Coronavirus & Anti-Chinese Cartooning

As we have written about elsewhere at this site, the resurgence of xenophobic editorial cartoons in the wake of a new global disease is pretty close to a sure bet. The latest health emergency, the rise of the novel coronavirus, is of course no exception. It was identified first in Wuhan in China, ultimately linked with a meat market. Preliminary genomic evidence suggests that the virus likely originated with bats, transferred to an animal or animals in the market, and from there to humans. As with all new health crises, understanding of the disease lags significantly behind mounting hysteria. And as with all such crises, deep-seated racism, ongoing geopolitical tensions and rivalries, and cultural ignorance end up filling in gaps very quickly.

The majority of mainstream newspaper editorial cartoons have thus far been relatively measured compared to past crises, but of course in our 21st-century media ecology there are new venues for cartooning directed at more extremist audiences. And here we inevitably find some of the most odious examples of the racist genome that lies deep in cartooning—despite generations dedicated to its modification—bubbling quickly and effortlessly to the surface. Here for example is a recent cartoon by the darling of the rightwing internet, Ben Garrison:

This cartoon is extremely offensive. The broader history to follow does not require subjecting yourself to this image. Other historical and contemporary images to follow are each deeply offensive to varying degrees as well.

I open with this particularly loathsome compilation of anti-Asian stereotypes because it useful points back to the long history of such cartoon tropes and helps us better decode the more buried signs and icons in “mainstream” cartooning that presents itself as having nothing to do with the openly racist discourse of a cartoonist like Garrison (whose work is regularly cited favorably on neo-nazi websites). Such images find their ancestors in some of the earliest editorial cartoons in the 19th century arguing for anti-Chinese immigration laws, many of which tied Chinese immigrants to “unnatural” foods and through them to disease. 

Such images circulate throughout the history of the medium, linking the Chinese in particular with food-borne contamination. It is jarring to realize that the cartoon below by syndicated editorial cartoonist Pat Oliphant dates from as recently as 2001 and is a direct ancestor of Garrison’s cartoon above.
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On the internet the association of the coronavirus with “exotic” diets and the eating of “inappropriate” animals circulates freely. Outside of extremist cartoonists like Garrison, it remains much more muted in traditional editorial cartooning, at least for now. Nonetheless, we can hear echoes of the ugliest of these associations in several recent cartoons from respectable publications.

The first of these images finds a direct analog in a recurring image from the first wave of anti-Chinese cartoons in the late 19th century, representing the Chinese as an octopus invading and corrupting every aspect of Western life (see below left). The second echoes countless cartoons (see an example below right) from that same period that represented Chinese goods and labor as a corruption and contamination of the American economic body (and by extension, the American soul itself). 

In the end, while there is much that is new scientifically in the novel coronavirus currently impacting the lives of many millions, there is sadly nothing new in the ways in which translate our fears of disease through racism and xenophobia.