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16 posts categorized "Propaganda"

03 May 2020

Drawing Ire: Illustrated Ottoman Satirical Magazines

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Cover of Alem featuring a colour drawing of a newspaper clerk speaking to an advertiser
The cover of issue 12 of the satirical magazine Alem, showing a newspaper clerk discussing fees for expected libel accusations. (Alem 21 Mayıs 1325 / 3 June 1909. 14498.a.75)
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The pen is mightier than the sword, they say, but sometimes it’s the cartoonist’s pencil that stings the most. Around the world, caricaturists of all political stripes have long used their illustrations to lampoon the rich and powerful. Sometimes, their humour is focused on the foibles and follies of celebrities. This can take a dark turn when jokes are based on racist, misogynistic, homophobic or other tropes (consider the controversy over a cartoon of Serena Williams in 2019). But, such illustrations can also be a lighthearted means of exposing the mundane and endearing flaws of those whom we admire. Roasting the actions and decisions of the political élite, on the other hand, can bring about a wrath unmatched by that of sports or entertainment stars, even when the images' stated purpose was the betterment of society and progress in politics. The lands of the former Ottoman Empire are certainly no stranger to such dynamics. In 2017, our colleague Daniel Lowe curated an exhibition of the Arabic comic tradition that contained considerable representation of satirical cartoons. For this year’s World Press Freedom Day, I’m going to share a few examples of the Ottoman Turkish satirical press from the British Library’s collections, and highlight some of the special connections between the United Kingdom and this vibrant part of Turkish culture.

Diyojen Masthead of First Issue
The masthead and first page of the first issue of Diyojen, featuring an illustration of Diogenes meeting Alexander. (Diyojen 12 Teşrinisani 1286 [25 November 1870]. ITA.1990.c.6)
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The first satirical newspaper featuring political content to emerge in Ottoman Turkish was the weekly Diyojen (Diogenes), published from 1870 to 1873 by the famed satirist Teodor Kasap (Theodoris Kasapis). Kasap, an Orthodox Greek born in Kayseri in 1835, lived in Paris between 1856 and 1870. During part of this time, he was personal secretary to Alexandre Dumas (his cousin); he also spearheaded the translation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo into Ottoman Turkish. His return to Istanbul in 1870 allowed him to pursue the publication of Diyojen in French, Ottoman Turkish and Greek until 1873, when it was shut down. The magazine was notable for its large masthead, which contained a lithographed illustration of Diogenes meeting Alexander. It also managed to feature, consistently, the writings of some of the great intellectuals of the Tanzimat period, including Namık Kemal and Recaizade Ekrem. Diyojen’s primary focus was not satirical illustrations, and many of its issues did not feature any cartoons at all. Nonetheless, as the first stand-alone satirical publication, it paved the way for the growth and evolution of the genre. Similar to Teodor Kasap himself, it was a development that was influenced heavily by European precedents as well as pro-European attitudes characteristic of the Tanzimat spirit. The degree to which it expressed Kasap’s and other contemporary intellectuals’ Europhile leanings is a fascinating topic, but sadly beyond the scope of this post. Luckily, it is the subject of a study by Hamdi Özdiş, Osmanlı Mizah Basınında Batılılaşma ve Siyaset (1870-1877) (Westernization and Politics in the Ottoman Satirical Press (1870-1877)).

A number of satirical magazines followed Diyojen, including Kasap’s own Çıngıraklı Tatar. This all came to an end in 1876, however, with the ascension of Abdülhamit II to the throne. Although the new Sultan initially presided over two years of (limited) constitutional and parliamentary democracy, the crushing defeats and territorial losses of 1878 allowed for the dawn of a new age of absolutism. Restrictions on freedom of the press and expression meant that many Ottoman intellectuals went or were forced into exile, leading to a boom in Ottoman periodical publications outside of the Imperial borders, including the United Kingdom.

Front page of Dolap featuring masthead and cartoon of Süleymaniye Front page of Dolap featuring cartoon of a dancing dervish and Father of Error
(Left) The cover of Dolap featuring the masthead as well as a cartoon of an execution in front of Süleymaniye Mosque. (Dolap 1 Nisan 1317 [1 April 1901]. 14498.d.4)

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(Right) Another cover of Dolap, this time featuring a dervish next to the "Father of Error". (Dolap 1 Mart 1317 [1 March 1901]. 14498.d.4)
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Among those closest to home for the British Library was Dolap, a monthly satirical magazine published in Folkestone, England between 1900 and 1901. The editor of the journal is unnamed, and the articles and illustrations are signed either with Derviş Külahı or Mürid, if at all. This was likely done to protect those engaged in Dolap’s production. Their text appears to have been printed using movable type, giving it a regular and uniform aesthetic, whereas the drawings themselves are highly variable. Some, such as those in the masthead (which includes Abdülhamit II sitting on a swing), look to have been drawn by a professional illustrator. The lines are clear and purposeful, while the range of emotions and diversity of appearance of the people looking at the Ottoman Sultan (presumably the leaders of other contemporary states) speak to a certain level of expressive confidence. Meanwhile, the drawing of a dervish (identified as el-Hakir el-Fakir ül-Şeyh Zahir Şazlı) and “Abū al-Ḍilāl” (“Father of Error”) is shaky and much more tentative in its use of detail. What is clear, from both these illustrations and the general content of the texts they accompanied, is that Dolap was a means to express a vehement opposition to Abdülhamit’s administration and its policies. Indeed, the first article of the first issue explains, while “speaking seriously”, that the publication intended to look at the corruption and crimes plaguing the Fatherland.

Page from Beberuhi featuring lithographed text and cartoonsA page from Beberuhi showing caricatures of Abdülhamit with various expressions
(Left) A lithographed and illustrated satirical dialogue from the first issue of Beberuhi. (Beberuhi 10 Ramazan 1315 / 1 Şubat 1898 [1 February 1898]. 14498.d.12)
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(Right) A bilingual Ottoman Turkish-French article on Abdülhamit II's performance in international negotiations. (Beberuhi 15 Cumaziülevvel 1316 / 1 Teşrinievvel 1898 [1 October 1898]. 14498.d.12)
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Such sentiments were also carried by the newspaper Beberuhi, published in Geneva in 1898. Unlike its spiritual successor Dolap, Beberuhi was printed partially with moveable type, and partially using lithography. This latter means of production ensured that the illustrator of some of the satirical cartoons was able to add their own text to accompany the visual criticism. Such processes are clearest in the panel above, in which a comical dialogue is paired with esquisses of characters bearing a certain resemblance to Hacıvat and Karagöz, the famous Ottoman shadow puppet characters who were well-known for their biting social criticism. These cartoons and some of the textual content too make it obvious that those in Beberuhi’s editorial board and its contributors were steadfast in their criticism of Abdülhamit’s régime. This is unsurprising, given that the periodical emerged from Young Turk circles in Geneva, one of the hotspots of this more extreme vein of anti-Hamidian opposition.

Esquisse of Abdülhamit atop a donkey surrounded by the leaders of various European states
A bilingual (Ottoman Turkish-French) lithographed caricature of Abdülhamit being led astray by European rivals, atop a saddle labeled "The Eastern Question". (Beberuhi 10 Ramazan 1315 / 1 Şubat 1898 [1 February 1898]. 14498.d.12)
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In addition to the bespoke satirical caricatures that were sprinkled among the text, Beberuhi also featured a number of bilingual (Ottoman Turkish-French) cartoons. These are of a distinctly different aesthetic than those discussed above. Moreover, their bilingual nature leads me to question whether these might have been reprinted from other publications, or if they were utilized in the Young Turks’ propagandistic campaigns directed at non-Ottomans as well. The focus in these drawings is Abdülhamit’s performance in the arena of international relations. He doesn’t fare well according to the editors of the magazine. Surprised, cheeky, foolish, bemused and complacent are all words we might use to describe the Sultan in these drawings; competent and compassionate certainly don’t make the list. Beberuhi and the Geneva nucleus of Young Turk opposition provide ample material for studies of the Ottoman exile press, such as this work by Servet Tiken. They will likely continue to do so as we look to understand more deeply the genesis of Ottoman political thought both at home and abroad.

