On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Lei, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson told a daily news briefing, “In China there are only law breakers — there are no so-called dissidents… The building of democracy and the rule of law have continued to be perfected…”
It was my last summer vacation in school, when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen, crushing a revolution. In the days of black-and-white newsprint, only two images stayed in my head forever. One was a poem by Vikram Seth (I do not remember the poem) and the other an image that has permanently hardwired itself into our collective memory. It pings us every now and then, at every tag with keywords like democracy, army, dissidence; an image eternalising the power of one lone man blocking a line of tanks heading east from Tiananmen Square.
Much before China flooded our middle-class markets, this was the image from the land opaque and ironhanded. Revolutions need images like this to make it a collector’s item forever. Such is its power that even 25 years later, the authorities detained journalists and activists on the eve of the anniversary.
On such an occasion, a book of cartoons commemorating the movement is not only important, but critical. Critical, for political cartoon is an endangered entity. These days, it apparently hurts more than it humours. And no one knew this better than Deng Xiaoping, the man who got the tanks rolling, killing students and their protest, congratulating the army and its efficiency. Years ago, Deng had used cartoons for his own political agenda, but then as we know, satire and cartoons can be used by either side as per convenience.
More than commemorating, Morgan Chua’s Tianamen — 25th Anniversary Edition documents the entire movement through a series of strong, powerful cartoons. For those who have known about it and the later generations yet to know about it, for those who smirk at local uprisings in one’s own city and ogle at a faraway Occupy movement, this can be an important aid. “Political cartoons are a serious thing,” said Umberto Eco and that reflects in Chua’s lines. They are seldom funny, but strong political visual comments borrowing freely from found iconographies, contemporary media, typography, and, of course, caricature. In the times when political cartooning is threatened by the realm of funnies and the cutesies, the cartoonist here sticks to the classic tenets of black and white, strong lines, handwritten typography and a political attitude without compromising on the drawing. Hence, for any lover of the medium, this collection will find a space for a long, long time.
The Tiananmen tragedy is a taboo subject in China, where the endeavour is to obviously erase it from the collective memory. But as we have known, the movement was not only a plea for democracy. It was as much a plea for political and economic change, for liberalisation, for change in every which way.
It had much to do with freedom and freedom of expression. And there lies this presentation’s biggest irony. Brought to India by a publishing house that has otherwise pioneered some stellar work, the publishers of this cartoon series are the same lot that also opposed the BR Ambedkar cartoon even arguing the caste politics of Shankar’s brush strokes, supporting its ban.
More recently, the same publishing house even decided to cancel a book after the translator and the publisher differed in their political opinion with the author. For if Tiananmen was to do with freedom and freedom of expression, the publisher could well be this book’s first reader.
The author is a political cartoonist and graphic novelist based in Delhi