The Propagandist’s Palette: The Art of Manhua Magazine (1950-1960)

Download PDF

By Kelly Reiling

In June of 1950, the magazine Manhua yuekan 漫画月刊 published its first issue in Shanghai. During the magazine’s lifespan, which lasted until 1960, Manhua yuekan and its cartoonists underwent periods of artistic suppression and expression, enacted by the newly-established Chinese government through a series of political campaigns. The consequences of these campaigns were drastic, as cartoonists were forced to communicate complex political concepts under severe governmental restraints. However, despite these fluctuations, the cartoonists of Manhua yuekan were still able to publish a vast and diverse range of cartoons in terms of style, content, and expression.

As a material object, Manhua yuekan generally consists of a front and back cover and, depending on the year, approximately ten to thirty pages of cartoons. During its first stage of publication, from 1950 to 1952, Manhua published black-and-white cartoons, with only the front and back covers in full color.[1] Its rerelease in 1953, however, made Manhua into “a larger format, full-color magazine.”[2] The front and back covers generally outline the main idea of the issue, whether that be international socialist unity, Mao’s new political campaign, or condemnation of the West. From June 1950 to July 1960, Manhua yuekan published 164 issues, which offered “nearly three thousand pages of visual and verbal materials through which to explore a multitude of artistic, social, and political phenomena from the early PRC.”[3]

Each issue of Manhua yuekan contains a broad assortment of comics, with their styles ranging from realistic and detailed to simple and minimalist to exaggerated and caricaturist. This is largely because Manhua employed numerous cartoonists, all of whom had their own unique techniques and styles that they incorporated into their drawings. Because of this, every issue of the magazine possessed a diverse assemblage of cartoons.

Once the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, it needed an avenue that would advance its political objectives. Because Manhua yuekan and other magazines became “a staple of both popular entertainment and political media,” the Chinese government found cartoons to be a constructive mechanism to promote its numerous political campaigns of the 1950s.[4] For example, in the first few years of Manhua’s publication, China was in the midst of the Korean War and needed to mobilize popular support through a political mass movement. During this time, the party-state, through the Department of Propaganda, the Ministry of Culture, and, later, the Artists’ Association, worked to monopolize artistic expression. If artists wished to circulate their art, they had to “express some sort of instrumentalized, constructive state-sanctioned mes- sage, or they would not be published.”[5] As a result, Manhua yuekan published numerous issues that publicized and promoted the “Resist America, Aid Korea” campaign of 1950-1953. What followed was “a parade of polarizing cartoons cataloging the wartime ‘demonic other’: bumbling US soldiers cowering before courageous Chinese volunteers; warmongering Western capitalists confronted by peace-loving Chinese masses; dark, predatory American politicians trembling at the might of the Chinese worker.”[6] Utilizing Manhua as a political tool proved to be a useful resource for Mao and the CCP, for it promoted the creation of socialist mass art and continuously advertised the regime’s socialist message.

Manhua’s relationship with the CCP, however, was not always symbiotic. As Jennifer Altehenger has argued, the history of Manhua is an example of “the expanding political supervision of the popular arts throughout the 1950s.”[7] Throughout that decade, Mao and the CCP enacted numerous political campaigns, some of which encouraged artistic expression, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, while others repressed it, namely the Anti-Rightist Campaign. During times of repression, “institutions of urban commercial art were displaced or destroyed, the state became the major patron of a bureaucratized arts system, and popular culture was harnessed to the goals of state building.”[8] Consequently, Manhua’s cartoonists, as well as the magazine as a whole, were subjected to severe criticism, restraint, and suppression. During periods of relatively relaxed ideological expression, however, Manhua yuekan returned to everyday satire and incorporated cultural matters such as popular culture, fashion, and travel. These fluctuating periods of artistic expression and repression, “of relaxation and restriction,” dominated Chinese cultural life for the entire decade.[9]

Manhua yuekan suffered the most artistic repression during the final years of the 1950s. To Mao and his fellow politicians, it became “clear that the magazine posed a potential threat and its editorial board needed to be strictly controlled.”[10] Wary of receiving any more political backlash and inciting new accusations, Manhua’s cartoonists avoided satirical pieces and political caricatures that “did anything but praise the party-state’s rapid advances.”[11] Unlike its Soviet counterpart Krokodil (Crocodile), “the Soviet-inspired style of cartooning admired and practiced by many of Manhua’s artists had become largely incompatible with the socialism that developed in China,” and, as a result, Manhua yuekan ultimately could not endure the harsh political pressure of its government.[12] As a consequence, in 1960 the magazine closed down due to a so-called paper shortage.

