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The Emergence of Chinese Cartoons

The term manhua (cartoon) was borrowed from Japan and first used in China by Feng Zikai (1898–1975) in May 1925,[60] though the art and its techniques were known as early as the late Qing era. As was the case with spoken drama, cartoons were very much an urban phenomenon before the war, their rise closely associated with the emergence of the urban press.

The Chinese periodical press emerged in the late nineteenth century from a blending of the styles of traditional periodicals such as the Beijing gazettes (known as Jing bao) and Western-style newspapers and magazines.[61] As the Western-style commercial newspapers arose in the treaty ports of late Qing China, a new type of political press was launched by such pioneers as Wang Tao (1828–1897) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929) to introduce new ideas and call for radical reforms.[62] Borrowing novel approaches from the West to enhance its prestige and sales, the Chinese press underwent various changes in both format and content. The fact that the Western press often supplemented articles with illustrations had a special impact.[63] Such a feature, as the editor of The 1908 Pictorial (Wushen quannian huabao) frankly admitted, "can greatly enhance the people's wisdom and broaden their horizons."[64] Within short order, illustrations began to appear in profusion in Chinese newspapers and magazines. Many focusing on current events and drawing on popular sources for their appeal, had a distinct social and political overtone. Wu Youru's famous drawings in Dianshi Studio Pictorial (Dianshizhai huabao —the first Chinese pictorial, founded in 1884) were a case in point.[65] A visual record of the decay of Qing society and the political conflicts of the time, his work added a new and refreshing dimension to the Chinese press. Yet despite the pioneering quality of Wu's efforts, in the end his illustrations were, as cartoonist Ye Qianyu (1907-) pointed out, merely a kind of "recording picture" (jilu hua):[66] they portrayed current scenes in a realistic fashion and incorporated little of the exaggeration and satire commonly associated with cartoons today.

Like the English word cartoon,[67] the Chinese term manhua defies simple definition. Both before the war and since, it has been endowed with a wide range of meaning. To some, the manhua was a satirical graphic art form that used distortion and exaggeration to lay bare


life's absurdities.[68] But to others, a cartoon was a kind of "social art" whose content related closely to the life of the common people.[69] Despite this ambiguity, however, cartoonists seemed to agree on three essential, albeit rather general, ingredients of the manhua. First, cartoons were a new graphic art form drawn with economy of line but replete with powerful ideas. Second, they typically featured exaggerated or ludicrous representations of events or persons. And finally, a cartoon's success lay in the thought it embodied, not artistic adroitness As Feng Zikai put it, "To draw a cartoon, you must first have ideas, and then practice your brush."[70]

The rise of cartoons in twentieth-century China grew also from an older tradition, traceable to various unorthodox paintings of early times.[71] Yet cartoons' modern traits and distinctive techniques received their greatest inspiration from Japan and the West. Since the days of William Hogarth (1697–1764), James Gillray (1756–1815), and Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), cartoonists have taken on the task of recording major events of their time. For cartoonists are not only artists but also critical social observers and commentators, displaying in their works a great sensitivity to contemporary issues. Just as Daumier, the "Historian of the Bourgeois Government," for example, vividly depicted the decadent life of nineteenth-century French monarchists, clerics, and parvenus, so did Chinese cartoonists faithfully record the turmoils of their nation in the early twentieth century. Their drawings provide a remarkable social history of China during the waning days of the Qing, reflecting a deep national malaise brought on by government ineptitude and continuing foreign imperialism. Known by such names as "satirical drawings" (fengci hua) or "allegorical pictures" (yuyi hua),[72] cartoons were vociferous in their denunciations of the moribund Qing government (fig. 1).