Ottoman language cover of Alem showing the Naval MinisterBilingual cover of Alem showing a cabbie leaving for Athens
(Left) The cover of issue 4 of the satirical magazine Alem, showing the Naval Minister. (Alem 19 Şubat 1325 / 4 March 1909. 14498.a.75)
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(Right) The cover of issue 11 of the satirical magazine Alem, with a cartoon of a cabbie complaining about a lack of business in Istanbul. (Alem 14 Mayıs 1325 / 27 May 1909. 14498.a.75)
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In July 1908, a revolution rocked Istanbul, paving the way for the restitution of the Ottoman Constitution and Parliament. Known as the Young Turk Revolution, this milestone in late-Ottoman history meant, among many different things, a relaxation of censorship. The periodical press flourished, including those magazines devoted to satirical content. One such example in the British Library’s Turkish collections is Alem, an illustrated weekly published in Ottoman Turkish from February until June 1909. Edited by Yakovalızade Arif (Arif de Yacova on the French masthead), this periodical included occasional colour drawings, most of which focused on political, economic and cultural issues and hypocrisies in Ottoman society. Alem appears to have escaped the scrutiny of many of the scholars of this period of Ottoman publishing history, as did Yakovalızade Arif. But there are a few interesting things that we can glean from some of its covers.

Two-page spread of illustrations in colour
Two caricatures from the magazine Alem, the one on the left showing a royal official expressing his support for constitutionalism, while that on the right shows the reduction in tension between warring nations. (Alem 21 Mayıs 1325 / 3 June 1909. 14498.a.75)
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Based in Eminönü, the offices of Alem managed to put out 31 issues on a fairly regular basis. Moreover, given the number of issues published, and the professionalism of their production, it is likely that Yakovalıze Arif is nothing more than a pseudonym, employed for the protection of the editors and the contributors to the magazine. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why Alem is the only publication attached to this individual in the entire holdings of the Milli Kütüphane, Turkey’s national library. In coming to the illustrations themselves, it appears that many, if not most, of the covers and satirical cartoons included in the weekly were completed by the same illustrator. The covers on hand are signed by a fairly well-known Ottoman painter named Ali Cemal Ben’im. The diversity of styles – from the strong, clear lines and calm colours of a pier, to the jagged edges of the Naval Minister in black ink – speak to Ben’im’s skill and versatility as an artist. Similarly, the content of the images is broad in its focus: from the economic troubles of cabbies and the petty defamatory actions of the upper classes, right up to the rapid about-face of the ruling classes and their support for constitutional monarchy. The editor, artist and contributors of Alem evidently sought to take a light-hearted approach to criticizing the flaws and faults of this rapidly changing society.

Cover of Cem featuring a shadow theatre performanceCaricature of two men talking in rain on bridge from cover of Cem
(Left) Caricature of a man entranced by a shadow puppet performance at the Ottoman border. (Cem 18 March 1911. 14498.a.91)
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(Right) Two men discussing foreign debt from Germany and the Ottoman Bank from the first issue of Cem. (Cem 28 Tişrin-i Sani 1326 [10 December 1910]. 14498.a.91)
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The final satirical periodical from our collections that I’d like to highlight is Cem, a bilingual Ottoman Turkish-French publication that reappeared in the Republican era as a Latin-script Turkish one. Cem was first produced in 1910-1912. It profited from the initial broadening of freedom of the press, only to fall victim to the reintroduction of controls following a dramatic change in government in 1912. It re-emerged in January 1927, after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, and provided another two-years’ worth of illustrated satirical content until its final closure in May 1929. It was edited and illustrated by Cemil Cem, who had been an Ottoman diplomat posted to France during the late-Hamidian period. He began his career as an illustrator while still in the Ottoman foreign service, sending caricatures to the magazine Kalem starting in 1908. It was only in 1910 that he returned to Istanbul from Paris, and thus had the opportunity to found Cem. While the editor provided a considerable amount of content in both textual and visual form, criticizing both Abdülhamit and the İttihat ve Terakki Fırkası (Party of Union and Progress), there were other contributors as well. The most notable of these was Refik Halit Karay, an accomplished reporter and translator who had spent many years practicing journalism across Anatolia. Karay is well-known for his broad contribution to early-Republican Turkish literature, including his satirical pieces written for Cem and other periodicals, such as Ay Dede.

Cem Double Page Spread
Two pages of caricatures from Cem mocking the privileges of royalty (left) and the hypocrisy and immorality of parliamentarians (right). (Cem 26 January 1911. 14498.a.91)
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As with many satirical publications, Cem took aim at much more than just politicians and their whims. International relations, literature, the arts, and social relations all fell within Cemil Cem’s sights and those of his authors. The boundaries pushed by some of the drawings and texts, and the cheekiness of the humour, all point to why this periodical might have been deemed egregiously critical by the powers that be. An opening from issue 13, for example, reveals caricatures that take digs at both the privileges royalty accords itself and the foolishness of elected officials. No one, evidently, was safe from Cem’s sharp pen. Beyond this, however, the captions themselves speak to a sort of textual codeswitching. Those literate in both French and Ottoman will quickly realize that the two texts do not accord in a strict sense (something also occasionally seen in Alem). Both refer to the same image, but the manner in which they interpret and contextualize it differs. The Ottoman captions are more conversational and jocular than the French ones. This begs the question of who the two audiences of the journal were, and whether there were different standards, or different censors, for the different languages employed.

Turkish politician chasing a Greek butterfly with a netLloyd George among grave crosses in Gallipoli
(Left) A Turkish politician chases a Greek "butterfly" for his "non-aggression pact" collection. (Cem 1 October 1927. 14498.a.91)
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(Right) A caricature of Lloyd George sitting among graves at Gallipoli. (Cem 1 October 1927. 14498.a.91)
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Mizah dergileri – satirical magazines – did not die out with the advent of the Republic; far from it. These publications proliferated throughout the 20th century, following the vagaries of freedom of expression and the press, as well as liberal democracy, in Turkish history. Some have survived into the contemporary moment. Others have fallen prey to the counterattacks of the Turkish state, currently ranked as 157th most free for the press according to Reporters Without Borders. Yet this venerable literary and artistic tradition is a resilient one. In 2019, I wrote about the magazine Penguen, its proliferation, and its eventual closure in 2017. It would be easy to see this as a worrying parable of cultural and political asphyxiation; a tale whose finality is dark and foreboding. In the context of the Ottoman Turkish satirical periodicals held at the British Library, however, and those found elsewhere, I prefer to interpret it as yet another ebb bound to be followed the inevitable flow of Turkish cultural production. Whether inked or pixelated, the indomitable spirit of satirical caricature will rear its laughter-inducing head once again.

Dr. Michael Erdman
Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Further reading

Ener Su, Aydan, 1900-1928 Yılları Arası Yayımlanan Mizah Gazete ve Dergilerinin İncelenmesi, (unpublished doctoral thesis, Hacettepe Üniversitesi, 2017).

Seyhan, Salih, “II. Meşrutiyet Dönemi Mizah Basını ve İçeriklerinden Seçilmiş Örnekler”, Turkish Studies, 8/3 (Winter 2013), pp. 494-516.

Ünver, Merve, Eski Türkçe Mizah Dergilerinin Açıklamalı Bibliografyası (1870-1928), (unpublished masters thesis, Marmara Üniversitesi, 2013).

