Comics, loosely denoted as “sequential drawings”, “kiddy books”, “picture books” or “infant books” existed during the last days of the Qing Dynasty. Ancient scholar scrolls, wall paintings in worshipping premises, traditional playthings or festive ornaments and carvings or scriptures embedded onto pillar and beams of architectural structures could all be generalised as sequential drawings that suggested narration of history or folklore.
Comics production foundations were derived from early stone stamping and fine-etching. In Shanghai circa 1884, the “Dianshizai Pictorial” was published. It ran for 528 issues, carried in excess of 4000 drawings exposing the corrupt practices and lavish lifestyles of the rich and elite during the Qing Dynasty. In 1889, the first stone-etched comic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” was published by Shanghai Literature and Art Publisher. About 200 artworks were drawn by the artist Zhu ZhiXuan.
The affection of stage operas like “Racoon Swapped for Throne Prince” in 1918 grew into a trend, and Matt Bookstore adapted stories from old folklore and mythical legends, opening up a new niche market. “Heavenly Treasures” was one of the more popular creations by Zhu RunZhai.
The Shanghai World Bookstore subsequently published “Journey to The West”; “Water Margin”, “Heavenly Ranks” and “YueFei” in comics form. Comics. Ye QianYu also got in line with his “Master Wong” and Zhang LePing, “Adventures of Samo”. Pocket-sized comics were the norm in the 1920s, and these were widely available at roadside rental shops and newsvendor stalls mainly due to their affordability to the mass market.
As publishers got accustomed to their newfound profits, demand for more products and hence comic talents, called for a myriad of varied content. Without regulation, “picture books” included violence and taboo. During the resistance against Japanese Imperialism, comics of general content ceased to be in production, whereas satirical and sarcastic cartoons flooded the sectors under national jurisdiction. Communist groups made use of comics for their propaganda in Red zones instead.
When the war ended, comics made a comeback and flourished in Shanghai. Four of the most reputable names include Zhao HongBen, Shen ManYun, Qian XiaoDai and Chen GuangYi. The former who started cartooning at the age of 16, was deemed the “Great Master of Comics”. He led the pack to establish a professional comics club named “Comics Alliance Society” in 1940.
Comics was utilised by the communist government as an educational tool, which enriched the livelihoods of the Chinese. Publication of comics was further regulated and handled in 1950 by both the People‘s Fine Arts Publishing House in Beijing and Shanghai.
“Lian Huan Pictorial” debuted in 1951. Production of comics shifted to a more systemised and organised paradigm. Art and content were outlaid with proper rules and regulations, thereby enhancing comics workers, confidence in career building. The enhancement saw an increase in local talent population, as well as the remuneration terms. Great masters like Huang ShuHui and Liu JiYou were among those who embarked on the waves of this transformation. Among others were Gun BingXin, Ding BinZeng, Han HePing, Wang HongLi, Ren LuYing, Cheng ShiFa, He YouZhi, Hua SanChuan and Wang XuYang.
Comic contents began expanding into areas like publicity on policy, the struggle of revolution, industrial and agricultural infrastructure, cultural education and reinterpretation on history. The only foreign-related content available was focused on Russian Revolution due to isolation policies of the republic.
The outburst of the cultural revolution initially labeled comic artists as “poison grass”, and the instilled fear nearly grind publications to a halt.
In 1971, Zhou EnLai lifted the ban on comics publishing in view of nurturing literary consumption for the next generation. The lift gave way to a host of publications covering various genres, and emphasis was placed on “teamwork” rather than “individual performance”. Such were the comics of “revolutionary culture”.
Till the end of the cultural revolution, comic productions peaked at 1 billion copies from 3000 titles. During this golden era, various talents abound. Given the freedom for expression, artists each exude their own capabilities and competencies.
The adaption “Maple” from “Scar Literature” by artists Chen YiMing, Liu YuLian and Li Bin was a hit then. You JingDong’s episode “Approaching Middle Age” also embarked on the same level of fame.
The eighties saw a replication of comics boom from the fifties, with “Eastern Zhou and Affiliates”, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, and “Chronicles of Sui and Tang Dynasties” chalking up tremendous readership.
Meanwhile, classic literature of any kind was translated and adapted in hoards. Even martial arts comics from Hongkong and Taiwan effected substantial influence. Titles like “Huo YuanJia Mastery” and “King of Southern Fists” rode on the trend to achieve sales in excess of millions.