With the publication of its first cartoon magazine, Shanghai Punch (Shanghai poke), in September 1918, China saw the art of the cartoon come of age. The magazine's founder and editor, Shen Bochen (1889–1920), was, along with Huang Wennong (1903–1934), one of the most influential cartoonists of his generation. A passionate and patriotic man, Shen used his cartoons to attack the warlord government and portray the social and political upheavals of the early Republican era.[73]

Chinese cartoons made great strides in the 1920s and 1930s. An array of specialized magazines such as Modern Cartoons (Shidai manhua; originally titled Modern Sketch) and Independent Cartoons (Duli manhua) thrived in Shanghai, and cartoons also began to appear


Fig. 1.
"Two Faces: Domestic and International." The cartoon ridicules
the Manchu government's double-dealing policy of brutal
suppression at home but abject submission to foreign powers.
From Bi Keguan,"Jindai baokan manhua,"
XWYJZL 8 (November 1981): 74;
originally printed in The 1908

in major general-interest journals, including the Eastern Miscellany (Dongfang zazhi), Analects (Lunyu), and Cosmic Wind (Yuzhou feng).[74] Newspapers added special cartoon sections, and magazines actively solicited submissions from their readers.[75] Simultaneously, in the mid-1920s a new breed of cartoonists began to emerge. The Cartoon Association (Manhua hui), China's first society dedicated to the art form, made its debut in the autumn of 1927 in Shanghai. Founded by Ding Song (1891–1972), Zhang Guangyu (1900–1964), Wang Dunqing (1899-), and Ye Qianyu, the association had eleven members initially, most of whom were novices who shared a common interest in trying a new technique and testing a new field. These young artists used their exuberant creative energy to establish caricature as an acceptable art form, hoping to gain recognition from the established an circle. Indeed, the launching of the Cartoon Association was an important event in the history of Chinese cartoons. Not only did the association nurture a certain esprit de corps among an otherwise


loosely organized group of artists, but also, through its adoption of the term manhua, it sought to give its new craft a standard name, hoping to sweep away the various other terms that had been used for "cartoon"[76] By so doing, the association hoped to raise, in Wang Dunqing's words, "the standard of the cartoon art.[77] The Cartoon Association was the first of many such organizations to emerge in China before the war.[78] The rise in the 1920s and 1930s of many training classes and correspondence schools dedicated to the art of the cartoon, oriented to the next generation of artists, was a further reflection of interest.[79]

With the publication in 1935 of Personal Essays and Cartoons (Xiaopinwen he manhua), a special anthology commissioned by the respected literary journal Venus (Taibai) in Shanghai,[80] cartoons seemed finally to come into their own. Edited by Chen Wangdao (1890–1977; best known for his translation of Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto into Chinese in April 1920) and with more than fifty contributors, the book was important to cartoonists in two respects. First, it recognized the cartoon as an important art form equal to that of the personal essay (xiaopinwen). Second, it attracted important writers like Lu Xun (1881–1936) and cartoonists like Feng Zikai to engage in thoughtful exchanges about what had formerly been regarded as an unworthy art. Lu Xun, long an avid advocate of such "lowbrow" art as woodcuts and serial illustrations, praised cartoons highly in his two articles for the anthology. Cartoons dealt with realistic aspects of life, Lu Xun said, "and because they are realistic, they are extremely powerful."[81]

The 1930s can be considered the golden age of Chinese cartoons. In the short span of less than three years from September 1934 to the eve of the Sino-Japanese War, nineteen cartoon publications sprang up in Shanghai.[82] Although many were relatively short-lived, lasting only one or two issues, cartoon magazines enjoyed increasing popularity. Often exquisitely designed or adorned with color covers (Independent Cartoons, for example), each vied with the others for readers and advertisers. The two best-known magazines were certainly Modern Cartoons and Independent Cartoons, edited respectively by Lu Shaofei (1903-) and Zhang Guangyu. The former lasted thirty-nine issues (January 1934–June 1937), becoming the longest-running cartoon magazine before the war. It enjoyed a national reputation, publishing works by cartoonists all over China.[83]