04 October 2017

The Establishment of BBC Arabic & Egyptian 'Nahwy'

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On January 3rd 1938, the BBC’s first ever foreign language radio station – BBC Arabic – made its inaugural broadcast. The station was launched in almost direct response to Radio Bari, the Arabic-language radio station of the Italian Government that had been broadcast to the Arab world since 1934. Radio Bari’s broadcasts consisted of a mixture of popular Arabic music, cultural propaganda intended to encourage pro-fascist sentiment in the Arab world and news bulletins with a strongly anti-British slant. British officials had initially been largely unperturbed by Italy’s efforts, but from 1935 onwards as Radio Bari’s output became more overtly anti-British and specifically attacked British policy in Palestine, they became concerned and began to discuss how Britain ought to respond.

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Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941, a supplementary magazine produced by Radio Bari with details of its Arabic broadcasts (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

It was soon decided that Britain needed to establish its own Arabic radio station in order to counter Italy’s broadcasts. As the Secretary of State for the Colonies remarked in August 1937, “the time has come when it is essential to ensure the full and forcible presentation of the British view of events in a region of such vital Imperial importance”. Detailed discussions began over what form the station should take. In addition to logistical issues concerning content and where it should be based, British officials were concerned as to what type of Arabic should be used in its broadcasts. There was a keen awareness that in order for the proposed broadcasts to be both widely understood and taken seriously, making the appropriate choice linguistically was crucial. The Cabinet Committee that was formed to discuss the issue reported that the Arabic used in Radio Bari’s broadcasts in the past – speculated to be that of a cleric of Libyan origin – had been “open to criticism as being pedantic and classical in style and…excited the ridicule of listeners”. The potential for ridicule, in addition to the fact that many uneducated Arabs would struggle to understand it, made classical Arabic an undesirable choice. Yet given the significant variation in regional dialects that exists throughout the Arab world, the choice of a single dialect was equally problematic. British officials in the region possessed strong and sometimes divergent opinions about what course of action should be taken.

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Details of Radio Bari’s broadcast schedule as contained in Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

Britain’s Political Agent in Kuwait, Gerald de Gaury, believed that Nejdi Arabic was the ideal choice, arguing in March 1937 that the “Nejdi accent and vocabulary are accepted by all unprejudiced persons as the finest in Arabia” and form “the common denominator of the whole Arabic language”. He supported this assertion by providing quotations from the 19th century travelogues of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, 1831) and Charles Montagu Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1888), both of whom stressed the supposedly uncorrupted nature of Nejdi Bedouin Arabic in comparison with – in Burckhardt’s words – “the low language of the Syrian and Egyptian mob”. De Gaury emphasised the importance of getting the decision right, noting that the Ruler of Kuwait – “who regretted the absence of an Arabic broadcast from London” – had commented to him on the poor grammar of the announcer used by Radio Bari. He argued therefore that there was “an excellent opportunity to be taken up by the British Arabic Broadcast Station of having a really first class man much more welcome than those of other foreign Arabic broadcasters”. In a further display of his simplistic understanding De Gaury concluded his argument by stating that “the Arab is far more language conscious than any other race”. De Gaury’s stance was more a reflection of a racist attitude then rife amongst British officials regarding the ostensible purity of Bedouin Arabs than of reality.

A more nuanced proposal was put forward by Robin Furness, a Professor of English at King Fuad University in Cairo who had been approached by the Foreign Office for his expert opinion. Furness had previously served as Deputy Director General of Egyptian State Broadcasting, as a Press Censor for the Government of the Mandate of Palestine and later served as Deputy Chief Censor in Egypt. He too stressed the importance of making the right decision, commenting that Radio Bari now employed a broadcaster who spoke "ungrammatical Arabic with a marked Levanese [sic] accent…those Palestinian Arabs who spoke to me about these broadcasts ridiculed the accent of the broadcaster: Egyptians…would have ridiculed it even more”.

Programme of the inaugural BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4132) ©BBC

While Furness concurred with De Gaury regarding the importance of the decision, he did not agree as to what form of Arabic should be used. Furness explained that on Cairene radio, classical Arabic was generally used only for broadcasts that were related to religion, literature and history and that colloquial Egyptian was used only occasionally for stories or broadcasts intended for children. Otherwise, what Furness terms “Egyptian Nahwy” was generally used. Nahwy (literally ‘grammatical’) is a term used in Egypt to refer to classical Arabic (i.e. fusha), but it is clear that at this time it referred to something distinct. Furness elaborates on what he meant describing it as the way “an educated Egyptian would read prose, endeavouring to avoid grammatical errors, not indulging in what would be regarded as classical preciosities, and using so far as he can an accent which would be called ‘Egyptian’ but not e.g. ‘Cairene’, ‘Alexandrian’ or ‘Saudi’ [Sa’idi or Upper Egyptian]”. Furness gives the specific example of the pronunciation of ثلاثة أيام (three days) which, in Nahwy, would not be pronounced in the classical way as “thalāthatu ayāmin” nor in the fully colloquial Egyptian way of “talat ayām” but rather as “thalāthat ayām”. Furness argued that the announcer chosen for the British broadcasts should avoid colloquial dialects, eschew classical Arabic except for such purposes as Cairo radio used it (“otherwise he would generally be regarded as absurdly pedantic”), avoid grammatical mistakes as much as possible and use Egyptian Nahwy. He reasoned that as Egypt was “the largest and most advanced of the countries affected, and the centre of Islamic education. A broadcaster will be best understood by the most of the listeners, and least criticised, if he uses Egyptian Nahwy”. Aside from classical Arabic, he concluded, “it is the nearest approach to a common language”.

At this time, Britain already operated a local Arabic language radio station in the Mandate of Palestine and for this it utilised what the Cabinet Committee on Arabic Broadcasting referred to as Palestinian Nahwy. This committee acknowledged that although the type of Arabic to be used in the broadcasts for the Arab world as a whole “presents certain difficulties…these are not considered to be insuperable”. Through constructive comments on style and pronunciation it was believed that a “type of Arabic may gradually be evolved which would be palatable to the largest Arabic-speaking audience”. This succinct description brings to mind a form of Arabic that emerged in the 20th Century and is now usually referred to as Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA) or Formal Spoken Arabic (FSA).

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Details of BBC Arabic broadcasts for Sunday 23rd January – Thursday 27th January 1938. (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214) ©BBC

Sir Miles Lampson, Britain’s Ambassador in Cairo, was receptive to Furness’ argument regarding the use of Nahwy but believed that there could “be a conflict of opinion between him and those who advocate the use of classical Arabic, except in the exceptional cases of broadcasts for children, popular stories, humorous items etc”. Lampson also feared that although Egyptian Nahwy “approximates very closely to classical Arabic minus the inflectional terminations, there may be many who hold the view that to give an Egyptian flavour to material which was intended for general consumption in the Arabic-speaking countries might well detract from its wider effectiveness”.

Notwithstanding Lampson’s concerns, it appears that Furness’ argument was influential, for the first chief announcer appointed by BBC Arabic was an Egyptian named Ahmad Kamal Suroor who had previously worked for Egyptian radio. The first ever broadcast of BBC Arabic, that was announced by Suroor, can be listened to here. After its launch, BBC Arabic quickly became popular, Suroor in particular, who was praised by listeners as having “forcible and clear delivery”.

Ahmad Kamal Suroor delivering the first ever BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938. Copyright BBC

By September 1938, a secret report produced by the BBC was able to report that “[n]ative opinion” unanimously approved of both the type of Arabic used and the quality of the announcing in BBC Arabic broadcasts, which were said to “compare favourably with the performance of other stations broadcasting in Arabic”. Interestingly, the only adverse comments reported had come from Europeans, criticism which the BBC report argued could largely be discounted as it was “based on hasty impressions and incorrect information”. For instance, the report claimed that the specific criticism by some Europeans that the Egyptian accent of the announcers was “displeasing outside Egypt” was “not endorsed by native opinion”. The report quoted at length the thoughts of a “well-informed Englishman in Baghdad” who stated:

A friend told me the other day that he and his friends really enjoy listening to an Egyptian talking correctly in contrast to the best of the announcers from the local Baghdad broadcast, who was always getting his (vowel) points wrong.