Although Manhua yuekan endured numerous political campaigns that undoubtedly affected its creative capacity during its ten year lifespan, the artists of Manhua exhibited a genuine talent for making the most out of their repression. In this paper, I argue that Manhua yuekan was much more than a political puppet of the Chinese Communist Party. Using several examples from original Manhua yuekan, this paper will demonstrate how, despite the CCP’s efforts, the magazine incorporated a diverse range of artistic styles, subject matter, and personal expression into its publications. 

Project and Process

My approach to Manhua yuekan focuses on specific themes within the magazine to offer insight into the heterogeneity of manhua’s content, style, and themes. When selecting which cartoons to include in my project, I took several details into consideration. First, I wanted the cartoons to be relatively elaborate as well as visually striking so as to catch the attention of my audience, properly demonstrate the artistic talent of manhua artists, and provide plenty of content for discussion. Second, I chose cartoons that covered several major political campaigns in 1950s China. I did this in order to show the variety of content within Manhua yuekan, as well as how the magazine was largely influenced by China’s political climate. Lastly, I chose cartoons based on their artistic style so as to reveal the variation of creative techniques and aesthetics. Taking these three details into consideration helped bring the project into focus and construct a clear-cut thesis.

A significant aspect of my project involved translating and scanlating multiple Manhua yuekan cartoons. I began by sorting through each edition, creating a list of keywords that I knew would be frequently employed throughout the magazine, such as capitalism ​​資本主义, Mao Zedong 毛泽东, and aggression 侵略. While doing so, I recorded which cartoons I found visually appealing, incorporating a wide range of artistic styles, in order to narrow down which cartoons would best suit my project. From there, I sorted them into categories based on their general themes, like “anti-Western sentiment” and “domestic criticism.” I then chose a select few from each category and translated the textual portions into English.

The scanlation component of my project proved to be the more difficult. I had little experience with Adobe Photoshop prior to this project, so much of what I learned was self-taught. When I first started out, I tried to paint over the original Chinese characters with the same colors as the cartoons’ backgrounds; however, this made the background colors quite pronounced and shifted the focus away from the text. I then learned that Photoshop has a special feature called “Spot Healing Brush Tool” that is used to clone areas of an image and blend its pixels together in order to remove any small text or unwanted images from a specific area. This accelerated my editing process immensely. Next, I inserted the English text in the same location as the Chinese characters. I selected fonts that not only resembled the original Chinese font but also that were frequently used during the 1950s, such as Gill Sans and Bodoni.

Below I offer a curated selection of scanlated propaganda works from Manhua yuekan, each accompanied by historical background and visual analysis. My hope is that these English-language scanlations will allow those unable to read Chinese to experience and appreciate these works of propaganda art in their original format. The scanlations were exhibited at Colgate University in May 2022.

[For the best view of the high-resolution images in this essay, please magnify your computer screen using “CTRL +” (Windows) or “command +” (Mac).]      

Fig 1: The Collectivization Movement, 1954 

When the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, China’s economy was war-torn, most of its population resided in rural areas, and “industry accounted for only 12.6 percent of national income.”[13] With the intention of swiftly increasing national power, the CCP adopted “a Stalinist heavy-industry-oriented development strategy” in 1952, which, in turn, resulted in “rapid growth in the demand for food and other agricultural products.”[14] Because this increasing demand had to be satisfied by domestic production, Mao and the CCP promoted the strategy of collectivization in order to simultaneously develop the agricultural and industrial sectors. The fundamental policy of collectivization was the “mass mobilization of rural labor to work on labor-intensive investment projects,” such as flood control, irrigation, organic fertilizer, land reclamation, and more.[15] Prior to the collectivization campaign, China possessed independent family farms that were not only small but also highly fragmented. These farms, nearly half of which were owned by landlords, were leased to peasants for cultivation. Under collective ownership, however, the CCP confiscated the land from landlords (often without compensation) and redistributed it to the tenants.

