By John A. Crespi
What exactly are manhua, otherwise known as Chinese “cartoons”? The word manhua is easy to trace. It is a cognate of the Japanese word manga, though the two-character compound was used on occasion in China from the Song dynasty, in reference to a bird rather than pictures. The art of manhua, however, is harder to pin down. One can, as some researchers have done, devise narratives of satirical, cartoonish pictures that stretch back through millennia of Chinese history, albeit with many missing links. Easier to pin down is a specific year, 1925, when the term manhua was applied to Feng Zikai’s neo-traditionalist ink paintings printed in the new literature journal Literature Weekly. But manhua clearly did not emerge at a single point in time. Rather, they developed out of the diverse imagery found in China’s, and primarily Shanghai’s, illustrated press, from lithographed Dianshizhai Pictorial in the 1880s on through myriad popular illustrated journals, magazines, and tabloids produced during the first several decades of the 20th century. Among those materials one can certainly find print images that more or less match current understanding of manhua as “comics” or “cartoons.” But what we call manhua today are not necessarily manhua as imagined by readers nearly a century ago. Put another way, when we apply the current notion of manhua to the past, we risk losing a historicized sense of what those images meant and did in their own time.
My book Manhua Modernity: Chinese Culture and the Pictorial Turn argues that we can achieve a more historically informed perception of manhua by examining concrete instances of their symbiosis with the pictorial publications that originally hosted them. This short essay returns to that argument by walking through an example of what manhua meant and did in an entire issue of the eight-page weekly illustrated magazine Shanghai Sketch (1928-1930). What I hope to show is that in the case of Shanghai Sketch, all the images—whether reproduced from photographs or line drawings—were, in a sense, manhua. And all of them, whatever the subject matter, can only be fully understood when viewed as elements of a carefully crafted visual journey through an issue of a magazine designed to appeal to and construct a certain kind of reader. Manhua, as we shall see, were not just discrete comics or cartoons; in the case of Shanghai Sketch, manhua referred to the practice of deploying images and text together in the construction of the pictorial magazine.
There are several reasons I have chosen Shanghai Sketch for this experiment. First, its main contributors and editors—Zhang Guangyu, Zhang Zhengyu, Ye Qianyu, and Lu Shaofei—went on from Shanghai Sketch to help define manhua during its peak of creativity from the 1930s through the 1940s. The second reason lies in the magazine’s title. Shanghai Manhua, the Chinese name of Shanghai Sketch, might lead one to imagine it as a “cartoon” magazine. But it was not. Shanghai Sketch took the form of a variety magazine or “miscellany.” Moreover, the word “sketch” in its English name points us to a widely popular London-based illustrated weekly launched in the 1890s called The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality. London’s The Sketch was itself a miscellany of half-tone photographs, pen-and-ink drawings, and illustrated advertisements intermixed with all sorts of light entertaining writing—not so different as we shall see, from Shanghai Sketch. What made The Sketch significant is that it was the first mass-market “city” magazine: that is, a serial publication designed to construct and affirm readers’ identity as cosmopolitan persons at home in the turn-of-the-century modern urban environment.
Taking their cue from the British magazine and others like it, the creators of Shanghai Sketch designed their publication to introduce upwardly mobile Shanghainese to the art of urban everyday life as lived in global capitals like New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo. Shanghai Sketch thus follows the style, form, and conventions of the city pictorial as a print genre. Individual components in any issue of the magazine contribute to its generic character, with each item, be it image or text, functioning as parts of a larger whole. In one respect, this means that extracting individual items from Shanghai Sketch to analyze in isolation impoverishes their meaning, because we then lose sight of how those items fit within the larger design of the magazine. By the same token, examining elements of Shanghai Sketch in situ, as constituent parts of a magazine issue, we can broaden and enrich our understanding of manhua at a specific historical moment in their development. My discussion below adopts the latter approach. Through a page by page reading of a single issue of Shanghai Sketch, I reimagine how the magazine’s overall layout of image and text was designed to appeal to a target reader of the time: a young, relative newcomer to the city who aspired to a new identity embedded in the modern, cosmopolitan, urban lifestyle of Shanghai.
