A Literature Review on Manhua Studies

By Muyang Zhuang

 Manhua, a Chinese term that can be translated into English as cartoon or caricature, was a popular art form that flourished in early 20th century China. Emerging in treaty ports such as Shanghai and Tianjin in the late Qing Dynasty, most manhua was published in newspapers or pictorial magazines.[1] Mainly serving as entertainment, manhua attracted numerous readers and spectators. Many cartoonists were successful commercially and artistically, such as Feng Zikai (1898–1975), Ye Qianyu (1907–1995), Zhang Guangyu (1900–1965), Liao Bingxiong (1915–2006), Ding Cong (1916–2009), and Hua Junwu (1915–2010).

Widely received in treaty ports in Republican China (1911–1949), manhua was utilized as anti-Japanese propaganda amid the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1931–1945). Both Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intentionally employed manhua to characterize their ideological messages. After Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks in 1942, the CCP implemented a cultural policy that molded not only the subject matter of manhua in CCP-controlled areas, but also the historiography of manhua which followed Mao’s instruction that all artworks ought to serve the masses.[2] Since 1949, cartoonists in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been faced with restrictions in their artistic creations. This review essay introduces scholarship written both in English and Chinese on manhua (from the late Qing dynasty to the early PRC) from the perspectives of historiography and visual culture studies. 

Before discussing historiography, one thing that remains to be further clarified is, like many studies on comics, cartoons, or caricatures, the definition of manhua. It wasn’t until Feng Zikai borrowed the Japanese word manga (not today’s Japanese comic book) that modern Chinese cartoonish painting adopted the unified name of manhua. The original meaning of the Chinese term could, approximately, refer to “casual paintings,” which is a relatively suitable term to describe many of Feng Zikai’s works. However, manhua connotates various sorts of paintings such as cartoons (katonghua), caricatures (fengcihua), and comics (lianhuan manhua). The term manhua may bring confusion in an understanding of both the history and the culture of modern Chinese cartoons, but it also suggests that there are diverse layers that need to be examined.

To avoid possible misunderstandings caused by different translations of manhua in English, this review mainly uses the term manhua to describe Chinese cartoons, comics, and caricatures. I will also use the term “cartoon” to denote manhua, especially some single-panel paintings which could be “casual,” entertaining, or satirical. On the other hand, some cartoonists also use four or more panels to depict an amusing scene or even tell a short funny story as shown in comics (lianhuan manhua) such as Ye Qianyu’s Mr. Wang series (Wang Xiansheng, 1929–1937), Zhang Guangyu’s Journey to the West (Xiyou Manji, 1945), Liao Bingxiong’s Cat Kingdom (Maoguo Chunqiu, 1946), and Zhang Leping’s Sanmao series (1935). I will use the word cartoon for manhua in this review and situate all these images within common cartoonish styles as a genre that distinguishes manhua from other types of paintings in modern China.

Most of the current scholarship on manhua has to deal with the history of this art form. If we admit that manhua in China is no longer as popular as it used to be, it could then be recognized as a historical phenomenon. Almost all Chinese scholarship on manhua focuses largely on the historical facet. The first approach is to delineate how manhua became an independent genre of painting (meishu), which emphasizes the subjectivity of Chinese cartoons. In his History of Chinese Cartoons, Gan Xianfeng differentiates what is called manhua in ancient China (before the Opium War in 1840) from modern Chinese cartoons that were initially influenced by Westernized style.[3]

Another common approach in scholarship written in Chinese is to follow the official historiography endorsed by the CCP in depicting the Chinese Revolution. Two characteristics of this approach can be traced in Huang Yuanlin and Bi Keguan’s History of Chinese Cartoons. A milestone in manhua studies, this book implies, firstly, that the making of the CCP’s historiography relies on underlining historical events that mark the party’s legitimation of ruling the country, such as the Anti-Japanese War (1931–1945) and the Chinese Civil War (1946–1949).[4] It is such landmark events that promoted the development of manhua, labeling cartoons as progressive and avant-garde in wartime China. Second, obeying Maoism, dichotomy is widely adopted in cultural production and therefore, manhua served as the positive energy to fight against the evil “three mountains” which are feudalism, imperialism and capitalism. The dichotomy thus fits manhua into the framework of revolutionary narrative shaped by the CCP.

