Tales of Taiwan's Comic Artists: Persecution, Isolation and Endless Talent

Tales of Taiwan's Comic Artists: Persecution, Isolation and Endless Talent
From Chen Uen’s (鄭問) Assassin's Story
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Oppressed under martial law and underappreciated in their native land, Taiwan's comic artists still managed to leave their mark on the minds of millions across Asia.

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“Did you read manhua when you were a kid?”

My dad shovels freshly-steamed rice into a bowl. This was an awkward family conversation — manhua (漫畫), the Mandarin term for comics, is an age-old battleground between parent and child, the black-and-white sheets of paneled ink being a devil that tempted us away from schoolwork.

“Of course,” he grudgingly admits.“What kind? "Like Zhu-ge Si-lang? (諸葛四郎)?” I ask.

Dad smiles as if struck by a fond memory. Zhu-ge Si-lang was the most popular manhua on the island back in the 60’s. Pop singer Lo Da-yu (羅大佑), icon of the baby boomer generation, enshrined the series in the popular consciousness with his song Tong-nian (童年, meaning childhood): “Zhu-ge Si-lang and the Devil Squad, wonder which of them won that magic sword?” (諸葛四郎和魔鬼黨,到底誰搶走了那隻寶劍) go the lyrics.

Zhu-ge Si-Liang
Credit: 懷舊旅行
Promo shots from a TV drama adaptation of Zhu-ge Si-lang (1985).

“What about Liu Hsing-chin (劉興欽)?” my mom chips in.


I remembered the stack of Liu’s comics still up in the attic. In his book "Taiwan Manhua Yuelan" (台灣漫畫閱覽), manhua scholar Hong De-lin (洪德麟) hailed Liu’s "Grand Auntie" (大嬸婆) series for its jokes about the urban-rural gap, a testimony to the rapid industrialization of Taiwan during the 50s.

My personal favorite was his Xiao Bo-shi (小博士) series, a boy scout manhua that taught kids how to survive in the wilderness of Taiwan. There are tips and tricks such as how to extract drinkable fluids from vines of luffa (a kind of gourd).

Liu Hsing-chin comic
Credit: Hakka Affairs Council
Liu Hsing-chin (劉興欽)’s manhua depicting smart ways to leash a cow.

But Liu's life was not all fun and frolics. His is just one of many life stories that highlight the tumultuous struggle for survival faced by Taiwanese artists and their work.

Not so funny: The Comic Code

Liu was forced to leave the field of comics to become a successful inventor of educational toys after the introduction of the notorious Comic Code.

The Comic Code (編印連環圖畫輔導辦法) was a set of guidelines designed by the KMT that claimed to protect the innocence of children by regulating content that they thought might germinate unrealistic ideas or compromise ethics. But the guidelines also policed more formalist aspects of comics such as the use of lines and shapes, technique, light contrasts, ratio and length of dialogue. One article on the form of manhua reads:

“In every image, there should be a clear distinction between foreground and background. There should be an even combination of density, movement and attitude. The structure of the image should attain an effect that is stable, harmonious and lively. Lines are either crossed, paralleled or curved; surfaces are separated into triangles, squares and diamonds. Light contrast and elaborateness of the background correlates to the needs of its subject in order to compliment but not trump the subject. Scenery should be realistically portrayed rather than dismissively filled up with blocks, lines or patterns.”


Local artist Mickeyman sums up the reaction of the comic community to the regulations: “I want to make a manhua that depicts the ludicrousness of those times,” he tells TNLi. “How lasers and super missiles, weapons that were beyond the technology of the age were not allowed to be portrayed. Crazy scientist characters that wanted to rule the world were forbidden, because science is supposed to be good. I know I’m sounding like an old fogey but this is how you kill creativity with policies.”

The Comic Code began to be enforced around 1966 and lasted until the end of martial law in 1987, during which all books and magazines with over 20 percent manhua content had to be submitted to the National Institute for Compilation and Translation (國立編譯館) for evaluation before publication. This gave many comic creators such a hard time that most comic magazines folded and artists either left the field or died trying.

During this period, cheaply-printed pirated Japanese manga came to dominate the market, as copyright laws for foreign works in Taiwan weren’t revised until 1992, a condition for Taiwan to join the WTO.

