The Patriotic Illustrators Trying to Paint the Internet Red
The project brief was daunting: The team needed to create a sprawling digital animation incorporating all 56 of China’s recognized ethnic groups, each of its 34 provincial-level territories, as well as its major mountains and rivers.
And it had to be ready in time for the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary celebrations in July.
That was the assignment taken on by Fusion Era, a Shanghai-based animation studio, earlier this year.
Backed by an office under the Shanghai branch of the CCP, the project was the latest example of China’s push to promote patriotism through new media.
The final animation — a 24-chapter work titled “Out of Poverty: Not One Less” — was released as an interactive game on China’s Gen Z-focused video streaming platform Bilibili on July 2.
On the site, the game was promoted heavily by a group of 24 Bilibili influencers, including two well-known Western vloggers who often lend their support to Chinese government-affiliated projects. The page had already received nearly 15 million views at time of publication.
“Out of Poverty: Not One Less” wasn’t the only anniversary release targeting young Chinese. The previous month, a 15-minute hip-hop track praising China’s newfound strength, titled “100%”, was released to much fanfare on the music streaming platform NetEase Cloud Music.
State news outlet Xinhua, meanwhile, has set up a team dedicated to producing viral videos promoting major events involving President Xi Jinping.
This new media drive is dovetailing with a new generation of young Chinese digital artists who need little encouragement to incorporate patriotic messages into their work.
Li Tianzhi, a 26-year-old illustrator who created the visual design for “Out of Poverty: Not One Less,” has been a freelance illustrator since 2020. His previous works mainly focused on promoting the preservation of China’s ancient buildings.
“Ever since my childhood, I’ve been fascinated by China’s diverse geographic landscapes and its 56 ethnic groups,” Li tells Sixth Tone.
Li spent an entire month creating the 24 chapters for the project, which mimic the style of the classic 12th-century Chinese painting “Along the River During the Qingming Festival.”
The idea of representing the success of China’s anti-poverty campaign through the country’s mountains and rivers, he says, was inspired by President Xi’s “two mountains” theory, which touts the positive impact green policies can have on the economy.
Hu Muyang, the co-founder of Fusion Era, tells Sixth Tone he was particularly proud of the chapter focusing on Yunnan — the mountainous southwestern province that has long been among China’s poorest.
In the Yunnan section, Hu decided to incorporate the image of Zhang Guimei, a Chinese educator famous for founding the country’s first free school for girls in a poverty-stricken part of the province.
“She is a sensational figure who has suffered pain, distress, and hardship,” says Hu. “Her story always brings tears to people’s eyes.”
But rather than focus on the tragic aspects of Zhang’s life — the educator lost both parents as a child and was later widowed — “Out of Poverty: Not One Less” depicts her among the clouds, gazing down at the mountains and rivers with a benevolent smile.
“I believe that her dedication must also give her joy and delight, as she has persisted in her educational career for decades,” says Hu.
Other Chinese illustrators, meanwhile, are promoting a more strident form of patriotism. In 2020, the digital artist Wuheqilin won fame — and some notoriety — for his satirical works mocking Western hypocrisy over issues such as Hong Kong, forced labor, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Often dubbed China’s “wolf warrior” artist, Wuheqilin has attracted more than 2.8 million followers on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo and inspired many imitators.
“I don’t think there’s any economic interest behind such creations,” says Hu. “They’re young Chinese artists who want to speak to the West directly and freely.”
Hu, however, says illustrators should try to express patriotism in a sober and considerate manner. When creating works commenting on international issues, he adds, it’s important for artists to be politically savvy and socially responsible.
After Japan announced its decision to dump contaminated wastewater from its Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean in April, several young illustrators sought Hu’s advice on creating pieces responding to the issue. He told them to pipe down.
“We shouldn’t look at this incident from a Chinese perspective, but from the standpoint of a citizen of Earth,” says Hu. “We should stress our shared destiny as members of humankind.”
(Header image: Detail from “Out of Poverty: Not One Less.” Courtesy of Fusion Era)