China’s Militant Cartoons
by Jack Chen
Six years ago there was no cartooning in China worth writing about. It is one of the youngest of the modern arts that have grown out of China’s struggle to master the progress of the West and yet retain her soul. And it bears all the marks of that struggle.
It was persecuted from birth by the reaction that then sat in the saddle of government, and even in 1936, in October, when the first national exhibition of cartooning was held in Shanghai, old-fashioned esthetes still called it disdainfully, in the colorful “scholars’ ” colloquial, “a small means of cutting up insects”—that is to say, an inconsequential art. Yet by then more than a dozen cartoon magazines were being published, delighting readers in all the main cities and playing an important part in the modern national movement. The Shanghai exhibition attracted more attention than any preceding art show, and even the venerable Lin Sen, President of the Republic, smiled approval.
In August, 1937, the Japanese invasion threatened the main technical base of the cartoonists in Shanghai. They mobilized in the government propaganda units in defense of their country and their cartooning; for one thing was evident–Japanese domination spelled the absolute suppression of modern art in China, cartooning included.
Such is the brief history of this newcomer to the ancient arts of China. Yet a consideration of it gives a vivid insight into contemporary China — for this is above all an art of the present, and therefore an immediate signpost to the future.
Its practitioners are also young. They do not as a group belong to any particular political party, but represent in the main the interests of the young nationally conscious intelligentsia, and they are typical of China’s revolutionary students. Not one of them is over forty. The vast majority of them are in their teens or late twenties. They are all former or part-time students, newspaper men, teachers, commercial artists, clerks. There are surprisingly few with a natural inclination for purely salacious humor; and ninety-nine per cent are animated by a sincere desire to save their country from colonial subjugation. This I stress, because the general level of political and national consciousness of Chinese artists is low. And it is a fact that there is not one avowedly reactionary cartoonist. En masse they are anti-imperialist, anti- feudalist. Their sympathies are all with the underdog.
This alone is enough to make them anathema to the Japanese invaders. It also made them anathema to the die-hard scholar bureaucrats of the old regime and the militarists who pulled the strings of the Nanking government from 1927 to 1936. But, added to their denunciations of aggression, Fascism, political corruption, feudalism and so forth, the cartoonists have shown an utter disregard for the hitherto inviolable traditions of “classical” Chinese art, making daring experiments with both European and Chinese art forms and techniques. Disdainful in their turn, they ridiculed the old-fashioned “bird and bamboo” painters and those would-be Westerners who “spent their time with nudes and apples.”
Meanwhile ever wider progressive national bourgeois circles, increasingly favoring the “united front” platform of democratic national unity against Japan, tended to encourage the anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist stand of the cartoonist, but I looked askance at the more radical tendencies among them that might be calculated to arouse the masses.
In a lengthy conversation with me, Mr. T.C. Wang, an editor of “modern Puck,” one of the three leading cartoon magazines, which specializes in reprints from abroad, declared that the one event that had done most to develop cartooning in China was the “Manchurian incident.” This was tragic farce in the grand manner. Adequate comment on it was possible only in the form of caricature. For it meant simply that a vast territory containing thirty million people was occupied because a rail and two sleepers had been damaged by a grenade. The young revolutionary students reacted to this politically in their demonstrations, artistically in their cartoons.
Since this was not a fair weather art, it did not attract those in search of fame or fortune. Quite the contrary. It offered poverty and hard knocks. The history of the first group of cartoonists is typical. Out of ten members, one died without enough money to pay for his funeral; one joined the government and secured a moderately paid job that kept him from doing embarrassing cartoons, one disappeared after publishing a particularly pointed anti-Kuomingtang cartoon, six managed to hold together, to be joined by a seventh who had been in hiding for four years during the years of bitterest persecution of “Leftists” after the fall of the Wuhan government in 1927 and the split of the united front between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang. The survivors met at the home of their dead friend, whither they had all unknowingly come on the same mission — to give him a regular funeral. Of these seven, three had steady jobs that paid fifty dollars gold a month, and they earned perhaps fifty more by extra work. These are the best paid cartoonists in China. The rest scrape along as best they can, editing, teaching, doing odd jobs. And yet—making cartoon history.
Naturally all of these young men are not idealists yearning for martyrdom. Far from it. Many are only part-time artists. They have to get their overflowing thoughts and feelings off their chests and so turn to cartooning as a pleasant way of doing it. Few of them are professional revolutionaries with a consistent philosophy, using cartooning as a means of propagating their views. But the vast majority are certainly inspired in the first place by a sharp realization of the grim reality of life in China, and the new Japanese invasion has driven this home even more surely. However gloomy and grotesquely terrible their drawings may seem to the casual foreign reader, they are inspired by a feeling of realism, new to Chinese art. They are made by young men who are not afraid to look facts in the face as a necessary preliminary to overcoming the worst aspects of life in contemporary society.
