A combination of James Bond and Don Draper, the Shanghai cartoonist Ye Qianyu had innate savoir faire.
Ye Qianyu was born in a Chinese backwater at the dawn of the twentieth century. As a teenager, he discovered a passion for art, but he lacked the financial resources for a formal training. Instead, Ye taught himself the fundamentals of draughtsmanship and moved to Shanghai in 1925 to seek his fortune.
Happily, Ye’s arrival coincided with the advent of department stores in China. In no time at all, he found work as a commercial artist selling the fantasy of the modern woman. Given Chinese women had only just started displaying their ankles in public, the bold lines of Ye’s illustrations demonstrated a rather intimate knowledge of a woman’s curves.
Around this time, Feng Zikai, one of China’s first great cartoonists, put out his seminal book of comics. Ye was hooked. Already skilled in the art of rendering human figures, he turned his hand to drawing comics. It was to be the first of many reinventions in his life.
The ambitious Ye lost no time shedding his country bumpkin togs (and wife) and fell in with a fast set among Shanghai’s artistic community. Their poster boy was the tragic poet-playboy, Shao Xunmei. Shao agreed with Ye that comics could serve a larger social purpose. With Shao’s financial backing, Ye and his friends published the pictorial magazine Shanghai Manhua. It was a smash hit with the public, who gobbled up the magazine’s clever combination of titillation and social commentary.
Through the pages of Shanghai Manhua, Ye introduced the public to his most famous creation, Mr. Wang. In Mr. Wang, Ye lampooned the pettiness and greed of Shanghai’s middle classes. Hugely popular, it made Ye Qianyu a star.
Who could resist a funny man with money to boot? Not Dai Ailian, the Trinidadian-Chinese doyenne of dance in China. Not Liang Baibao, the first female cartoonist in China. And not Wang Renmei, the movie star.
Within a decade, however, the party came crashing to an end with the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Ye, the man-about-town, had to reinvent himself many times in the following years. In his first incarnation, he was a patriot, putting his pen in service of Republican/ nationalist propaganda. Following that, he was a wartime correspondent for the US Army in India. Post-war, Ye reinvented himself as an artist acceptable to the communists. Unfortunately, his powers of reinvention failed him during the Cultural Revolution, where he found himself on the wrong side. He was rehabilitated only toward the end of his life.
A photo of Ye taken during the Shanghai years showed a handsome man holding his own among urban sophisticates. But the glossy exterior concealed a man of deep feeling. Despite witnessing the atrocities of war, he never lost his sense of humour. And, as his vivid sketches from his time in India show, he never lost his capacity to appreciate beauty, even during mankind’s darkest hour.