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The Jack Chen Archives at the Hoover Institution

March 07, 2013
Image credit: British Museum

OIA had the opportunity to speak with Jack Chen'’s widow, Yuan-tsung Chen, author of Return to the Middle Kingdom: One Family, Three Revolutionaries, and the Birth of Modern China which chronicles the lives of Ah Chen, Eugene and Jack Chen.

In August 2012, the Hoover Institution acquired a collection of forty original drawings and cartoons, letters and family photographs belonging to the late Jack Chen, a noted author/artist. The son of Trinidadian born Eugene Chen, who was most well known for being Sun Yat-sen’s chief secretary, legal/international affairs advisor (1918-1925), and Foreign Minister of the Wuhan government (1926-27), Jack was born in 1908 in the Port of Spain, Trinidad. Until his death in 1995, he crossed thousands of miles living in several countries while experiencing a colorful, sometimes turbulent life. His journey took him from a mansion in Trinidad to a peasant village in rural China to the halls of academia at Cornell University.

Jack’s writing and art highlighted the cultural and political landscape, whether it was the threat of Japanese aggression or the Cultural Revolution in China or the Chinese immigrant experience in America. However, Jack was not merely an observer, but also an active participant. Under Mao Zedong’s leadership and through the mobilization of Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution started in 1966 with the goals of literally “revolutionizing culture.” Jack was not spared, and he was sentenced to hard labor and toiled alongside peasant farmers in the rural countryside. His experience is recounted in his book, A Year In Upper Felicity: Life in a Chinese Village During the Cultural Revolution.

Later, Jack went to the United States, where he faced another challenge in the form of racial discrimination that he documents in The Chinese of America. In Hoover fellow Thomas Sowell’s New York Times book review, he writes, “Chinese Americans have a remarkable – almost unbelievable history, and no one has recounted it better than Jack Chen in this book.”

Q.: Jack was educated at Moscow’s Polygraphic Institute where he learned about European art. How did his interest in political cartoons develop?

Jack, in his childhood, loved to scribble. The first cartoonist who attracted his attention was David Low of the London Star. He was impressed by the Englishman’s sense of humor and quiet persuasion and later on he incorporated what he had learned from David Low into his art.

The English edition of People’s Tribune, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, needed a cartoon to accompany each editorial. Jack, without knowing a thing about revolution, stumbled into his first revolutionary job and accidentally launched his career as the first editorial cartoonist of modern China.

Working for Wuhan’s People’s Tribune, Jack discovered a group of American artists drawing for the Marxist magazine New Masses. Fred Ellis, Robert Minor, etc. and they taught him how an artist could provide a strong social commentary through the use of cartoons. During this period, Jack’s eyes opened to all the miseries of a semi-colonized country, and he was compelled to report the injustices that he had witnessed.

His art was for the revolution, and he would use his art to fight for the rights of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. His study of European art quickly led him to spot the kin spirit in Francisco de Goya and Honoré Daumier. Goya showed him that by caricaturing the characters in his drawings or paintings, he could deal a devastating blow to those who were corrupted by power. It was Daumier who inspired Jack to portray the downtrodden with beauty and dignity.

Q: Painting in China is one of its earliest art forms while the genre of political cartoons in the 1930’s was relatively young and not considered a serious art form. How did Jack deal with this criticism?

Once I asked Jack the same question. I knew Jack’s first love was oil painting and he was talented. If he had devoted his time, energy, and effort to oil paintings, he would have gone far. However, he chose to draw cartoons for their mass appeal and effectiveness in raising people’s political consciousness. He said, “I did not think pursuing my personal dream was more important than doing my bit to fight back against the Fascist Japan’s invasion.”

Q: Which works do you think represent his best work and why?

Nazi German bombs, Jack told me, had destroyed almost all of Jack’s best drawings, when London had nearly burned to the ground.  However, in my opinion, I would consider the following drawings representative of Jack’s best work:

1. The cartoon (above) was printed in Life Magazine in early 1938. The caption read “…a peasant squatting beside his dead child, looking into a future in which there is no other course but to take up his gun and fight Japan. The emotion, the pathos and the dignity of the figure suggest the best cartoons of Daniel R. Fitzpatrick of St. Louis Post-Dispatch.”