Endorsed by the communists, the revolutionary narrative is not lacking value. In fact, the general history of manhua written by Huang and Bi is a sound research project in understanding the development as well as the decline of manhua in modern China. They achieve this by articulating the political factors that deeply influenced the social status of manhua. On the other hand, the two aforementioned approaches are so prominent that they also inspire many studies in English academia. In John Lent and Ying Xu’s Comics Art in China, the evolvement of manhua in republican China is divided into two major parts; the “Golden Age” of manhua from the 1920s to 1930s, and the wartime Chinese cartoons that functioned as anti-Japanese propaganda.[5] A slight difference between this book and conventional Chinese scholarship is that the English authors are not obliged to glorify the history of manhua under the control of the CCP, which actually restricted the development of this art form after it took power in 1949. In her research on manhua made in the first decade of the PRC, Jennifer Altehenger also examines the gradual decline of manhua by analyzing the destiny of the official magazine Manhua Monthly (Manhua Yuekan).[6] Similarly, Chang-tai Hung’s analysis on cartoons in the early PRC reflects how political culture in Maoist China was shaped and regulated during the Cold War.[7]

Some scholars also seek to analyze the topic, content and style of these cartoonish images, an approach usually used in studies on cartoonists. Such studies, by detailed depiction of the cartoonists’ life stories, fill up gaps in the general history of manhua. Relating cartoons to the tradition of humor in China, John Lent and Ying Xu divide Chinese cartoonists into the first and the second generation or, the senior and the junior. The former includes those who began their career in Republican China and had shown passion for drawing manhua, while the latter refers to today’s cartoonists who are criticized for not creating cartoons in their own style but are merely imitating Japanese manga. Lent and Xu take a close look at five senior cartoonists: Feng Zikai, Liao Bingxiong, Hua Junwu, Ding Cong and Fang Cheng (1918–2018), whose works show “common characteristics” of “indirectness of expression, skillful use of language, application of aesthetic and artistic principles, and seriousness of purpose.”[8] Here cartoonists not only serve as the subject to be investigated, but also thread the history of the “Golden Age” of manhua. A similar method can be found in Paul Bevan’s A Modern Miscellany (2015) and Nick Stember’s thesis “The Shanghai Manhua Society” (2015). They examine the forming of the cartoonists’ circle and thus outline the development of Chinese cartoons in the 1920s and 1930s.

In scrutinizing the foreign and exotic influence on manhua, Bevan also studies the career, creation, and social activities of certain cartoonists such as Zhang Guangyu, Hu Kao (1912–1994), Ding Cong, and Cai Ruohong (1910–2002), who imitated and learned from Western cartoonists such as Miguel Covarrubias (1904–1957) and George Grosz (1893–1959).[9] Similarly, in her research on the transformation of Ye Qianyu’s art creation, Carolyn FitzGerald demonstrates, by tracking the artist’s wartime activities, how Ye gradually gave up drawing manhua and embraced traditional Chinese painting, guohua.[10] On the one hand, Bevan and FitzGerald’s approaches clearly exhibit the foreign and domestic impacts on the hybrid style of some cartoonists’ works. On the other, their studies on cartoonists echo another typical methodology of historiographical studies of manhua. That is, to employ a biographical approach and feature the cartoonist as the protagonist. Similarly, Geremie Barmé’s An Artistic Exile tells a comprehensive story of Feng Zikai’s life and career.[11] Biographical studies on Zhang Guangyu and Ye Qianyu are frequently encountered in Chinese scholarship,[12] studies that do not go far beyond the framework of the revolutionary narrative but concentrate more on the cartoonists’ aesthetics and the details about their experiences.

In addition to the research on certain figures, there are also academic works on key events such as the First National Cartoon Exhibition held in Shanghai in 1936. Based on his collection, a Chinese book collector Xie Qizhang locates some overlooked fragments in the history of manhua. For example, his essays offer a list of works displayed in the aforesaid exhibition, revealing lesser-known elements in the history of manhua.[13] Xie’s approach resonances a special sort of literature of manhua studies, the memoirs or essays written by cartoonists such as Ye Qianyu and Hua Junwu.[14] As some cartoonists prefer to note down their experiences and cartoon aesthetics, such literature helps tell a meticulous history of manhua.

