The Shanghai Manhua Society
 Conclusion17 min read

This is the conclusion of my MA thesis, The Shanghai Manhua Society: A History of Early Chinese Cartoonists, 1918-1938,  completed in December 2015 at the Department of Asian Studies at UBC. Since passing my defense, I’ve decided to put the whole thing up online so that my research will be available to the rest of the world. I’ve also decided to use Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, which means you can share it with anyone you like, as long as you don’t charge money for it. You can also download a PDF version here.

As we have seen, although the official Manhua Society ended about a year after it began in late 1926, many of the members remained close, and throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s they pooled their resources to fund several short-lived manhua periodicals for which they solicited submissions from amateur and professional artists alike, becoming not only editors, but also gatekeepers, teachers, and patrons for generation of cartoonists which followed, a somewhat ironic role given their relatively humble origins (with the exception of Wang Dunqing).  Employed primarily in the advertising and fashion industries, members responded to the worsening of the conflict with Japan by becoming increasingly political and in their manhua periodicals, one can see a marked shift from boys’ humor and light political satire into outright propaganda.  Their example demonstrates that the link between art, commerce and politics in the 1920s and 1930s in Shanghai was a fluid one, with few hard and fast boundaries.

English-language historians of modern Chinese visual culture such as Julia Andrews, Adam Cathcart, John Lent, Ellen Johnston Laing, Paul Pickowicz, Kuiyi Shen and others have examined the careers of various manhua artists. Many more scholars have used manhua illustrations to demonstrate the development of the public sphere in Republican China. Other scholars have looked at the political and literary groups of the time, building on the work of Michel Hockx and Kirk Denton.[1] John A. Crespi, meanwhile, has published an illustrated introduction to the important manhua periodical Modern Sketch and is in the process of completing a study of selected Chinese pictorial satire magazines from the late 1910s to the 1950s.[2]  Likewise, Jonathan Hutt has written at length on the life and times of Shao Xunmei, touching upon Modern Press, and more recently, Paul Bevan has published an important monograph which places Shao Xunmei and the members of the Manhua Society and their later collaborators within the global discourse of modern art.[3] While I have relied on their work to varying degrees in the course of my research, to my knowledge, however, this is the first English language study to provide a comprehensive account of the formation and immediate legacy of the Manhua Society.

Cartoonist and scholar Bi Keguan’s 畢克官pioneering 1986 Chinese-language study The History of Chinese Manhua 中國漫畫史, co-authored with Huang Yuanlin 黃遠林 was the first to highlight the historical importance of the Manhua Society.  Thirty years later, this groundbreaking work remains unsurpassed as the most exhaustive and penetrating look at the history of Chinese cartooning. Beginning with a short look at proto-cartoons from the pre-modern period, Bi and Huang document the emergence of humorous drawings 滑稽畫 in the newspapers and pictorials of the late Qing and early Republican period, looking at artists such as Shen Bochen and Ding Song. They show how these works informed the satirical cartoons 諷刺畫 of the politically tumultuous late 1910s, which Bi and Huang refer to as the Era of May 4th Movement 五四運動時期.  Although this movement began as a series of student protests against territorial concessions given to Japan, it eventually came to be seen as emblematic of a much larger cultural backlash against cultural and social conservatism.

Further research is needed on why so many manhua publications were short lived. While we will probably never know for sure how exactly how many manhua periodicals were published, in Chapter 6 of this study I touch on a total of 25 magazines published after the (informal) founding of the Manhua Society in 1928 and before Shanghai fell to the Japanese in November, 1937 (see Appendices Table 0.2 for a complete list). Of these, only a handful were able to survive for 2 to 3 years, with the vast majority closing after 2 or 3 months. John A. Crespi has hypothesized that many magazines were launched with funding sufficient to cover the costs of only one or two issues, being forced to rely on the sales of these first issues to continue printing thereafter. At the same time, for every successful magazine there were any number of titles which failed to find an audience large enough to justify production costs.[4]

