood from diverse historical periods, geographical areas, and cultural backgrounds. Through a pilot project in 2012, the Cotsen Library enhanced catalog records of a small set from its Chinese-language poster collection to allow researchers to search for posters by title, creator, or publisher information in both Chinese characters and pinyin phonetics. Subject headings were standardized to bring consistency to terms that describe the posters. A brief summary of the visual content is also provided.

The small set of about 50 posters dates from the early twentieth century through the mid-1980s. They cover a delightful variety of subject matter, including nianhua (年画, New Year prints) that decorated people’s homes, instructional wall charts for classroom use, and Communist propaganda posters that sent political messages to children and adults alike.

An untitled and undated New Year print gives us a glimpse of multiple facets of Chinese art, culture, history, and political dynamics. The only text in the picture is a red stamp of “Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop” (天津楊柳青畫店), a press based in one of the most famous production centers of Chinese New Year prints. Traditional Yangliuqing art was known for the so-called “half printed, half painted” woodblock New Year prints: combining mass production and original folk art, pictures were first printed in monochrome outline, and each piece was then hand-colored by artisans. The Costen’s copy was printed and painted on a sheet of xuanzhi (宣纸, Chinese rice paper), measuring 30 x 20 inches.

Catalogers occasionally find themselves facing the little-envied job of coming up with titles for library materials that carry no such information. This New Year print posed such a task. How would you name an image portraying three children on the back of an elephant? The old catalog record suggested a title about celebrating the harvest. In order to justify that theme, one might have expected to see depictions of abundant grain overflowing from containers. However, could the basket of fruit in the young Chinese girl’s hand be an Eastern equivalent of cornucopia?

New Year print:  [Ji xiang ru yi] (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year). Tianjin, China: Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop, circa 1958-1980.  Cotsen Children's Library, call number 64129

New Year print:
[Ji xiang ru yi] (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year).
Tianjin, China: Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop, circa 1958-1980.
Cotsen Children’s Library, call number 64129

Boy on the back of an elephant. A common pattern for traditional Chinese folk art. (Image source)

Boy on the back of an elephant. A common pattern for traditional Chinese folk art. (Image source)

It is unclear whether this New Year print was made around 1958-1959, when the Yangliuqing Painting Shop was established but not yet merged into the Tianjin People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, or around 1974-1980, when the shop name was restored.1 The picture is a fascinating manifestation of how tradition underwent adaptive transformations and survived a new political environment under the Chinese Communist regime.

Traditional Symbols and Communist Twists

Chinese New Year prints traditionally employ visual symbols and homophonic riddles to convey good wishes for the coming new year. Young children are among the favorite subject. Often portrayed with pink cheeks and chubby torsos, healthy-looking youth symbolize the success of family reproduction and a hopeful future. It is important to point out that images of children in Chinese New Year prints did not denote a child audience, but were intended for all viewers, particularly adults who wished to accomplish the foremost Confucian virtue and goal of raising a large family with sons and grandsons. Children were nonetheless an important part of the viewing experience. Superstitiously believing that children’s naïve voice carried some realizing power, an adult would engage a child in observing and talking about the pictures on the morning of the New Year’s Day, hoping that those lucky words from a child’s mouth would make happy things happen.

This New Year print from Cotsen is both a continuation of that “baby-loving” tradition and a departure from certain age-old characteristics. In a society that favored sons over daughters, boy figures dominated the subject of traditional New Year pictures. The presence of two young girls in this post-1949 picture, however, reflects an adherence to the idea of gender equality promoted by the Chinese Communist Party. All three children wear red scarves, indicating their membership in the Young Pioneers, which is a school children’s organization that answers to the Chinese Communist Party. (Former Chinese president Hu Jintao was the national leader of the organization in 1983-1984.)

Giant-sized peaches, shown in the basket on the right, are a traditional symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. The golden pineapple on the left also conveys wishes for good things, because the name of that fruit and the word for “prosperity” are homophones in southern Fujian dialect. Another homophone is played on the elephant. In the Chinese language, qixiang (骑象, riding an elephant) and jixiang (吉祥, auspicious) sound similar. The visual motif of elephant riding can actually be traced to the popular depiction of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva often seen perched on an elephant in Chinese art and sculptures.

A final point of interest is the blossoming branch held high in the girl’s hand on the left. Traditionally, a more common object held by the elephant rider would have been an expensive-looking ruyi (如意). The term literally means “wish fulfillment,” and, according to popular belief, it has originated from the use of the handheld object as a self-sufficient backscratcher. Ruyi made from precious metals and stones used to be royal possessions. In Communist China, it would likely be a distasteful object associated with wealth, power, and privilege, and thus wisely avoided by the anonymous folk artist of this picture. The position of the girl’s arms, and the way she tilts her head closely resemble what we see in a ruyi-holding boy in traditional depictions. Is the pink flower branch an earthly substitute for rich men’s ruyi for political safety?

