As part of nationwide research on Taiwan's comics history for the upcoming National Comics Museum, the National Museum of Taiwan History has organized a special exhibition examining how "comics" as a medium have presented multiple expressions of humor with various political positions in the nation's process of democratization.
Cartoons with political implications have permeated the daily lives of Taiwanese people for several decades. Political cartoonery provides people with channels to access current affairs along with shock and amusement. Taiwan's newspapers and magazines also employ this form to promote ideas, or to comment on current affairs, domestic and international policies, and celebrity figures.
During the early Japanese colonial period, pictorials adopted the narrative style of Ukiyo-e, depicting important events and characters by employing images with captions. These cartoons began to appear in newspapers belonging to the Government-General of Taiwan in the Taishō era (1912-26), touching upon themes like social classes, political situations, and civil customs.
After 1926, works during the Shōwa era satirized politics and described confrontations between the police and the masses from Taiwanese perspectives. This first generation of local comic artists also used their pens to express the sense of loss that followed after World War II, vividly representing the disorder, huge wealth gap, hyperinflation, and collusion between politicians and tycoons.
Political cartoons then became a powerful tool used by the Nationalist government to stabilize political control and censor free speech. Their subject matter was mainly related to anti-communism and opposition to the Soviet Union, exalting nationalism, dramatizing the miserable living conditions under communism, and justifying the legitimacy of imposing martial law on Taiwan. In that era, cartoons and comics basically spoke for the government.
Besides being a means to convey official policies and revive traditional Chinese culture, this medium also disseminated new knowledge and fueled patriotism during the Cold War. Comic strips taught farmers about agricultural practices, first aid, and animal husbandry, while advocating for economic austerity by frowning upon lavish wedding ceremonies, and encouraging farmers to enroll in Mandarin classes instead of speaking their native languages.
Following the lifting of martial law, a proliferation of newspapers reflected the people's desire for democracy and freedom, and the cartoons they carried presented different political positions and multiple styles of criticism for current affairs. The 1980s were a golden age of Taiwanese political cartoonery. Works filled with vitality and political agency appeared in magazines, newspapers, and even election campaigns, promoting reforms and reproaching the government at will.
In contemporary Taiwan, cartoons plays an important role in promoting discourse over issues such as cross-strait relations, media monopolies, pension reforms, marriage equality, labor disputes, and environmental perils. These issues have been taken up by a variety of artists who thrive on social media and employ humorous images to promote popular initiatives. Their activism helps the general public understand the seriousness of particular events, drive the sharing and reposting of their works, and bolster social movements which bring about change.
Tracing the path and progress of Taiwan's democratization, these cartoons and comic strips will be on display at the Tainan-based National Museum of Taiwan History from Aug. 15 through Nov. 3. Read the museum's full English-language exhibition introduction here.