Let’s Learn to Laugh: The Brief History of Taiwanese Political Cartoons
Cartoons with political implications have permeated the daily lives of Taiwanese people for several decades.
Since the 18th century, caricaturists all over the world have been responding to current events with humorous images and teasing tones. Political cartoonery provides people with channels to access current affairs along with shock and amusement. Taiwan’s newspapers and magazines also employ this form to promote ideas, or to criticize political news, current affairs, policies, and celebrities.
As a preliminary study and promotion for the National Comics Museum that is in preparation, Let’s Learn to Laugh: The Brief History of Taiwanese Political Cartoons starts from political cartoonery and aims to understand how “comics” as a medium present multiple expressions of humor with various political positions in the process of democratization.
I Resist; Therefore I Exist
During the early Japanese colonial period, pictorials adopted the narrative style of Ukiyo-e, depicting important events and characters by employing images with captions. The cartoons or comic strips began to appear in newspapers belonging to the Government-General of Taiwan in the Taishō era (1912-26). Their subjects included social status, political situations, and civil customs. During the Shōwa era (after 1926), the works of Khoo Ping-Ting and Ki-Lok-Seng described confrontations between the police and the masses from perspectives of Taiwanese people. Ke-Lang-Seng created certain cartoons to satirize politics and to delineate the landscape around Taiwan, females engaged in various occupations, and the customs of the indigenous people.
“Niitaka Manga Shūdan (Niitaka Comics Group)” was formed by artists whose skills had been fostered by correspondence education. Its members began publishing works in newspapers and magazines during the Japanese colonial period. Following the publication of Shin-shin magazine in 1945, they witnessed changing times with their political cartoons. Group members including Chen Chia-Peng, Ye Hung-Chia, Liang Tzu-Yi, Hung Chao-Ming, and Wang Hua were the first generation of Taiwanese local comic artists. They used their pens to express the sense of loss faced by Taiwanese people after World War II, vividly representing the disorder, huge wealth gap, hyperinflation, and collusion between politicians and tycoons.
Let’s Retake the Mainland
To stabilize their political control and censor free speech, the Kuomintang government made use of political cartoons in the 1950s. Most of the artists working in this genre were originally from the Chinese mainland, and their subject matter was mainly related to anti-communism and opposition to the Soviet Union. They exalted Chinese nationalism, propagandized about miserable living conditions under communism, emphasized the state of war, and implied the legitimacy of martial law in Taiwan. The fierce faces of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin could be seen all over The Pictorial Times and Central Daily News Cartoons Biweekly. In that era, cartoons and comics basically spoke for the government. The people could only obey official policies and keep silent.
Comics’ Devotion to the Country
Besides being a means to convey policies and revive traditional Chinese culture, cartoons and comics were extended to the educational system to develop patriotism during the Cold War. At the same time, Harvest Magazine (established by the US Agency for International Development) funded a series of comic strips to teach farmers about rice cropping, first aid, and animal husbandry (for example, how to prevent pig roundworms). Besides, content reflected official ideology, such as advocating economic rather than lavish wedding ceremonies, and encouraging farmers to enroll in Mandarin classes instead of speaking local languages. These made Harvest a channel to disseminate new knowledge.
The Lifting of Martial Law?!
Following the lifting of martial law, a proliferation of newspapers reflected the desire for democracy and freedom, and political cartoons were gradually able to present different parties’ positions and multiple styles of criticism for current affairs. The 1980s was a golden age of political cartoonery, with a single picture being able to convey as much as a thousand words. Works filled with vitality and political agency appeared in various political magazines, newspapers, and even in election campaigns. CoCo and L.C.C. are among representative figures. Some of their works described political structures, policy actions, election events, or particular parties and people. To promote reform, they also criticized the government. These cartoons trace the path and progress of democratization.
The More Shocking It is, the More Fun It is
Many difficulties have hindered Taiwan on the path of democratization, such as cross-strait relations, media monopolies, pension reform, same-sex marriage, and labour disputes. These issues have been taken up by different artists. For instance, Yaoi depicted the state of local agriculture. KoKai urged the conservation of the leopard cat’s habitat. Nagee’s and MOGA’s works discussed the subjectivity of Taiwan. They pay attention to politics through social media and employ humorous images to promote citizens’ initiatives. This helps the general public understand the seriousness of particular events and makes them willing to share and repost items, which in turn bolsters social movements which bring about change.