This is also the main reason why my parent’s generation – those who were children during the so-called “Golden Decade” of Taiwanese comics from 1965-1974 – grew up on locally-produced Taiwanese strips. My generation, those born after the end of martial law, were brought up on Japanese manga: Doraemon, Sailor Moon, Yu Yu Hakusho, Dragon Ball, etc. Japanese comics will likely continue to dominate the industry; according to a report by the National Central Library some 90 percent of the comics published in Taiwan were imported from Japan in 2015.

Taiwan's 1980s manhua renaissance

Taiwan did not submit to this Japanese dominance without a struggle. Under the advice of Taiwanese comic scholar Hong De-lin ( Hong De-lin), the Cartoonist Association of the Republic of China collaborated with China Times to hold three National Manhua Competitions (全國漫畫大擂台), starting in 1984. With the emergence of new talent such as Mai Ren-jie (麥仁杰), Lin Zheng-de (林政德), Zhu Deyong (朱德庸) and Chen Uen (鄭問), many newspapers started to run manhua columns.


“We were still under martial law back then – there was nothing cute or funny in the newspapers, so it looked as if a small flower had blossomed at the edges,” manhua artist Ao Yo-hsiang (敖幼祥) explained in an interview. So began a brief renaissance in Taiwan’s manhua circle.

Cut to September 2017, and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announcement at the eighth annual Golden Manhua awards that the government would promote the domestic animation, comic, and gaming industry.


But the comments touched a nerve. The brief renaissance enjoyed in the 1980s had given way to another period of struggle as Taiwanese artists fought an influx of Japanese titles, and government efforts to stem the tide had proved ineffective. In response to Tsai's olive branch, then head of the Taipei Comic Artist Labor Union Chung Meng-shun (鍾孟舜) snapped at the press: “More than half of our union members are now working in China,” he railed.


Chung blamed this brain drain on the lower rates paid to comic artists in Taiwan. “A decade ago, one page could fetch NT$2,000, now it’s only NT$800 -1,000 per page,” he said in an interview. Chung gave voice to widespread discontent in Taiwan's manhua community, which felt stung by state-led plagiarism that had seen the government appropriate copyright-free foreign designs for policy posters and mascots rather than reaching out to local artists.


To cap it all, Chung's mentor Chen Uen (1958-2017) passed away last year, bringing into even sharper relief how untenable the situation had been for even the most successful Taiwanese artists – Chen himself had been forced to make his way across the Strait in China.

Remembering Chen Uen

Chen Uen made his manhua debut in the magazine China Times Weekly in 1984 and won special commendation in the National Manhua Competition of 1985. He was known for his experimental ink-wash technique that utilized scraps of cloth, soap and dirty ink brushes to create realistic characters with surreal body features.

Having published in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, his manga series “Heroes of the East Chou Dynasty” (東周英雄轉) published under Japan's Kodansha Press, enshrined him as the only foreigner to receive an Excellence Award from the Japan Cartoonists Association in 1991. Japanese recipients included Eiichiro Oda of "One Piece" and Naoki Urasawa of "20th Century Boys."

“The writer Soseki Natsume’s grandson (Fusanosuke Natsume) was so dismayed that a foreigner won the award that he wrote a piece about it in the newspaper,” commented Chung. Chen also had a game named after him, "Chenwen no Sangokushi" published by Japanese company Game Arts, which drew on his work and hired him as the illustrator for a game based on the ancient Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" (三國演義).

image7
Credit: thedawncreative
'Chenwen no Sangokushi' (鄭問之三國誌), a video game illustrated by Cheng Uen.

Yet despite the overseas accolades, Chen Uen was not as well known as he should have been in Taiwan. “He often compared himself to an orchid with no roots,” Chung said, commenting on how Chen had been forced to move abroad during the early days of his career due to Taiwan’s unfavorable conditions for manhua artists.

The "orchid with no roots" is a reference to the patriotic Song Dynasty painter Zheng Sixiao (鄭思肖), who started to draw rootless orchids after his homeland was occupied by the Mongols.


