45. “Cultural Revolution style red packets”

Frances Wood (formerly Head of the Chinese section at the British Library, and author of Hand Grenade Practice in Beijing: My Part in the Cultural Revolution and many other books) recently donated a pack of “Cultural Revolution style red packets” to the British Museum. She purchased them in a Chinese supermarket in central London earlier this year. 

There are several hundred money envelopes (hongbao 红包) from China and Hong Kong in the BM collection. By Chinese standards this is a small collection. However, the majority have been donated by one person, Mrs QIU Jinxian, conservator of Chinese paintings at the BM. By donating the envelopes that her family members have received at Chinese New Year over many years, they form a cohesive group of the kind of envelopes that are used in London, and allow us to trace changes in the styles of envelopes over more than a decade. When she first started donating them, many were issued by Chinese banks, restaurants and other organisations, but in the last few years, non-Chinese companies have also started issuing red envelopes.

The “Cultural Revolution style red packets” contained the following 6 envelopes, with designs from well-known Chinese propaganda posters, and a jokey slogan at the top. Many thanks to Stefan Landsberger, for creating the invaluable website Chineseposters.net and for help identifying the two that stumped me. The envelopes are numbered 1-6 on the back, and are presented below in that order.


CBA19544 group 1-3

nos 1-3

CBA19544 group 4-6

nos 4-6

Details below:


CBA19974 front

[1]  BM 2018,4016.1.a

Original poster: Title unknown, by Jin Meisheng, 1964. See the poster online here.

Inscription: 进步奖  //  百尺竿头 更进一步  //  Jin bu jiang // Bai chi gan tou geng jin yi bu  //  Award for Progress // When you get to the top, go a step further.


CBA19984 front

[2]  BM 2018,4016.1.b

Original poster: “Children train to become good revolutionary successors” — Chinese title: 小朋友们来锻炼 长大接好革命班 Xiao pengyoumen lai duanlian zhangda jiehao geming ban  //  French title: Nos petits amis s’entrainent pour devenir de bons successeurs de la revolution  //  German: Kinder trainieren, um gute Fortsetzer der Revolution zu werden.  See the poster online here  and here  and here (where it is listed as created by the Guangzhou Fine Art Studio 广州美术工作室, and printed by the People’s Sports Publishing House 人民体育出版社, first edition 1975, second edition 1976).

Inscription: 压岁钱  //  健健康康  岁岁平安压岁钱  //  健健康康  岁岁平安  //  Ya sui qian // jian jian kang kang  sui sui ping an  //  New Year Money // Be healthy! Be healthy! Peace every year!


CBA19985 front

[3]   BM 2018,4016.1.c

Original poster: “Long live the victory of Mao Zedong Thought! Warmly hail the successful launch of our country’s first man- made earth satellite!”  Mao Zedong sixiang shengli wansui! Relie huanhu woguo chenggongde fashe diyike renzao diqiu weixing!  毛泽东思想万岁!热烈欢呼我国成功地发射第一颗人造地球卫星!, published by Revolutionary Group of Shanghai Publishers 上海市出版革命组. Thanks to Stefan Landsberger for identifying this one.  See the poster online here.

Inscription:  家有喜事 // 有情人终成眷属  //  Jia you xi shi // you qing ren zhong cheng juan shu  // There’s a wedding in the family // lovers become family members


CBA19986 front

[4]   BM 2018,4016.1.d

Original poster:  “Firmly grasp large-scale revolutionary criticism”  //  Zhuajin geming da pipan 抓紧革命大批判  — Designed by the Propaganda Group of the Revolutionary Committee of the Shanghai No. 3 Ink Factory 1969, published by  Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe 上海人民美术出版社 . See the poster online here.

Inscription:  奖金 // 不管什么奖发钱就是爽  //  Jiangjin // Bu guan shenme jiang fa qian jiushi shuang  //  Bonus // It doesn’t matter what it’s for, as long as it’s money it’s cool


CBA19987 front

[5]  BM 2018,4016.1.e

Original poster:  “Carry on the glorious revolutionary tradition”  //  继承光荣的革命传统 Jicheng guangrong de geming  chuantong, adapted from a painting by Zhou Ruizhuan, published by Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1965.  Thanks to Stefan Landsberger for identifying this one. See the poster online here.

Inscription:  红包 // 人生最激动的时刻莫过拆红包  //  Hong bao // Rensheng zui jidong de shike mo guo chai hon bao  //  Red envelope // Nothing in life is more exciting than ripping open a red envelope


CBA19988 front

[6]  BM 2018,4016.1.f

Original poster:  “The vegetables are green, the cucumbers plump, the yield is abundant”  //  Cai lü, gua fei, chanliang duo 菜绿瓜肥产量多, by Jin Meisheng 金梅生, published by Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe 上海人民美术出版社 in 1959. See the poster online here.

Inscription: 年底分红 // 睡觉睡到自然醒数钱数到手抽筋  //  Nian di fen hong // Shuijiao shui dao ziran xing, shu qian shu dao shou chou jin  //  End of year profits // Sleep… until you wake naturally. Count money… until you get cramp in your hands



    1. Thank you, Lyce!

      Les enveloppes rouges : évolution et permanence des thèmes d’une image populaire chinoise
      par Chengan Sun
      Thèse de doctorat en Anthropologie sociale
      Sous la direction de Serge A. M. Tornay.
      Soutenue en 2011
      à Paris, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle , dans le cadre de École doctorale Sciences de la nature et de l’Homme. Évolution et écologie (Paris) .
      Le président du jury était Éric Lefebvre.
      Le jury était composé de Ronghui Wei,Christophe Comentale, Xin Ye.
      Les rapporteurs étaient Kuangyi Chen,Jean-Michel Ponty.

      English abstract:
      “Red envelopes : evolution and permanence of the themes of a Chinese popular image”
      Red envelopes are a peculiar kind of popular and ritual image in China. Their apparition is attested before the 10th century with slightly different aspects. But, despite social and political changes, red envelopes have still kept an important social function between the various generations and social classes. Red envelope has a ritual importance in the confucianist society, society in which lunar calendar is in use for any social commemorations in a society prevalently based on agriculture. On one hand such a paper document maintains links between individuals for acts or ceremonies about important social events such as birth, wedding, birthday or even a professional promotion, the installation in a new flat or for a funeral. On the other hand, red envelope constantly affirms the impact of images and classic expressions using four ideograms written constantly on any of them. Popular images have been of the highest importance for centuries, especially popular and new year prints as well as paper cuts, but for one decade their importance is decreasing gradually in Mainland, a little more in Taiwan. In both areas, red envelope a product of quick, funny and ephemere use has found a stronger impact in a more and more urbanised society in which as well other commercial products use similar traditional themes (phone cards, commercial labels). A corpus of 433 envelopes and about one hundred images of similar documents show the complexity and permanence of the various themes and symbols used. Chronological and thematical instruments are useful instruments to explicite the meanings of these images which have a new social signification.

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