Like new spoken dramas, cartoons thrived in Western-influenced urban centers, providing a pleasant diversion for the acquisitive mid-


dle class. And as was true for spoken dramas, Shanghai became the center for Chinese cartoonists, attracting just about every aspiring talent in the country. In fact, very few cartoon magazines were published outside Shanghai, Tianjin Cartoons (Tianjin manhua) and Guangzhou's Half-Angle Cartoons (Banjiao manhua) being two well-known exceptions.[84] These publications, one cartoonist wrote in 1938, were directed at "xiao shimin [merchants, clerks, or urbanities in general] and intellectuals."[85]

Another sign of maturity of Chinese cartoons was the increasing emphasis among cartoonists on developing individual styles, both to gain recognition and to capture the public's attention. In the 1930s, many cartoonists—notably Ye Qianyu and Zhang Leping (1910–1992)—attempted to create their own unique styles through their fictional characters, endowing them with a new personality and placing them within a specific social context. Ye Qianyu's famous comic strip "Mr. Wang" ("Wang xiansheng"), for example, which debuted in Shanghai Cartoons (Shanghai manhua; originally titled Shanghai Sketch) in 1928, enjoyed enormous popularity. Mr. Wang and his foil Little Chen were typical middle-class Chinese who, living in a rapidly changing world, seemed to experience the whole gamut of sensations offered by the modern city life—luxury, gluttony, pleasure seeking, even deceit (fig. 2).[86] Ye's equally famous sequel "The Unofficial History of Little Chen in Nanjing" ("Xiao Chen liu Jing waishi"), appearing in 1936, was a devastating exposeé of a corrupt government.[87] In contrast to the work of Ye Qianyu, Zhang Leping's comic strip "San Mao" focused on the downtrodden. It depicted the woeful life of a vagrant urchin roaming the streets of Shanghai. Through this city boy's myriad mishaps, Zhang expressed the anguish of the common people caught in a morass of misfortune.[88]

The popularity of prewar cartoons climaxed when the First National Cartoon Exhibition was held in Shanghai in September 1936. The show, initiated by Lu Shaofei, Ye Qianyu, and Zhang Guangyu,


Fig. 2.
Ye Qianyu, "Avoiding Creditors at the New Year" (from "Mr. Wang"). Mr. Wang
finds himself heavily in debt with the New Year approaching. To avoid his creditors,
especially the biggest one, Little Chen, he and his wife decide to plant an
advertisement in the newspaper. Issued in Mrs. Wang's name, the ad gives the
impression that Mr. Wang has left home without a trace. When Little Chen departs
after comforting Mrs. Wang, Mr. Wang emerges from his hideout, the sutra
chanting room. From Ye Qianyu, Ye Qianyu manhua xuan—sanshi niandai dao
sishi niandai (Shanghai: Renmin meishu chubanshe, 1985), pp. 1–2.


displayed well over six hundred cartoons from artists all over the country. The overwhelming success of the exhibition prompted the cartoonists to form a National Association of Chinese Cartoonists (Zhonghua quanguo manhua zuojia xiehui) in the spring of 1937. The association was intended to "unite all cartoonists in the nation, to promote cartoons as an art form, and to use them as an educational tool."[89] A few months later, however, the war brought a temporary halt to the blossoming cartoon movement.

As the specter of the Japanese invasion loomed ever larger in the early 1930s cartoonists began to focus attention on the exact nature and role of their art. Should the cartoon be looked upon merely as a diverting commercial product of mass consumption? Or should it carry specific social messages, perhaps serving as a propaganda tool to resist outside aggression? Nowhere was this concern more evident than in the cartoonists' intensifying campaigns against what Lu Xun called "erotic cartoons" (seqing manhua).[90] In the 1930s, to meet the city dwellers' growing appetite for entertainment and pleasure, publishers came out with ever more drawings of women displaying their breasts and couples making[91] Low-cost books such as Shanghai in Cartoons (Manhua Shanghai), which portrayed numerous scenes of debauchery in that city, also gained popularity.[92] Even pioneers like Ye Qianyu and Lu Shaofei occasionally indulged in this genre in their early careers. Ye's piece "Snake and Woman" ("She yu furen"), for example, which appeared on the cover of Shanghai Cartoons in 1928, showed a naked, voluptuous woman caressing a python.[93]

