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Pen, Ink and Prejudice
China has many talented women artists.

But few are cartoonists, practising the art of humour. And, of those few, little is known about their work and lives.

Now two scholars have profiled some of the leading women cartoonists in China and introduced them to the world in Chinese and English.

In their article "Chinese Women Cartoonists: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives," John A. Lent from the United States and Xu Ying from China describe the careers of 13 Chinese women cartoonists. They especially highlight the lives and works of pioneering Liang Baibo in the 1930s and 1940s, Chen Yinyan from the 1950s to 1970s, and contemporary cartoonists Qiao Ling and Li Jianhua.

Their article aroused wide interest when they presented it at the recent 33rd conference of the American Popular Culture Association, held from April 16-19 in New Orleans, the United States.

Lent is a professor of Broadcasting, Television and Mass Media with Temple University, Philadelphia. He has studied and written about Asian mass communication since 1964, and has authored or edited more than 60 books in the field.

Xu Ying, a researcher at the China Film Archive since 1985, has studied Chinese culture and cinema.

The profiles the two scholars put together are the results of careful study of historical documents and interviews with some of the cartoonists.


As a cartoonist, Liang Baibo (about 1911-70) was certainly unusual.

Friend and fellow artist Ye Qianyu (1907-95) recalled his association with Liang fondly and still admired her talent.

"For me, everything about her - lifestyle, artistic thinking, view of life - was new, attractive and irresistible," Ye, a veteran ink painter and cartoonist, wrote in his biography.

Liang, a native of Guangdong Province, was romantic. When she first met Ye in 1935 in Shanghai, then the cradle of modern Chinese cartooning, Liang immediately fell in love with the married Ye and lived secretly with him. Three years later, however, she ended the affair and married a pilot, according to Ye's biography.

Liang was also individual. At the beginning of her drawing career, she adopted the pen name "Bomb," but at her friends' urging, changed it to "Bon," still trying to preserve the sound of an explosion.

And Liang was adventurous. As China's first known woman cartoonist, she must have stood out in 1930s' Shanghai. She published her best known comic strip, "Miss Bee" - a portrayal of a modern female - as early as 1935.

"Baibo was a talented painter. She was good at transforming ideology into abstract images by psychological description," Ye noted. "'Miss Bee' was a concrete representation of ideology. This was consistent with the ideals in life she was seeking."

In 1936, Liang had the distinction of being elected one of the 31 members of the Arranging Committee of the First National Cartoon Exhibition. When the National Cartoonist Association established its Wartime Working Committee in Wuhan of Central China's Hubei Province in 1938, Liang was the only woman among the 15 members.

In 1948, she left the Chinese mainland for Taiwan with her husband and died there, suffering from schizophrenia.

There were no immediate female successors to Liang Baibo. Although Liang's own cartooning career lasted only for the three years she was with Ye, she was, as noted cartoon theorist Wang Dunqing dubbed her in 1985, "the first gifted lady" of the Chinese cartoon world.


Chen Jinyan has been called the first woman cartoonist of the People's Republic of China. She worked in cartooning from the 1950s.

In January 1925, Chen was born into a rich family in Liaoyang, Northeast China's Liaoning Province. Chen was probably one of the most well-educated Chinese women cartoonists in the field.

After graduating from the Fine Arts Department of Beijing's Fujen University in 1948, she became a teacher in a girls' middle school. Two years later, Chen became a graduate student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Upon the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, Chen began to work in newspapers and most of her cartoons appeared in the Beijing Daily, where she headed the art department. Because of her many talents, Chen became one of the earliest members of the Chinese Artists Association in the 1950s.

Fang Cheng, one of the most famous Chinese cartoonists and Chen's husband, said: "Chen studied and worked very hard. She used to collapse in her office from continuous work. If she couldn't finish a cartoon on time, she couldn't sleep well."

But the versatile Chen also found time to draw strips, do woodcuts, illustrate and etch, and even write cross-talking dialogues, according to Fang.

"She worked at the newspaper in the 1950s and 1960s, as chief art editor, with cartoonists such as Li Binsheng and Wang Fuyang under her supervision. It's hard to say if she was accepted by the men, but she probably was because she could do all types of work, and she was a leader."

When the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) came, her many achievements were turned into proof of her "crimes." She was criticized, insulted, put to work in cattle barns, expelled from the Communist Party, and sent to the countryside.

More than a decade of pressure from the political movement destroyed her spirit and health and she died of a sudden heart attack in June 1977.

In 1980, Fang Cheng published a collection of Chen Jinyan's works in her memory.