One of the Europeans highly critical of BBC Arabic’s broadcasts was James Heyworth-Dunne, a senior lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who attacked the technique of the announcers. The report commented that although Heyworth-Dunne claimed to voice the opinion of “every Arab to whom he has spoken on the subject”, his view directly conflicted with a large volume of evidence gathered from all parts of the Arab world. The report argued that since modern literary Arabic was an “artificial and bookish language” with no universally accepted fixed standards, discussions on disputed questions of grammar and style were to be expected and that few “achieve unquestioned correctness”.

Debates around the appropriate use of classical and colloquial Arabic – often heated – continue to this day, but it is fascinating to consider whether BBC Arabic, that remains widely listened to throughout the Arab world, may have played a part in the development of media Arabic throughout the 20th century and the emergence of Educated Spoken Arabic as distinct from both classical Arabic and the numerous regional and national dialects that exist throughout the Arab world.

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist


Primary documents:
(These are all due to be digitised as part of the  Qatar Digital Library)

India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4131-4134
India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214

Further reading:
Louis Allday An A-Z of Arabic Propaganda: The British Government's Arabic-Language Output during WWII Jadaliyya (May 2016).

Callum A. MacDonald “Radio Bari: Italian Wireless Propaganda in the Middle East and British Countermeasures 1934-38” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 195-207.

F. Mitchell “What is educated Spoken Arabic?” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 61 (1986), pp. 7-32.

Andrea L. Stanton “This is Jerusalem Calling” State Radio in Mandate Palestine (Texas, University of Texas Press, 2013).

Kees Versteegh “The Emergence of Modern Standard Arabic” (Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Manuela A. Williams Mussolini’s Propaganda Abroad, Subversion in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, 1935-1940 (London/New York: Routledge, 2006).


13 May 2016

The Perak Times: a rare Japanese-occupation newspaper from Malaya

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The British Library holds what is probably the most important collection in the world of early printed works from Malaysia and Singapore, from the start of printing in the region in the early 19th century, right up until the independence of Malaya in 1957 and of Singapore in 1963. The strength of the collection is mainly due to colonial legal deposit legislation, which started with the Straits Settlements Book Registration Ordinance of 1886. The Ordinance required publishers in Singapore, Penang and Melaka to deposit three copies of each work registered, one copy of which was to be sent to the library of the British Museum (now the British Library) in London. All types of publications were despatched, from religious works and literature to school text books and ephemera, as well as complete runs of newspapers and periodicals, in all the languages of the region: Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Arabic and English.

The only significant gap in this coverage of 150 years of printing from the Malay peninsula and Singapore is the period of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, from late 1941 to 1945. Not surprisingly, during the war years almost no publications were sent to London, and sources from this crucial period are generally only found in Malaysian and Singapore libraries.

Masthead of The Perak Times, 10 April 2603 (i.e. 1943). British Library, ORB.99/234

The British Library was therefore delighted and very grateful to receive as a donation copies of a rare Japanese-occupation era propaganda newspaper. The Perak Times was published in Ipoh, Perak from 1942 until at least the end of 1943. It was a daily newspaper in English, usually consisting of just one broadsheet page, which appeared every day of the week except Sunday. According to the colophon the paper was printed and published at 62-64 Belfield Street, Ipoh by John Victor Morais (1910-1991), a prominent Malaysian writer and journalist of south Indian origin, who later edited the Malaya Tribune and the Ipoh Daily News. Until recently, the only known copies of The Perak Times were held in the National Archives of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur and in the Penang Public Library. Now a four-month run, from April to July 2603 (i.e. 1943) can be consulted in the British Library (ORB.99/234).

The Perak Times, 1 April - 31 July 2603 (i.e. 1943), Ipoh, Perak. British Library, ORB.99/234

According to the historian of the Japanese occupation of Malaya, Paul Kratoska (1998: 143), the Japanese placed the press in occupied Malaya under the control of the Domei Press Agency, which published newspapers in Malay, Tamil, Chinese and Japanese as well as in English. Looking through the individual issues of The Perak Times, the front page headlines mainly trumpet the war triumphs of Japan and her Axis allies Germany and Italy, with headlines like 'Our Troops Wipe Out Main Enemy Force On Indo-Burmese Border' (9 April 2603), 'Another Smashing Attack On Enemy Fleet' (17 April 2603) and 'Rommel Determined To Fight To  Finish' (24 April 2603), while also emphasizing Japan's alliances with Asian nationalist and anti-colonial parties: '"Burma Must Forge Ahead With One Voice, One Blood & One Command" - Dr. Ba Maw' (19 April 2603); '"No Going Back, No Faltering" Subhas Chandra Bose Broadcasts To India' (28 June 2603); and 'Premier Tojo In Manila: Exchanges Views About Philippine Independence' (13 July 2603).


Front page headlines from The Perak Times, 22 July (top) and 7 July (bottom), 1943.

The back page of The Perak Times usually contained more local news, including results of sporting fixtures (soccer, hockey and keiba, horse racing) as well as advertisements for entertainment. Kratoska reports that at the start of the Japanese occupation there were 23,000 reels of American, English, Chinese, Malay and Indian films in circulation in Malaya, and these continued to be shown for the first year and a half. Thus The Perak Times contains advertisements for 'Only Angels Have Wings' starring Cary Grant and Jean Arthur; a Laurel and Hardy film, 'Star On Parade'; and the film of the Daphne du Maurier novel, 'Rebecca', as well Cantonese, Hindi and Tamil hit movies. It was only on 1 September 1943 that the Japanese ordered cinemas to stop screening British and American productions (Kratoska 1998: 141). Of greater local historical interest are the numerous performances in July 1943 by the Sri Arjuna Bangsawan group, including the shows 'Anak Di Luar Nikah', 'Raja Laksamana Bintan', 'Pulau Pandan Gunung Diak [sic, i.e. Daik?]' and 'Dan Dan Stia' [i.e. Dandan Setia], described as 'That Grand Malai Historical Play You've All Been Anxiously Waiting To See! To Be Completed In 5 Nights'.

Local Perak news on the back page of The Perak Times, 24 April 2603 (i.e. 1943).

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Advertisements for American, Indian and Chinese films (29 May) and for a Sri Arjuna Bangsawan performance (12 July) in Ipoh in The Perak Times in 1943.

The copies of The Perak Times have been donated to the British Library by Ian Sampson, who found them amongst his family papers. Ian’s father, Geoffrey Sampson, was an engineer who had worked in Malaya for the Public Works Department (PWD), and Ian himself was born at the General Hospital in Alor Setar, Kedah, in May 1941, just before the Japanese invasion at the end of that year. The papers are bound together in months, and a stamp on one issue reads 'District Office Dindings', indicating the origin of this collection. As can be seen from the photos above, the paper is very brittle, and we plan this year to digitise these historic copies of The Perak Times, to ensure that they will continue to be accessible as a valuable resource for this period of Malaysian history.

Ian Sampson, with copies of The Perak Times which he has kindly donated to the British Library.

P. Lim Pui Huen, Singapore, Malaysian and Brunei newspapers: an international union list.  Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1992.
Paul H. Kratoska, The Japanese occupation of Malaya: a social and economic history. London: Hurst, 1998.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

28 April 2016

An A-Z of Arabic Propaganda

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The British Government’s Arabic-Language Output during WWII

Throughout the Second World War, Britain’s Ministry of Information (MOI) produced and disseminated a remarkable assortment of propaganda material in Arabic. The material that it produced was intended to counter pro-Axis sentiment in the Arab World and bolster support for Britain and its allies. This propaganda effort arose largely in response to the German and Italian Governments’ own large scale propaganda campaigns that, with some success (more so Germany than Italy), targeted the Middle East and North Africa from the 1930s onwards.