As these erotic images began to flood the market, critics denounced them as a decadent art and began to call loudly for an end to pornography.[94] To many Chinese cartoonists, the burgeoning of erotic cartoons was indeed an alarming sign. This art, they felt, in openly preaching moral degradation and advocating sexual dalliance, was causing irreparable harm to society. Not only did these cartoons sully the integrity of artists, but they also corrupted the minds of the younger generation. At a time when the Japanese invasion seemed imminent, cartoonist Zhang E (1910-) wrote, instead of producing vulgar pictures (in his words, "displaying women's alluring thighs and soft bosoms") to satisfy the voyeuristic needs of readers, cartoonists should use their craft to portray the harsh social reality and expose the "imperialists' conspiracy to carve up China."[95] To Zhang E, radical cartoonist who later went to Yan'an, the cartoon's main function was to enlighten, not to entertain.[96]

Erotic cartoons were not without their defenders, however. Wang


Dunqing, a pivotal figure in the early cartoon movement, was one of the few who questioned this campaign against so-called degenerate art. The obscenity charge, he said, was often exaggerated and inaccurate. Consider how much of Western art dealt with themes that were overtly or covertly erotic, Wang reminded his fellow artists. The Western tradition had produced many great painters of the nude. At a certain level, it was extremely difficult to distinguish between art and pornography. Moreover, "sex was part of natural human desire" and one should not feel ashamed to discuss it.[97] Yet Wang's voice, which echoed the May Fourth Movement's romantic glorification of subjective human passions, was soon drowned out by fervent demands that cartoons be put at the disposal of politics. Although the campaign against erotic cartoons came to an end when the war erupted in July 1937, the central issues raised in this debate—what was the role of a cartoonist and what was the purpose of cartoons—continued to occupy the minds of Chinese artists. And part of the answer came from the West.

The West and Japan clearly exerted a strong influence on the modern Chinese cartoon movement. Examples abound: Shen Bochen's Western-inspired works, drawn with a pen and in distinct black-and-white style, for one.[98] While Feng Zikai's lyrical cartoons are reminiscent of the drawings of such Japanese painters as Hokusai (1760–1849) and Takehisa Yumeji (1884–1934), Zhang Guangyu's hero was Miguel Covarrubias (1904–1957), Cai Ruohong (1910-) admired George Grosz (1893–1959), and Te Wei (1915-) named David Low (1891–1963) as his chief influence. A large array of Western cartoons began to appear in Chinese magazines and newspapers in the early decades of this century.[99] The editor of Shanghai's prestigious Modern Cartoons, Lu Shaofei, a man more noted for his organizing skill than for his craft, was tireless in introducing both Western cartoons and theories to his readers.[100] The publication of works by Francisco de Goya (1746–1828), Daumier, Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), Covarrubias, Low, and others—artists who, in addition to having innovative techniques, also held strong social and political views—spurred a Western craze among young Chinese artists.[101] It was a time of borrowing and assimilation, with aspiring cartoonists zealously imitating and identifying with individual Western masters. The result was a genuine transformation not only of their art but also of their way of looking at life and ultimately their method of presenting it.

Although young Chinese cartoonists were assiduous students of the West, they were by no means servile followers. In the 1930s,


motivated by a desire to be independent and sparked by growing nationalistic sentiments, they emphasized appropriation rather than blind imitation. Many later emerged as distinguished artists themselves, demonstrating a high degree of originality and ingenuity in their blending of Eastern and Western traditions. These Chinese artists also placed a high value on the social accountability of the Western masters they studied.

