Calendar beauty: Changing tastes in popular culture

Calendar beauty:  Changing tastes in popular culture

There are several ways to approach a rich image such as this calendar portrait of a woman, done by the Shanghai-based artist Xie Zhiguang (謝之光, 1900-1976.)  Here we will work through a few in succession, starting from the visual qualities of the image and working our way towards the historical context in which it was produced.

I:  Reading the visual elements

Though we live in a highly visual culture, most of us are not particularly well trained in how to decode the non-verbal cues around us in a systematic way.  An excellent website designed to help teach the fundamentals of visual awareness is Pomona College’s On-line Visual Literacy Project,   Spend some time browsing this site, playing the animations, and familiarizing yourself with the basic visual building blocks of an image.

Then turn to the portrait here, and describe it in terms of each of these visual elements (line, hue, texture, saturation, dimension (including light and shadow), etc.)  What sorts of impressions do these elements create in the viewer?  What kinds of possible intellectual or psychological responses?

Xie Zhiguang was one of the most talented artists working in commercial advertisement at the time.  He produced line drawings and watercolors for newspaper ads, magazine covers and calendar illustrations, but also maintained a separate body of work in traditional Chinese ink painting.  After 1949 he put many of the techniques he had developed for calendar illustration to use designing political posters celebrating the PRC and Mao Zedong, but he largely managed to survive the political turmoil of the late 1950s and 1960s by concentrating on his work in traditional ink painting.  Until the recent revival of interest in calendar illustrations and Republican popular culture, it was the latter work for which he was best known in China.

II: Reading the content

Now let’s move from the style of the image to its content.  Consider the following elements and how they contribute to the overall effect of the piece:

  • The woman’s expression.  Where is her gaze directed?  How is she holding her lips?

  • What is the arrangement of her hands? The rest of her body?

  • How would you describe her clothing style?  Her hair and makeup style?  What parts strike you as “Chinese” and what parts “Western”, and why?

  • Read the section on clothing history in the Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, paying particularly close attention to the variations within the section on “Twentieth Century Changes”: Revisit the previous question again, and see if your answers change at all.

  • What are the details about this figure that catch your eye the most?

III:  Reading the context

Though many specific qualities of this image – its style, the clothing and look of the figure, and so on – bring us straight to 1929 Shanghai, in fact the history of the pictorial calendar (yuefenpai 月份牌) as a genre predates this period, and continues to this day.  Advertising calendars represent the coming together of several Chinese and imported forms. 

One was nianhua (年畫), the decorative woodblock prints sold at New Year’s and other times through the year.  These most often depicted deities, folk heroes and heroines, auspicious emblems or the symbols of the zodiac, and sometimes also featured a calendar.  Usually such single-sheet hanging calendars (as opposed to almanacs or other calendrical forms) placed the dates at the top, and an auspicious pictorial design at the bottom.  For more on nianhua, visit the Nianhua Gallery by James Flath at the University of Western Ontario:

In addition, printed pictorial advertisements were not unknown in China prior to the 19th century; examples have been found dating back to the Song dynasty.  The growth of the pictorial press in the late 19th century broadened the advertising market and introduced new illustrative techniques, including photolithography.  Finally, in the early 20th century, all these forms were radically modified by the introduction of European and American marketing methods via foreign capitalist enterprises, primarily in Shanghai.  British and American companies – most notably manufacturers of tobacco, pharmaceutical and beauty products – organized art departments and began printing lithographed calendar posters for their clients, as they had for their customers back home.  But the products were for Chinese consumers – not foreigners – and the results showed a hybrid mixture of all of the above influences.

Competing Chinese manufacturers soon joined in, and by the 20s and 30s many of the country’s most skillful illustrators worked in advertising, combining Chinese painting techniques with Art Deco design elements, oil painting, and other styles.  Each had his specialty (most, though not all, calendar illustrators were male.)  Many calendars depicted women, but some showed characters from popular novels, performers like the Chinese opera megastar Mei Lanfang, Sun Yat-sen and other political figures, or even seemingly “traditional” subjects such as the bodhisattva Guanyin – though now, instead of being portrayed to inspire devotion, she was being drawn to sell cigarettes!

The truth is, however, that calendar advertisements are such rich artifacts precisely because their multiplicity of images invites debate.  How might the customers who displayed the Guanyin poster really used it, or thought of it?  In our poster here, which image is more prominent, the product or the “calendar beauty”?  What does that imply both about the advertising standards of the genre, and about the appeal of these posters to their intended audience?

For more on the history of calendar advertisements and a guide to some of the images they used, visit this page within the University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization:

IV: Thinking about audience

Now that we’ve looked at the “calendar beauty” from these various angles, take a moment to think about how she might have been viewed by possible members of her contemporary audience.  To suggest a few possibilities of persons who might have seen such a calendar, can you characterize the impressions of:

  • The China Petroleum Company agents who might have had the calendar hanging in their office

  • A well-to-do Shanghai banker, who received a calendar as a bonus when his servants purchased substantial amounts of kerosene for his French Concession home

  • His twenty-year-old daughter, who found the calendar and hung it in her bedroom

  • A twenty-year-old migrant from Anhui province, who caught a glimpse of the calendar through the petroleum agent’s window one day on her way into the city in search of a job

  • The itinerant scrap-paper collector who collects used calendars, newspapers and other waste paper for re-use, resale and recycling

  • Someone who might use the calendar to seal a crack in a poorly-insulated house wall come wintertime

  • The artist Xie Zhiguang himself

  • The company that commissioned his work


Calendars and Prints:

Ellen Johnston Laing. Selling Happiness: Calendar Posters and Visual Culture in Early-Twentieth-Century Shanghai. Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.  A comprehensive history of the development and significance of the calendar advertisement, this study includes a chapter on the career and work of Xie Zhiguang.  Much of the background information above is drawn from chapter 1.

Leo Ou-fan Lee. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930-1945.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pages 76-80 provide a brief but very evocative “reading” of Republican calendar posters.

Exhibition of Chinese New Year Prints at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology: Another nianhua site.


Antonia Finnane. “What Should Chinese Women Wear? A National Problem,” in Dress, Sex and Text in Chinese Culture, edited by Antonia Finnane and Anne McClaren. Clayton: Monash Asia Institute, 1999.

Valerie Steele and John S. Major, ed. China Chic: East Meets West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

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