Abjad al-ḥarb ʻThe alphabet of warʼ (British Library, COI Archive, ‘Arabic A.B.C.’ PP/1/28L).
© British Library, 2016

The German Government broadcast Arabic language radio programmes to the region seven days a week before and throughout the duration of the war. These broadcasts portrayed the Nazis as friends of Islam and staunch supporters of anti-imperialist movements, especially those that were opposed to the British Empire. Unsurprisingly, they found a receptive ear amongst some individuals then under the control of British colonial authorities; notably so after the fall of France in May 1940, when the prospect of Britain losing the war appeared a likely outcome to many. Pro-German sentiment in Iraq and other areas has been well-documented, but the broadcasts also had an impact on the periphery of the region. For example, in Sharjah on the British controlled Trucial Coast (present day UAE), pro-German graffiti was written on walls and large crowds gathered around the palace of its ruler, Shaikh Sultan bin Saqr al-Qasimi, to listen to the German radio broadcasts.

Ministry of Information poster (British Library IOR/R/15/1/35). © British Library, 2016

A wide selection of this MOI material is preserved in the archive of its successor organisation, the Central Office of Information (COI) that since 2000 has been held at the British Library. The contents of the MOI archive – hundreds of pamphlets and posters produced in Arabic, Persian, French, Italian, Russian, Dutch, Spanish and many other languages – demonstrate the large scale and broad scope of the MOI’s propaganda activities during the war. The Arabic language propaganda material produced by the MOI is interesting for the diversity of its form as well as its content. This material includes posters (copies of which have been preserved by chance in the British Library’s India Office Records), pamphlets, satirical cartoons and even lavishly illustrated short stories for children.

One of the most fascinating examples of this propaganda is a pamphlet entitled Alphabet of the War (Abjad al-ḥarb) that contains an illustrated entry for each of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. The entries are a curious assortment of geographical locations (England, USA, Iraq, Egypt and London), people (Churchill, Roosevelt and Hitler), armaments (Battle Ships, Tanks and Fighter Jets) and concepts (including Freedom, Bravery, Corruption and Honesty) that project an image of Britain as the last ‘bastion of freedom’ that is on the path to victory against the Nazi regime and its allies. Unlike many of the MOI’s other publications that were written for a general audience and then simply translated into different languages, this particular pamphlet was clearly written specifically for the Arab world.

Inkiltirā: England – a bastion of freedom and the focal point of the war against injustice and aggression.
Ḥurrīyah: freedom – what Britain fights to defend and secure for all the peoples of the world.
Khiyānah: treachery – Hitler’s favourite weapon with which he tries to enslave the world.

ʻIrāq – an independent Arab state with total independence that is allied to its friend, England and refused to ‘enjoy the privileges’ of the new Nazi regime because it holds fast to its freedom and independence’.
Fasād: Corruption – the primary characteristic of the Nazi Government and what Hitler wants to spread around the world.
Qūwah: force – the only thing that is understood and feared by the Nazis.

Miṣr: Egypt – a completely sovereign and independent state that is Britain’s sincere ally in war and peace.
Hitlar – he is the arch-enemy of God and humanity’s greatest enemy.
Ya’s: despair – the feeling in Hitler’s heart whenever he sees Britain and her allies increasing their force and power, when it is clear to him that the decisive victory will be on the side of the Democracies.

In the entry for Hitler, the Nazi leader is described as the ‘arch-enemy’ of God, and the entry for treachery (khiyānah) states that he is trying to ‘enslave the world’. In another entry (corruption/fasād) the Nazi regime is portrayed as morally degenerate; its soldiers depicted drinking alcohol and dancing with scantily clad women, an image presumably intended as an affront to the religious beliefs and perceived social conservatism of the Arab world.

The pamphlet appears to have been produced after Britain’s mass aerial bombardment of German cities had commenced, as the entry for planes (ṭā’irāt) describes British bombers as ‘messengers of wrath raining down woe and destruction on the heart of Germany’. This is a sentiment remarkably reminiscent of the official aims of Britain’s bombing campaign on Germany that stated:

The ultimate aim of the attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction, and (ii) the fear of death.

This violent tone is also contained in the entry for force (qūwah), which is described as the only thing that the Nazis understand and fear. The final entry in the pamphlet, despair (ya’s), leaves the reader with little doubt that Hitler will eventually be defeated and that Britain and its allies will be victorious.

The MOI also produced cruder, humorous style propaganda, notably a series of satirical cartoons entitled Adolf and his Donkey Benito which depict Hitler as a bumbling fool riding his unfortunate donkey, Benito (an obvious anthropomorphic representation of Mussolini). As well as being distributed as pamphlets, these cartoons were also inserted into local newspapers in the Arab World, including the Bahraini newspaper, al-Baḥrayn which was controlled by the British authorities at this time. The MOI’s Director of Middle East Propaganda, Professor L. F. Rushbrook Williams, had previously demonstrated that he was not averse to propaganda of this kind when he had encouraged the British Embassy in Baghdad to disseminate material that depicted Hitler and Mussolini as a pig and a jackal respectively.

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Adolf and His Donkey by Kem (British Library, COI Archive, PP/1/20). © British Library, 2016

The Adolf and Benito cartoons were drawn by Kimon Evan Marengo (1907-1998), better known by his pen name, Kem, who was an Egyptian–born British cartoonist whose work appeared in the Daily Herald and the Daily Telegraph. Kem was heavily involved in the work of the MOI and produced hundreds of cartoons in Arabic as well as in Persian - for example the famous Shahnamah cartoons described in a previous blog. One of the cartoons in the series depicts Mussolini as afraid of confronting a tiny mouse (labelled the Greek mouse), a not too subtle reference to the Italian military’s unsuccessful invasion of Greece in the Greco-Italian War of 1940-41.

In a clear attempt to target children, the MOI also produced of a series of short stories named Ahmad and Johnny. These stories were illustrated by William Lindsay Cable, an illustrator most widely known for his work in the books of the famous children’s author, Enid Blyton.

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‘Ahmed and Johnny’ (British Library, COI Archive, PP/1/8 and 7). © British Library, 2016

In a manner reminiscent of Blyton’s work, Ahmad and Johnny follows the adventures of Ahmad, a Sudanese boy living in England with Johnny and his family. In one issue of the series, it is explained that Johnny’s father had worked in Sudan and brought Ahmad (presumably an orphan) back with him to Britain. In the same issue, Ahmad and Johnny go for a walk in the Kent countryside where they bump into a farmer whose son is said to be serving with the British military in Sudan. Britain is described as the ‘home of freedom’ and the ‘source of hope of the future’. Ahmad and the peasant compare life in England and Sudan and the ostensibly friendly relations between the two nations are stressed.

In 1938, as a response to the aforementioned Arabic-language radio broadcasts of the German and Italian Governments, Britain established the BBC Arabic radio station. Subsequently, the MOI produced a pamphlet entitled ‘This is London’ that promoted the new station and its radio broadcasts.

‘This is London’ (British Library, COI Archive, PP/12/27A). © British Library, 2016

The pamphlet gives details of the station’s broadcasts including its lineup of announcers and its first ever news broadcast. It also contains details and photos of the official opening of Cardiff Mosque in 1943. An event that was attended by Hafiz Wahba (then Saudi Arabia’s representative in London) and was broadcast by BBC Arabic.