The Central Arts Academy conducted courses for comics as well as festive arts in 1981. The government revived the National Comics Review Awards.in the same year.
State-owned China Comics Publishing Company was established in 1985, popularising the comics categorising procedures, and subsequently debuting the monthly “China Comics”.
The increase in comics production overrun, compromised quality, and the influx of new web media presented consumers with varied entertainment choices.
Hongkong, Japan and Western imports with their rapidly advanced production and content techniques, further caused the Chinese comics community to lose its glow.
Nevertheless, as of today, printed comics in China have joined the other four categories: Calligraphy, Porcelain, Stamps and Antiques to attain the status of collectibles, as web content become the irresistable.
The Western Han Dynasty—1898
The earliest Chinese arts hinting of manhua traits date back to the YangShao Culture, with patterns of man-faced fish marked on red and black pottery antics. Ancient manhua depictions on stone carvings of “Huns under the Hoofs of Raging Horses”, pottery mouldings of “Drumming Sing and Dance” and “Jie the Tyrant of Hsia” were beginnings of the first manhua drawings.
Although modern Chinese manhua could date back to the final reign of Qing dynasty, the first comic compilation “The Rattle” was published in 1895 by Englishman H.W. Hayter. Its contents were starkly aimed at criticising the deeds of Qing dynasty and Empress Dowager Cixi, sparking off the momentum of manhua.
“Blueprint of Dividing China” was widely reputed to be the first solemn representation of modern manhua, work of Xie ZanTai as published in the “FuRen Literary Society” souvenir book.
Revolt groups aggressively manipulated manhua as their main tool in propagating protests, thereby suggesting the roots of satirical manhua in GuangDong. Zheng GuanGong’s “World Charity News”, Pan DaWei’s “Pictorial Times” and Gao QiFeng’s “Pictorial Truth” were publications on the wave of art progression.
At the same time, the Boxer Rebellion employed manhua circulars to resist western and foreign influence. The first dedicated manhua monthly “Shanghai Puck” by Sheng BoChen debuted in September 1918, targeting warlords and Japanese Imperialism. Circulation fell short, running up to 4 issues only. Famous manhua artists include Ma XingChi, He JianShi, Qian BingHe, Zhang YuGuang and Chen ShiZeng.
Mei 1919—April 1927
Manhua during the new Cultural Revolution became closely related to politics and became a rivalling device in war. Messages of criticism and protests against Northern Warlords and Japanese Imperialism, appeals for anti-feudalism and struggles for democracy and science were the main roles of manhua then.
During the “May Fourth Movement”, Dan DuYu published his first solo compilations “Picture Score of The Nation’s Humiliation”. Ding Song by the fame of “Locks on Shackles” was one of the most productive artist then.
Feng ZiKai, with his art of simplicity and neatness, had many creations to his credit during this era, namely: poetic manhua, children’s manhua, social manhua and natural phenomena manhua.
April 1927—June 1937
The first manhua group “Manhua Society” was established in Shanghai circa 1926. Led by Huang WenNong, Ding Song, Zhang GuangYu, Zhang ZhengYu, Lu ShaoFei and Ye QianYu, the society had an official circular “Shanghai Manhua” and a looming dragon as its logo.
“Manhua Society” was facilitated by torrential times of the Northern wars, “Tragedy of 5-30”, warlord turmoils and invasion of the Japanese, where artists gathered to disseminate wisdom and expose corruption with their skills.
The first manhua exhibition was held in Shanghai, promoting works of new talent nurtured by such manhua publications like: “Shanghai Manhua”, “Manhua Times” and “Life Manhua”. While Huang WenNong gained reputation as the “Master of Journalism Manhua” with his mockery towards the administration of Jiang KaiShek, Zhang GuangYu reigned over the community with sarcasm and persevered resilience.
Notably, Lu ShaoFei was the earliest to adopt sequential drawings in manhua creation (represented by “Professor Modded”), heralding the dawn of chinese comics during the 1930s. Also in the line-up were “Mister Wong and Kid Chan” by Ye QianYu, “Samo” by Zhang LePing, HuangYao’s “Niu BiZi”, Gao LongSheng’s “Pictography of AhDou” and Liang BaiBo’s “Missy Bee”.
