Envisioning the future of China – circa 1960s

3 min read

During the 1960’s, China was at a crossroads when it came to envisioning the future. On the one hand, the country was recovering from the shock’s of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” – a program of rapid industrialization and collectivization that led to widespread famine and millions of deaths. On the other, the country was still looking ahead to a future where modernization and better living was possible through technological progress. And with the USSR withdrawing support for various programs and its technical experts from the country, China needed to look inward to find its way forward.

And as it turns out, China’s predictions of what the future might look like were quite similar to how people in other nations were imagining it. Nowhere is this more clear than with a series of futuristic magazine covers from Popular Science, China’s own version of the American publication Popular MechanicsIn fact, on the issue pictured at the above left, we see an image of a flying car that is almost identical to an illustration from the cover of Popular Mechanics and the British publication Meccano from the same period.

China Magazine 1962

Far from being a mere imitation of Western designs – something that Chinese auto and industrial manufactures do masterfully today – this representation appears to be something of a universal concept and predication back in the 1960’s. And according to Scott Minick and Jiao Ping, magazine covers like this and others like it were popular in China because they “freed people’s minds from the nation’s problems while suggesting undiscovered worlds that might soon be within easy reach.�?

In addition, China clearly drew a great deal of inspiration from Russia’s own accomplishment in space, seeing as how it too sought to demonstrate technological prowess by conquering the last frontier. This is evidenced by the cover (above right) that shows an artistic representation of the smiling Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Having been the first nation to send a man into space, China no doubt dreamed of a day when it too could produce cosmonauts that would be launch independently from their soil into to orbit, and possibly beyond. In this way, China hoped to become a contender in the ongoing space race that was heating up during the 1960s and growing beyond the polarized East-West competition of the Americans and Soviets.

China Magazine 1962

And judging by this other cover, featured at left, the Chinese that lived in the post-Leap period also had their own visions of what the future of aerospace and space travel would look like. In this picture, we see two swept-wing jets (or rocket-propelled craft) that bear a striking resemblance to the V1 and V2 rocket designs of the World War II era. However, these designs feature retractable wings on one ship, and rocket-mounted jet engines on the other.Though they could easily be weapons of war, these craft could also constitute what the Chinese thought the spacecraft of the future would look like. Such was the nature of technological innovation in the 1960s, with advancement in one field invariably leading to advancement in another.

These and other cover designs are being included by Minick and Ping in a book called Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century. In the context of this collection, these futurist depictions could best be described as of “Socialist Realism” due to the period in which they were created and the purpose they served. Basically, they are examples of people imaging a future that was bright and optimistic based on the belief that the revolution would deliver its followers to a “workers paradise”. Curious that such predictions matched many aspirations that were being held by Westerners at the time, people who were likewise looking to escape the dreary and oftentimes frightening reality they lived in.

Tony Simon

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