The History of Comics in China: Part 1

The roots of comics and cartoons have been in satire throughout the world, and China was no different. 漫画, Manhua, existed as early as the Eastern Han era, where a stone carving had been found in Shandong (author unknown), caricaturing the despotic Xia Jie. During the Five Dynasties period (10th century), the artist Shi Ke’s paintings satirized cruel aristocracy who exploited the poor, in works such as the “Bai Gui Xi Tu” (Frolicking of a Hundred Demons).

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3f68e7a2-d60e-4cbf-994c-9a9282c09464The art of satire became far darker during the early Qing period (17th to 18th century), with Ba Da Shan Ren and the artist group known as the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou”. The most famous of their paintings being the “Gui Qu Tu” (Ghost Amusement) set by Luo Pin. During this time, the oppressed populace was growing increasingly discontent with the corrupt government formed by rulers who, not long ago, had been the invaders. Their placing of heavy censorship on intellectual works led artists to find alternate channels for their dissent. Luo was influenced by Pu Songling’s metaphoric depictions of the horrors of society in his collection of ghost stories “Liao Zhai” (Tales from the Hearth), which was published around the time Luo was composing his Ghost Amusement set. The eight paintings present various grotesque ghouls and skeletons, some creeping around, some preying on the mortal world and others living amongst humans. The message of attackers securing themselves in society was obvious, but not overt enough to draw ire from the new ruling class.

民权画报Pictorial satire crossed over from fine art to pop culture during the first two decades of the 20th century, during the final decline of the Qing Dynasty and the republic era. China was still under threat of occupation by major European powers, warlords had seized different regions, fighting amongst themselves whilst revolutionaries and intellectuals debated the future of China. In short, the whole country was in political meltdown and artist threw themselves into the plethora of illustrated newspapers, circulating in Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, to keep the general population updated on the latest political events and debates. The illustrations began to be published in annual collections by newspaper presses, with titles such as “The Bells of Freedom” which, published in 1909, was probably the first Manhua collection come out of China.

2_2_1207282837Societies and unions began producing their own Manhua, with artists expressing their views in folk art like Nianhua (New Year paintings often used as household decorations). Whilst some artists such as He Jianshi and Zhang Yuguang kept mainly to traditional ink wash art styles, later artists such as Shen Bochen and Dan Duyu, adopted elements of European art styles, in particular lithography and fountain pen drawings.  Whatever the method, these illustrations were steeped in folk culture and popular idioms of the time. He Jianshi tended to employ popular metaphors, local colloquialisms, whilst Qian Binghe favoured satirical hieroglyphs derived from Chinese characters. Both Qian and the artist Ma Xingchi were contributing to “Kuai Huo Lin” (Happy Woods), the “Shanghai News” supplement dedicated to Manhua. In Qian’s work, we can see the beginnings of multiple panels. Their illustrations struck such a chord with the public that they were quickly re-purposed, printed on pamphlets with slogans and distributed across the city.

Screen Shot 2016-05-08 at 18.32.25After China’s involvement in WWI, the Paris Peace Conference of January 1919 refused China’s request for the return of Shangdong, previously under German occupation, transferring it instead to Japan; also refusing to cancel the secret agreement made by warlord Yuan Shikai and Japan granting the latter control over the governing of China. On May the 4th, hundreds of students marched in mass protests, which also called for reforms and modernisation. Manhua was developing and ripening alongside events leading up to “Wu Si”, the May the 4th Movement, whose formation and unified actions owe much to the Manhua pamphlets .  Around this time, Shen Bochen, an artist who excelled in not only the fine arts, but also architecture, sculpture and Manhua, held China’s very first Manhua exhibition in Shanghai, and founded “Shanghai Puck”, China’s first publication dedicated to Manhua. The first issue sold 10,000 copies in East China alone, but despite its popularity, the magazine only ran four issues before it was censored and presses stopped by the very authorities it exposed and attacked, on the eve of “Wu Si”.


Thanks for May the Fourth, Dan Duyu was able to pick up the mantle, as the first artist to publish his individual collection of Manhua, “Guo Chi Hua Pu” (The Shames of the Nation). Apart from pictorial diatribes against warlords colluding with European imperials and the Japanese invasion, what is worth noting here is Dan’s pieces on Shanghai life, depicting parts of the cities such as the ports, an indication of the widening of subject matter in Manhua.

The 1920s saw further politicisation of the masses exploited by unfair rulers, and as spates of mass workers’ strikes broke out across the country and the unions began their rise, Manhua turned its focus from political figures to the people. Artists produced murals and posters as well as pamphlets to spread the word. A major force in early Manhua emerged. Feng Zikai, who popularised the word “Manhua” to refer to this kind of illustrative art in modern style,  highlighting it’s  slightly tongue-in-cheek in tone, be it satirical, caricaturing, or just witty and poignant. Feng championed the breadth of art that could be included under this banner, whilst he himself continued using traditional brush and inkstone for his informal and casual style.

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72China’s first Manhua society was founded in 1927 by Feng and a group of ten prominent artists, In the following year, they launched an eight-page weekly lithograph with four pages per issue in full colour, and a circulation of 3,000. Titled “Shanghai Manhua”, these pages provided not only a window into political happenings of the day, but also into city life as a whole, tinged with a sense of urban romanticism, expressing the desires and fears of young men and women, along with Zhang Zhengyu’s portraits of debutants and notables. “Shanghai Manhua” also hosted one of the earliest narative multi panel Manhua, Ye Qianyu’s “Mr Wang”, which ran weekly until the publication ended.





“Mr Wang” is a comical depiction of the social life of a village land-owner who moves to Shanghai with his family. They encounter the whole array of complex urban society, from aristocracy, officials and policemen, to petty criminals and the flotsam and jetsam of the city. Under its influence, Lu Shaofei’s also serialized his humous Manhua story “Da Xiao Jian” (Big Baby). Not only were the artists providing the drawn content, they also had to provide the written content, edit each other’s work, typeset, and carry all other editorial and printing tasks as well as any necessary photography themselves. “Shanghai Manhua” ran for 110 issue, before it merged into  “Manhua Times”, by which point, it had made its mark as a pioneering work in Chinese comic history.


Manhua had developed slowly from its roots, but I am amazed at just how closely the links along the chain fit together, and how strongly any development has relied on what has gone before it,  building solidly on a history of irreverence. At this time, narrative Manhua was still known as 小人书, Xiao Ren Shu (Little People Books). In the next article, I will look at its development from the 1930s onwards, a Golden Age for Manhua, and the rise of the Lian Huan Hua.

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