In the inaugural issue of the CCP theoretical journal Red Flag, in 1958, Mao Zedong wrote as follows: “The big-character poster is a very useful new weapon, which can be used in the cities and the rural areas, in factories, co-operatives, shops, government institutions, schools, army units and streets – in short, wherever the masses are to be found. It has already been widely used and should always be used.” Eventually, Mao’s successors would take issue with his claim that it “should always be used.” Explicitly protected in the 1978 text of the PRC Constitution, the “right to… write big-character posters” was dropped from the revised 1982 text. Today, the dazibao as a medium has become entirely anachronistic. Its nearest present socio-political equivalent – if it has one – is the angry microblog posting capable of reaching tens of thousands of readers. In the same way, but on a much lesser scale, a big-character poster in the 1960s would have been read by hundreds – before being, perhaps, torn down or covered up by a jittery officialdom or rendered illegible by the rain. And the wind.
During political campaigns, danwei party bodies often compiled and printed/mimeographed collections of (the texts of) big-character posters written by staff. The contents of just such a collection from the 1957 CCP Rectification Campaign is meticulously reproduced in full in an almost 400 pages thick volume in the Unofficially Collected Historical Documents from Contemporary China series, produced by East China Normal University’s Contemporary Chinese History Research Institute. This production of generic Selected Big-Character Posters was such an integral part of “doing politics” in Mao Zedong’s China, it was in 1966 promptly mimicked by the “organizations of the revolutionary masses,” e.g. Red Guards. The (re)print medium hence came to serve as a “force multiplier” of sorts, allowing the message of the original unique handwritten big-character poster to reach a much wider audience.
The content of the typical big-character poster almost always had a political angle, which is however not the same as saying that it would all have been about attacking “heinous counter-revolutionary crimes” or defending “Chairman Mao’s revolutionary line.” Much content concerned issues closer to home, e.g. sexual impropriety or socially unacceptable behaviour. As on the internet today, charges did not always have to be substantiated and if you were bold enough you could insinuate the wildest things. Rude and inflammatory language was ok.
The two links below are to the texts of two big-character posters as copied down by hand from the actual originals at the time when they appeared in public. The first is from Fudan University in Shanghai and accuses a Swedish student (in whose handwriting it has been preserved for posterity) of upsetting the revolutionary masses of New China by supposedly behaving rudely in the campus canteen in the summer of 1976. The second is from shortly after the death of CCP Chairman Mao Zedong in September 1976 when it appeared on a busy street in downtown Nanjing (and was copied down by the police who deposited it in the archive with which this copy emanates). Its remarkable charge – which led the authorities to suspect that its author was mentally disturbed – was that Mao had not died at all and that all claims to that effect were false!