The 38th issue of Manhua yuekan, published in January of 1954 and with a cover illustration entitled “A Happy New Year At Home” 合家欢乐过年, depicts a family of nine celebrating the new year while discussing Mao’s recent collectivization campaign (Fig 1). The father serves as the image’s focal point, with each character facing him as he holds in his hand a poster that reads “The Happy Life of Soviet Peasants.” The poster contains images of wealthy Soviet peasants as they stroll through a park, with the women in high heels, carrying purses, and wearing fine clothing. The poster epitomizes the main idea of the image; that is, how do Chinese peasants and China’s agricultural production compare to the Soviet Union, and what can Chinese citizens and government do to achieve the same success? All the characters in the Chinese household praise collectivization for allowing them to obtain the same prosperity as Soviet peasants. The woman farthest to the left, presumably the oldest daughter, holds a book in her hand and mentions how her school teacher applauds the “socialist road” China is embarking on. Behind the daughter sits her grandparents, both of whom are thrilled to see Chinese socialism finally come to fruition. Next, the mother and father discuss the ways in which they, as Chinese peasants, can become affluent under collectivization, specifically pointing to industrializing and organizing their fellow workers. Lastly, even the youngest son participates in the conversation, claiming that when he grows up, he wants to drive a tractor just like the Soviet peasants.

As seen through the award on the back wall, this household is meant to represent a “Model Agricultural Home.” This means that they were commended by their local party committee for being admirable peasantry and contributing to the betterment of China. Each member of the family appears quite healthy and strong, implying to the viewer that this new campaign produces substantial subsistence that will keep Chinese peasantry full and satisfied. Moreover, the family members are dressed in relatively nice clothing, the father even wearing overalls and modern shoes, two garments that were certainly not worn frequently by Chinese peasants at that time. The daughter’s book is also significant, as it illustrates to Manhua’s readers that in a model agricultural home, women are entitled to an education. Taking these three details into consideration, it is clear that the artist is attempting to paint this family out to be the epitome of China’s new, modern era of collectivization. Their healthy appearances, quality clothing, and desire to educate their daughter all merge to create an idealization of what an ideal agricultural house can look like.

This example manhua stands out for its detailed and expressive style. In general, it is unusual to find images drawn as intricately as this one, especially with regard to the characters’ facial expressions. Each individual in this cartoon displays a different countenance: the daughter intrigued, the younger brother mischievous, and the grandpa beaming. Their clothing is also rather detailed and unique to each character. Even the background surroundings, like the corn outside the window and the tools above the family, demonstrate the thoroughness of the artist.

Fig 2: The Draft Constitution, 1954

On September 20, 1954, the Communist Party of China adopted a constitution that would signal the nation’s pivot to socialism. Combining the principles of representative democracy and Marxist constitutional theory, the 1954 Constitution analyzed topics such as the class and ideological foundations of the CCP, the organization and function of state institutions, political and social rights, and symbols of China (i.e. state capital and flag). The process of making the constitution was quite formidable, as it required several stages of development, a large and diverse number of actors on both national and local levels, and significant political, economic, and social reform. Its purpose was to serve the CCP’s mission – that is, transforming China into a flourishing socialist system for its hundreds of millions of citizens.

A significant aspect of promulgating the 1954 Constitution was the nationwide discussions that took place during the three months following the draft’s creation. The National People’s Government, alongside Mao Zedong, knew the importance of having their citizens understand and support the new constitution, which served as a foundational document for the socialist path the nation was embarking on. Therefore, they resolved to launch a national campaign that “provided the opportunity for millions of these citizens to analyze and comment on what the party had just wrought.”[16] By doing so, Mao hoped to “[legitimize] the constitution by teaching ordinary people about it and soliciting their suggestions for revision.”[17] The purpose of this campaign was to not only familiarize Chinese citizens with their new constitution but also to demonstrate to the world that socialist countries cared about what ordinary people thought whereas capitalist nations did not.[18]

To garner support for the discussion campaign of the 1954 Constitution, the Chinese Communist Party needed to sway public opinion towards its mission. In order to accomplish this, the CCP utilized manhua to portray the campaign in a positive, successful light. A prime example of this can be shown through the Manhua yuekan cover “A Happy Event for the People” 人民的大喜事. This edition of Manhua, published in August of 1954, was disseminated during the height of the discussion campaign, making it an important tool of propaganda for Mao and his fellow party members. As one can see, the constitution is surrounded by several important social and ethnic groups within China, including soldiers, overseas Chinese, the elderly, farmers, Mongolians, and more (Fig 2). These groups of individuals, many dressed in work attire and holding everyday tools, look as though they have just dropped everything to see the new constitution. Moreover, the constitution is quite large compared to the groups gathering around it, indicating to the viewer just how monumental this document was meant to be.