In common with Bi and Huang and many others, however, I believe that the sudden profusion of short-lived manhua periodicals also owes at least some debt to the Manhua Society, whose members would go on to launch nearly two-dozen periodicals. As Bi and Huang argue, the Manhua Society was a group like-minded hobbyists who would go on to become professional cartoonists, united not only by their desire to rid China of both warlords and the foreign imperialists who backed them, but also motivated to foster and develop manhua as an art form. It is productive to examine the Manhua Society artists to the “amateur ideal,” proposed by Joseph Levenson in his essay “The Amateur Ideal in Ming and Early Ch’ing Society: Evidence from Painting.”[5] In his study of the post-1949 intellectual Deng Tuo, Timothy Cheek discusses Deng’s work as an amateur poet and calligrapher as having been in line with the late-imperial literati ideal that men of letters also pursue hobbies in art and literature, writing that

Deng clearly shared the eclecticism and connoisseurship of the Ming dynasty literati, but his aesthetic delight did not extend to their formalism and in no way impeded his commitment to modern values of science and rational bureaucratic organization, not to mention Communist revolution. Equally, Deng’s high cultural pursuits did not interfere with his commitment to help the great majority of Chinese people achieve a better economic and cultural life.[6]

While several members of the Manhua Society, such as Ye Qianyu and Zhang Guangyu, would go to become important members of the intelligentsia of post-1949 China, becoming calligraphers and artists more in line with the amateur ideal, my own research suggests that while political concerns were not absent from the minds of the founding members of the Manhua Society, these concerns co-existed with economic and financial considerations. The drawings and photographs of nude and semi-nude women, for example, indicates a concern with commercial viability as much as it does a pushing of aesthetic and social boundaries.

I have shown that the Manhua Society members began their careers as cartoonists somewhat earlier than Bi Keguan and Huang Yuanlin state, in the early rather than mid- 1920s. By tracking the relationships between the various members of the Manhua Society, and finding links back to the League of Leftwing Writers (on the part of Wang Dunqing), I have also demonstrated that the formation of the Manhua Society was a far more complex process than Bi and Huang record.

I first became aware of this discrepancy between the historical record and the accepted narrative, established by Bi and Huang, through the work of Gan Xianfeng. Unlike Bi and Huang, who had the good fortune of conducting long interviews with “living archives” Lu Shaofei and Ye Qianyu, who have since passed away, Gan relied on archival research. [7] In his 2008 popular history of Chinese cartooning (confusingly given the same title as Bi and Huang’s book, The History of Chinese Manhua 中國漫畫史), Gan provides evidence from the Shanghai newspaper the Shenbao that the Manhua Society was founded not in the fall or summer of 1927, as commonly claimed, but in December, 1926.[8]

Like Gan, my own research throughout this study has been primarily based on archives, guided by the oral histories collected by Bi and others. Unlike Gan, however, I am interested primarily in the roughly ten year period leading up to the formation of the Manhua Society, from 1917-1927. For several prominent members of the Manhua Society, such as Ding Song, Ji Xiaobo, and Hu Xuguang, membership seems to have represented the culmination of their careers as cartoonists.

I have relied heavily on Ye Qianyu’s autobiography, first published in abbreviated form in 1989, and drawn on Christopher G. Rea’s discussion of Ye in his PhD dissertation on early 20th century Chinese comedy. [9] Thanks in large part to his service as an anti-Japanese propagandist under Guo Moruo during Second Sino-Japanese War, Ye was able to have a long career as an artist and educator in the PRC. He is consequently a relatively well-known figure from the Republican era, as evidenced (and no doubt in part fueled) by the popularity of his autobiography.[10] Lacking a bestselling memoir, Lu Shaofei, on the other hand, has suffered somewhat in comparison, despite Bi Keguan’s vote of confidence in his The History of Chinese Manhua. Having worked as a KMT government official during the war, Lu Shaofei seems to have been blacklisted for a time by the post-1949 PRC government, only becoming prominent again in the 1980s.