Official opening of Cardiff Mosque in 1943 (British Library, COI Archive, PP/12/27A). © British Library, 2016

Ultimately, the diverse MOI materials now held at the British Library are testament to the multi-faceted propaganda effort that was carried out by the ministry, one which utilised the skills and expertise of British academics, cartoonists, authors and many other skilled professionals. It was a campaign which sought to belittle Britain’s enemies and project an image of the country as a righteous, commanding military power that was close to victory against the forces of evil. In the context of the Middle East, this entailed a wholly cynical attempt to portray Britain’s military occupation and colonial domination of the region as merely ‘brotherly’ friendships between allies.

Ironically, in 1948, a British official in the Persian Gulf bemoaned the manner in which the MOI had popularised self-expression as a counter to Nazism as a ‘weapon of war’. He argued that this effort had served to increase the Gulf’s inhabitants knowledge of the world’s problems, ‘particularly of the rights of small nations and the independence of Arab nations’ and was causing them to question Britain’s dominant position in the region.[1]

Those interested to learn more about the MOI will be pleased to hear that in September 2016, the British Library is releasing a publication entitled Persuading the People, in which the renowned expert on Propaganda, Professor David Welch of the University of Kent, explores the role of the MOI and its propaganda output in closer detail.


Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist

[1] National Archives, FO 924/695, ‘Education problems in the Middle East and Persian Gulf’

24 February 2016

The Vietnam War: Children at War

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Ho Chi Minh: “The Working Youth Union members and our young people are in general good; they are ready to come forward, fearless of difficulties and eager for progress. The Party must foster their revolutionary virtues and train them to be our successors ...” 
Việt Nam, commemorative issue on the death of Ho Chi Minh, October 1969, p.11. British Library, SU216

The Vietnam War affected all walks of life in Vietnam and children were not spared from the cruelty of this war. The physical suffering from heavy battles and bombardment of highly toxic chemical weapons are still felt even today. During the war years life for children was very hard, in both the North and the South of Vietnam. Houses and schools were bombed and destroyed. Many children became homeless and their schools had to be moved around or lessons had to take place after dark to avoid being targeted by heavy bombings. For example, one school in a liberated area in the South had to move site three times in four months due to the American air raids. Wherever they stopped, teachers and pupils built bamboo and palm leaf cottages in the midst of forests as their school (Việt Nam, no.132, 9, 1968, p. 10).

'Going to school at night' (Đi học đêm) by Phi Tiến Sơn, 12 years old. Việt Nam, no.154, 1971 p. [14]. British Library, SU 216(2)

'Reinforcing the wall to protect our classrooms' by Phương Quốc Thanh, 14 years old. Việt Nam, no.141, 6,1969 p. 18. British Library, SU 216(2)

In the face of these hardships, the fighting spirit of the children was heavily fortified by the Vietnamese Communist Party and the National Liberation Front, and these institutions made children very aware of foreign enemies and their duty to serve their country. The attempts of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the National Liberation Front to inspire young minds to fight the enemy are illustrated by the glorification of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, a young electrician and a Viet Minh member in the South. Trỗi was sentenced to death and executed by a firing sqad in Saigon in front of the press on 15 October 1964 for the attempted assassination of Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence, who was visiting South Vietnam in May 1963. When the shots were fired at Trỗi, he shouted “Down with the U.S. Imperialists, Long Live Vietnam, Long Live Hồ  Chí Minh”.

Execution of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi. Việt Nam, no.149, 1970 p. 31. British Library, SU216(2)

Hanoi treated Trỗi as a martyr and renamed many schools, prize awards and other revolutionary activities after him. In the liberated zones in South Vietnam, revolutionary schools named after him were set up to teach children about “learning for victory over the Yanks”.

According to one Hanoi publication: “…A system of revolutionary education has taken shape and is fast growing. With this the innocent and unstained minds of the children can absorb the cream of the sound and rich national culture very early, and the children will work their way to become good sons and daughters, excellent pupils and young activists. In the “small deeds, great significance” movement, apart from learning, they enthusiastically join their efforts with those of their parents and brothers in fighting the enemy and defending their villages and hamlets …” (Việt Nam, no.141 6, 1969, p.[29]).

'Tiny guerrilla' (Du kích tý hon) by Lưư Công Nhân. Việt Nam,  no.106,  7, 1966, p. 106. British Library, SU216

Nguyễn Công Phi, 'Tiny guerrilla in the Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Youth Group in Quảng Nam province'. Việt Nam, no.141, 6, 1969 p. 29. British Library, SU216

Against this background, children as young as 13 and 14 were involved in the armed struggle, learning guerrilla warfare tactics and killing both American and South Vietnamese soldiers. Some were trained to be informants. Many of them were decorated with awards and “glorious titles” such as “Iron Fort Children” or “Valiant Destroyer of the Yanks” (Việt Nam, No.141, 6,1969, p.[29]). Others were involved in other war-related activities, such as making hats for soldiers, constructing strategic roads to reach the South, barricading or fortifying their schools and even just giving moral support to members of their families before they left home to fight in the front line. In the North the Party organised activities to keep young minds aware of the on-going war and its horrible repercussions on their life. For example, painting competitions for young people on war themes were organised by some newspapers and cinemas. In the South a campaign to enlist support from the youth was launched by the Provisional Revolutionary Government. They were encouraged to engage in “five volunteer movements”, i.e., volunteer to destroy as much of the enemy’s manpower as possible, to join the army, to wage political struggle, to serve the frontline and to boost agricultural production (Việt Nam, no.150, 1970 p.[14]).

'We weave straw hats to fight the US' (Chúng em tết mũ rom chống Mỹ) by Bùi  Quang Trường, 13 years old. Việt Nam, no. 141, pp.18-19. British Library, SU216(2)

'See our brother off to join the army' (Tiễn anh đi bộ đội) by Đoàn Thị Hương, 13 years old. Việt Nam, 6,1968, p[17]. British Library, SU216(2)

In the South, a new group of children was brought into the world as a result of wartime relationships between American soldiers and local women. These thousands of mixed race children, or Amerasians, faced many hardships in life both during and especially after the war, as they were regarded as outcasts by the Vietnamese. They were referred to as “bụi đời” or the “dust of life”. When, in 1987, the US government eventually set up a programme to allow these Amerasians to settle in the USA, some of them were able to leave Vietnam and to be reunited with their paternal families in the USA.

Curator’s note: As the British Library collection of Vietnamese serials comes mainly from North Vietnam, the nature of content for this blog post therefore only reflects information from the North, especially as found in the periodical Việt Nam published in Hanoi.

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese

25 January 2016

The British Library’s Collection of Chinese Propaganda Posters: An Overview

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And so my three months are up and I have completed the project: to compile and research a catalogue of the British Library’s Chinese propaganda posters. So what have I found out? Well, in the collection there are 90 individual items, considerably more than we believed there would be at the outset. The posters date from between 1950 and 1982, with the vast majority having been published in the mid-1960s, just before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), largely thanks to a couple of sets of what I have loosely described as ‘public information’ posters, dating from 1965. One set deals with what to do in the event of an enemy air raid, and the other with meteorological and agricultural observations.

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A detail from Qiang jiu shou shang ren yuan (抢救受伤人员), ‘Rescuing injured personnel’, from a set of wall charts (Ren min fang kong chang shi gua tu, 人民防空常识挂图, ‘People's Air Defence General Knowledge Wall Charts’), compiled by Tianjin shi ren min fang kong wei yuan hui (天津市人民防空委员会), the Tianjin People's Air Defence Committee, and published by Tianjin mei shu chu ban she (天津美术出版社), the Tianjin Fine Art Publishing House, in July 1965. British Library, ORB.99/79 (14).

