China Illustrations Need More Than Dragons, Pandas, and Propaganda – Editorial imagery often recycles stereotypes and ignores Chinese life.

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China Illustrations Need More Than Dragons, Pandas, and Propaganda – Editorial imagery often recycles stereotypes and ignores Chinese life.

By Selina Lee, a visual journalist and Fulbright scholar based in Berlin, and Ramona Li, a senior researcher and advocate for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Originally published by Foreign Policy on Jul. 31, 2022


It’s easy to tell when a magazine cover is about China. The usual suspects appear: dragons, President Xi Jinping, the five-star flag, and red. A lot of red.

Aesthetic choices have long shaped how American audiences see the world. Historically speaking, the West’s visual vocabulary tends to champion a fascination “with abjection and violence” in foreign subjects, whether that be the sinister depictions of Japanese people in World War II propaganda, Native American mascots in sports, or distressed communities in Africa and the Middle East.

Art and public policy professor Hentyle Yapp refers to these aesthetics as “all look same,” a framework that flattens perceptions of historically racialized groups by emphasizing sameness in their representation. This framework has been used to uphold the anti-democratic or authoritarian characteristics of the Chinese government in an aesthetic we have dubbed “authorientalism.”

Authorientalism in visual media distorts and flattens the reader’s view of China and Chinese people. Using repetitive, stereotyped tropes to signify that China is exotic, authorientalism visually links these tropes to abuses of government power, thereby promoting the view that authoritarianism is part of the essential character of Chinese-ness. It conflates the culture and the government, and reinforces the state’s own frequent claims that authoritarianism is innate to Chinese history or society. Turning authoritarian behavior into an exclusively alien phenomenon also implies that it does not apply to Western political culture, making it harder to recognize totalitarian behavior in more familiar contexts.

Authorientalism demonstrates how hostile our attitudes become once these visual patterns set a status quo. It draws on Red Scare propaganda, and the Yellow Peril illustrations of the 19th century that shaped racist measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Across these movements, illustrators formalized Chinese influence as fictitious characters—ghosts, apes, Godzilla communists, Uncle Sam-eaters—neglecting the reality of what actually met the eye: exploited workers, opportunity-seeking immigrants, new markets for Western enterprise interests, etc.

Although authorientalist art seeks to be critical of China, it does so in counterproductive ways. We’ve gathered the most popular expressions of the style—and explained the messages each seeks, consciously or otherwise, to convey.

A story from Foreign Policy in March 2018 (illustration by Eleftheria Alexandri); the cover of Politico Europe in September 2020 (illustration by Nicolás Ortega); and the cover of the Economist in September 2017 (illustration by Jon Berkeley).

Dragons and Pandas

Authorientalist visuals often turn to two motifs: the Chinese dragon, with its wild-eyed, Asiatic ferocity, and the panda—clumsy, endearing, and endangered. In editorial illustrations, these animals surround and paw at the planet. Their metaphors resemble 19th-century maps and political cartoons, which used octopuses to depict the spread of communism or suctioning of colonial territory. Though the dragon and panda have since replaced their cephalopod counterparts, the same conspiratorial and destructive tones remain in contemporary media illustrations. Why?

These framings suggest disruption, priming viewers with the subtext that a Chinese presence in these settings is intrusive, aggressive, or abnormal. In the illustrations above, a bright red dragon  contrasts with a bland rendering of a generic university campus. A bulky panda looms over another cover, while another dragon, mixing the two images, wears a panda mask.

Across media, clothing, and takeout containers, these animals have become universal indicators of Chinese culture in light but combative ways. Their traditional meanings have been appropriated to define China based on Americans’ own attitudes, reducing their significance to kitsch figures, oriental decor, or just sloppy chop suey. Though these reductions appear benign in most cases, their continued resort points to a general lack of interest in imagining new forms of representation. Historical political cartoons of dragons were more overtly racist, but contemporary media visuals maintain the same visual language.

Dragons were traditionally believed to signify the origins of the Chinese race. They were symbols of power and potency, whether in imperial palaces or just the wishful luck parents choose to bestow on their children. In the West, the association was solidified by the Qing dynasty flag, which depicted a dragon highlighted on a solid yellow background. The relative benevolence of the Chinese dragon became mixed with the imagery of the monstrous wyrm in the West.

