The Dialectic Will Be Line Art

Looking for new startups. China, undated.

One measure of twentieth-century conceptual conflict over comics in China lies between the positions of literary critic Hu Feng and Mao Zedong. Hu Feng, an inheritor of the May 4th revolutionary tradition, argued that individual subjectivity provided the basis for responding to popular sentiment and political will.

Mao Zedong staked out a different position at the 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and the Arts. Drawing on Lenin as authority, Mao asserted that the necessary creative genesis of art lay in the service of the proletariat as manifested through ideological direction provided by the Communist Party. Mao called on artists and writers to eschew classical and Western influences and to embrace peasant and worker culture.  Mao established this line as party orthodoxy.

As John A. Lent and Xu Ying review in Comic Art in China, for insisting on the role of individual creative consciousness and artistic autonomy towards radical social change, Hu Feng became the poster boy of counter-revolutionary thought. Anti-Hu cartoons proliferated and the Beijing municipality mounted a cartoon exhibition against him.

The public campaign against his thought saw Hu imprisoned in 1955 for a first ten-year sentence and released from a second imprisonment only in 1979, broken mentally and physically. Hu died in 1985 and received posthumous political rehabilitation three years later.

Ironically, Hu’s emphasis on the value of individualism in the creation of art returned through the back door in Xi Jinping’s 2014 address to the Beijing Forum on Literature and Art, an occasion that consciously echoed Mao’s 1942 Yan’an talk. While Xi’s ideas facially resemble those of Mao in specifying caution towards foreign arts and the primacy of Party control, they differ significantly in Xi’s discussion of cultural marketplaces, art as product, a wide range of canonical Western literature and art, and Chinese arts as global competitors.

Unlike Mao and like Hu, Xi recognizes cultivation of individual talent as crucial if tempered by moral and ideological cultivation. Xi Jinping has triangulated the old dichotomization of Mao and Hu.

This ideological matrix of tension between individual art practice and collective ideology is crucial to the history that Lent and Xu describe in Comics Art in China. The book, rich with both colour and black-and-white illustrations, provides an intensive survey of different genres of comics and cartoons from the nineteenth through twenty-first centuries. It is especially valuable for incorporating a wealth of artist interview information accumulated over years.

That oral history often either guides or provides a corrective to available print history. The senior co-author, John Lent, is an exceedingly experienced guide to the inside world of Chinese comic art and has published extensively in this academic sub-discipline. His monograph Asian Comics already has provided interested readers with a country-by-country survey of comics history throughout east, southeast, and South Asia.

For those who are less familiar with Chinese visual culture, it is important to understand the differences between genres. Manhua are free-drawn cartoons; lianhuanhua are illustrated storybooks or serial comics, often slightly smaller than duodecimo size and having regional names.  Xinmanhua are modern manga-style comics that share this popular visual language. Chinese comics draw on a millennial artistic tradition but their rise as a publishing medium drew substantially on the influence of nineteenth-century imports by European imperialism. 

Punch and Puck magazines served as stylistic models for several short-lived journals beginning in the 1860s. Although Lent and Xu do not pursue cross-cultural comparisons, there were similar versions of Punch in Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati. Ritu Khanduri has written about the issues the colonial Indian government faced in dealing with the satirical content of these vernacular humour journals, but the influence of Punch in China appeared less political and more in keeping with introducing an international style.

Lianhuanhua developed rapidly in the early twentieth century after the establishment of the Republic in 1912.  As Lent and Xu document, by the 1920s and 1930s, there was a boom in cartooning that incorporated visual quotes from European modernism.

Chapter 2, filled with some brilliant images such as Zhang Ding’s powerful 1937 cover for Modern Sketch, discusses the growth of newspaper and magazine cartoons during the 1920s and 1930s. It pays attention to cartoonists such as Ye Qianyu and his lover Liang Baibo, Zhang Leping and his ‘Sanmao’ strips, Huang Yao of the ‘Nuibizi’ strips, Zhang Guangyu and the brief-lived Shanghai Manhua comic journal, pioneer woman cartoonist Yu Feng, and more.