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A detail from Qi xiang zhi shi (si). Yu qing he shang qing (气象知识 (四). 雨情和商情), ‘Meteorological knowledge 4. Rainfall and soil moisture content’, from a set of wall charts (Qi xiang zhi shi gua tu (gong xiao xing zhan lan), 氣象知識挂图 (供小型展览), Wall chart of meteorological knowledge (for small scale exhibitions)’, compiled and published by Tianjin shi ke xue pu ji xing xiang zi liao she (天津市科学普及形象资料社), ‘Tianjin popular science image resource group’, in February 1965. British Library, ORB.99/87 (4).

Overall the poster collection covers a range of genres, from new nian hua and revolutionary romanticism – a fusion of socialist realism and guo hua brush and ink painting – to photographic portraits. I have categorised them according to a number of different themes:

•    Posters related to the Mao cult, including colourised and heavily airbrushed photographic portraits of Mao Zedong dating from the late 1960s, and several examples of his calligraphy (and poetry).
•    A series of posters featuring chubby babies and children, dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s, several of which promote the one child policy.
•    Revolutionary nian hua prints, dating from the early years of the People’s Republic, and which I looked at in depth in my last blogpost.
•    A set of posters featuring the ubiquitous and (probably) semi-mythical soldier-hero Lei Feng (雷锋) and which eulogise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
•    A fairly rare set of posters featuring satirical caricatures of the ‘Gang of Four’ (si ren bang, 四人邦), the group headed by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and which was blamed for the worse excesses of the Cultural Revolution in the wake of Mao’s death in 1976.
•    The aforementioned sets of public information posters dating from 1965.
•    Documentary and feature film posters - the Library’s collection seems fairly unique in this respect; these are not something I’ve seen in large quantities in other collections.
•    Posters featuring scenes taken from the revolutionary model works (yang ban xi, 样板戏), including ‘The White Haired Girl’ (Bai mao nü, 白毛女), ‘The Legend of the Red Lantern’ (Hong deng ji, 红灯记) and ‘The Red Detachment of Women’ (Hong se niang zi jun, 红色娘子军).

While copyright implications have stymied the original plan to digitise the collection and make it publically accessible online, the catalogue – minus images – will shortly be available to download as a PDF from the new Chinese collection webpages.

Over the last three months I have had an absolutely fantastic time. It’s been a great experience to work at the Library and I was made to feel very welcome. The project has provided me with plenty of research material for the future, and what a privilege it was to get hands-on with the collection!
All that remains is for me to thank Professor Robert Bickers and BICC for funding the project and Sara Chiesura and Emma Goodliffe, curators of the Chinese collection at the British Library for hosting me.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral researcher  Ccownwork

31 December 2015

Revolutionary nian hua in the British Library

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Nian hua or New Year prints are bold and colourful Chinese woodblock prints, which date back at least to the seventeenth century (Lust 1996: 1). Mass-produced, affordable and designed to celebrate most notably the Spring Festival (also known as ‘Chinese New Year’), they are typically full of auspicious symbols for conferring wealth, longevity, happiness and good fortune on the family. Deities such as stove and door gods, flora and fauna, including the animals of the Chinese zodiac, and well-fed male babies are all common subjects of these posters.

Barnes nian hua
The nian hua prints shown below are housed in a blue silk-covered folio case, decorated with a paper-cut style design. The title reads  Xin nian hua xuan ji (新年畫選集), ‘Selected New Year Prints’. British Library, ORB.40/644 (15)

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promoted new or ‘revolutionary’ nian hua as early as the second half of the 1920s, because the woodblock print was an attractive, familiar and accessible format, it appealed to the target rural audience, and was easily and widely distributable. Crucially, it was a uniquely ‘national’ form (see Hung 2000: 775; Flath 2004: 146); something ‘past’ which could, to paraphrase Mao Zedong, ‘serve the present’. But the communist authorities did away with subjects associated with religious and so-called ‘feudal’ beliefs, replacing them with revolutionary themes, and shifted production from local workshops to state supervision. In his important study of nian hua, James Flath (2004: 139) recounts a discussion between Mao Zedong and Gu Yuan, a famous print artist, about new nian hua: Mao ‘suggested that Gu Yuan design new “Door Gods” to replace the traditional styles. “How shall I draw them,” Gu Yuan asked; “You know, I don’t believe there really are any gods.” Mao answered, “Make them look like peasants.”’. Hung (2000: 779-780) notes that the door gods ultimately transmogrified into peasants, workers and soldiers: the Maoist trinity.

After the establishment of the PRC, while woodcut-style prints remained popular (as we will see below), new nian hua started to incorporate the work of artists working in different types of media and genres (Shen 2009: 10). From the 1950s on, we begin to see reproductions of oil and brush-and-ink paintings, for example, reproduced as nian hua. Unlike other types of propaganda poster, which were produced all year round, revolutionary nian hua, much like their pre-revolutionary antecedents, were designed and published with a view to getting them in book shops and other outlets in time for the New Year festivities.

I would like to focus here on the set of bold and colourful woodblock-style nian hua in the British Library collection briefly mentioned in my last post. Each print is by a different artist based in provinces and cities across the nation. While they make use of a woodblock-style aesthetic, it is likely that they were actually printed using offset lithography, which allowed for ‘flexibility’ and ‘freedom’ in the design and manufacturing process and, presumably, sped up and facilitated mass production (Hung 2000: 776).

The set was published in 1950, around the time of a major CCP directive calling for the production of new nian hua and the genre’s heavy promotion via exhibitions and special publications (Hung 2000: 776; Flath 2004: 146). The fourteen nian hua, presented in a blue silk-covered folio, reflect the early concerns of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), just a year after its foundation, particularly land reform (which saw the redistribution of agricultural land from landowners to peasants), but also policies promoting literacy and agricultural production (many of the prints in this set depict bountiful harvests). Several others reflect or perhaps, more accurately, promote the burgeoning personality cults of Mao Zedong and his Inner Mongolian counterpart at that time, Chairman Ulanhu, also known as Yunze. The prints are in a modified nian hua style that Flath (2004: 143) credits to the afore-mentioned Gu Yuan: a narrative style with a ‘simplified political message’.

In Sheng chan ji hua (生产计划), ‘Making a plan’, by Liu Jilu (劉繼鹵), of Tianjin – a city in north-east China – a group of peasants are shown engaged in discussion and drinking tea while resting in a field. In the background, a number of other labourers plough the field with oxen. The titles, artists and place names are given in traditional characters, for simplified characters were not introduced until the mid-1950s, several years after the publication of this set of nian hua.
A detail from Sheng chan ji hua (生產計劃), ‘Making a plan’, by Liu Jilu (劉繼鹵), of Tianjin. Revolutionary nian hua, published in 1950 by Zhong hua quan guo mei shu gong zuo zhe xie hui (中华全國美術工作者拹會), ‘The Chinese National Fine Art Workers' Association’ in Beijing (北京) and distributed nationwide by Xin hua shu dian (新華書店), Xin hua [‘New China’] bookshops. British Library, ORB.40/644 (1)

A number of the prints that deal with ‘ethnic minority’ subjects also feature titles translated into Mongolian and Tibetan. For example, Jian zheng huan xuan hao ren (建政懽選好人), ‘Good people happily select a government’, by an Inner Mongolian artist, whose name is transliterated in Chinese to ‘Wulejibatu’ (烏勒吉巴图), depicts a busy scene of people voting, perhaps for local representatives. The Mongolian text above the frame gives a similar title. (With thanks to Eleanor Cooper, Curator of Manchu and Mongolian collections at the British Library, for translating the Mongolian script used on several of the nian hua prints).
ORB 40 644 (12)
A detail from Jian zheng huan xuan hao ren (建政懽選好人), ‘Good people happily select a government’, by ‘Wulejibatu’ (烏勒吉巴图) of Inner Mongolia (Neimeng, 内蒙]). Revolutionary nian hua, published in 1950 by Zhong hua quan guo mei shu gong zuo zhe xie hui (中华全國美術工作者拹會), ‘The Chinese National Fine Art Workers' Association’ in Beijing (北京) and distributed nationwide by Xin hua shu dian (新華書店) 'Xin hua [‘New China’] bookshops'. British Library, ORB.40/644 (12)

Despite their heavy promotion, the new nian hua failed to appeal to the masses, according to Hung (2000: 784-798). People had enjoyed the old, familiar stories purged from nian hua by the cultural authorities, and the new versions were too naturalistic compared with the stylised representations and techniques of the old prints. The new nian hua were thought of as elitist by the very audience to whom they had been designed to appeal; some were considered to be insufficiently colourful, as muted colours were selected over bright, while others were deemed too colourful, using a larger palette than consumers of old prints had been used to; and they were no longer ‘auspicious’, devoid of their old meanings and unfit for purpose. Hung (2000: 798- 799) provides evidence that the new nian hua were largely, and unsurprisingly, a flop. Their production - at least in this form, imitating woodblock prints - dramatically dropped towards the end of the 1950s. These examples are, therefore, very much of their time and, while they were not necessarily favourably received by their intended audience, they provide much evidence of a period of rapid cultural reform and the key policy concerns of the CCP in the early years of the People’s Republic.