In contrast, the panda’s allure originally began in scientific inquiry. Before being traded as “national treasures,” these mammals were exoticized and hunted for their unique black-and-white coat by Western explorers, zoologists, and fashion moguls. The Chinese government then capitalized on this panda fever, sending the animals as diplomatic offerings for audiences to view in zoos worldwide. The panda’s original connotations of danger and oddity remain.

Such visual shorthands are useful but also dangerous. They mirror the way America is depicted from the other side. China Daily’s political cartoons fanatically use Uncle Sam or the Statue of Liberty in any opportunity to portray American hypocrisy, in the same fashion as Soviet media did during the Cold War.

By branding a country as an aesthetic, context and meaning gets lost. In most cases, these symbols carry little relevance to the topics discussed in contemporary news cycles. If journalists want to separate themselves from the echo chambers that define authoritarian state-run media, they can start by actually illustrating the topic of their journalism, instead of resorting to the same overused and insensitive visual tropes.

A story from the Atlantic in November 2021 (illustration by the Atlantic); the cover of Time magazine in February 2020 (illustration by Edel Rodriguez); and a story in Foreign Affairs in September/October 2019 (illustration by Heads of State).

L’etat est Xi Jinping

For its illustration of an article headlined “If China’s economy keeps stumbling, it won’t just take down Beijing—the whole world will collapse with it,” Business Insider chose to depict Xi in a whimsical tightrope act over flames—accompanied by the usual red background. It is an illustration that focuses on the consequences of an economic downturn for Xi’s reputation, and his devilish expression implies that he is enjoying the thrill of this challenge. While it is not unusual or wrong to focus on how a shaky economy presents a dilemma for a national leader, illustrations of similar issues in U.S. contexts have focused on collapsing banksunemployment linesloss of housing, or glum cityscapes. They focus on the relevance and importance of these issues to readers.

When visuals focus on the agency and interests of China’s leader, who are they really speaking to and why?

Such illustrations of Xi neglect the consequential elements of their stories. In Business Insider’s case, its visual fails to show us how antitrust fines on Chinese tech giants or the hundreds of billions of dollars indebted by the property firm Evergrande influence wallets on the personal, enterprise, national, and international levels. The primary message viewers take away in these cases is that China is the bad guy.

Drawing on an instantly recognizable set of Mao-era images, the illustrations of Xi are styled to mirror Chinese propaganda with reference to the Cultural Revolution, as well as present-day state-sponsored media. As Foreign Policy has written before, a combative, all-or-nothing approach to Chinese competition only encourages Beijing to counteract with its own style of confrontation. Visuals are no exception. Every photo montage or threatening Maoist rendering of Xi promotes a simplified narrative of China and authoritarian horror.

These illustrations implicitly characterize China’s citizens as marginal to the country’s narrative, casting 1.4 billion people as extras in a Xi Jinping biopic—much as the Chinese Communist Party’s own fulsome praise of Xi does.

A story from the New Yorker in April 2021 (illustration by Golden Cosmos); a story from the New York Times in November 2019 (illustration by Nicholas Konrad); and a story from the Guardian in November 2019 (illustration by Guardian Design).

The Surveillance State Aesthetic

While dragons and leaders are old visual tropes, the camera is a new one. The Chinese government has implemented an extremely comprehensive surveillance regime, especially in colonized areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang. Increased reporting on this topic has given way to a sub-branch of visuals characterizing China as a mass-surveillance state. Imagery of security cameras, facial recognition frames, and dramatically posed or saluting soldiers are among the usual suspects that are superimposed on a red background with the five gold stars of the Chinese flag.

Authorientalism visually links surveillance with Chinese nationalism, thus de-emphasizing how technological surveillance also pervades the world outside of China. Readers stand to benefit from understanding the connections between the policies of predictive policing and counterterrorism in China and the U.S. government’s so-called global war on terror after 9/11, and how surveillance infrastructure both nurtures and is nurtured by tech corporations working closely with governments to collect and analyze massive amounts of personal data.