The 1930s especially turned into a ‘golden era’ for the development of a Chinese cartoon culture, one that borrowed from Chinese, Western, and Japanese styles to create a hybrid aesthetic. Many of these cartoonists were to join anti-Japanese cartoon teams during the war, translating pre-war social concerns into a visual language of popular mobilization. Huang Yao was especially notable as one such young left-wing artist who turned his attention to anti-Japanese themes, but dozens of cartoonists – most of them in their twenties – made a similar shift of focus.

While Lent and Xu include the critical writing of Louise Edwards in their bibliography, perhaps more might have been made here of her observations on the masculinism observed within wartime resistance cartoons appearing in the National Salvation Cartoons and War of Resistance Cartoons magazines.

Edwards argued that in drawing degraded images of raped and murdered Chinese women, cartoonists such as Zhang Leping and Cai Ruohong converted these naked bodies into “expendable wartime commodities” in order to elicit enraged resistance.  She concludes that the magazines, replete with images of mutilated, dying and dead naked women, spoke to “the attitudes of the young cartoonists of the Propaganda Corps on gender, militarized violence, and propaganda.”

The fact that these cartoons participated in popular resistance to Japanese imperialism does not exempt them from criticisms of their representations of women as national possessions.

Chapter 3 addresses cartoons as weapons of mass mobilization and ideological struggle from the 1930s through the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. This period has received perhaps the most attention in Western critical literature since Chinese cartooning demonstrated its substantial political power during these years.

In 1937, the Kuomintang government established the National Salvation Cartoon Propaganda Corps that attracted many of the artists who first gained publication earlier in the decade. Despite having to retreat from city to city because of Japanese advances, the Corps employed a wide variety of forms (leaflets, newspapers, posters) and locations (walls, posting boards) to communicate its messages.

The government ended the Corps in 1940, a decision consonant with the Kuomintang’s general inability to turn art into effective propaganda purposes. Art production of course continued but its terms changed, not only towards the ‘Sinicization’ and new-found reliance on an adapted classicism that Lent and Xu identify but toward a social domain where aesthetic and message became inseparable. They merge as a symbolic visual tautology, as in Mu Yilong’s 1941 cartoon “A Viper Wriggles Southward” where a long snake passes through the Great Wall to describe the Japanese invasion. 

The Communist Party paid close attention to cartoons and their ideological content, and Mao Zedong met with cartoonists after a 1942 exhibition. Although Mao’s Yan’an speech of that year sought to merge politics and aesthetics, it is debatable whether his ideas constituted perceptive leadership or a response to exigent circumstances demanding the use of every potential resource. The mystification of Mao contributes to ambiguous interpretation of this point.

While artists such as Hua Junwu certainly responded to Mao’s critique as politico-aesthetic leadership that reshaped their own work, one can argue that such diktats towards shaping visual representation into a blunt attack instrument actually suppressed experiments that might have produced effective results. The ‘command aesthetics’ formulated during the war attempted to impose a uniformity that was formative in the post-war decades following the establishment of the People’s Republic.      

Although estimates differ on the number of war cartoonists, there were certainly hundreds involved in the different propaganda teams. Lent and Xu provide very informative chapter sections, including one on cartoon leaflets, some done by Japanese POWs working under instructions.

Leaning on the detailed research of Jeremy E. Taylor, another chapter 3 section explores collaborationist cartooning organized by the Japanese occupation authorities. As Taylor illustrates, the history of Chinese cartooning during the war was by no means in unidirectional opposition against the Japanese. A final chapter section covers the 1945-1949 civil war period when both sides used cartoonists to support their cause.

This chapter might have benefited from more information about anti-US themes that were to gain importance for communist-sponsored cartoons during the Korean War and later, and further detail on Taiwanese cartooning and the effects of the February 28 Incident and the following White Terror of the 1950s.

