From Manhua to Donghua: A History of Chinese Cartooning

Richard Miller

There is a growing body of English-language literature on graphic narratives in Asia, a topic that has surely launched a thousand seminars since the establishment of Asian popular culture book series by university and academic presses in the 1990s. This literature, with some exceptions (e.g. Wendy Siuyi Wong on Hong Kong, Giannalberto Bendazzi and Monica Chiu on global trends),[i] emphasized Japanese manga and manga-influenced styles in other parts of the world. For example, Paul Gravett’s Mangasia: The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics,[ii] assumes Japan as its starting point, as even the title indicates. Moreover, many of the works one can find in English on Asian graphic narratives are clearly meant as guides for collectors and enthusiasts, eschewing careful use of theory and thoughtful interpretation in favor of bold illustrations and an obligatory chapter on pornography. John Lent has been a consistent voice for a different approach, both with his 2001 edited volume on Asian graphic narratives, his own 2015 survey on Asian graphic narratives,[iii] and his role as editor of the East Asian Popular Culture series published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Readers familiar with Lent’s efforts will find much pleasing about his new book, Comics Art in China. With this detailed, well-illustrated history of graphic storytelling in mainland China from the late 19th century to the present, Lent and co-author Xu Ying have produced a major contribution to English-language research on modern Chinese popular culture, and an excellent addition to existing work on graphic storytelling in Asia. Covering a broad range of traditions from late-Qing lianhuanhua (picture books 連環畫) through 20th-century manhua (cartoons 漫畫) to contemporary animation, this attractive volume from the University Press of Mississippi is also well theorized and thoroughly researched. Using a methodology unusual in the field, Lent and Xu based on their narrative multiple interviews with more than 121 principals over a fifteen-year period, giving an unprecedented access to a history of Chinese graphic narratives in the words of its principals. The authors’ deep knowledge of Asian graphic narrative traditions enables them to situate Chinese production in the larger Asian context, yet the many interviews keep the conversation grounded in Chinese experiences.

Although partly drawn from a robust bibliography of primary and secondary sources, it is the extensive interviews that give Comics Art in China a unique depth, particularly in the chapters covering the years between the establishment of the PRC in 1949 through the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution to the subsequent capitalist remaking of socialist China we see today. This section begins by laying out the establishment of modern cartooning and animation, something that often happened in an atmosphere of circumspection, if not outright danger. In part this was because of the grounding of official attitudes toward art in Yan’an in 1942, which directed artists to work in support of socialism for the benefit of the proletariat and the peasants. However, the interviews make clear that criticism from Party officials easily strayed from the constructive to the capricious. This was particularly true during the Hundred Flowers campaign, when artists creating work criticizing the Party quickly found themselves labeled as rightists. In some cases – Shen Tongheng, editor of the People’s Daily (人民日報) being a well-known example – punishment began in 1957 and only intensified during the Cultural Revolution 10 years later. Numerous cartoonists spent more than 20 years in a combination of jail and exile, forbidden from practicing their art and repeatedly reviled for their perceived rightist work (p. 97).

However, it is undeniable that, when the Red Guard appeared in 1966, life became immeasurably more difficult for these artists. As Wang Fuyang put it, ‘Chinese cartoons were stopped during the Cultural Revolution, but decayed from 1957 onwards’ (p. 97). By now the stories of the poverty and arbitrary cruelty visited upon prominent intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution seem commonplace, but reading the words of important and talented artists brings this period sharply into focus once again. Wang, who had tried to protect cartoonist Li Binsheng from accusations of being a rightist, described his experience to the authors thusly: ‘I was not yet twenty-three when I was exiled to a deserted place in the West. I fed cattle, did hard work on farms. I hardly could draw cartoons. I was twenty-two years in the province….’ (p. 97). Other artists fared worse, including Shanghai animator Te Wei who, exiled, beaten, and forced to write endless self-criticisms, was called back to the studio only to find himself ‘welcomed by a multitude of banners … all of which were criticizing me’ (p. 99). Some artists found other outlets for their artistic (and political) impulses, be it making thousands of clay ducks like Mi Gu, sculpting pieces of bamboo like Zhu Genhua, or Te Wei, who drew cartoons in ink on glass, which enabled him to wipe away the evidence should the guards choose to look in on him (p. 103).

With the arrest of the Gang of Four and the beginnings of market reform, the survivors of the Cultural Revolution regrouped, launching a second Golden Era. Many of the best-loved and most artistic animated films date to this period, with many using the ink-painting approached pioneered in Shanghai shortly before the Cultural Revolution, giving a distinctly Chinese feel to the works. Films such as Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒閙海 1979), drawn from Chinese cultural tales and scored using Chinese traditional music by Jin Fuzai, this film put China on the world animation map with its screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. Nevertheless, as the many interviews attest, this new Golden Age was short-lived, brought to an end by the inrush of foreign (mostly Japanese) animated films, and the shift of emphasis from artist values to commercial ones. As with so many other areas in contemporary Chinese culture, what decades of Maoist suspicion could not destroy, a few years of market chasing effectively obliterated. The authors conclude with a gloomy quote from Theodor Adorno to argue that the result of market reforms in Chinese graphic narratives is the ‘eternal sameness’ engendered by the profit motif in combination with the elevation of mechanical reproduction and distribution over the techniques of art (p. 193).

With Comics Art in China, Lent and Xu have given the English-speaking world an invaluable resource on the history of graphic narratives in China. Using a combination of interviews and secondary research, the two authors bring to life an important branch of graphic narrative art that has been unfairly eclipsed by the long focus on Japanese manga and anime. Their book will make an excellent base for both scholars and teachers looking to enrich their knowledge of Asian popular culture in historical context.

[i] Wendy Siuyi Wong, Hong Kong Comics: A History of Manhua, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002; Giannalberto Bendazzi, Animation: A World History, 3 vols, New York: Focal Press, 2016; Monica Chiu (ed.), Drawing New Color Lines: Transnational Asian American Graphic Narratives, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015.
[ii] Paul Gravett, Mangasia: The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics, London: Thames & Hudson, 2017.
[iii] John A. Lent, Illustrating Asia: Comics, Humor Magazines, and Picture Books, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001; John A. Lent, Asian Comics, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015.