Francisco de Goya, for example, was more than a great Spanish painter; he was also a resolute antiwar hero, a revolutionary artist who used his craft to vent his wrath against the follies and cruelty of mankind. Goya's work was introduced into China when the Japanese invasion was looming. Understandably, therefore, it was not Goya the successful court painter who drew the attention of his Chinese followers, but Goya the depicter of haunting images of senseless killing and human misery in wartime.

Goya's most influential piece of work in China was unquestionably The Disasters of War (1810–1820).[102] A set of eighty-two etchings concerning Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808, The Disasters of War is a masterpiece about death, destruction, and the violence of warfare. In the eyes of Lu Xun and others, Goya was at his best when depicting, through the use of visceral visual imagery, a world ruled by terror and chaos.[103] Perhaps even more inspiring to them was the fact that Goya, despite his numerous painful scenes in The Disasters of War, was able to paint the defiant Spanish people mounting fierce resistance against the invaders. These heroic pictures (in which women are often portrayed with greater valor than men) no doubt served as a morale booster to the beleaguered Chinese people.[104]

"Goya's style was a model to be emulated," wrote art critic Chen Yifan (Jack Chen, 1908-).[105] But it was the German artist Käthe Kollwitz who related war to life and redefined the concept of art as a tool for social change. Her work proved especially appealing to young Chinese artists. While Goya depicted the tragedy of war, Kollwitz dwelt on the plight of the common people suffering hunger, sickness, and social wrongs. Influenced by Goya and like the great Spanish artist, Kollwitz is not a cartoonist in the modern sense of the word. Her major contributions lay in etching, lithography, and woodcuts, and her influence in China during the war was primarily in the last area. Such young woodcut artists as Li Hua (1907-) and Wang Qi (1918-) count among the disciples of the German artist.[106]

Lu Xun first introduced Kollwitz's work into China in September 1931 when he published her woodcut Sacrifice in the journal The Big


Dipper (Beidou) to commemorate the death of Rou Shi (1901–1931), a young woodcut student and writer who had been executed by the GMD.[107] Lu Xun never hesitated to express his admiration for the German graphic artist. Not only did he share Kollwitz's ideas on war and peace, but he also felt the same frustrations at living in a society beset by political violence and social injustice. According to Lu Xun, Kollwitz's prints evinced a close emotional affinity with all those who were "being humiliated and persecuted."[108] Kollwitz's radical art and her advocacy for the victims of injustice won her wide admiration among left-wing artists. To them, Kollwitz's artistic achievement far surpassed that of Goya. After all, Goya never idealized the Spanish proletariat.[109]

Before and during the war, Chinese artists embraced the German cartoonist Grosz as a keen observer of society and a courageous opponent of fascism.[110] Grosz, whose drawings chronicle the crumbling of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism, believed that the role of the artist was to depict societal and political problems as accurately as possible. His criticism of the resurgence of militarism in Germany and his blistering attacks on Nazism proved a great inspiration to Chinese cartoonists. His works were widely reprinted in Chinese magazines, including his famous piece The White General (1922), which portrays a vicious Nazi general brandishing his long sword and brutally slaughtering innocent people.[111] The cartoonist Zhang Ding (1917-) called Grosz "a patriotic rebel who dares to expose the evils of Nazism."[112]

Grosz had many followers in China, most notably Cai Ruohong and Lu Zhixiang (1910-1992). Using a scratchy pointed pen similar to Grosz's, both Cai and Lu combined simple, coarse, but powerful graphic lines to achieve a forceful composition. Cai's style resembled Grosz's so closely that he was nicknamed "China's new Grosz."[113] Yet Cai did have his own personal style. More than his German mentor, for example, he employed large areas of black hatching to give his cartoons a solemn, bitter tone. One of the few cartoonists who received traditional art training at the Shanghai Art School (Shanghai meishu zhuanke xuexiao), Cai came under the influence of socialism early in his life.[114] He joined the League of the Left-Wing Artists in 1930, and in 1939 he went to Yan'an to teach at the Lu Xun Academy of Art.

