Illustrations on how to be a model citizen, inspired by Chinese propaganda posters from the 1980s
To be a "model citizen" in today's world, you have to keep socially distant, wear a mask indoors and wash your hands frequently to protect yourself and others from the virus. All sensible stuff when fighting a pandemic. But what about the stuff we were taught as children? Perhaps things that now don't make sense?
These questions have inspired New York-based illustrator Xinmei Liu to create a new "educational" book with lessons from her childhood in China which she later found "problematic". She points to supposed wisdom handed down from schoolteachers or parents such as "Be good at everything", "Rich people are not your friends" and "Boys don't cry!"
"The initial inspiration came from reflections on personal experiences when I realised that very little was taught to distinguish opinions from facts in my education," she tells Creative Boom. "My later experiences – my college years in a global setting, my distress with extreme divisions worldwide, my failed attempt to explain liberal ideas to my parents – called for a renaissance of critical thinking."
As Xinmei laid out her initial ideas and sketches, she found it more effective to approach the project with a universal rather than personal point of view. "I tried to question and evoke thoughts about conventional ideas on what constitutes 'good behaviour' and 'good values' in society," she explains. "These principles covered most aspects of my childhood and teenage life, including career choice, sex education and work ethic. In this series, I aimed to lay them out plainly, with humour and satire, and let the obvious fallacies expose themselves."
Many of these illustrations were inspired by propaganda posters in the 1980s and '90s in China when slogans and positive imagery were used to send out "black-and-white messages".
Funny enough, the project began before Covid-19 but influenced its development, as Xinmei explains: "It was impossible to predict the turn of events in the coming months when I started the project a year ago, but working on it gave me a chance to think about the challenges and responsibilities of a creator and communicator in this relatively new (and somewhat apocalyptic) order of the world."
She adds: "I always thought that it is important to speak a different voice in a homogenous society. Now I came to realise that it is even more important for everyone to start thinking critically about beliefs of their own and the opposite side. This is indeed the core purpose of 'Model Citizen Guidelines' – to bring critical thinking back to ourselves and to our children."
Born and raised in Shanghai, Xinmei Liu is an illustrator, printer and publisher based in Queens, New York City. She earned her MFA from the Illustration as Visual Essay programme at the School of Visual Arts. Her clients include The New York Times, Amazon Publishing, Scholastics, Medium, and Shanghai Museum. Her work is mostly focused on her cultural background, social issues, childhood experience and history.