Chung rammed home the message in the aftermath of his mentor's death. In an article headlined "“What Taiwan doesn’t care for, the outside is clamoring over: Chen Uen Art Museum Might Be Built Across the Straits”, Chung complained that it was Chinese investors showing interest and financial appetite to continue his mentor’s legacy. Some of them offered to buy the licensing rights to adapt Chen's works into games and video, while others offered royalties so they could hold an exhibition. In Taiwan, there was “not even the sound of a cricket,” the artist wrote.

“Would it be against his will if we moved his works out of Taiwan, does this mean he’s doomed to be an orchid without roots even after his death?” he asked.

Chung’s complaints did the trick. A week later, he told the press that the National Palace Museum had agreed to hold a retrospective in Chen's honor. “I won’t be too fussy, since it’s the National Palace Museum,” he said. The exhibition was originally set to open in March 2018, on the anniversary of Chen's death, but was later rescheduled to June to coincide with summer vacation.

image15
Credit: Manhuagui
Selected scenes in Chen Uen’s 'Magical Super Asia' are based in Taiwan.

Bridging the generation gap

Manhua artists who came to fame during the 80s often find themselves unable to speak to today's Taiwanese readers in the present. These artists were mostly born in the late 50s and early 60s, and their formative years were passed during the KMT’s authoritarian rule.


While many were forced to seek audiences and freedom of expression overseas, they did their best to take a piece of Taiwan with them.


Around 1966, in reaction to the PRC’s Cultural Revolution, when relics of traditional Chinese culture were destroyed as reminders of feudalism, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正) led a movement called the Chinese Cultural Renaissance in Taiwan, promoting Confucian principles in education, reissuing Chinese classic literary works and constructing Chinese-style buildings. The movement helped Taiwan gain recognition for preserving Chinese culture, and also supported the legitimacy of Chiang’s rule, even as martial law rule gradually came under increasing scrutiny after a decade of failure to reclaim the mainland.


Chinese culture thus became a torch that Taiwanese manhua artists could carry across international borders. In 2016, Taiwanese artist Tsai Chih-Chung (蔡志忠), who was famous for making ancient Chinese philosophy and history accessible to laypersons through manhua, delivered a speech at Yixi, the equivalent of TED in China, about his publishing experience in Japan during the 80s:


‘I thought to myself, what would be a commercial success? What could I draw that the Japanese couldn’t? So I proposed the Hundred Schools of Thought. I handed the first 80-paged sketches on Zhuangzi (莊子) to Mr. Akutsu, head of Kodansha Press. He immediately saw the potential: 'Wow this is going to be hot, you must let Kodansha publish this book!' I replied, 'Actually, there are thirty books'. He said, 'You must publish these books under Kodansha Press!'"


Tsai has since published a series of manga adaptations on Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Laozi and, Suntzu in Japan. The series was such a hit that it has now been translated into more than 20 different languages.


Chen Uen is also instructive in this regard. Though Dala Publishing chief editor Huang Jian-He (黃建和) has highlighted that there are certain Taiwanese settings in Chen's "Magical Super Asia", such as the night market, the majority of his work features stories that take place in ancient China.

In the 25th anniversary edition of "Super Magical Asia", published by Dala several months after the Chen’s death, the artist's Japanese editor Shin Yasuyuki (新泰幸) dedicated a piece in the afterword that highlighted how Taiwanese manhua artists had piggybacked Chiang’s attempts to portray Taiwan as the authentic China.

Magical Super Asia
Credit: bahamut

“It was 1989,” wrote the editor, “I arrived in Taipei to meet Mr. Chen. I still remember how I saw the Grand Hotel as Chinese architecture par excellence; coupled with the dense advertisement boards on the street, with uncountable motorcycles, the excitement was overwhelming.”


It is unclear whether or not Shin was aware that the Grand Hotel was one of the staple projects of Chiang’s Chinese Cultural Renaissance, built to replace the Taiwan Grand Shrine that dated back to Taiwan’s Japanese colonial era. Yet if Chiang’s mission was to inspire awe and admiration for KMT rule through the aesthetics of Chinese culture, he was successful. Shin, musing on the scenery, thought to himself: “If the world was not dominated by Europe or America, but Asia, then perhaps the entire world would look like this?”