The various constituencies within the cartoon offer significant insight into who the CCP considered valuable during this time. For example, on the right of the constitution, one can see multiple individuals dressed in traditional garments. This group of individuals represents several ethnic minorities in China, such as the Mongols, Tibetans, and Manchus. Here, the cartoon is demonstrating to the audience that the Motherland cares deeply about China’s ethnic groups and wants their input on the future of the nation. It also reveals how Mao wished to instill a strong sense of Chinese nationalism, a crucial component for the CCP, especially in light of the new constitution. Next, just below the minority group is a congregation of individuals who call themselves the “vanguard class.” These characters are supposed to represent the new socialist regime’s ideal citizen: the working class. Several other groups, including families and the elderly, can also be seen thanking the “Motherland” for keeping them safe and bestowing upon them the benefits of socialism. By displaying the exaggerated and supportive responses from each group, the artist is implying that the 1954 Constitution has widespread support.

It is particularly revealing to examine the position of the national bourgeoisie and businessmen in the image. In 1949, once the CCP had won the Chinese Civil War, the government ratified an interim Constitution that specified the structure of the new government, protected private property rights, and sought to “unite” the bourgeoisie. In contrast to the 1949 Constitution, the subsequent and official Constitution of 1954 eliminated this rhetoric of the bourgeoisie altogether.[19] This exclusion sent mixed messages to the bourgeoisie, who now could not tell whether they were friends or enemies of the state nor whether they would be persecuted for being “class enemies.”[20] That political ambiguity appears in this manhua, which hedges its bets by including two members of the national bourgeoisie at top right, below the group of overseas Chinese and above the two elders, but denying them a speech bubble and partially leaving their bodies outside the frame of the image.

Fig 3: The Hundred Flowers Campaign, 1955

Seven years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong stood in front of nearly 2,000 individuals, both communists and capitalists, and proclaimed that it was time to set aside the class struggles that had plagued China in recent decades. He then declared, “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend” 百花齊放,百家爭鳴, which communicated to the nation that a new political campaign was underway. This movement, later known as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, “represented a period of relaxed ideological and cultural control.”[21] Controls on the media were relaxed, circulation of newspapers and journals increased, and published content diversified greatly. Cartoonists were also inspired to “bloom and contend” by “more boldly diversifying their experiments in humor and satire.”[22] The moderation of the Hundred Flowers Campaign did not just emerge out of nowhere; rather, policy on the arts began to relax beginning in 1953, and flowers were already a symbol of  artistic and literary activity. The manhua above (Fig 3), published in May 1955 in issue no. 54 of Manhua yuekan, exemplifies this period of relaxed artistic policy, as artists Wang Letian and Chen Yongzhen cleverly experiment with taboo topics such as sexual expression and eroticism.

At first glance, this cartoon appears to be straightforward and innocent: a cloud projects out of the upper-right corner while a beautiful, young woman strolls down a countryside road, properly dressed in her official “Lenin suit” and holding a book in one hand. Spring looks as though it has finally sprung as flowers bloom all around her and water cascades down a stream nearby. However, upon closer inspection, the image holds numerous symbols and innuendos. For instance, the cloud, representing the Zephyr, is not simply floating past the woman like any other cloud would; rather, it is attempting to blow off her outer garments while asking why she chooses to hide bright floral clothing under her drab suit. In Chinese culture, clouds symbolize good fortune, happiness, and, potentially, “sexual union.”[23] One might conclude, then that the Zephyr, a symbolic emblem in the West that generally embodies the coming of spring and sexual awakenings, strives to persuade the woman into embracing her sexuality.

The environment surrounding the woman further encourages this narrative of sex. First, the yellow and red flowers situated in front of her appear harmless and pure. Although flowers hold several meanings and interpretations within Chinese culture, they can also express sexual connotations. As Wolfram Eberhard states in A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, “the physical appearance of a beautiful woman is described as ‘flower-like’ and she herself is a flower reborn.”[24] Yellow flowers, more specifically, represent virginal women, whereas a “smoke-flower” signifies a prostitute or a woman who has had sex.[25] Interestingly, in the foreground of the image, the red flower is turned to face both the yellow flower and the woman, very obliquely suggesting that her innocence may be coming to an end. The willow tree located behind the woman also has potential erotic connotations. Willows, according to Chinese symbolism, have strong ties to sex, especially prostitution and “virginal freshness.”[26] Virgins may often be called a “tender willow and fresh flower,” whereas a “woman who can no longer claim virginal freshness is described as a ‘faded willow and withered flower.’”[27] Here, the artists are once more, one may argue, using disguised symbolism to express sexual awakening.