My close reading of these oral histories, authored primarily in the 1980s and 1990s, shows that the historiography of Chinese cartooning in the 1920s and 1930s has been influenced by disagreements between Ye and Lu, and between other members of the Manhua Society. In Chapter 1, I recounted the course of events which led a son of a humble merchant, Ye Qianyu, to choose a career as a cartoonist, focusing on Ji Xiaobo, Ye’s early mentor, whom scholars such as Bi Keguan have largely ignored. Likewise, in Chapter II I introduced Ding Song, Zhang Guangyu, Zhang Zhengyu, and Lu Shaofei, the patrons and (literally in the case of the much older Ding Song, and figuratively in the case of his students, the Zhang brothers and Lu) elder statesmen of the Manhua Society. In Chapter III I discussed the careers of Wang Dunqing, Huang Wennong, and Hu Xuguang, exposing part of the networks of economic and social capital in which the members of the Manhua Society operated. In Chapter IV I discussed the catalyzing influence of the May 30 movement, which had a profound impact on the formation of the Manhua Society, concluding with an account of the North Expedition, which directly proceeded and perhaps contributed to the departure of several key members in late 1927.

In Chapter V, I outlined the partial breakup of the Manhua Society, while highlighting two publications which appeared in 1928: Shanghai Sketch and Dr. Fix-it, spearheaded by Ye Qianyu and Ji Xiaobo respectively.  Touched on briefly by Bi Keguan and Huang Yuanlin, Dr. Fix-it is an early indicator of the strained relationship that would develop between Ye Qianyu and Lu Shaofei, who worked as the primary illustrator for Ji Xiaobo’s Dr. Fix-it. Although Bi and Huang find it lacking in comparison to Mr. Wang, both seem to have overlooked the fact that Dr. Fix-it appeared some four months before Ye Qianyu’s more well-known work.

As I discuss in Chapter V, Shanghai Sketch emerged shortly after when the Manhua Society is commonly thought to have formed, so its editorial board is often conflated with the membership of the Manhua Society itself. For example, shortly after introducing the Manhua Society, Bi and Huang write:

After a half year’s time spent in preparation, the full-size color publication Shanghai Manhua was published [by the Manhua Society]. Several key members of the Manhua Society invested almost an entirety of their energies on this project, with some among them investing their entire energies into the task of editing. After the magazine was published, the Manhua Society’s major activities centered around it.

經過半年多的籌備,在一九二八年四月出版了大型彩印漫畫刊物《上海漫畫》. 畫會是幾個骨幹,幾乎一大部分精力投入這項工作,有的則把全部精力投入了編輯任務。刊物出版之後,畫會的活動主要是圍繞刊物進行的。[11]

This passage is followed by a longer sub-chapter dedicated to the publication, in which it appears that Bi and Huang were not aware that two separate publications titled Shanghai Sketch appeared in 1928. Nor do Bi and Huang acknowledge that neither publication involved a full roster of the Manhua Society (which seems to have partially disbanded in late 1927), as I demonstrate in Chapter V. Particularly striking is that Bi and Huang overlook that the first iteration of Shanghai Sketch, which appeared in January, 1928, was mostly the work of just three members of the Manhua Society: Wang Dunqing, Huang Wennong, and Ye Qianyu. Neither Lu Shaofei nor Ji Xiaobo were involved in this first Shanghai Sketch either, with only Lu joining the second with any regularity after Wang Dunqing’s departure.[12]

In Chapter VI I looked at the various publications launched by the former Manhua Society members in an attempt to understand the Society’s legacy. One challenge I faced was the impossibility of giving equal weight to every publication that emerged between when Modern Miscellany was founded in 1930 and the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese war. The enigmatic but influential patron of cartoonists, Shao Xunmei, I discuss only in passing. Chapter 6 gives only a general sketch of this tumultuous period.[13]

