Visualising Constitutionalism in China

Author: Ernest Caldwell, Lecturer in Chinese Law at SOAS, University of London

About the Image

1954 Commemorative Stamp P.R.C.
Source:  Author’s Personal Collection


The photograph to the right is of a postage stamp commemorating the promulgation of the 1954 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China–the first official constitution promulgated after the fall of the nationalist government and the establishment of the PRC under the control of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.  To me, this image (as well as its medium) represents both the potential contributions of constitutionalism to the development of a newly established nation and the fragility of the very concept of ‘constitutionalism’.  As part of a larger project exploring constitutional imagery, here I examine this commemorative stamp by asking: How is constitutional imagery purposively constructed so as to associate specific developmental goals with the institution of a constitutional government?  How can this same imagery implicitly betray certain fallacies or anxieties within the very constitutional moment it is attempting to glorify?

The stamp image consists of four layers emanating out from the constitution.  At the core of the image rests the physical text of the constitution.  It is clutched tightly near the heart of one of the Chinese citizens.  This visual endearment of the constitution to the individual is meant to evoke not only a sense of the constitution’s acceptance by the people, but also the expectation that the constitution is to be the guiding force in the hearts of the Chinese.  At the same time, however, this positioning betrays the CCP’s anxiety over public acceptance (and legitimation) of the new constitution, and by extension, the very ideology of the ruling communist party.  The second layer consists of a man and woman dressed in the clothes of labourers.  They are meant to represent the sexual equality and egalitarianism enshrined within the very text of the constitution.  And yet, the image implicitly conveys the ongoing problematic of instituting and maintaining ‘equality’ between genders and socio-economic classes.  The man stands taller and is positioned slightly ahead of the woman, his outstretched hand directing the gaze of both.  This subtle reading resonates with the situation in China today where gender-based discrimination continues to thrive despite the CCP’s efforts to legislate equality.  Similarly, the growing divide between rich and poor in China today does not resonate with the simple and rustic clothing of the two individuals, which is meant to evoke a sense of equality between social classes.  The third layer is represented by the flags of the PRC.  Like the gazes and outstretched arm of the individuals, the flags too point upward toward ‘progress’.  Their positioning ahead of the citizens and the constitution implies that the State plays a strong role in guiding the people.  This strength is highlighted by the fact that the flags are bellicosely topped with sharp spear-like points.  Finally, in the outermost layer, one sees the means of development: industrialization and increased agricultural production.  Small images of a smoking factory and a sprawling farm are set forward and slightly toward the bottom.  The forward positioning is indicative of their importance, yet the lower placement conveys a belief that industry and agriculture support the endeavours of the State and the people.  The CCP went to great lengths to develop these two sectors of the economy as they were considered to be the key sources of economic progress.  The desire to hasten such progress through unrealistic State-planned economic policies resulted in the agriculturally disastrous Great Leap Forward of the 1950s.  Furthermore, the emphasis on heavy industry as a vehicle towards economic progress notoriously continues today despite the heavy, and clearly visible, environmental consequences.

Multiple interpretations of an image are inevitable once it is made public.  Looking at this stamp today, I see all four layers combining to construct the Chinese Party-State’s burgeoning vision of a constitution-led model of development.  Yet within the fine lines of the image lurks the anxieties of the CCP over this new constitutional order.  The PRC has existed for nearly sixty years as constitutional government and has promulgated a total of four constitutions (1954, 1975, 1978, and 1982).  And yet, the constitutional ideals celebrated in this stamp have yet to be realised.