Although the image itself incorporates numerous innuendos, the caption attempts to contain and minimize the overt sexual references. For example, while the Zephyr seems to want the woman to embrace sexual awakening,  the way he speaks to her (i.e. “Why do you choose to hide your flowers?”) comes off more innocent and inoffensive than what he is tacitly suggesting. Furthermore, the call to wear “proper and beautiful clothing” also distracts from the sexuality illustrated throughout the image. The explicit meaning of the written text, then, tends to offset the implicit meanings of the manhua, leaving plenty of room for plausible deniability.

In short, although the Hundred Flowers Campaign had not officially begun until 1956, this manhua encapsulates the preceding years of reduced ideological and cultural control that laid the groundwork for the campaign. Even with relaxed cultural controls, overt sexual references were still taboo within Chinese society. Nonetheless, the symbolic imagery built into this manhua demonstrates how creative Manhua yuekan cartoonists could be.

Fig 4: The Anti-Rightist Campaign, 1958

The Hundred Flowers Campaign lasted only until 1957 when China witnessed two significant cultural and political events that altered the international geopolitical landscape, as well as the domestic climate of China. First, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had recently criticized Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a move that greatly offended Mao as well as his fellow members of the CCP, and marked the beginning of the Sino-Soviet split.[28] Second, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 elevated a sense of insecurity and signaled to Mao that the socialist critique tolerated and even encouraged during the Hundred Flowers period might prove too dangerous, potentially even leading to internal rebellion.[29] As a result, Mao became less receptive to criticism and more inclined towards repression, and the Anti-Rightist Campaign began to take form.

The Anti-Rightist Campaign sought to silence and purge the alleged “rightists” from inside communist China. Though the term was loosely and inconsistently employed, “rightists” were generally regarded as anyone who appeared to favor capitalism, oppose socialism, and criticize the CCP. What followed was a nationwide witch hunt for supposed liberals, reactionaries, and capitalists. This campaign “led to the persecution of several hundreds of thousands of people from all social strata, including many intellectuals who, after much hesitation, had made statements, at the insistent demand of authorities, as part of the Party rectification campaign imposed by Mao Zedong.”[30] These individuals, many of whom were intellectuals and artists, were then subsequently fired from their jobs, sent to rural labor camps for reeducation, and were forced to live in the countryside in order “to observe and learn from peasants’ everyday lives.”[31]

Once the Hundred Flowers Campaign ended in 1957, hundreds of thousands of writers, artists, and other intellectuals were sent to the countryside as punishment for “harboring anti-party sentiment.”[32] This phenomenon was displayed throughout Manhua yuekan in the late 1950s and can be seen specifically in “Welcoming the Newcomers” 迎新图, which was published in issue no. 104 on January 8th, 1958. Contrary to what one might think when inspecting this manhua, the Anti-Rightist Campaign was not celebrated by Chinese citizens. It in fact forced countless urbanites and intellectuals to relocate, disrupting many families and individuals. Despite this reality, manhua artists had little choice but to depict the campaign in a positive light.

The image relays an enlivened tone, one where each character appears excited to assume a new life in the countryside (Fig 4). The characters within the manhua range from students to soldiers to doctors, with each one exemplifying a different aspect of rural life. Almost all are smiling, cheerfully interacting with the native inhabitants, and keeping themselves content through physical labor. One example can be found in the center of the page, as two women joyfully discuss how one of the woman’s hands, now covered in blisters, are “transformed through labor.” In addition, to the left of the cartoon, one can see a newly-married woman–a student recently arrived from the city–and her local peasant husband adorn their house with decorative and symbolic décor. The husband hangs a traditional double happiness ornament (囍) commonly used to represent marriage. Furthermore, the two magpies found above the newlyweds also enhance the association of marriage, for those birds are believed to be heralds of good news and symbolize blissful marriages.[33] On the bottom right, one can also see a parade at which old and new rural residents joyfully welcome the arrival of new urban arrivals to the accompaniment of music and firecrackers, all implying to the audience that being sent-down to the countryside was cause for celebration by and for the people.

Another significant detail within this manhua are the numerous individuals who are wearing glasses. These individuals, found scattered throughout the cartoon, are meant to represent the Chinese intellectuals who recently relocated to the countryside. On the left-center of the image, one of these relocated intellectuals can be seen “dropping his superior airs” in order to carry a manure basket – a humbling occupation to say the least. Another intellectual, found in the upper left corner, is asking a native resident of the countryside to take him on as an apprentice as they prepare to journey up a mountain. A third intellectual, standing in a courtyard on the right, proclaims that he no longer needs to take sleeping pills ever since he moved to the countryside. Taking these three characters into consideration, one would assume that this mandatory relocation to the countryside was desirable, as most of them are pictured with smiling faces. However, this was not the case for either the intellectuals who were forced to resettle or the rural inhabitants who had to feed and house these internal exiles.