In addition to the above-mentioned scholarship on the history of manhua, some historians also pay attention to this once popular visual medium, considering it as a source for historical research, as suggested by Chinese historian Xiaotian.[15] Wang Qisheng, a Chinese historian studying the history of the CCP and the KMT, also makes use of manhua about the North Expedition in 1927 to investigate public opinion during the war.[16] The close connection between manhua and public opinion remains an important issue in the field. For instance, Chang-tai Hung explores this relationship by analyzing the “fuming images” of Liao Bingxiong in late Republican China (1945–1949).[17] Furthering Xiaotian and Wang’s arguments that manhua could supplement research on modern Chinese history, Hung offers a perspective of new cultural history in examining the historical value of manhua. In his New Cultural History and Chinese Politics and War and Popular Culture, manhua occupies a critical part. Concentrating on the war against Japanese invaders, Hung examines not just the anti-Japanese manhua but the “peaceful side” embedded in Feng Zikai’s works.[18] Tension, together with struggle, are the keywords that characterize Hung’s research on manhua and cartoonists. In addition, Hung also analyzes the case of Liao Bingxiong, a cartoonist of tough personality and artistic style who suffered from the restraint of free speech in Mao’s era.[19] Hung’s research on Liao Bingxiong is echoed by Wu Xueshan’s article about Liao’s dilemma after 1949. In his paper, Wu argues that manhua was institutionalized by the party-state of the PRC and that Liao’s experience is an appropriate case to detect the processing of manhua’s institutionalization in socialist China.[20]

Since manhua used to be so popular, it was by no means merely used as anti-Japanese propaganda. For example, Jeremy Taylor draws attention to manhua produced by Japanese invaders and Chinese collaborators in wartime China. Stressing the function of manhua as wartime propaganda for both sides, Taylor’s research sheds new light on the cultural history studies of wartime China.[21] From the historical works, we can pinpoint critical events in modern Chinese history, including the Anti-Japanese War and the founding of the PRC, which can never be neglected when discussing the history of manhua.

Apart from being a historical product, manhua is an art form that epitomizes the visual modernity in China. In addition to historians, scholars from visual culture studies (art history included) also seek to inspect the forms, styles, and topics of manhua. Martina Caschera articulates the “animal symbolism” that has been presented in Chinese cartoons from its early days to its present creations. Caschera grasps the allegory implied in the cartoonish images of animal and the evolvement and transformation of manhua throughout its history to the present day.[22] Louise Edwards locates another important topic of manhua during the Anti-Japanese War, which is the representation of sexual violence. She argues that “the depiction of sexually mutilated women would build resistance and spur patriotism while equivalent depictions of mutilated male soldiers would sap morale and hamper the war effort.”[23]

Manhua is not all about national crisis and revolution, and the relationship between cartoons and the Chinese revolution is not the only theme in current scholarship on manhua. As mentioned above, manhua is the urban cultural product that first became popular in treaty ports. Thus, the existence of urban culture can be clearly traced in many studies of manhua.[24] Many of these studies accentuate the emergence of manhua in modern Shanghai. Scholars from fields such as art history, visual culture studies, literature, and cultural history all notice the specificity of manhua as a medium that functioned in the shaping of urban culture in modern China.

Unlike other paintings, manhua is of simplified composition and strokes so that it can attract and amuse as many readers or viewers as possible. Therefore, some scholars choose to go beyond the methodology of iconography and examine the interactions between manhua and other media, such as print culture and urban space. Ellen Laing explores the communication between manhua and literature in modern Shanghai, by which she argues that cartoonists who worked for Shanghai Manhua were motivated by a group of literati, the “neo-sensationist” authors, “to produce startling, sometimes lurid, images unparalleled in any other Republican era pictorial.”[25] Martina Caschera adopts the approach of transcultural studies and argues that the cartoons selected to be published in journals like Modern Sketch (Shidai Manhua) in modern Shanghai suggest the willingness of the “editorial group in taking part in a global scenario” amid encounter and communication between Chinese and Western civilizations.[26] Performing as a visual-based media, many manhua (either caricatures or cartoons) are discussed by Christopher Rea in his outstanding monograph that delineates the culture of laughter in modern China.[27] Contextualized within jokes and mockeries, manhua is thus stretched to reveal the seldom-noticed aspects of modern China’s cultural atmosphere. Likewise, art historians Kuiyi Shen and Richard Vinograd both draw on the pictorial journals in modern Shanghai. Shen considers Modern Miscellany (Shidai Huabao) as the outcome of the efforts to present a modern nation-state, a determination driven by the cultural society in Shanghai; manhua also contributes to the imagination of the nation-state of China.[28] Vinograd proposes that the notion of “multi-media” consisted of manhua, lianhuanhua (comics) and photography published in Shanghai Sketch (Shanghai Manhua) and The Young Companion (Liangyou) in the 1930s. He argues that this multi-media reflects the desire and fantasy that shaped the urban atmosphere of modern Shanghai.[29]