In conclusion, I find that the activities of the Manhua Society and its members had real historical impact on the development of Chinese cartooning, primarily because they brought together art and politics under the umbrella of a bewildering number of commercial ventures.  As John A. Crespi, John Lent, Christopher G. Rea and many others have argued, the real golden age of Chinese cartooning did not occur until the 1930s, when the spread of modern, high-fidelity print technology in mainland China facilitated a publishing boom of high quality illustrated books and magazines. At the same time, as Jack Chen has emphasized, China also faced an existential threat from Japan and found itself in need of propaganda to demoralize and denigrate the enemy while bolstering nationalism and glorifying self-sacrifice.[14] As this study has demonstrated, however, without the advantage of personal relationships and the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time it is unlikely that the Manhua Society and its members would have been able to succeed in their project to establish manhua as an art form.

Future studies might look beyond the communist takeover of 1949 to explore how the different decisions made by manhua artists during the war years influenced how their legacies were preserved in the PRC, as well as how they were impacted by the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, when the vast majority of the manhua artists found themselves being criticized as outmoded vestiges of the past. Chinese cartooning also flourished in the increasingly global context of the late 1970s and early 1980s; this is another period which would be rewarding to explore, as would the period of the mid-1990s to the present, which has seen the collapse and (stunted) rebirth of the domestic cartooning and animation industries within an increasingly competitive media and entertainment landscape.

Given their fall from political favor, much biographical and historical work on manhua artists been concerned with redeeming the damaged or even forgotten reputations of this broken generation of writers and artists active in the 1920s and 1930s. While that is, in part, my intent with this study, I also hope that I have avoided the twin traps of hagiography and teleology which I would argue can be found in the sociological studies of Bi Keguan, Huang Yuanlin, and some of their successors. To view Shanghai Manhua, or the manhua boom of the 1930s as the inevitable and natural end point of the Manhua Society of 1926 negates the agency of individual artists, and yet, to go to the other extreme ignores the influence of organizations in the development of those very same individuals.  Instead, I have sought to draw a balanced portrait of a group of artists as young men with their own careers and interests, who were united by a paradoxical distrust of foreign imperialism and a desire to succeed as Chinese artists of an imported art form, the cartoon—and to have fun doing it.


[1] See Julia F. Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), Adam Cathcart, “Chinese Nationalism in the Shadow of Japan, 1945–1950” (Ph.D., Ohio University, 2005), Ellen Johnston Laing, “Shanghai Manhua, the Neo-Sensationist School of Literature, and Scenes of Urban Life,” MCLC Resource Center (October 2010), (accessed December 15, 2014), Shen Kuiyi, “Lianhuanhua and Manhua–Picture Books and Comics in Old Shanghai”, Liangyou: Kaleidoscopic Modernity and the Shanghai Global Metropolis, 1926-1945 (Leiden: Brill Academic Pub, 2013),  and Kirk A. Denton and Michel Hockx, eds., Literary Societies of Republican China (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

[2] Personal communication, in addition to Crespi, “China’s Modern Sketch: The Golden Era of Cartooning 1934-1937”; John A. Crespi, “Picturing the Purge: Chinese Cartoon Imagery from the 1930s to the 1950s,” EAP Speaker Series (Cornell University: Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, March 12, 2013), Cornell University, (accessed July 31, 2015).

[3] Hutt, “Monstre Sacré: The Decadent World of Sinmay Zau 邵洵美”; Bevan, A Modern Miscellany.

[4] Personal communication.

[5] The first draft of this paper was presented at the second meeting of the Committee on Chinese Thought in Newhampshire in 1954. A revised version was presented at the Colloquium Orientologicum at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956, and the following it was published in John King Fairbank, ed., Chinese Thought and Institutions (University of Chicago Press, 1957). The year after that, Levenson included the essay in his collection Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: The Problem of Intellectual Continuity (University of California Press, 1958). See James Cahill, “Joseph Levenson’s Role In My Development As A Scholar And Writer,” n.d., (accessed January 2, 2016).