“Welcoming the Newcomers” differs from the other cartoons discussed in here for how it resembles a classic Chinese handscroll, such as the Song dynasty masterpiece Going Up the River in Spring 清明上河图. Like Going Up the River, “Welcoming the Newcomers” offers a panoramic view of multiple human interactions, thus inviting the “viewer into the experience of mass spectatorship.”[34] By foregrounding dozens of individuals in the countryside, depicted as enjoying the start of their new lives, the artists integrate viewers into the characters’ experiences. Panoramas such as this one create what Thierry Smolderen calls a “swarming effect,” which encourages the viewer to immerse themselves in the comic, following the maze of events occurring throughout the image.[35]

Fig 5: The Great Leap Forward, 1958

The Great Leap Forward was an economic and political campaign, launched by the Chinese Communist Party between 1958 and 1962, that sought to rapidly transform the nation from an agrarian economy into a communist society, thus advancing China to the forefront of economic development. Through the formation of “people’s communes” and agricultural collectivization, Mao attempted to multiply grain yields and bring industry to the Chinese countryside. As is well known, however, due to poor planning, falsification of statistics, and ill-conceived projects such as smelting steel in homemade “backyard furnaces,” the campaign was a complete failure and resulted in millions of deaths.

China’s economy and politics were not the only aspects of Chinese life that were drastically impacted by the Great Leap Forward. As S.H. Chen contends in an essay from 1960, this campaign brought about considerable artistic expression, particularly with regard to poems and songs. During the campaign, China’s mental and physical energy was being “vigorously mobilized, organized and directed” not only to increase domestic production but also in a direction of increased poetic expression.[36] To induce the production of as much poetry and music as possible, the CCP established the “million poem movement,” which set artistic quotas for communities all over China and ultimately generated “a production figure of over six billion poems a year.”[37] These poems, at the urging of the CCP, typically expressed gratitude and devotion to the party-state while glorifying the demanding circumstances of the Great Leap Forward.

The manhua above, published in Manhua yuekan’s 122nd issue in October 1958, is just one example of a great variety of manhua art celebrating the Great Leap. The lyrics set the scene: industrial production is at its peak, the countryside has modernized, and socialism has successfully turned the whole country into a manufacturing empire. The illustration furthers this narrative by showing a living red river of molten steel pouring from countless backyard steel furnaces and dwarfing one of China’s major rivers, in this case either the Yangtze or Yellow rivers.      

Fig 6: Anti-Americanism, 1959

In “America’s Economic Machine Breaks Down” 美国经济机器失灵, published on December 23, 1959 in Manhua yuekan’s 151st issue, artist Jiang Fan drew a machine allegorizing the United States’ failing global economic project. Looking at the cartoon as a whole, the machine, which occupies the majority of the image, is the central focus of the cartoon. The manhua is dominated by a blue/gray color scheme, which creates a dark undertone. According to Chinese symbolism, blue largely possesses negative connotations, such as misfortune, suicide, and ugliness.[38] However, even as the color scheme denotes grimness, Jiang counteracts that effect somewhat by giving the image plenty of chaotic and energetic movement. Both the machine and the men surrounding it are in a state of disarray, with the machine bursting at its seams and the men scrambling to repair any fragment they can.

The various components of the manhua tell a story in more detail. First, on the left side of the machine, one can see outlets for Latin American and Western Europe that are presumably meant to be spitting out money. Latin America’s opening, however, emits waves of smoke, and Western Europe shoots out several springs and bolts, signaling mechanical failure within the machine. Adjacent to these openings one can find the “U.S. Gold Reserves” vault, which appears to be bursting at the seams, as well as a malfunctioning “state spending” computer that is spitting out reams of tape. To the right of that, a graph representing America’s industrial production launches its arrow downward, hitting one of the men on the head. Next, on the top of the machine a man reads a newspaper on which a skull and the year “1929” point to the crisis of global capitalism that led to the Great Depression thirty year before. The machine even has spiderwebs on its upper right corner, illustrating to the audience the old and decrepit nature of “America’s economy.”

