Caricatures are different from ordinary drawings; the artist, sometimes a cartoonist, focuses on “using the form to bring out [a subject’s] spirit.” They use simple but concise brushwork, paying less attention to making a realistic and beautiful copy, using just a few brush strokes they bring life to their subjects.
Traditional Chinese “caricature” was often a warning expressed through symbols or allegorical means. During the feudal heyday between the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) up through the Five Dynasties and Ten States period (907–960), a drawing style established itself. It emphasized an imposing sculpted style , and lines were the technique’s mainstay. Over time, these techniques and skills matured and it was discovered that art could influence a ruler’s cultural policy. During this period, with its more open cultural atmosphere, a great number of poignant and directly allegorical drawings were created. In the centuries from the Eastern Jin dynasty (317–420) to the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) when the Mongols conquered the Han Chinese, feudal rulers spared little time before safeguarding their regimes by suppressing cultural and artistic freedom. Scholars were no longer enthusiastic about participating in government. Literati painters turned creative drawing into a way of expressing their personal feelings in a straightforward manner. It was now that the themes of secluded living or indifference to worldly affairs became quite popular. When creating, painters emphasized the embodiment and expression of spirit resonance, as well as cultural cultivation. Thus, the satirical caricatures of the Song (960–1279), Yuan, and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties became even more vague. During the Yuan dynasty, they were more straightforward than they had been in the previous periods. The main reason was that the Yuan cartoonists were unafraid to address maladministration at court, and they dared sharply to expose the dark reality of society. For example, the celebrated water conservancy expert Ren Renfa (1255–1327) painted Two Horses (Er ma tu)—one horse fat and the other thin—as a metaphor for a corrupt official and an honest and upright official respectively. By using such images, he vividly criticized the corrupt officials who “fattened themselves by impoverishing the other ten thousand people.” During the Ming and Qing period, feudalism reached its peak—the secret service of the Eastern Depot and the Western Depot of the Ming and the literary inquisitions of the Qing both forced folk cartoonists to avoid directly criticizing society; they were also unable to boldly expose social ills. For example, Bada Shanren (personal name Zhu Da, 1626–1705), a descendant of the Ming imperial family, was extremely dissatisfied with the Qing dynasty. He faced the world with merry laughter and angry denunciations. However, he vented his anger by painting flowers, birds, trees, rocks, landscapes, and people in a twisted and abnormal manner. Because of his special family background, his imbalanced state of mind and his hatred toward the Qing court, he distorted everything that he saw in the world. Perhaps such a statement is not completely accurate, however, his mocking pictures were innovative and possessed a true significance.
The features of Chinese caricature developed over a long time. They began to stand out conspicuously in the late Qing dynasty and early Republican era. With the emergence of newspapers, caricatures employing direct satire that sharply criticized social powers became a special “weapon.” If Xie Zuantai’s (1872–1938) Current Political Situation (Shiju tu) published in 1898, and the drawing he made about the Boxers’ anti-imperialism published in 1900, can be considered caricatures, then Chinese caricatures could be said to have emerged as an independent form at around this time and continued through the entire twentieth century. The watershed moment in the history of modern caricature was the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. Caricatures from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century—a period which saw the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the May Thirtieth Movement (a major labor and anti-imperialist movement) in 1925, and the turning point of the Kuomintang-Communist cooperation in 1926—formed a distinctive battle line of anti-imperialist and anti-feudal ideas. It had reached its height in the 1930’s during the “era of zawen (a type of topical writing that is often satirical and combative) and caricatures,” which made great contribution to the Anti-Japanese War and the Chinese Communist Revolution. In the second half of the twentieth century (1950s–1990s), contemporary caricaturists were the heirs of the earlier revolutionary fighting tradition and their art developed alongside a changing Chinese society. Both heritage and innovation helped Chinese cartoonists survive the “caricature disaster” during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Many caricatures were criticized as “big poisonous weeds,” and were used as “evidence” against the denounced and disgraced cartoonists. Nowadays cartoonists can once again look toward new horizons in society, themes, and content, as well as drawing styles.
Most Chinese caricatures were created in modern times. The harsh realities of national crises made Chinese cartoonists hide their desire for democracy, freedom, and peace. Among many excellent Chinese caricatures, there are clearly visible vestiges of artistic techniques of Western cartoonists that Chinese cartoonists had incorporated into their works. They combined and blended features of traditional Chinese folk arts and crafts with elements of Western drawing. Through rethinking and processing, they formed their own distinctive styles of caricatures. Chinese caricatures express themselves in various ways, such as by using symbols, metaphors, and hyperbole to express their ideas. Cartoonists commonly use unique ways to highlight their subjects. Thus, they can further deepen the caricature’s theme more graphically for a common readership.