A ruyi decorated with pearls, made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source)

A ruyi decorated with pearls, made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source)

An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year

You may find this picture in our library catalog by its new title: “Ji Xiang Ru Yi” (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year). Attesting to the flexibility and resilience of a folk art tradition, “Ji Xiang Ru Yi” has merged old and new, catered to both popular and political tastes, and wished for another new year of good luck to come.

(The author thanks Mr. Don Cohn for offering insightful cultural information about Samantabhadra.)


1. Tianjin Yangliuqing hua she. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2012, from http://www.tjwh.gov.cn/whysz/0906meishu/meishu-0102.html

The Many Faces of Little Red Guards

One strength of the Cotsen Library is Chinese-language children’s magazines published during the twentieth century. Prominent titles include early volumes of Er Tong Shi Jie (儿童世界, Children’s World) and Xiao Peng You (小朋友, Little Friend), both launched in Shanghai in 1922. Little Friend is arguably the longest-running children’s magazine in China, having remained active to this day despite two major suspensions–first during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and later during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Another important group of magazines is Hong Xiao Bing (红小兵, Little Red Guard), which sheds light on Chinese children’s reading, learning, and socialization during a specific period of political chaos, as well as lends a nuanced view of Chinese history and culture that concern the youngest members of the society. These were reorganized through a recent cataloging project at Cotsen.

From “Young Pioneers” to “Little Red Guards”

The “Little Red Guards” was the name of a selective children’s organization sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party from December 1967 through October 1978. Prior to that, most school students from six to fourteen years old were members of the Young Pioneers, who wore trademark triangular, bright-red scarves around their neck. During the Cultural Revolution, children who allegedly failed to meet certain political criteria were denied membership, and eligible ones savored the great honor of being part of a new organization called the “Little Red Guards.” This organization should not be confused with the “Red Guards” (红卫兵), which consisted of older teens and college-age youth and played a far more aggressive role during the Cultural Revolution.

The Many Faces of Little Red Guards Magazines

Hong Xiao Bing Bao (红小兵报, Little Red Guard’s Paper) was first launched in Shanghai on July 20, 1967 as a children’s weekly. After the term “Little Red Guards” replaced “Young Pioneers” as a formal name by the end of 1967, a squadron of children’s magazines sprouted from all over China, all named after the revolutionary buzzword “little red guard.” When the Young Pioneers was restored in 1978, these “little red guard” magazines either ceased publication or adopted various new names.

Map of Little Red Guard magazines

Map of Little Red Guard magazines

Cotsen holds issues of Little Red Guard (hereafter LRG) magazines from eighteen provinces, in addition to one newspaper, pamphlets, and books with the popular term LRG in their titles, all dated from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

Each blue placemark represents one Chinese publisher that distributed a children’s magazine called LRG, or with a similar title, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The identical title shared by different publishers has caused confusion among researchers today, who have sometimes referred to it as a single children’s magazine.

Of the nineteen titles of LRG magazines held at Cotsen, the earliest two were released 1968-69 in Shanghai, including one issue of Shanghai LRG (上海红小兵, Jan. 1968) and more than 30 issues of LRG (Jun. 1, 1968-Dec. 25, 1969), but their relationship with each other is unclear. At least half of China’s provinces and municipalities–from Shanghai in the east to Gansu in the west, from Heilongjiang in the north to Guangdong in the south–produced their own LRG magazines, which varied in size, frequency, and content.

Cover images of LRG magazines, by place of publication

Cover images of LRG magazines, by place of publication (clockwise from upper left):
1. Shanghai, 1971, no. 21
2. Jiangsu, Feb. 1971, no. 4
3. Liaoning, 1974, no. 16
4. Ningxia, 1973, no. 2

A Publishing Miracle and Wealth of Information

The Cultural Revolution is widely known as a period of suffocating ideological control over print and media. Juvenile reading materials were no exception. Children growing up during the Cultural Revolution had few reading choices, when old popular titles were banned, and writers, illustrators, and editors were imprisoned or banished to labor camps in rural areas. Under the aegis of a politically correct title, these vibrant LRG magazines, issued as frequently as twice a month in some provinces, were short of a publishing miracle.

Written at the reading level of primary school students, LRG magazines typically include rhymes, songs, news and current affairs, short stories with illustrations, comic strips, and drawings by children. Many carry fine, off-set printed pictures of hand-colored woodblock prints, watercolor paintings, and oil paintings. Anecdotes suggest that some schools would subscribe to LRG and make it available in classrooms for supplementary reading. The magazine has been mentioned in people’s fond memories of their childhood reading.

By virtue of their quick publication cycles, LRG magazines capture the vicissitudes of political turmoil and provide a wealth of information about Chinese history, literacy education, propaganda and censorship, gender role, and political socialization of youth during the 1970s.

