Cartoon effectiveness as a visual language in Modern Society

The difference between Modern manhua, Xiandai manhua (Modern Cartoon) and what some critics (Bi Keguan, Lu Xun[i]) consider to be manhua at least in “spirit” (some ancient satirical paintings and engravings from Han to Qing dynasty on), the so-called Gudai Manhua (Ancient Cartoon), relies on a single and fundamental factor: Modern Press.

The essential relationship between modern cartoon and modern press defines manhua as a Mass Communication product, determines its diffusion and popularity and dictates its evolutionary process.

In the XX century Shanghai, a modernizing society in which quickness and visual impact are the selling rules, so becoming the most important rules, an ideal communication form has to be visually synthetic and intriguing, clear and original.

To be as effective as possible this “ideal graphic form” has to be chameleonic: it has to convey different messages by means of different expressive techniques.

The Chinese Cartoon[ii] has to be mainly recognized for its power of directness, by means of good mastery in iconic synthesis, a generous use of satire, often conveying a socio-political commentary, and a balanced (and frequently witty) use of image-text association. The Cartoon does not have to be considered just “something funny”, it can also be “lyrical”, “sentimental”, as many cartoon masters show (from to Daumier, to Tenniel, to Thurber) and Feng Zikai’s work teaches.

The Cartoon is a language of image; it describes something, commenting on it, adding some peculiar, witty, impressive and often satirical elements. Compared to the narrative language of Comics [iii], the cartoon language displays its whole power in a faster way. Since the cartoon has a single caption, its game has to be as fast and direct as possible: it has only got a single shot to reach the highest peak of significance. As a consequence, the ideal objective of the cartoon is to have great and immediate impact[iv].   Besides, cartoon is a hybrid language in which word and image coexist in a mutual-help condition: cartoon art consists in manipulating image-text proportion and features according to any possible variation of editorial, artistic and public need and taste.

The word can be just clarifying, completing and echoing the meaning already expressed by the image, or adding something new, witty or contradictory, thus sometimes complicating readers’ interpretative process and in some way challenging readers intelligence and culture.

This brief review of Cartoon characteristics should have illustrated the reasons of manhua popularity and its spread in Chinese early-modern and modern editorial world: having such an eclectic and chameleonic means of expression in their hand, the artist’s expressive choice varies according to public “width” and target and epochal needs.

Several sophisticated 1920’s-1930’s manhua works were composed by different semantic levels in a complicated net of historical, intellectual and artistic references. In this case, decoding manhua is far from being an easy process and requires a good knowledge of topical circumstances and cultural context.. For this cultural and artistic potential, manhua has been considered by 1920’s intellectuals and artists as an artistic form conveying subtle satire and progressive socio-political content, as well as literary flavor as expressed by a decadent modernist taste.

On the contrary, the quickness, the directness and the easiness of its communicative impact allowed an easy reception from uncultivated public, busy petty bourgeoisies and businessmen. As a consequence, it has been preferred by cultural entrepreneurs as a propagandistic or advertising tool.

Later, wartime manhua[v]  particular attention to clearness, often really close to redundancy, was totally instrumental: a colorful synthetic and expressionistic manhua, with a plain and straight image-text combination was an explosive propagandistic tool. Besides, the quickness and the easiness of its conception, realization, reproduction and reception made manhua the favourite propagandistic tool among several Popular Culture artefacts.



Fig 1-2. An example of manhua eclecticism: the first cartoon is a satirical commentary to Chiang-kai Shek politics, the second is one of the highest examples of Feng Zikai’s “sentimental cartoon”.



Fig. 1 Huang Wennong for Shanghai Sketch, President Chiang-kai Shek, the Fist of Power (Daquan zaiwo) 1929(Source: Bi Keguan, 1982)


Fig 2 Feng Zikai, Last kiss (Zuihodewen), 1946 ( Source: Bi Keguan Huang Yuanlin, 2006).


[i] Bi Keguan – Huang Yuanlin, 2006; Lu Xun in Chen Wangdao, 1935.

[ii] It is worthwhile underlining that an uncritical translation of the term manhua, referred to the early-modern and modern standard, with the English term “cartoon” could be misleading. As it will be shown in this paragraph the two graphic forms, manhua and cartoon, have much in common, if we consider the single-paneled political or social commentary as the “original” manhua graphic form. But the term manhua in 1930s widens considerably its range of significance becoming a comprehensive label for several subgenres.

[iii]While Cartoon is a language of image, Comic Language and Comic Strip Language are narrative languages; exactly like a novel they display a long/short story, with recognizable characters and a real “screenplay”. Manhua evolution products include lianhuan manhua, the comic strip. This kind of manhua, although considered a natural evolution of a single-panel gag in China, represents a totally different language in a general Linguistic approach.

Ye Qianyu published, in 1928 on Shanghai Sketch, the most popular comic strip of 1930’s: Mr Wang (Wang Xiansheng). The second was Zhang Leping Three Hair (Sanmao) , the third Huang Yao Mr Ox’s Nose (Niubizi). The extreme success of comic strips made their appearance on newspaper and humor magazines become a really helpful selling factor.

[iv] For further explanation of why and how cartoon affects readers so quickly and deeply see:  R. Harrison, 1981.

[v] For a complete analysis of wartime manhua see Chang-tai Hung,

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