What comes to mind when “satirical cartoon” is mentioned? The common tendency is to associate them with The New Yorker or other famous western comics of similar genres.
The latest special exhibition, Between the Lines – The Chinese Cartoon Revolution, aims to highlight this lesser-known history by taking us on a time travel back to the golden age of Chinese political cartoons that emerged at the end of the Qing Dynasty.
You may be as surprised as I am to find out that witty commentary-styled cartoons in Singapore are not a recent phenomenon either. In fact, its legacy dates back to the 1930s, where cartoons published in Chinese newspapers reflected both hot-button socio-political issues and the lives of the common folks. Curators have also included contemporary works of local cartoonists and creative modern adaptations of olden day cartoons, hoping to inspire the continual creation of cartoon art and further its role in poking fun at society.
Political Cartoons from the Golden Era
Interestingly, the intentions of overthrowing the corrupt and anachronistic imperial rule marked the beginning of the golden era of Chinese cartoons. One of the cartoons that makes the strongest visual impact is the interactive installation Two Different Faces. True to the title, it depicts the dual face of a Qing official that smiles or looks stern – depending on which side it is spun. The installation cleverly juxtaposes the meekness of Qing officials when dealing with foreign powers, and the brutality they bestow upon their own people. You may also find delight in Officials and Rice Barrels, a cartoon that shows a rice barrel morphing into the shape of a Qing official. The exhibit also plays on the double entendre of the Chinese term fantong, which means both rice barrel and a good-for-nothing.
Not all cartoons produced during this period are about the political aspect of the revolution. Social changes also form a central narrative, including the early roots of the feminist movement. Feminism today may have become a buzzword of sorts, but few know about the humble beginnings of Chinese modern feminism. A section of the exhibition was dedicated to cartoons that depicted the growing emphasis on freedom and gender equality following the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. Major milestones and visions of early Chinese feminists are shown in the cartoon Changes of the Social Status of Women (1909), which included the end of the notorious foot binding custom, and seeing more Chinese women getting educated and joining the military. These were envisioned and drawn by cartoonists way ahead of their own times.
Modern Adaptations by Local Students
Arguably the biggest surprise from the exhibit, modern adaptations of Chinese political cartoons created by students from the Lianhe Zaobao Student Correspondents’ Club is showcased.
Providing a contemporary take on the cartoons of yesteryears, the results are pleasantly unexpected, hilarious, and hit a little too close to home. For instance, the original cartoon The Dragon Lantern Procession (1909), depicted China as a child at the start of the procession who is being led around by a group of foreign powers. This was adapted in the students’ version into an image of a child being led by the expectations of his teacher and family members.
In another cheeky and contemporary adaptation, what was originally a political cartoon titled The Queue-Cutting Movement (1910) which depicted a group of Chinese people climbing onto the head of a man to cut away the “queue” hairstyle is remade into an image of students cutting away at a school uniform skirt to make it shorter and more fashionable. These adaptations serve to be highly relevant and relatable modern dilemmas, such as one’s image obsession on social media, and the pitfalls of our education system.
Wan Qing CultureFest 2018 (3 – 11 Nov 2018)
Held in conjunction with the exhibition, the venue’s signature event casts a spotlight on our Chinese heritage, bringing a plethora of culturally and historically significant Chinese practices closer to the younger generations through hands-on activities and riveting performances.
You may want to try your hand at packing tea leaves the traditional way after sipping a cup of fragrant Nanyang tea, or watch a live demonstration of the beautiful and poignant Cantonese Street Opera. Chinese stand-up comedy (also known as Xiang Sheng), the teaching of the intricate art of Cheongsam design, and Wushu and Chinese dance performances are also worth checking out during the festival.
Apart from all the fun and games, this is the chance for you to know your cultural heritage better (if you are Chinese), or witness the early beginnings of regional political satire. Sometimes the people who least know about our history are our own selves, and it is never too late to start.
Between the Lines – The Chinese Cartoon Revolution will run from 3 November 2018 to 7 July 2019. For more information, find out more at their official website: https://www.sysnmh.org.sg/en/whats-on/exhibitions/between-the-lines—the-chinese-cartoon-revolution.
Photos courtesy of Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.