[6] Timothy Cheek, Propaganda and Culture in Mao’s China: Deng Tuo and the Intelligentsia (Clarendon Press, 1997), 154–55.

[7] For an account of Bi Keguan’s research methodology, see Bi Keguan 畢克官, “Why I Research Chinese Cartoon History,” trans. Xu Ying, International Journal of Comic Art 10, no. 2 (October 15, 2008): 421–36.

[8] Gan Xianfeng, Zhongguo manhua shi, 109. Gan also discusses this common misunderstanding in a 2010 article correcting a number of factual mistakes in an article on the history of manhua written by Wang Jizhong. See Gan Xianfeng 甘險峰, “Zhongguo Manhua De Ji Ge Shishi Wenti – Jian Yu Manhua Chuban Jieduan Zhi Zuozhe Shanque” 中国漫画的几个史实问题——兼与《漫画出版阶段志》作者商榷 [Several Factual Errors in the History of Chinese Comics: To the Author of A History of Manhua Publishing], 國際新聞界 no. 12 (2010): 124–27. For Wang Jizhong’s original article, see “Manhua Chuban Jieduan Zhi” 漫畫出版階段志 [A History of Manhua Publishing], 編輯之友 no. 4 (2009): 79–80.

[9] See Chapter 4 of Rea, “A History of Laughter: Comic Culture in Early Twentieth-Century China.” The first, 116 page edition of Ye Qianyu’s autobiography was titled 十年荒唐夢—— 葉淺予回憶錄 [Ten Years, An Absurd Dream: The Memoirs of Ye Qianyu] (Renmin Ribao Chuban She 人民日報出版社, 1989). Three years later an expanded 534 page edition was released, retitled Xixu cangsang ji liu nian: Ye Qianyu huiyilu 細敘滄桑記流年: 葉淺予回憶錄 [Carefully Narrating the Changes of the Ages, Recording the Passing Years: The Memoirs of Ye Qianyu] (Qunyan Chubanshe 群言出版社, 1992). The most recent edition, which I relied on during my research, was published in 2006, and is apparently somewhat reduced from the 1992 version, at 407 pages. It was published under the new title Ye Qianyu zizhuan: Xixu cangsang ji liunian.

[10] Ye Qianyu’s service as the leader of the National Salvation Cartoon Propaganda Corps 救亡漫畫宣傳隊 is detailed in Lent and Xu Ying, “Cartooning and Wartime China.”

[11] Bi Keguan and Huang Yuanlin, Zhongguo Manhua Shi, 85.

[12] Ji Xiaobo did contribute art to issue #24 of Shanghai Sketch, published September 29, 1928. He does not appear to have been credited in the magazine itself, however. See “Shanghai Manhua Ershisi Qi Chuban” 上海漫畫二十四期出版 [Issue 24 of Shanghai Sketch Published], Shenbao 申報, September 29, 1928, 15.

[13] Another area which I have, by necessity, overlooked is the role some Chinese cartoonists played as collaborators with the Japanese occupiers during the war years. For a fascinating look at this challenging topic, see Jeremy E. Taylor, “Cartoons and Collaboration in Wartime China The Mobilization of Chinese Cartoonists under Japanese Occupation,” Modern China (June 10, 2014), (accessed October 5, 2015).

[14] Chen, “China’s Militant Cartoonists,” 308. John Lent and Xu Ying have also done further research into the activities of manhua artists during this time period. See Lent and Xu Ying, “Cartooning and Wartime China.”

Nick Stember
Nick Stember is a translator and historian of Chinese comics and science fiction, currently working on his PhD in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. In 2016 he completed his Master of Arts in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia with his (very readable and not at all obscure) thesis on the formation of the Shanghai Manhua Society in the mid-1920s.