If Grosz taught a unique way to depict societal problems, David Low demonstrated how to produce biting cartoons about international events.[115] In both style and content, Chinese wartime cartoonists were perhaps more heavily influenced by David Low than by George


Grosz. His criticisms of fascism in general and the Nazi regime in particular certainly won Low world fame, as well as the special hatred of Adolf Hitler.[116]

Extolled by the cartoon critic Huang Mao (1918-) as "the world's greatest cartoonist," Low was introduced into China in the 1920s.[117] Yet it was not until the War of Resistance that "Dawei Luo" became almost a household name.[118] Low's impact in China was considerable. His art proved especially influential in a number of ways. First, Low focused primarily on international issues, a new area for Chinese artists and one for which they had few models. Second, a surprisingly large number of cartoons produced by Low during the war years (the "years of wrath," as Low called them) were about East Asia.[119] In particular, his vivid chronicle of Japanese brutality in China provided the tormented Chinese with much-needed psychological support, reminding them that their suffering did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world. Third, Low's bold black-and-white brushwork, combined with a simple yet assertive style, bore a close resemblance to the techniques of East Asian painting. Finally, Low was more than just a cartoonist: he was a cartoon theorist as well, one of the few artists who made people think seriously about caricature. His discussion of the close relation between literature and the cartoon bolstered Chinese cartoonists in their fight to elevate their art.[120] Perhaps what appealed to the Chinese most was Low's determination to impart new life into the cartoon, completely reshaping the nature of this important visual art. Like Grosz, Low had many followers in China, Te Wei being perhaps the best known.[121] Te Wei's forte was depicting international conflicts and Axis-camp barbarism, and his favorite targets were, predictably, Japanese militarists and Hitler.[122]

The Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias offered something very different to his Chinese readers: a pure artistic style rich in variation and intensity. Covarrubias's caricatures, which bore the unmistakable imprint of both Pablo Picasso and other Cubists and the geometric motifs of Mexican Indian decorative arts, were introduced into China in the 1920s. To budding Chinese cartoonists, Covarrubias's work provided a refreshing contrast to that of Grosz and Low. His cartoons had a rich, flamboyant style rare in his generation. His portraits, always executed with great care, had a distinct three-dimensional, sculptural presence, providing an animated visual history of famous figures from around the world (as in his celebrated series "Impossible Interviews").[123] In sharp contrast to Grosz's sarcastic social commentary and Low's powerful political images, Covarrubias's pieces were


elegant and graceful. They were looked upon by the Chinese, and correctly so, as a polished art form rather than as an instrument of political satire and social reform.[124] The fact that Covarrubias was the only noted Western cartoonist to have visited China (in the fall of 1933) made his impact even more immediate.[125] Young artists such as Zhang Guangyu, Ye Qianyu, and Liao Bingxiong were fascinated by Covarrubias's smooth, ornamental lines.[126]

Among Covarrubias's Chinese followers, none was more prominent than Zhang Guangyu. Indeed Zhang, who strove to elevate the cartoon to the rank of fine art in the 1920s and 1930s, was without question one of the most influential figures in the modern Chinese cartoon movement, founding cartoon magazines (such as Shanghai Cartoons in 1928) and establishing cartoon associations. Zhang initiated his own style by borrowing various ideas, including bright colors and sharply defined elements from Chinese folk art tradition and Covarrubias's geometrical abstraction.[127] Like the Mexican artist, Zhang effected a calculated quality in his work that one does not normally associate with caricature.

When the war with Japan erupted, Covarrubias-style cartoons, which had little political content, were immediately replaced by patriotic drawings. Covarrubias's effort to reestablish the cartoon as an art form rather than as political commentary thus failed miserably in China, a nation now engulfed by fervent nationalism. Chinese cartoonists thus turned for inspiration increasingly to political cartoonists in the West, who had much to teach about witnessing and depicting such horrors as were about to descend.[128]

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