2. The cartoon detail (below) in the British Museum illustrates the rising sun of Japan as a huge skull coming up over the horizon of China. In the foreground, you see small figures with arms outstretched in the air; you can almost hear the anguish in their cries for help. On Jan. 15, 1938, the New York Journal-American reviewed a collection of Jack’s works that included this drawing. The reviewer writes “…Jack Chen is known to both the Chinese and Japanese as ‘Bitter Brush’, because he has visually portrayed the fiery anti-Japanese sentiments his father portrayed in words.”

3. Finally, the cartoon detail (below), that is on page 286 of my book illustrates a war refugee-turned-beggar; we can see the influence of Goya’s later works that characterize the brutality and darkness of war. The picture conveys the horror of a Japanese-occupied Beijing through the dramatically distorted body and face of a helpless victim.

Q: What is the artistic and political significance of Jack’s work?

On March 12, 1927, Jack’s first cartoon was published in People’s Tribune at Wuhan. The picture was of a coolie carrying a pole across his shoulders, a basket on each end. One was marked “wage”, the other “work”. The cartoon accompanied the editorial that hoped to add ten cents (Chinese) to the coolie’s daily wage of twenty-five cents for sixteen hours work. Thus was born the political cartoon of modern China. Since that day Jack was never out of touch with China’s revolutionary movement. In 1935, when the Chinese revolution was at its lowest ebb, Jack drew for the Moscow-published Chinese newspaper, National Salvation Times. In the history of the Communist Party, it was credited for exuding warmth and light for the revolutionaries lost in the cold, and following the light they were able to regroup.

From 1931 to 1935, the Japanese militarists invaded and occupied the northeast and north China. They announced to the world that the Chinese people had no will to resist what they could offer: the prosperity of greater East Asia. In early 1936 Jack came back to China and planned to organize an exhibit of anti-Fascist art in retort.

Jack mentored the new generation of young artists. He shared his albums of the work of Daumier, David Low, Boris Efimov, American artists Ellis and Gropper, etc. and helped them to create a new, constructive note into their art. He worked with each and every one of the 28 young artists whose drawings and wood engravings he had selected. The reviews from Moscow, London, New York, and other cities spoke volumes about what Jack had achieved. The News Chronicle of London enthused about the exhibit: “All the exhibitors are under 30. They have broken away from the old, dreamy, hill-and-blossom pictures, and now depict realistically – yet with artistic selection – the life of their countrymen…they wish to make the coolie self-conscious that he lives like a pig.”

Q: What role did Jack play in US-China diplomatic relations?

In late autumn of 1971, Jack went on a speaking tour to North America. He received invitations from Yale University, Southern Illinois University, and York University in Canada.  His speeches were well received and more invitations came from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford/Hoover, UC Berkeley, altogether more than twenty universities. As a result of the successful speaking tour, subsequent invitations came from think tanks such as Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institute. Many among Jack’s audience were very influential and what they said or did greatly impacted the US-China policy.

Jack spoke on a wide range of subjects. Jack introduced them to a China that was a revolution in progress. It was not a monolith that was all good or bad. It was made up of a myriad of people with all the greatness and frailties of human beings, so that the sum of their actions worked out to be sometimes good and sometimes bad. There seemed to be no simple answer to what was wrong or what was right about it, and he, Jack Chen, had neither the capability nor the ambition even to pretend to be such an arbiter. All he believed he could do was to push the equation a little to the good side of the ledger of destiny.

The Jack Chen Archives will be on display at the Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion (next to Hoover Tower) from April 23, 2013 – February 2014.

Special thanks go to Lisa Nguyen and Rayan Ghazal at the Hoover Institution, Mary Ginsberg and the Trustees at the British Museum and the Jack Chen Estate for assistance with the images that accompany this article. Permission to re-print images has been granted by the Jack Chen Estate.