The Fascinating History of Shanghai’s Cigarette Posters

by . April 13th, 2016

These classic posters from a bygone era continue to inspire.

The soft, faded lines, intricate detailing, and the strange proportions of vintage Chinese posters might look strange to contemporary Western designers, especially when the idea of ” good advertisement poster design” as taught in design schools has trended towards the minimalist in the past half a century.


Sun Tobacco Company

Pre-War Shanghai posters are as distinct a genre as anything that came out of Europe in the years between the 1880’s through the 1930’s. Unconventional and sloppy by Western standards, these unique works of advertising art are nevertheless a cultural treasure, not just for China, but the entire world.


Kohojo Tablets, 1931

Originally intended as ephemeral promotions for the vast array of products that flooded China’s forcibly opened economy, these ads have had a lasting influence in the region that could still be seen in some ways today.


Nanyang Brothers Tobacco, 1931

Even while they showcased “the modern woman” in the urban Chinese context, many of these advertisements were already outdated by Western standards by the time they appeared in the 1920’s.

However, they also represented a fusion of Oriental and Occidental styles that was unprecedented. If you look at Chinese art from the late 19th century and Western Art Nouveau and Art Deco from the 1880’s through the 1920’s, it’s clear that these posters were heavily influenced by those styles.


Nanyang Brothers Tobacco Co. Ltd Zhou Baisheng 1920

Shanghai, already a large international economic center back then in the 1920’s, was ground zero for these varied and often risque advertisements. The most common product advertised by far was cigarettes. Smoking after all, was seen as the mark of the “modern woman” at the time. But while tobacco ads dominated the genre, nearly every consumer product available at the time was marketed with these posters at some point.


Earth Brand Fly and Insect Spray c. 1930’s

Posters made plenty of sense as an advertising medium at the time. Most families in China did not own radios, so radio advertisements were relatively limited in utility. Large billboards were also used, but they were comparatively expensive.


Shanghai – A Prosperous City That Never Sleeps Yuan Xiutang c. 1930s

Most of these posters were somewhat sexualized, not unlike many print ads today. The recurring theme of a smiling girl in a tight cheongsam or qipao – which was incidentally also invented in the same era – was thoroughly exhausted for every conceivable product.

Three Cats Virginia Cigarettes  - University of Washington Archives

Three Cats Cigarettes, c.1930’s, University of Washington Archives

After the end of WW2 and the rise of the Communist Party, the aesthetics of these capitalist instruments nonetheless made their way into socialist art, albeit with some influences from the Constructivist styles that were popular with Soviet propagandists.


Long Live Chairman Mao, the Reddest Sun in Our Hearts, 1967

Advertisements in this style continued to persist at least through the 1960’s even as styles more familiar to us today began to emerge.

Ghost market - Beijing by  David Reed Thomas

Ghost Market – Beijing by  David Reed Thomas 

We no longer see new poster designs for advertisements in this style even in China these days, but their influences can still be seen now and then, especially in East Asia. Thanks to a revival in interest, more authentic copies of these posters have been documented, and reproductions are now more popular ever.


Sean McCabe, Ferrari, for The Wall Street Journal, 2012

But even this popularity pales compared to the demand for copies of popular European poster examples from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco era.  As time marches on, more original copies are lost to us. One hopes in the near future, vintage and antique posters from early-to-mid 20th century China get the worldwide recognition they deserve.


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Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.