It would also not be too much of a stretch to say that aside from its association with Chinese culture, Shin didn’t think much of Taiwan. “Like a lotus growing from the muck,” was how the Japanese editor first described Chen in Kodansha press’ newsletter back in the 80s. Shin apologized for using the word “muck”, but went on to explain that Taiwan, especially during the 80s, was a headache since there were no laws that prevented a giant wave of pirated Japanese manga from appearing on the island.

The association with Chinese culture benefited the Taiwanese economically and provided them a sense of cultural pride. But times have changed.


By 2008, people in Taiwan that identify as primarily Taiwanese rather than Chinese began to outnumber those that perceived themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese, according to the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University (NCCU).


Yu Chen-hua (俞振華), a researcher at the center, attributed the shift to China reclaiming authority as the voice of Chinese culture during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as China's soft power being promote as a key feature Hu Jintao's report at the 17th Party Congress in 2007. Yu explained the results of the election center study by saying that the people who identified as both Taiwanese and Chinese are those who consider themselves as coming from Taiwan, but are culturally Chinese. However, “When Chinese culture becomes increasingly associated with the political symbols of the PRC, it becomes harder to take an ambiguous stance.”

Taiwanese identity — a new path for the comics industry?

The embrace of traditional Chinese culture by the PRC did not happen overnight, but began in the 90s during the “national studies” craze that hoped to reclaim traditional Chinese culture that was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. This is also why many manhua artists who came to fame during the 80s are currently even more popular in the PRC than in Taiwan. For example, Tsai Chih-Chung (蔡志忠), who rose to fame in the PRC after his "Hundred Schools of Thought" series entered the Chinese market in 1989, is now featured in elementary and junior high school textbooks that use his manhua to teach kids traditional culture.


Chinese IT company Tencent has also just hired him as adviser for their collaborative project with Dunhuang Academy, which aims to promote the city of Dunhuang as a significant stop on the Silk Road and a notable religious site for Chinese Buddhism through popular mediums such as games and manhua.


If the PRC has taken back the claim to be the authentic China, what else is there for Taiwan? The backlash faced by attempts to change the high school curriculum to focus less on classical Chinese and more on Taiwanese literature perhaps bears witness, in some form, to the belief that Taiwan will become a cultural desert without its attachment to ancient Chinese culture.


Chung Meng-shun has emphasized the need to elevate manhua for the sake of national security. “If you don’t protect your own culture you will be invaded by others!” he told the talk show Yao’s Trending Taipei.

On his Facebook, Chung added: “No matter how good a nation’s manufacturing business is, even when every chip in the world is made by us, it doesn’t make [Taiwan] a country, it just makes us a factory. When a country has an IP so strong that it influences others ... the world will have to recognize your existence and consider your right to speak. That is the only way for Taiwan. This is also what I mean by manhua as a form of national defense.”


However, perhaps we shouldn’t fret too much. A fragmented sense of self is a more interesting to play with. Take, for instance, the manhua artist Chen Jian (陳繭). His "Son of the Sea" manhua features Xie Lang-xiong, a Taiwanese fisherman who fishes swordfish with a spear, a style that was passed to Taiwan during the Japanese colonial era.

Son of sea
Credit: theinitium
Chen Jian’s (陳繭) Son of the Sea.

A-lang finds a young boy, Hei-ze Yong, drifting in the middle of the Kuroshio Current. Though the boy suffers from amnesia, a name tag with the Chinese characters, Hei-ze (黑澤) found on his ankle triggers speculation that it is a Japanese surname. The fisherman adopts the boy and the name. With a last name of a Japanese person, Hei-ze finds himself in an awkward position in post-WWII Taiwan, a place that is busy undergoing decolonization after Japanese rule and donning a new Chinese nationalist makeup.


Later, as a grown man, Hei-ze travels to Japan to promote his manga career, resulting in further complications. The work does not suggest a romanticized, unified image of ancient China, but presents an uneasy, untidy ambiguity in which identity is not prescribed, but relies on free, conscious choice.


That's not such a bad message for Taiwan's manhua to share with the world.

A podcast covering Julia's exploration of Taiwan's comics can be found at Department of Nerdly Affairs here.

Editor: TNL Staff

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