These images also emphasize the technological aspect of surveillance over the human. Global tech runs on human power, from Facebook’s Philippines-based monitoring centers to the estimated 2 million workers who maintain China’s own firewall. It takes people to scrutinize and interpret behavior even if it has been filtered by artificial intelligence, to identify keywords for monitoring online, to decide whether an action crosses a line, and to choose what the punishment will be for crossing it

The visual shorthand also distances the reader from the actual experience of being surveilled. Real-life images of mass surveillance include a yearslong group chat between high school classmates suddenly shutting down after a stray mention of Ant Group at the wrong time; Uyghur, Kazakh, and other non-Han people in Xinjiang deleting their only photos and contacts of family living abroad to avoid incrimination; and a reporter singing songs of protest to the cameras installed at the entrance to her home.

The personal depiction of how such authoritarian policies affect daily life is missing from all these images. As the artist Ai Weiwei captured in his S.A.C.R.E.D installation in 2013, surveillance was less about a camera lurking in the background of his home and instead involved human subjects who would pervade, judge, and haunt all matters of his privacy.

Those of us tasked with illustrating or art directing these extremely vulnerable experiences will probably never fully understand the pain and humiliation involved under surveillance. But we should not approach these assignments with a patronizing or voyeuristic lens, either. It will take some work to figure this out, but the current trend of illustrations shows that we are not experimenting or changing our approach enough.

Images can evolve. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was a hostile time for Asian communities in the West. News outlets had to ask themselves how to most accurately and ethically depict the spread without emblematizing Asians as the face of the crisis. The steep rise in anti-Asian attacks was a social consequence of existing misunderstandings about China, the virus’ origins, and the media’s repetitive use of photography associating Asians with disease. Visual media, which had the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the oncoming pandemic and its effects, instead ran with the racist assumption that this virus was foreign, suspicious, and irrelevant to the world at large.

Then when the toll of COVID-19 on American lives became too real to ignore, U.S. coverage expanded to show its impacts in hospitals, schools, the workplace, and the home. As a result, we witnessed innovations in how we could tell these stories visually. The attitude went from “look at them” to “this is us.” Editors, photographers, and illustrators were obligated to consider how subjects would be depicted with respect, honesty, and care.

Across 2020 and 2021, major news outlets including New York TimesWashington PostPolitico, and NPR produced pieces showing how artists grappled with the many sensations and tragedies of the pandemic. The same lessons can apply to covering stories about China.

The anxieties and losses faced in lockdown were legible through the metaphors of self-isolating in one’s home. These scenes were universal, which is why the art created around it was recognizable and resonant. When artists find the personal, they can convey powerful messages—whether they’re about China or the United States.

They might ask how to make their illustration more inclusive of Chinese experience. In part, this can begin with commissioning. The majority of the illustrations examined in this article were created by white artists. Before assigning illustrators to articles based on their style, thinking about the perspectives they bring to it matters. This doesn’t mean every piece about China needs to be a Chinese national, or of Chinese heritage. But when we envision scenes in visual storytelling, lived experience gives a powerful bank of knowledge to draw upon. 

Focusing on images of shared humanity can save lives. In January 2020, when most were only dimly aware of the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in the United States, San Francisco Mayor London Breed saw harrowing footage of COVID-19 ravaging hospitals in Wuhan, China, and thought, “This is serious.” Breed said these images spurred her to lead the country in declaring a state of emergency in her city and imposing social distancing measures ahead of other major metropolitan leaders. Public health officials have credited this early action with significantly reducing deaths from COVID-19 in the crucial first months of the pandemic.

Authoritarianism can be treated as a threat to Chinese life, rather than a Chinese threat to the United States. To take China seriously means taking seriously the pain and deaths of the people in Wuhan alongside anxieties about how Xi’s leadership or surveillance affects the West. The focus must shift to processing life under the circumstances created by authoritarian rule, rather than reproducing the illusions spun by headline culture. It should center the people affected themselves. How might they reflect on China’s issues? How might we portray those views?

Selina Lee is a visual journalist and Fulbright scholar based in Berlin, where she is researching and interviewing the work of Xinjiang diasporic artists. She has worked previously for the creative teams of Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs Magazine.

Ramona Li is a senior researcher and advocate for the network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. She has worked with various grassroots communities in China on feminist, labor, religious freedom, and disability rights issues.

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