China’s daughters…and the evil queen

In 1961, MAO Zedong saw a photo of a rifle-carrying female militia member and was inspired to write a poem, “Militia Women,” in which he commended “China’s daughters” for “having high-aspiring minds / They love their battle uniforms, not feminine dresses.” Visual depictions of revolutionary, progressive females during the Cultural Revolution strived to meet Chairman Mao’s aesthetic standards for women and girls, wiping out as much difference between male and female body features as possible. A typical image of masculine-looking, strong Chinese women can be seen on the cover of a 1965 Little Friend issue.

Cover image of Little Friend

Left: Cover image of Little Friend (1965, no.24). Shanghai, Dec. 25, 1965.

Right: A satirical illustration of JIANG Qing in “大寨人勇斗白骨精” (Dazhai people bravely fight the White-Bone Demon). LRG (1977, no. 4), unpaged. Hunan, Apr. 1, 1977.

After the death of MAO Zedong on September 9, 1976, his fourth and last wife, JIANG Qing, was made to shoulder much of the blame for the damage and devastation caused by the Cultural Revolution. LRG issues published after her downfall ridiculed Jiang in stories and cartoons. In one illustration (shown above) that accompanies spoken rhyming lyrics, the then sixty-three-year-old former First Lady is satirically portrayed with a slim waistline and a long dress, making her the most “fashion-conscious” female in all LRG publications.

Sugar-coating learning with political messages

Pinyin exercise in LRG (1975, no. 5). Shanghai, Mar. 10, 1975. A rhyme that celebrates China's new 1975 Constitution. The last two lines mean "Chairman Mao made the new Constitution / The red regime is as stalwart as steel."

Pinyin exercise in LRG (1975, no. 5). Shanghai, Mar. 10, 1975.
A rhyme that celebrates China’s new 1975 Constitution.
The last two lines mean “Chairman Mao made the new Constitution / The red regime is as stalwart as steel.”

The Cultural Revolution has been remembered as a period when intellectuals were censured, schooling was disrupted, and students were encouraged to challenge teachers and even physically assault them. LRG magazines, however, carry a surprising amount of writing that encourages literacy and learning, using revolutionary rhetoric and quotations from MAO Zedong to legitimize the call. Pinyin exercises, which drill the crucial Chinese literacy skill of pronouncing phonetics, spell out political slogans. A math problem is couched in the practical scenario of children dividing up liquid pesticides while working on a farm, as Mao had instructed students to learn through manual labor. A science essay explaining the physics of audio amplifiers begins with the importance of listening to news and political messages through radio broadcasts first thing in the morning.

A Mirror of Chaos

It must have been especially confusing for a child to grow up during the Cultural Revolution. Traditional values were turned upside down. Countless old authority and power figures were demoted to “untouchables” in the new political caste system. “Red Guard” factions attacked one another, each claiming to be Mao’s truest followers. LRG magazines reflect that chaos, sometimes with immediate responsiveness to contemporary events, and other times with a curious length of delay. As one of the few accessible and appealing children’s reading materials of the time, their content could further add to the sources of confusion for young readers.

On one hand, LRG magazines are full of folkloric stories befitting young readers’ level of cognitive and moral sophistication. Stories about Communist heroes and class struggles painted a binary world of black and white, good and evil. On the other hand, exactly who the “good guy” and the “bad guy” was could change drastically as a result of power struggles. Two of the political leaders that received about-face treatment in LRG were Marshal LIN Biao and China’s future No. 1 leader DENG Xiaoping, as shown by the following illustrations.

Cover image of LRG (1971, no. 18). Shanghai.

Cover image of LRG (1971, no. 18). Shanghai.

This LRG issue was published September 25, 1971, nearly two weeks after the death of Marshall Lin (in green military uniform on the right, standing close to Chairman Mao). According to the dominant account–among competing versions of the event–Lin had allegedly attempted to assassinate Mao but failed, before being killed in a plane crash on September 13, 1971. For some complicated reasons, the cover image did not reveal the colossal political crisis, but continued to portray the late Lin as Mao’s “closest comrade-in-arms,” as was officially stated in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. Could the magazine editors be as ill-informed as the general public of Lin’s secret coup? Or were they “insiders” conniving to cover up the Party’s biggest embarrassment?

In LRG (1973, no. 11). Jilin, Nov. 1, 1973In LRG (1973, no. 11). Jilin, Nov. 1, 1973.

In this photo and rhyme published two years later, school children were condemning Lin as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing ” and head of the “anti-Party clique.”


A panel of comic strips in LRGA panel of comic strips in LRG (1976, no. 8). Guangdong, Aug. 1976.

Children perform and watch a play, the theme of which is to condemn the “stinky” DENG Xiaoping.





A news photo in LRG A news photo in LRG (1977, no. 9). Fujian, Aug. 1977.

Published one year later, this LRG issue shows Chinese Vice President DENG Xiaoping giving the closing speech at the eleventh National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1977.


LRG magazines offer rich raw materials to help us imagine the intellectual life of a generation of Chinese children–now having approached middle age–growing up in a world of conflict and confusion. Cotsen holdings of these magazines can be most easily located by searching for titles in Chinese characters (“红小兵”) or pinyin Romanization (“hong xiao bing”).