Chapter 4 surveys the period 1949-1966 in the People’s Republic where government authorities took comics with great seriousness as revolutionary art that would raise popular awareness on social issues. Government authorities quickly used nationalization to establish control of art production, publishing, and distribution within the comics industry.

Ubiquitous visiting Soviet advisors in the new government’s first decade had emphasized oil painting and the Socialist Realist style, overlooking the power of popular print culture in China. During the 1950s, the government harnessed lianhuanhua for its political and social campaigns. Chang-tai Hung details how the Communist Party used comics in its massive campaign of 1949-1953 against religious sects and others have discussed similar uses in the counter-revolutionary campaign of the same period.

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, the publishing industry nearly collapsed and the leftist Red Guards attacked artists and destroyed artworks. Lent and Xu make a case, however, that cartooning did not disappear so much as it was re-purposed to praise Mao, celebrate workers and peasants, and assault perceived counter-revolutionaries.

For the initial years of the Cultural Revolution, lianhuanhua died out, condemned as feudalist and burned in the streets. When they were revived beginning in 1971, lianhuanhua carried quotations from Mao on their title pages to assure readers of ideological conformity. The co-authors do great service in a long section of research and oral histories devoted to the sufferings of cartoonists under the Cultural Revolution through imprisonment, prohibitions against drawing or publishing, forced labour, beatings, physical injury, and torture. 

Chapter 5 reviews the post-1976 development of comics and their restoration as a leading force in Chinese print culture. ‘Scar’ literature and art, which sought to expose the traumatic events of the Cultural Revolution, received limited official protection. Despite an initial sense of new freedom, within several years artists faced a similar set of Party-imposed constraints as characterized by Mao’s 1942 Yan’an pronouncements.

The same denunciations of Western influences and notions of freedom coalesced again in the 1981-83 drives under Deng Xiaoping against bourgeois liberalization and ‘spiritual pollution.’ The constantly shifting borders of social permission preoccupied cartoonists and comic artists throughout much of the 1980s, but late in the decade advantage shifted towards individualism and Western influences.

Official recognition that art could be a lucrative export industry helped create that shift although direct challenges to Party authority remain perilous or fatal to careers. Lent and Xu elaborate on this history with fascinating glimpses into teaching and organizing cartoon-work among farmers (the Frog Cartoon Group), workers, and soldiers. As they further discuss, new comics periodicals appeared that provided fresh publishing opportunities.

Annual circulation of comics soared into several hundred million, creating a renaissance in the Chinese comics industry. In the 1990s the xinmanhua genre appeared, combining lianhuanhua and Japanese-style manga and helping drive this expansion. By the early years of the twenty-first century, the Chinese industry faced radical changes—similar to challenges elsewhere in the world—created by online publishing platforms together with the end of state-subsidized print publishing.

China is a high-intensity market economy but the same ideological conundrum remains. How can the state simultaneously encourage artistic innovation and its economic advantages while simultaneously discouraging dissent against authority?   

The final chapter provides a short history of Chinese animation, beginning with the Wan brothers in the 1920s and tracing through its development until the Cultural Revolution when along with other arts it too came to a brutal stop.

The co-authors address both the histories of individual animators and the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, until the 1980s the only animation studio in the country. They detail the 1980s revival of the animation industry followed by astonishing post-2000 growth into a sector employing nearly a quarter-million people and generating some $14 billion revenues (2013 figure), much of it from sub-contracting technical work on Western films.

The transition from hand-crafted animation artistry in the 1950s to computer-generated contemporary animated films competing in global markets raises the cultural question of whether Chinese aesthetics and stories will fade in front of the profit motive. Those with a particular interest in animation might do well to read Sean McDonald’s recent study Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media.

Lent and Xu have made a large contribution to the emergent critical literature on modern Chinese comics, not only in producing a readable, coherent survey but also for incorporating depth through the use of extensive interview materials.  These oral histories especially make the work valuable to research scholars.  The volume can function equally well as an introduction to Chinese comics and an open invitation to further study

Photograph courtesy pf 普若 安. Published under a Creative Commons license.