Mr. Lin Yutang remarks that the essence of classical Chinese art is its striving for harmony with nature. The young art of these militant young cartoonists marks a momentous, a revolutionary, change. They take Nature (or the Established Order of Things) by the forelock and give her a good walloping in order to make her behave!
For performing this highly necessary and responsible task they receive from fifty cents to a dollar and a half gold for a cartoon — or less! Full-page drawings in color sell for three to five dollars gold. A young artist tells me that in order to make a reasonable living he has to print fifty or more drawings a month. And this is not regular work. Much time is spent placing the drawings. Collecting for them is merely a waiting job. Cooperative magazines, however, have given steady work and relative security to an increasing number.
The first solid basis for cartooning was made three or four years ago with the founding of the first magazine devoted exclusively to cartooning— "The Shanghai Sketch." This dealt mainly with social satire, and, as the political censorship became more severe in 1933-1934, it leaned heavily on rather salacious humor to increase its sales. The "Modern Sketch," more political in content, appeared soon after. Since then many other ventures have risen and died precipitately. All the cartoon magazines of any size were concentrated in Shanghai, and in addition several newspapers and general magazines ran occasional cartoons and "funny strips. With the start of the new Japanese invasion, the tousled-headed editor of the Manhwa Ho Shangho was preparing for his fifth resurrection. This is typical of these incorrigible social reformers. Today, in a political atmosphere that is free for the first time for open struggle against the main danger to China — Japanese aggression— the cartoonists feel that their brushes are freed to attain the utmost power of their art.
After the somewhat staid company of the “accepted” and classical scholar painters burdened by old world conventionality, the frank and unconventional camaraderie of the cartoonists makes an enjoyable change. They are all remarkably like their humorous brethren the world over in the democratic newspaper world. At their cafe parties they draw on the tablecloths in the approved manner and exchange all the latest methods of attaining infallibly original compositions and “ideas.”
The cartoon journals, with a prewar circulation of some forty thousand each, in a crowded magazine field, cater to the younger generation of Chinese whom life has amply fitted to enjoy the pointed humor and vitriolic satire of the cartoonists. Moreover, this is most essentially a man’s art, which indulges in what is best described as “Elizabethan coarseness.” These is necessarily a certain amount of eroticism, influence to a large extent by such journals as the American Esquire, but with an element of quite Chinese abandon.
But low rates of pay and a state of affairs in which every new recruit to the art is welcomed as a worker on the cartoon front rather than as a potential competitor, naturally result in the production of a large amount of stuff that is technically very weak and even irritatingly naive in artistic conception, no matter how laudable in motive.
Despite early disregard and stringent political censorship, however, the 1936 exhibition of cartoons in Shanghai showed the formation of a distinctly national school of cartooning. Western influence was of course very strongly evident, but it was expressed as adaptation rather than as imitation. Though the content of the show was such as to interest progressive artists in any country, the texture, the treatment, the vision were — as they should be — Chinese.
The scope of work is wide, from the fiercely political to the merely humorous. And pure "nonsense " also has its share. Probably the most popular cartoon creation is "Mr. Willie Buffoon" — the man with the snozzle. Mr. Buffoon is always either getting into some ridiculous trouble or finding some ridiculous way of getting out of a dilemma. He is really only a caricatured version of his creator Wang Yao, a young artist- journalist with a childlike sense of humor, who would obviously take a great delight in doing all the things that Mr. Buffoon does in his fertile imagination. Mr. Buffoon, for instance, is seen walking over a snow-covered landscape. He sees a beggar lying frozen in the snow. Evidently inspired by the Biblical ethics imported into China, he gives his clothes to the beggar, sends him on his way — and lies down in the beggar's place ! On another occasion he is shocked in a museum by the nudity of the Venus de Milo. He restores his equanimity by judiciously applying sticking plaster to the offender. One cannot miss the similarity between the humor of Mr. Buffoon and that of Charlie Chaplin, for it is fundamental. Both personify the humorous situations with which the petty bourgeois finds himself confronted in the process of learning to master the intricacies of the modern capitalist civilization. Mr. Buffoon is eminently a national product, however. His adventures are Chinese adventures.
“Mr. Wang,” a triangular-headed, middle-class philistine, proud possessor of all the typical Chinese vices, is the second leading character of the Chinese “funnies,” created by Yeh Chen-yu, an outstanding caricaturist and draughtsman. “Mr. Wang” is the Chinese prototype of David Low’s “Colonel Blimp,” but gradually the humor of his life has taken on a spirit of pungent social satire, not untouched with bitterness, which considerably detracts from his value as a funny, but has made him an epic figure in Chinese satire.