July 1937 – September 1945
After the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident”, China went into anti-Japan emergency. The manhua community in Shanghai set up a “Refuge” association and published “Relief Manhua”. The group led by Ye QianYu, Zhang LePing and TeWei toured Nanjing, Wuhan, Changsha, Guilin and Chungqing with exhibits of anti-Japan manhua, awakening the Chinese masses of the impending conflict.
Manhua creations were two-pronged: one targeting at exposing heinous deeds by the Japanese, and two, strengthening the will to resist the foes.
September 1945 – September 1949
Three years of civil wars toiled the aftermath of Worldwar 2, manhua created during that time was focused on the corruption of Jiang KaiShek. Supporters of such manhua were mainly communist followers. Hua JunWu, Cai RuoHong, Zhang Ding were active in the freezones while artists like Liao BingXiong, DingCong, Zhang LePing and Shen TongHeng traned their efforts in the national regimental areas.
The team of “Manhua Work-in-Education” was established in 1947 to organise monthly manhua exhibition tours. Artists were reprimanded by the Kuomintang in an operation dubbed “Manhua Incident of the Shanghai School of Law”. Meanwhile, a progressive group of manhua artists set up “Mankind Art Society” and published the compilations “This is the Comics Age” in 1948.
October 1949 – December 1956
The establishment of People’s Republic of China took on a new facade with brighter outlook. Manhua production suggestive of praise for communism became mainstream, and artists gather in line to the government’s call for transformation of sorts. Substantial effort in the form of political manhua was deployed in “Assisting North Korea to Resist the US”.
Meanwhile, manhua was also instrumental in scrutinising the communist unbecomings. Contents made a mockery of “Contradictions Among The People”, as categorised by Chairman Mao ZeDong. Artists excelling in such areas include: Li BinSheng, Chen JinYan, Liao BingXiong, MiaoDi and Yu HuaLi.
Application of critique in manhua was more detrimental than those of accolades. Artists have to exercise finesse and subtlety to project the appropriate weight in their works. Hua JunWu, Liao BingXiong, Zhong Ling and Fang Cheng were a handful of those who made use of their drawings to criticise HuFeng in 1955, but they later repented.
January 1957 – May 1966
Manhua and politics inter-twined closely at this juncture. In Mao ZeDong’s “Anti-Rightist” struggle, manhua artists were made both conspirators and victims.
Liao BingXiong’s sarcastic take at Dogmatism was deemed an icon of anti-establishment. He started as a supporter to Mao’s call for “Hundred Flowers Campaign” movement. His submission to the Manhua BiWeekly got him convicted. In times of truth denial, Liao’s “Rightist Outlook” became a ticket to the cells, and he was locked away from manhua works for twenty years. Many other artists were put behind bars for the same reasons.
The remaining of them turned to manhua of praise and foreign issues. Moving into the “Great Leap Forward” and “Three Red Banners” transition, manhua creations became voices of the Communist, soaking in self-denial. Sentiments of anti-International imperialism and colonisation turn cradle to a new generation of distinctive international manhua talents.
May 1966 – October 1976
A decade of tumultous craze brought about the fall of manhua. Artists were either arrested, traumatised or forced to succumb. Publications like “Red in the East” and “Glancing Today” promoting “Mao ZeDong Thought” were the only manhua to rise among those adverse conditions. The creations were crude in technique, lacking in art finesse, and aimed at bashing “enemies of class”.
As the Cultural revolution ended, China shifted into a reshuffling paradigm. Manhua publications turned on “reprimanding the Gang of Four” and recollecting the absurds of cultural revolt.
In 1979, the “People’s Daily” ran a “Criticism and Humour” supplement which garnered readership up to 1.3 million.
The “Manhua Monthly” of Henan, “Master of Humour” (ZeJiang) and “China Manhua” (Tianjin) were published, opening up a hoard of excellent manhua creations.
Deng XiaoPing’s reformation concept opened doors for the manhua community. New genres like caricatures, humour and laughter, social criticism, emotions and romance, sequential comics, journalism, history, international, water-paintings, children’s reading, sciences and web comics flourished instantly.
The China Arts Society Manhua Committee was established in Beijing, 1985. with DingCong as the first chairman. The “Golden Monkey Award”, a coveted recognition for the manhua community was created since 1988. China has since placed emphasis on the importance of Manhua theories, history and research. Artists benefitted from this support and a great many talents began to explore international markets, earning accredition to their efforts.