To articulate the significance of manhua, John Crespi employs a thought-provoking concept “pictorial turn” that explicates the medium essence of manhua culture in the history of modern China.[30] In a study on Zhang Guangyu’s Journey to the West, Crespi emphasizes the function of the pictorial magazine that contributed to the prosperity of manhua in modern China.[31] Continuing his discussion of the pictorial turn, Crespi enters the world of manhua in the PRC, where he examines another journal called Cartoon (Manhua Yuekan), echoing the aforementioned research by Altehenger. In this research, Crespi borrows what art historian W. J. T. Mitchell proposes as “imagetext.” He explores this mixed medium, which combines writings and pictures as shown in Manhua Yuekan, and which presents the nuanced transformation of manhua as “metapicture” in the socialist era via the platform of pictorial journal.[32]

Compared to the studies on journals and pictorials, scholarship on manhua pays less attention to cartoon exhibitions even though these can provide another angle of understanding the development and transformation of this newly recognized art form in early 20th-century China. However, Paul Bevan discusses the First National Cartoon Exhibition in 1936 and does not merely note down the historical facts of the exhibition. Instead, he examines the space (a new shopping mall in Shanghai) of this groundbreaking exhibition. By enunciating the ambitions of both the building’s owner and the cartoonists, Bevan demonstrates the interactions between cartoonists and capitalism, as well as the promotion of manhua’s social status, which partially resulted from the success of this exhibition.[33]

Studies on manhua may not be straightforwardly categorized into a certain field such as art history, cultural history or literature. Most of the images of manhua are not difficult to understand, but when entering the history of this once flourishing art form or cultural product, one will encounter numerous details and questions that are entwined with many aspects of modern Chinese history. This review cannot cover all the facets of the manhua studies, considering its complicated relationship with politics, war, revolution, culture, and commerce in modern Chinese history. Nevertheless, it attempts to present current scholarship on related topics from the perspectives of historiography and visual culture studies so that the academic world can rethink the richness of Chinese cartoons as a historical phenomenon, as cultural product, as art, and as medium. 

[1] Wong, 2018, 41–44; Lent and Xu, 81–83.

[2] Mao, 1996, 458–484.

[3] Gan, 2008, 34–35.

[4] Huang and Bi, 2006, 50–57, 74–82, 217–218.

[5] Lent and Xu, 2017, 23–46.

[6] Altehenger, 2013, 93–100.

[7] Hung, 2011, 155–181.

[8] Lent and Xu, 2013, 83–84.

[9] Bevan, 2015, 95–165.

[10] FitzGerald, 2013.

[11] Barmé, 2002.

[12] See Tang and Huang, 2012; Bao, 2011.

[13] Xie, 2006.

[14] Ye, 2012. Hua, 2007.

[15] Xiaotian, 2006.

[16] Wang, 2004.

[17] Hung, 1994 (1).

[18] Hung, 2003, 1–32; Hung, 1994 (2), 102–128.

[19] Hung, 2003, 69–110.

[20] Wu, 2011.

[21] Taylor, 2015.

[22] Caschera, 2017.

[23] Edwards, 2013.

[24] For example, William Schaefer employs manhua in demonstrating the construction of the urban cultural space in modern Shanghai, see Schaefer, 2017.

[25] Laing, 2010.

[26] Caschera, 2018.

[27] Rea, 2015.

[28] Shen, 2013.

[29] Vinograd, 2013.

[30] Crespi, 2020

[31] Crespi, 2016.

[32] Crespi, 2019.

[33] Bevan, 2015, 215–221.

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Bio: 

Muyang Zhuang is a second-year PhD student in the Division of Humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His research interests include Chinese cartoon, animation, and visual culture in East Asia.

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