Asian Political Cartoons

Zhiqun Zhu

In this fascinating new book, John Lent addresses two fundamental questions (p. 9): Are there common threads throughout the history of Asian political cartooning, and if they exist, what are they? What, if any, outside factors played roles in the development and nourishment of Asian political cartooning? 

Lent discovers that political and social satire in Asia existed before the arrival of Western colonizers, that nearly everywhere political cartoons figured prominently in propaganda to support calls for independence and nation-building, that “freedom to cartoon” has had a roller-coaster ride in nearly all countries surveyed, and that self-censorship by editors and cartoonists is widespread throughout Asia (pp. 273-74). Political cartooning has had a halting history in many parts of Asia, hampered by internal and external factors such as turning to authoritarian philosophies at home and being colonized by Western powers. 

The author suggests that political cartoons serve several purposes: to criticize politicians and other public figures; to point out societal issues harmful to public welfare and call for change; to satirize and make fun of public figures with or without any specific purpose; to honor a noteworthy person upon their demise; and infrequently, to praise an individual’s exemplary service to the public (p. 5). Most significantly, political cartoons are a vigilant watchdog on the powers that be. They raise awareness of social problems and campaign for change.

Geographically, the book covers the history and contemporary status of political cartoons of 21 countries and regions in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Quite impressively, Lent interviewed political cartoonists from these countries and regions over a span of more than 35 years, conducting over 200 interviews. To avoid interviewee bias – as well as issues of credibility and memory veracity – he backed up the interviews with other information gathered through observation, textual analysis, and secondary sources, as well as by cross-checking with other interviewees (p. 8).

This is a meticulous study of political cartoons in Asia. Using a country-by-country approach, Lent explores commonalities and differences in political cartooning of these countries. He looks at the historical development of political cartoons, the relationship between the authorities and cartoonists, as well as the degree of “freedom to cartoon” at different historical periods.

For example, Lent looks at both English and Chinese political cartoons in Hong Kong in the past two centuries. Home to the first Western-style political cartoon drawn by a Chinese artist, Hong Kong has served as a publishing outlet, escape abode, and key base of support for political cartoonists in times of turmoil in modern Chinese history. Even during the British colonial rule, Hong Kong was not a secure haven, as British officials were known “to bend to the mainland’s pressure and carry out its bidding” (p. 28). After its return to China in 1997, Hong Kong’s political cartooning could be likened to “a sinking vessel, patched almost beyond recognition but determined to stay afloat” (p. 33). During the 2014 and 2019-2020 protests, political cartoons became a form of protest art, with cartoons posted on city walls, in the subway system, and online. Looking ahead, Lent believes that Hong Kong professional and amateur artists have paved new, or patched up old, pathways to get messages across. As Beijing puts roadblocks to mute free expression, dedicated cartoonists in Hong Kong are likely to detour around them, find their positions, and push to their furthest limits. This is a great way to learn about Hong Kong’s politics and society through the historical survey of political cartooning.

The book not only covers more “popular” countries such as China, Japan, India, Singapore, and Vietnam, it also includes surveys of political cartoons in politically less-known countries such as Brunei, Cambodia, and Nepal. 

As in politics in general, the field of political cartooning is dominated by males. Therefore, it is heartening and encouraging to learn that there is a handful of women cartoonists tackling important topics in hard-hitting fashion, fending off death threats and other harassment while doing so (p. 235). For example, despite such challenges, women cartoonists courageously exposed social and political ills in India such as rapes committed by powerful religious leaders. 

The book contains a huge collection of mostly colorful political cartoons from traditional print media as well as social media from Asian countries. With a lucid writing style, this is also a book containing life stories of many Asian cartoonists, who have invariably shattered their parents’ dreams and plans for their futures. Yet they were doing what they were passionate about, with social and political impact. Readers will be inspired by such personal stories. 

Clearly, cartoons have different fates in different political and social systems. As Lent points out, satire thrives best in authoritarian times, and for some cartoonists, the contemporary period is a fun time as they try to outwit the censors and provide the pubic with different opinions while staying out of jail or worse (p. 255).

The theme “freedom to cartoon” runs throughout the book. Cartoons are part of freedom of speech. In some Asian countries such as China, Myanmar, Singapore, and Vietnam, political cartoons are banned outright or strictly controlled by powers much higher than editors. Therefore, “freedom to cartoon” is an indicator of how open or closed a society is. As Lent notes, “freedom to cartoon” can be infringed upon. The means by which political cartoonists in Asia have been victimized include killings and disappearances, terroristic threats, suspensions of publications, arrests, imprisonments, fines, and firings. Lent believes that the future of political cartooning in Asia is assured “as long as there are imperfect governments and people’s will to dissent” (p 275). 

A cartoon is worth a thousand words. Political cartoons are like a kaleidoscope through which one can see various aspects of a society. Cartoons are powerful, often carrying messages with the ability to sway public opinions. As cartoonist Roy Nelson noted, an ordinary painting “whispers” and a political cartoon “screams” (p. 5). Cartoons are visual, direct to the point, and easy to comprehend, even reaching large groups of illiterate or barely literate people, who can be mobilized for social change. 

Lent ties the discussion of political cartoons to some important political concepts such as censorship, freedom of speech, governments’ propensity to regulate, social movements, and individual pursuit of fulfilment. This is truly a unique and valuable book from which one can visually learn much about Asian politics and society of yesterday and today.