The issue I have chosen is Shanghai Sketch no. 10, published Saturday, June 23, 1928. Our reading begins with the front cover, and specifically, the cover art: a nude female dancer drawn by Wan Laiming, an artist who later found fame as “the father of Chinese animation” (see figure 1). The image is certainly interesting in its own right. We might note how the figure’s sinuous, muscular lines show the influence of Art Nouveau, or how the macabre skull she holds in her right hand alludes to the English Decadence of Aubrey Beardsley. As for the drawing’s arresting conflation of money, death, and female sexuality, that was a modernist cliché in Shanghai Sketch, and part of an editorial posture intended to celebrate, and even flaunt, a cosmopolitan attitude that positioned itself against the conservatism of traditional Chinese society.
Figure 1: The front cover of Shanghai Sketch no. 10
Much can be made of Wan’s illustration from the angles of global modernism, gender, or even Wan’s work in animation. But no interpretive strategy should overlook how Wan Laiming created this illustration as a magazine cover. Why is the nude pointing to the reader’s left? She is, in fact, gesturing for us to turn the page and enter the magazine, which opens from the left edge. Why does Wan include theater curtains? Because the magazine is inviting us, figuratively, to enter a performance—not on stage, but in print—that promises to entertain and perhaps even change the reader. And speaking of change, the antique coin itself beckons to the passerby to hand over the coins his or her pocket or purse as the price of admission.
Figure 2: Pages 2 and 3 of Shanghai Sketch no. 10
Turning to the first two interior pages of this issue, we see just one item recognizable as a comic or cartoon: a caricature of Uncle Sam (see figure 2). The “manhua” that meets the reader’s eyes here is something conceptually quite different: an “overflow” (man) of pictures (hua). Hua in this example includes various reproduced photographs, a headshot, a full-length portrait, an artist at work, several paintings and, along the bottom third of the two pages, advertisements featuring line drawings and stylized decorative text. As for the typeset text, it takes on a secondary role in the visual scheme, almost as filler in the spaces between the eye-grabbing imagery.
The pictures on these two pages are miscellaneous, but not random. In terms of layout, the most dominant design element is the diagonal gaze bisecting the page between the headshots of women in the upper-left and lower-right corners. Their line of sight defines the visual space by directing the reader’s own gaze into the collection of items on display. Each item tells a story, from the grand historical to the consumer mundane. For instance, at the top right a reproduced photo of artist Liang Dingming’s oil painting “The Shakee Massacre” reminds readers of the violent suppression by European gunboats of a protest march in Guangzhou in June 1925, just one of many events in the nationwide anti-imperialist May 30 Movement. Liang himself is pictured just below the painting. That nationalistic narrative, linked to the local world of high art, is given pride of place as the lead story for readers “entering” the magazine from the top right. Meanwhile, the set of advertisements in the lower left corner mirrors Liang’s painting both in its placement and rectangular shape (see figure 3). But where Liang offers a grand tableau of heroism and martyrdom, the advertisements invite readers to construct their own narrative of everyday life through urban services and commodities, here represented by Kuan Sai Yun restaurant, Xinguang Salon, Hairstick pomade, and Chiyo-Yoko Photo Supplies. Thus a trip to the salon, perhaps for a professional application of Hairstick pomade, prepares you for a photoshoot, and in turn a visit to the tastefully “artistic” upstairs dining room of Kuan Sai Yun for a luncheon of dim sum and ice cream. More could be said about the rest of the items on this page: the Qing dynasty paintings of Miao minority customs, the photo of a young female socialite posing in Peking opera costume, the advertisement for a film by woman director Yang Naimei, and so on. My point, however, is to point out how the magazine arranges and contains all these heterogeneous images, these manhua, in a dynamic visual package inviting readers to participate in a variety of narratives.