Other collections of nian hua:
Examples of traditional nian hua can be seen in James A. Flath’s gallery of prints online. 
The Ashmolean Museum holds similar folios and prints.
Prints are also found in the Royal Library of Denmark (not yet digitised).

Flath, James A. 2004. The Cult of Happiness: Nianhua, Art, and History in Rural North China. Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press; Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Lust, John. 1996. Chinese Popular Prints. Leiden: Brill.
Shen, Kuiyi. 2009. ‘Propaganda Posters in China’. In Landsberger, S. R., Van der Heijden, M. (eds). Chinese Posters: The IISH-Landsberger Collections. New York and London: Prestel: 8-20.
Hung, Chang-Tai. 2000. ‘Repainting China: New Years Prints (Nianhua) and Peasant Resistance in the Early Years of the People’s Republic’. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 42 (4): 770-810.

Amy Jane Barnes, BICC Post-doctoral Researcher Ccownwork

07 May 2015

Propaganda and ideology in everyday life: Chinese comic books

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The Chinese collection at the British Library includes an interesting series of around 100 comic books published during the 1960s in the People’s Republic of China. They are an excellent historical and linguistic resource and represent an extraordinary example of how official sources can promote selected values and visions among citizens using material which is visually enjoyable or mainly intended for children’s education and entertainment.

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Some of the comic books and books for children in the British Library Chinese collections (British Library ORB. 30/235)

The collection of Chinese comics at the British Library can be divided into two main types: the so-called Lian huan hua 连环画, which are meant for individual reading by both children and adults, and comics intended for children’s education and language learning.

The lian huan hua (literally: linked images) started to circulate in Shanghai in the 1920s, when publishers began to use new printing techniques and lithography for illustrated periodicals and books. The stories were exemplified through black and white images where the accompanying text was inserted at the bottom or in speech bubbles. The lian huan hua became extremely popular in China, and were widely spread across the country. They reached a peak in their distribution and use during the 1970s and 1980s, but rapidly lost their appeal for readers in the 1990s.

The themes contained in the lian huan hua differ from year to year. Traditionally, and especially at the beginning of their circulation, the main subjects were adaptations of Chinese classical stories, folk tales or novels. 
Comics 2_1200
Selection of lian huan hua published during the 1960s in the British Library Chinese collections (British Library ORB. 30/235)

During and after the 1960s (with the exception of the years of the Cultural Revolution), the Chinese Communist Party adopted the lian huan hua as a form of propaganda and mass education. These comics were in fact believed to be much more direct and easier to understand than books and treatises on Communism and they were considered more attractive by the masses. The stories of the lian huan hua published in this period therefore focus on political themes, such as the Sino-Japanese War, social realism and selected and approved biographies of Chinese heroes, both of the imperial and the republican periods, who stood for bravery, loyalty or strength, and were usually opposed to foreign enemies.

Comics 3_1200  Comics 4 _1200
Cover and excerpt from the lian huan hua “Lin Zexu” (林則徐), published by the Ren min mei shu chu ban she (人民美术出版社), 1963. Lin Zexu was an imperial official who lived during the Qing dynasty. He was a central figure in the Opium War and had a key role in the Chinese campaign against the trading of opium (British Library ORB. 30/235)

Comics 5_1200
Page from the lian huan hua “Zhan Shanghai” (战上海), published by the Shanghai ren min mei shu chu ban she (上海人民美术出版社) in November 1962. A movie with the same title had been produced in 1959 (British Library ORB. 30/235)

Among the Chinese comic books collection, apart from the lian huan hua, we find some interesting illustrated titles which were mass-produced in the 1960s and were created especially for children’s education and entertainment. They use simplified Chinese characters along with the corresponding pinyin transliteration system which was officially adopted by the People’s Republic of China in the Fifth Session of the first People's Congress in 1958. Pinyin transliteration was introduced in all primary schools as a way of teaching Standard Chinese (普通话 putong hua). Then, as also today, linguistic unity in China played a fundamental role in helping developing a sense of national identity.

Comics 6_1200
Page from Chang yi chang Beijing, 唱一唱北京, “Sing sing Beijing”, published by Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she 中国少年兒童出版社, 1962 (British Library ORB. 30/235)

The sense of a shared culture and the aim to work together for the benefit of the nation can be seen in the image below, where a trio composed of industrial worker, farmer, and soldier archetypes are pictured overhead while below, two children run to get a copy of the Ren min ri bao (人民日报, People’s Daily).

Comics 7_1200
Page from Chang yi chang Beijing, 唱一唱北京, “Sing sing Beijing”, published by Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she 中国少年兒童出版社, 1962 (British Library ORB. 30/235)

Comics 8_1200 Comics 9_1200
Cover and page from Shao nian er tong tu hua, 少年儿童图画 “Children’s drawings”, published by Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she 中国少年兒童出版社, 1964. The British Library copy includes a previous child owner's drawings (lower right)! (British Library ORB. 30/235)

All the comics share a pattern of symbols, colours and recognizable places used to reinforce a sense of a shared community: the Chinese flag, Tian’an men square, the hua biao (obelisk) with dragons patterns and so on. The children themselves are almost always represented with the iconic red scarves worn by the members of the Chinese Communist Youth League. In each title we find optimistic descriptions of China, with a focus on technological achievements (with depictions of dams, railways and so on), and a continuous link between traditional symbols and contemporary scenes. These representations can be seen as attempts to create and re-create narratives about recent history in the context of the nation's conception, its future wellbeing, and sources of national pride.
Comics 10_1200
Page from Fei dao Tian’an men qu, 飞到天安门去 “Flying to Tian’an men”, by Zhong Zimang and Le Xiaoying, published by Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she 中国少年兒童出版社, 1966 (British Library ORB. 30/235)

A selection of comic books from the British Library Chinese collection will be featured, together with a choice of posters, in the new free online course “Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life”, a ground-breaking project which allows students to interact with the British Library’s original collection items. The course is developed in cooperation with the Centre for the Study of Ideologies at the University of Nottingham and will start in May 2015, on the FutureLearn platform.

You can find a video trailer here and access the course registration at this page.


阿英 (A Ying), 中国连环图画史话 (History of Lian huan hua in China), 山东画报出版社 (Shandong hua bao chu ban she), 2008
Farquhar, Mary Ann, Children’s Literature in China: From Lu Xun to Mao Zedong, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.
Farquhar, Mary Ann, “Through the Looking Glass: Children’s Stories and Social Change in China, 1918-1976”, in Gungwu Wang, ed., Society and the Writer: Essays on Literature in Modern Asia, Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University, 1981, 173-198.


Sara Chiesura, Curator, Chinese collection

With thanks to Ian Cooke, Curator, Social Sciences