Of the women cartoonists born in or after 1949, two are considered consistently productive and especially noteworthy - Qiao Ling and Li Jianhua.

Qiao Ling was born in Taiyuan, North China's Shanxi Province, in August 1949. She specialized in drawing at the middle school in Beijing but, after graduation in 1969, had to put aside her career plans as a result of the "cultural revolution."

She became a worker in the Second Wool Spinning Factory of Beijing, "(where) I mainly drew propaganda posters during that time. I don't like to talk about that period of time because the 'cultural revolution' destroyed all of my dreams," Qiao said.

In 1978, Qiao finally was able to do what she liked - draw cartoons about science - after she was hired by the Beijing Science and Technology Association.

Trying to catch up on studies delayed by the "cultural revolution," Qiao studied book decoration and fine arts at local art schools while working full time. "It was a little bit hard, but it was very interesting," she said.

Besides working as an art editor at the association, Qiao has managed the popular science galleries at Xidan Cultural Plaza and Zhongshan Park in downtown Beijing for 22 and 24 years respectively.

Over the years, her cartoons and illustrations have been published in several hundred newspapers and magazines, and exhibited more than 20 times at provincial and national exhibitions.

Qiao retired in October 2002, but still has many projects in mind. She said she wants to make science "easy to understand in the form of a cartoon," especially for the poorly-educated and senior citizens.

Asked about women cartoonists in an overwhelmingly male domain, Qiao said male cartoonists have more opportunities in China.

"But I think I can draw many things from a woman's point of view," Qiao said.

While Qiao has retired, cartooning in China still has a female presence in the form of Li Jianhua, a full-time cartoonist with China Daily, the country's national English-language newspaper.

Unlike Qiao, Li Jianhua sees no difference in what she and her male colleagues do - except that she has to do "all kinds of housework" and care for a son. She believes women must have careers and not always accept supporting roles.

"I just try my best to do my job. I never intend to exceed others. I think it is okay for me to see my work is accepted by the editors in charge.

"I feel it is not good psychologically to always compete with others," Li said. "I am never conscious of being a woman cartoonist. Gender distinction is unimportant to me. I just do what I should do. I have never admitted to being in a weak position."

For many years, Li has struggled hard to live up to her words.

Born in Beijing in 1951, Li's early goal was to be a painter, and she attended art classes at Beijing Children's Palace.

During the "cultural revolution," she became a soldier in an army unit stationed in Jilin Province for 10 years, where she was able to use her skills to draw.

In 1980, Li retired from the army and joined China Daily where she was assigned to do illustrations. She said her interest in cartoons came by chance: "The paper's editor-in-chief paid a lot of attention to cartoons and asked the two of us on the art staff to each draw three cartoons every week."

Li said she has benefited from studying etching for a year at the Department of Printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, describing it as "good for my cartoon creations."

In her spare time, Li also paints oil on canvas.

Li's cartoons, mostly on international affairs because of the newspaper's large non-Chinese readership, have won many national editorial cartoon awards. She has exhibited or published her other art works extensively.

Why so few?

At least seven other women work in various capacities in the world of Chinese cartooning. Among them are Li Qingai, 64, Dong Junying, 55, Hu Jiajing, 40, Xing Lu, 43, and Lu Hongqun, 36.

But they remain the minority.

According to Wang Fuyang, director of the Cartoon Art Commission under the Chinese Artists' Association, there are about 1,000 cartoonists in the association, of whom only 10 are women.

It begs the question: Why are there so few women cartoonists in China?

That question can be asked in nearly every country in the world. A universal, and simplistic, answer is that women are not interested, and if they are, they abandon their cartooning careers once they are married.

Li Jianhua admitted to not knowing the "real reason that most women are not interested in being a cartoonist." But she speculated that cartooning was still viewed as an "in-between" job.

"In China, a cartoonist is between a newspaper worker and a painter. The thinking is that if you can't be a painter, be a cartoonist. So (under those circumstances), no woman wants to be a cartoonist."

One other reason may be that men have made cartooning their turf. But, in China, some men have tried to introduce women to cartooning. Veteran cartoonist He Wei, for example, attempted to encourage women cartoonists by creating a page called Qiangwei (rosebush) in Worker's Daily that ran for more than one year.

"More than 24 women had their works published in the column. But most of these women had many chores at home, or they got married and gave up. The Qiangwei column was an unsuccessful experiment," He said.

Perhaps, for now, it might be more beneficial to dwell less on why so few women have entered Chinese cartooning and more on what motivated those who did.

(China Daily May 30, 2003)

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