Chang Kwang-yu is the most talented of three cartoonist brothers. Nearing forty, he is the oldest of them all. He teaches design at the Shanghai School of Art, has assisted at the birth of fifteen magazines, some of which are still hale and hearty as he is himself (he looks like the Chinese god of laughter!) and has a vigorous style, at present much influenced by Covarrubias. He it was who got China’s leaders accustomed to being caricatured without feeling that their dignity had “lost face” — for he cartooned them so suavely, so incisively and with such humor that they accepted his verdict much as the old Emperors accepted the verdicts of their venerable Censors.
In a typical series of cartoons, four of which were reproduced as a page feature in the February, 1937, Asia, he shows Chiang Kai-shek as a young stage hero; Feng Yu-hsiang making up for a new turn as a heroic stage general; Sun Fo as a rhomboid goldfish; Eugene Chen, always “up to tricks,” is shown as a monkey; H.H. Kung is in the guise of an ancient mandarin selling a large Nationalist bank note; T.V. Soong is a royal servitor carrying a load of Chinese silver “shoes” and tight-rope walking on an American flag.
Youngest of this group is Wu Ko (one of whose drawings appeared in the February, 1938, Asia), a young man with wavy black hair who is never satisfied with anything short of perfection even though the editors pay only a fifth of what his work is worth. Like Yeh Chen-yu, Wu Ko and Chang Kwang-yu make extensive use of the old Chinese brush and ink and, though it would hardly seem possible, are actually developing a new technique of work with these materials which have been the art medium of China’s painters for over two thousand years in unbroken tradition. This return to the classical Chinese art medium, to explore it again from the point of view of modern themes and outlook, is a new departure in cartooning; for all the early efforts in this branch of art were with western art tools, pen, opaque water color and the like. Also noteworthy is the fact that, in substantiating their claims regarding the importance of their art, the cartoonists now point to the West and — to the weighty authority of the two-thousand-year-old past: the didactic artists of the Han. This is useful in arguments with die-hard traditionalists — it makes much of their traditional authority seem quite modern!
Endlessly inquisitive, the younger cartoonists change their styles as often and with as much facility as the chameleon changes the color of its skin and here also the idea of “protective coloring” has probably played its role. Many, however, honestly carry on that old tradition of Chinese artists whereby the ability to copy at will the style of any given master is regarded as something of a virtue to which nothing of the stigma of plagiarism attaches. So much so indeed that the critic has often to refer to the “present” style of the artist. Two different styles of Wang Tse-mei, for instance, are shown on page 310. Lo Tse-tsiang has lately passed from under the influence of George Grosz to that of Diego Rivera, and with equal fluency in either style depicts and comments on the life of China’s submerged millions. Teh Tsung-kung, late of Tientsin, has settled on a naive style of straight-hitting political cartoons, heavily influenced by the artists of the French magazine L’ Humanite.
George Grosz, introduced to China by the late Lu Hsiin, was the first influential foreign cartoonist among the younger men. They assimilated both his style and his bitter social satirical outlook. Among the best of these men are Ma Nung-chun, regular contributor to “Modern Sketch,” and Tsa Jo-hung, staff cartoonist of “Life Weekly News,” most popular weekly in China and the successor to the famous string of banned and radical publications of which “Eternal Life” was the one before the last.
Boris Efimov of the Soviet Izvestia next attracted the principal attention. Recent interest has shifted to England's David Low and America’s Fitzpatrick and Fred Ellis.
The cartoonists also include in their ranks a large number of decorative artists, graduates of the Chinese art schools, most of whom are commercial artists as well, whose work could grace the pages of any magazine. They have the neat “finish” characteristic of this type of artist. They specialize in jokes on high life, detailed caricatures of celebrities in sport, society and art life. It is among these that the sex element is most evident.
Then there are scores of anonymous cartoonists who send in their efforts to the papers by the waste-basketful! In most countries these would-be cartoonists would not be given serious consideration, but in China they have a special significance; they are recruits to an art movement that has developed as an opposition movement to powerful reactionary forces, an art that regards itself as the unofficial spokesman and censor of the people in the struggle for free national democratic institutions.
Cartooning is a vivid expression of the democratization of art in the former Celestial Empire. The modern Chinese artist wants to speak to the widest masses of the people in effective idiomatic terms, concerning himself directly with politics from the national democratic point of view, and hence many artists turn to cartooning. Their uncompromising stand for the rights of the people makes their present struggle against Japanese imperialism one of life or death. Thus Fascism and Japanese imperialism are the main butts of their satire, while a militant democracy is lauded.
Jack Chen (whose Chinese name is Chen I-wan) did what were probably the first daily cartoons for a Chinese organ, in the People’s Tribune at Hankow in 1946. Later he went to Moscow, where he was art critic for the Moscow Neat and for several years Moscow correspondent of the New Theatre magazine. Mr. Chen visited the United States during the early months of 1938, but has now returned to China.
(Next post July 19: Chang Kwang-Yu in Asia Magazine)