Analysing Chinese Propaganda Cartoons

8 thoughts on “Analysing Chinese Propaganda Cartoons

    1. Thank you for this question!

      It’s hard to say how popular these specific publications were, partly because they had quite a short publishing life. Because the Propaganda Corps were centrally funded, they didn’t have a very stable income! Resistance Cartoons was only published in 1937 and National Salvation Cartoons replaced it in 1938.

      In terms of the broader Anti-Japanese propaganda, there was a huge reach/audience. The same artists behind the manhua cartoons I’m researching painted graffiti murals in cities, and there were other publications that targeted different groups. Magazines like Resistance were for a native, relatively well educated audience, there were publications with English captions for foreigners to increase the international support for China, “picture books” or pamphlets were for the illiterate rural population, and flyers were air-dropped to target Japanese soldiers and encourage them to defect.

      So these two publications didn’t have a huge audience themselves, but they were part of a much wider propaganda campaign. The influence of the manhua artists on the development of Chinese cartoon styles (particularly depicting racial and gender stereotypes) was also substantial; I would argue that the manhua artists essentially defined the ongoing visual language of Sinicized Cartoons.


  1. Hi. Can you tell me whether (images of) women’s bodies were used elsewhere in Chinese media and if so, how did the use of such images change over time?

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    1. This question could end up being answered by an entire thesis, so I’ll try and keep on track… (but if you want a more in-depth answer I recommend Louise Edwards’ 2013 article, “Drawing Sexual Violence in Wartime China: Anti-Japanese Propaganda Cartoons.” in The Journal of Asian Studies).

      There is a pre-war image from 1936 of a naked woman on a cross and a Japanese soldier behind her. This image was particularly interesting to me as it has the same components as the wartime manhua images I’m analysing, but the compositional visual language of the pre-war image is very different.

      1936 was the peak of the idealisation of the ‘modern woman’ in Shanghai, and there had been a huge change in what parts of women’s bodies were idealised in Chinese images since the end of the imperial era. Photos of courtesans, for example, changed from highlighting women’s small (bound) feet and the expensive clothes they could afford to much more westernised images – open legs, underwear, highlighting a much curvier figure.

      I would definitely argue that is an established and continued use of naked women as a way to portray the aspects of China that were more vulnerable and desirable to enemies. Although the women in the 1936 image was much more idealised than in the wartime manhua, she was still anonymous and lacked any kind of agency.

      Images that didn’t use sexual violence still relied on the anonymous, violently killed/injured woman as an emotive agent. Feng Zikai’s 1939 image “A Mother’s Head Severed” shows a woman decapitated by a falling bomb in the middle of breastfeeding her infant. Depicting the woman as (literally) faceless demonstrates this established visual language – women’s bodies were more politically important than their identities.

      So, to TL:DR answer… women’s bodies were and are a universal site of visual language. Although depictions of sexual violence spiked during wartime, the anonymous woman as a victim and a visual vehicle for patriotic and nationalist anxieties was (arguably is) not unique to the Sino-Japanese war.


  2. Where the cartoons that were targeted at a Western Audience published in Western languages and Mandarin? Were there specific Westernized versions of these cartoons available and were these translations different from the Chinese ones?

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    1. There is less archival access to the publications targeted at western audiences, but from what I have been able to find the images in the different magazines are broadly similar – there was no distinction in the visual language of the artists. It’s arguable that the visual language of the viewers would have been different – the portrayal of Japanese soldiers drew on long-established visual themes for Chinese viewers that were less familiar to western viewers.

      There is more of a difference in the Mandarin/English translations of image captions. The short answer is that there are some mistranslations and some English captions that were almost certainly written by people with a limited knowledge of English, but there are also some translation differences that are more interesting. One of the images I discuss in my poster has the English caption of “the destruction of the Nine-Power Treaty”, but a direct translation of the Mandarin caption gives us “the Japanese treatment of the Nine-Powers Treaty”. This difference may seem subtle but I argue that it is significant. An international audience (themselves heading towards the Second World War) would be more moved to supporting a foreign country by violent terminology such as “destruction”, but domestically the aim was to increase anti-Japanese feeling, so the language had to be much more specific.

      In fact, the challenge of trying to “objectively” (insofar as is possible!) translate visual language is what led me to this research in the first place. Visual literacy is highly subjective, but visual language is a core part of propaganda. I hope to be able to better answer this question in the future!


  3. Was there a narrative component to these cartoons, with consecutive panels forming a story like comic books, or did the images stand independently?

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    1. The answer is yes and no. Sometimes there was a narrative component, sometimes there wasn’t, sometimes the images stood independently, sometimes they didn’t. A lot of existing analysis of these wartime manhua just looks at the individual image, assuming that they stood independently. I believe this overlooks a huge component in magazine propaganda, that is, the organisation of images on the page.

      The size contrast between soldiers and women is even more dramatic when these images are viewed in context. The immediate visual impact is markedly different when the images are viewed as part of a full page. Elements of the individual image that draw the viewer’s eye are lost or changed in the busy-ness of the full page.
      The lack of frame around the soldier in the Nine-Power treaty image makes more visual sense on the page than in isolation. By not restricting the soldier to a fixed arena, his presence on the page is much more active. White space separates the images on the page, most of which are contained by a rectangular black frame. In contrast, this soldier appears to have more freedom on the page, almost as though he could move wherever he wanted to between the other cartoons. In the same way that he dominates the insignificant body of the woman, his agency extends across the entire page.

      The manhua images that were part of a panel sequence don’t have a coherent narrative form in the same way that western comic books do, but they are linked. The development of visual language in China was very different to the development of visual language in Europe, with the concept of realism in images being very different. There was not an attempt to reproduce scenes accurately in Chinese visual language – from 京剧 (Peking Opera) costumes to news reports Chinese visuality put a much bigger focus on an abstract depiction rather than an accurate reproduction.

      This is an important context for the panel manhua images. The second image in my poster is part of a fourteen-panel strip documenting the brutal actions that Japanese soldiers were committing. There are no distinct characters (indeed, everyone is anonymous) so the narrative that the viewer infers from these fragments is more important; an ongoing pattern of inhuman behaviour of a Japanese soldier rather than one shocking act. Although informed by reports of events, these images were not mimeticism but rather encompassing imagined detail to dramatically display the very worst case scenario (and therefore increase national anti-Japanese feeling).


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