Figure 3: Advertisements from page 3
Turning to the next two-page spread, this one in color, items recognizable as cartoons and comics are more prominent (see figure 4). We see, for instance, the tenth installment of the celebrated comic strip Mister Wang, a multi-panel comic by Zhang Guangyu entitled “Nightwork of a Courtesan and a Journalist,” and just below that a single-panel cartoon by Lu Shaofei called “At the Office.” Compared to the preceding two pages, here an even greater percentage of space—about forty-percent—comprises advertisements. The products pictured—women’s clothing and fashion accessories, cigarettes, ice cream, sportswear, and phonograph records—once again model the use of commodities that readers can use to construct their modern, urban selves. The comics, meanwhile, incorporate these commodities in narratives of urban consumer lifestyle. For instance, although Mister Wang is remembered mainly for its humor, the strip also gave readers a serialized simulation of middle-class living in cosmopolitan Shanghai, replete with motorcars, movie-going, and fast fashion. Like Shanghai Sketch itself, then, the comics inside the magazine contributed to representing an imaginary space where readers could learn to walk, talk, laugh, smoke, eat, dress and generally perform life as a modern Shanghainese.
Figure 4: Pages 3 and 4 of Shanghai Sketch no. 10
The next two pages shift back to the typeset monochrome format, but continue to equip readers with ready-made urban attitude (see figure 5). The six half-tone photographs on the right document a fashion gala held at one of Shanghai’s premier cabarets, the Carlton Café. The accompanying text makes clear the purpose of these images; they are for “viewing and emulation” by readers, presumably female, who could tailor their own clothes to the latest fashion based on the photographs. The facing page, meanwhile, offers a pattern for tailoring one’s intellectual wardrobe. Here we find a pair of short, illustrated essays praising the maverick “genius” of great writers in Chinese and European history: the Grand Historian Sima Qian, the exiled poet Qu Yuan, England’s Lord Byron and Italy’s Dante, with all four described breathlessly as rebels against tyrannous conventions of their age. On these two pages, then, the editors of Shanghai Sketch educate readers on how, through cutting-edge attire and avant-garde attitude, to strike a properly modern pose.
Figure 5: Pages 6 and 7 of Shanghai Sketch no. 10
A final turn of the page brings us to the rear cover (see figure 6). Where Wan Laiming’s front-page art beckoned readers into the magazine’s staged simulation of the modern everyday, the rear cover ushers them back out into the lived experience of the city. Once again, the drawings here do not, strictly speaking, qualify as manhua. Instead of humor and satire, we see more fashion and advertising. The top panel, by the political cartoonist Huang Wennong, shows women in summer cheongsams waiting to see a film, with the one on the far right embarrassed to find herself the only movie-goer still wearing the winter season’s closed collar. Below that a pair of young men, drawn by Ye Qianyu, swap jackets and slacks as they model devil-may-care poses to strike during a Saturday night on the town. The advertising panels filling the lower half of the page continue to gesture the reader from the imaginary space of the magazine and into the lived space and time of the city. Dinner awaits at the Happy Forest or Seventh Heaven restaurant, followed by dancing at the Moon Palace cabaret. To help reach your assignations on time, you can choose a timepiece from either the New York or Hope Brothers shops on Nanking Road. And don’t forget your Golden Dragon cigarettes, another indispensable accessory to an evening out, Shanghai style.
Figure 6: The rear cover of Shanghai Sketch no. 10
As we leave this issue of Shanghai Sketch, my concluding message is simply that we look at manhua in their moment and their materiality. We can certainly approach any single example of manhua art in terms of what it seems to express on its own as a freestanding work. But much is lost if we fail to heed the meanings constructed between and among manhua, with that word broadly construed, when these pictures are deliberately arrayed in the equally artful medium of the illustrated magazine. I would even venture to say that we can view Shanghai Sketch as a graphic narrative of sorts, one whose loose orchestration of imagery and text, serially presented over weeks, months, and even years, was designed to let readers visualize themselves as protagonists in an ongoing story of life as a modern urban person.
 Gerry Beegan, The Mass Image: A Social History of Photomechanical Reproduction in Victorian London (Basingstoke England ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 99-130. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230589926. For an in-depth discussion of Shanghai Sketch as a city magazine, see chapter two of my book Manhua Modernity: Chinese Culture and the Pictorial Turn.
John A. Crespi is Associate Professor of Chinese and Asian Studies in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Colgate University. He is the author of Voices in Revolution: Poetry and the Auditory Imagination in Modern China (University of Hawai’i Press, 2009) and Manhua Modernity: Chinese Culture and the Pictorial Turn (University of California Press, 2020).