The men surrounding the large machine represent the “big bosses” of Wall Street, U.S. Pentagon officials, and American leadership, most prominent among that last being President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Most of these men wear top hats and suits and smoke cigars, three visual clichés used to denote capitalists. Because Manhua yuekan constantly satirized America’s bourgeoisie as ravenous capitalists “whose monopolistic control of the nation’s wealth bitterly [divided] social classes and [generated] conflicts,” its cartoonists amplified the capitalists characters’ gruesome appearances through disproportionate features and overdramatized expressions.[39] The men wearing gray, on the other hand, represent American military men, who, just like the capitalists, exhibit bizarre expressions and greedy behavior. Both of these groups scramble to rescue the large machine from utter destruction, their movements highly exaggerated, animated, and uncoordinated. However, because the massive apparatus dwarfs all the characters, none have the ability to repair or operate the machine as it falls apart.

This manhua encapsulates the CCP’s attempts to paint America as a greedy, selfish, and merciless empire, one that is poorly governed by its insatiable bourgeoisie. The image of the deteriorating “economic machine” directly correlates to Mao’s belief that “the West’s collapse was imminent” and that capitalism was a frail and imperfect system.[40] The large machine symbolizes how America’s economy, once almighty and powerful, is now on the verge of collapse, as smoke emanates from its sides, gold gushes out of its vault, and the machine as a whole falls apart at its seams.


Chinese communist propaganda cartoons are widely imagined to be uniform, unimaginative, and used with purely negative intent. Yet, as we have seen throughout this paper, Chinese propaganda has the ability to be diverse, imaginative, and constructive. Within its ten-year lifespan, Manhua yuekan produced over a hundred and fifty issues and thousands of cartoons, all while enduring a series of political campaigns large and small. Manhua yuekan vividly illustrated the political, economic, and social situation in China from 1950 to 1960.

When browsing Manhua yuekan, it is easy to remain fixated on its political components and overt propaganda, for its front and back covers of the magazine, along with its first couple pages, were almost always dominated by images of anti-West sentiment, domestic political campaigns, and pro-socialist perspectives. However, beyond such political theatrics, one can see how the magazine and its contributors offered considerable creativity in terms of its style and content in the face of severe political repression.

From the happy rural household in “A Happy Family at Home” to the carefully crafted innuendos “The Zephyr, on to the elaborately imaginative tableau of “America’s Economic Machine,” Manhua cartoonists demonstrated considerable range in terms of their style, content, and artistic interpretations. Although the several manhua I analyze above reveal a diverse assortment of themes and aesthetics, they only scratch the surface on the magazine’s true variety. Throughout the Manhua yuekan, one can see whole pages dedicated to entertainment, urban living, foreign lifestyles, and more. While irrefutably influenced by the political campaigns of 1950s China, Manhua yuekan was more than just a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party. Like its predecessors decades before, it enlivened readers’ lives with a heterogeneous display of cultural artifacts, popular culture, and foreign lifestyles. 

[1] Mariia Guleva, “How to Deal with a Good Child? Prescribed Normality in Images of Children and Child- Adult Relations in Manhua Magazine, 1950- 1960,” Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies, no. 2 (2021): 41, accessed February 12, 2022,

[2] John A. Crespi, Manhua Modernity: Chinese Culture and the Pictorial Turn (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2020), 104.

[3] Crespi, Manhua Modernity, 105.

[4] Altehenger, “A Socialist Satire,” 82.

[5] Crespi, Manhua Modernity, 127.

[6] Crespi, Manhua Modernity, 103-104.

[7] Altehenger, “A Socialist Satire,” 78.

[8] Crespi, Manhua Modernity, 104.

[9] Richard Kraus, “14. Let A Hundred Flowers Blossom, Let A Hundred Schools of Thought Contend,” in Words and their Stories, ed. B. Wang (Leiden: Brill, 2010): 249.

[10] Altehenger, “A Socialist Satire,” 98.

[11] Altehenger, “A Socialist Satire,” 98.

[12] Altehenger, “A Socialist Satire,” 100.

[13] Justin Yifu Lin, “Collectivization and China’s Agricultural Crisis in 1959-1961,” The Journal of Political Economy, no. 98 (1990): 1230, accessed May 2, 2022,

[14] Lin, “Collectivization and China’s Agricultural Crisis,” 1230.

[15] Lin, “Collectivization and China’s Agricultural Crisis,” 1230.

[16] Neil J. Diament and Feng Xiaocai, “Textual Anxiety: Reading (and Misreading) the Draft Constitution in China, 1954,” Journal of Cold War Studies, no. 20 (2018): 154.

[17] Diament and Feng, “Textual Anxiety,” 161.

[18] Diament and Feng, “Textual Anxiety,” 162.

[19] Diament and Feng, “Textual Anxiety,” 158.

[20] Diament and Feng, “Textual Anxiety,” 166.

[21] Dayton Lekner, “Echolocating the Social: Silence, Voice, and Affect in China’s Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist Campaigns, 1956–58,” The Journal of Asian Studies, no. 80 (2021): 937, accessed April 12, 2022, https://doi:10.1017/S0021911821000668.

[22] ​​Crespi, Manhua Modernity, 119.

[23] Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 67-68.

[24] Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 111.

[25] Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 111.

[26] Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 314.

[27] Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 314.

[28] János Rádvanyi, “The Hungarian Revolution and the Hundred Flowers Campaign” The China Quarterly, no. 43 (1970): 123, accessed April 15, 2022,

[29] Rádvanyi, “The Hungarian Revolution and the Hundred Flowers Campaign,” 127.

[30] Christine Vidal, “The 1957-1958 Anti-Rightist Campaign in China: History and Memory (1978-2014),” (2016): 3, accessed April 23, 2022,

[31] Altehenger, “A Socialist Satire,” 99.

[32] Crespi, Manhua Modernity, 119.

[33] Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 174.

[34] Crespi, Manhua Modernity, 111.

[35] Crespi, Manhua Modernity, 111.

[36] ​​S.H. Chen, “Multiplicity in Uniformity: Poetry and the Great Leap Forward,” The China Quarterly, no. 3 (1960): 1, accessed May 1, 2022,

[37] Chen, “Multiplicity in Uniformity,” 5.

[38] Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, 42.

[39] Chang-tai Hung, Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 163.

[40] Guleva, “Through the Looking Glass,” 97.


Altehenger, Jennifer. “A Socialist Satire: Manhua Magazine and Political Cartoon Production in the PRC, 1950–1960.” Frontiers of History in China, no. 8 (2013): 78–103. Accessed on February 23, 2022.–002–013–0005–3.

Chen, S. H. “Multiplicity in Uniformity: Poetry and the Great Leap Forward.” The China Quarterly, no. 3 (1960): 1-15. Accessed May 1, 2022.

Crespi, John A. Manhua Modernity: Chinese Culture and the Pictorial Turn. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2020.

Diament, Neil J. and Feng Xiaocai. “Textual Anxiety: Reading (and Misreading) the Draft Constitution in China, 1954.” Journal of Cold War Studies, no. 20 (2018): 153-179. Accessed April 1, 2022.

Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. London and New York: Routledge, 1986.

Guleva, Mariia. “How to Deal with a Good Child? Prescribed Normality in Images of Children and Child- Adult Relations in Manhua Magazine, 1950- 1960.” Journal of the European Association for Chinese Studies, no. 2 (2021): 37–82. Accessed February 12, 2022.

Guleva, Mariia. “Through the Looking Glass of Intimate Friendship and Common Enemies: Images of Sino–Soviet Relations in Chinese and Soviet Political Cartoons of the 1950s.” Acta Universitatis Carolinae: Philologica, no. 3 (2021): 79-106. Accessed February 15, 2022.

Hung, Chang-tai. Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.  

Kraus, Richard. “Let A Hundred Flowers Blossom, Let A Hundred Schools of Thought Contend.” In Words and their Stories, ed. B. Wang, 249-262. Leiden: Brill, 2010.

Lekner, Dayton. “Echolocating the Social: Silence, Voice, and Affect in China’s Hundred Flowers and Anti-Rightist Campaigns, 1956–58.” The Journal of Asian Studies, no. 80 (2021): 933-953. Accessed April 12, 2022. https://doi:10.1017/S0021911821000668.

Lin, Justin Yifu. “Collectivization and China’s Agricultural Crisis in 1959-1961.” The Journal of Political Economy, no. 98 (1990): 1228-1252. Accessed May 2, 2022.

Rádvanyi, János. “The Hungarian Revolution and the Hundred Flowers Campaign.” The China Quarterly, no. 43 (1970): 121-129. Accessed April 15, 2022.

Vidal, Christine. “The 1957-1958 Anti-Rightist Campaign in China: History and Memory (1978-2014).” (2016): 1-20. Accessed April 23, 2022.


Kelly Reiling graduated from Colgate University with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese and International Relations. Her academic interests include US-China relations, the Chinese language, and social justice. Outside academia, she loves to write sketch comedy skits, discuss politics, and travel. 

Share This:

Leave a Reply