Graphic Design: Chinese Cover Design in the 1920s and 30s

chen-zhifo-1927Chen Zhi-fo: The Short Story Magazine, August 1927. via 50 Watts

Between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the People’s Republic, China experienced a wave of social and political change that at times resulted in an identity crisis as Chinese citizens were sandwiched between centuries-old traditions and an influx of Western trade and influence. Commercial art and design of this period- especially magazine and book covers- reflect this duality, as experienced by many Chinese artists fighting for a new modern aesthetic that maintained a recognizable national flavor. Aimed at members of the growing urban middle class in the 1920s and 30s- most notably in Shanghai- these designs reached a greater and more diverse public than traditional painters showing their works in galleries, art schools, or private collectives. Graphic designers helped establish a new identity for their Chinese audience, one that displayed pride in their national heritage while also promoting China as a modern, forward-looking country even in this politically unstable period.

Distinguished by its vibrant international community and loosened censorship laws, the city of Shanghai became a thriving cultural center in the early twentieth century, and a haven for many artists and writers. With an increasing literacy rate and the rise of a working class desperate for entertainment, new publishing houses bloomed throughout the city, encouraging the spread of new magazines and books, many written in the vernacular. Improvements in publishing techniques, such as the movement from string-bound books to stapled and glued binding, as well as the introduction of lithographic printing, led to general changes in book layout and cover design, including the incorporation of Western styles like Art Nouveau. These developments resulted in an elevated prominence of graphic design as a profession, with Shanghai becoming the first Chinese city to sustain a substantial graphic design industry. Prior to this, most advertising and publication design work was done by classically trained painters and illustrators, but in those early decades commercial art rose to prominence as an individual creative field, becoming an influential aspect of modern art in China, especially in Shanghai.

theark-jan1937Unknown artist: The Ark, January 1937. My scan.

The establishment of graphic design as a new profession was supported by highly influential writer and activist Lu Xun, who became a patron of cover designers as part of his many writing and translation projects. Remembered by art historians for his role in the Modern Woodcut Movement, Lu Xun was also a major figure in the New Literature Movement, promoting accessible art and literature for the middle class and in turn advocating for new design styles. He encouraged artists to learn from Western techniques, but stressed the significance of China’s own unique artistic heritage, such as traditional textile patterns and ancient stone carvings. He advocated for native imagery to feature in design, “so as to create a particularly Chinese style” (Andrews, A Century in Crisis, 187).

This mindful blending of interior and exterior influences within popular design is evident in many journal and book covers made by the most prominent designers of the 1920s and 30s. Pulling from Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Soviet Suprematism and Constructivism, as well as ancient indigenous Chinese bronze, stone carvings, and architecture, these artists forged a uniquely Chinese aesthetic that situates itself neatly within the more sweeping developments of graphic design history. An investigation of these various movements and their incorporation into Chinese design reflects the methods with which artists sought to promote a new kind of modernism to their audience, one respectful of their country’s artistic history that also looked forward to the future of their people. These stylistic influences can be felt in the intricate patterns and flattened figures of several influential graphic designers, many of whom worked to advance Chinese design aesthetics through modern tactics while also injecting indigenous visual ideas into their work.

Many artists were introduced to both Western styles as well as traditional Chinese arts through their studies in Japan or with Japanese-influenced art teachers in China. Chen Zhi-fo (1895-1952) is considered China’s first professional graphic designer, but before that he was the first foreign design student at the Tokyo Academy of Arts in 1919. There, he gained a knowledge of ancient Chinese motifs, which, coupled with his earlier studies of Chinese textiles and weaving techniques, gave him a large well from which to draw for his design career. He worked as a cover designer for magazines in the 1920s, and wrote what is thought to be China’s first textbook on graphic design in 1930. He often relied on pattern and motifs lifted from traditional Chinese architectural ornament, and like Lu Xun he incorporated hand-drawn modern-style Chinese characters into his designs, as well as some English text. By the 1930s, some of his works were more influenced by Cubist, mechanical, and Art Deco imagery, but he continued to create whimsical designs drawing from Chinese art and handicrafts, until he devoted himself to bird and flower paintings after World War II.

chen-zhifo-experienceofcreation-1933Chen Zhi-fo: Experience of Creation, June 1933. My scan.

chen-zhifo-modernstudent-1931Chen Zhi-fo: Modern Student, June 1931. via 50 Watts

chen-zhifo-luxuncollection-1933Chen Zhi-fo: Lu Xun’s Self-Selected Collection, March 1933. My scan.

A graphic designer known primarily for his use of indigenous motifs is Tao Yuan-qing (1893-1929), whose short but vibrant career made him an influential presence on the Chinese design scene of the 1920s. He was trained in China but like many other artists had an interest in Japanese design (which itself often drew from Chinese sources), and studied Western watercolor techniques. He worked closely with Lu Xun on several book covers, inspired by the writer’s ideas about re-discovering Chinese design sources. Lu Xun, in turn, believed that Tao’s works “were free from the clichés of the period and representative of ‘China’s eternal soul'” (Minick and Ping, Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century, 30). Pulling from Han art and traditional patterns, his work was known for its “simplicity, asymmetry, and sometimes casual quality” (Andrews, A Century in Crisis, 186), characterized by flat shapes, profile views, and expressive brushstrokes. His designs acted as a showcase for the re-discovered ancient arts of China, showing average consumers that the nation’s seemingly outdated art forms could be adapted to suit modern aesthetics. This reflected his belief that “only by continually referring to and integrating China’s traditional visual motifs could a design maintain strong emotional connections to traditional culture and project an authentic Chinese spirit” (Minick and Ping, Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century, 31).

tao-yuanqing-wandering-1929Tao Yuan-qing: Wandering, 1929. via 50 Watts

tao-yuanqing-hometown-may1926Tao Yuan-qing: Hometown, May 1926. My scan.

The most prolific graphic designer of this period was Qian Jun-tao (1906-1998), who was influenced by both Lu Xun and Tao Yuan-qing. He trained in Shanghai, studying Japanese technology and modernism, and recognizing the Chinese origins of that country’s aesthetics. He was innovative in his personal approach to design, often relating visual elements to broader concepts of the creative experience, such as applying music theory to book cover layouts. He worked as a designer and music editor for the Kaiming Book Company as well as the Wanye Book Company, and dedicated himself to promoting other designers and establishing graphic design as a legitimate profession. He was a well-known and much-imitated artist, encouraging his followers to move away from the nineteenth-century European manner into simpler, modernist design modes. Qian’s earlier designs of the 1920s were known for their playful, harmonious patterns and stylized forms, often incorporating vegetal motifs or archaeological images. His work of the 1930s is identified by its simplified, abstract compositions and the use of prominent lettering within the design; he drew more on Art Deco, Cubism, and Constructivism but maintained a strong Chinese identity.

qian-juntao-childrensmusic-1930Qian Jun-tao: Children’s Music, 1930. via 50 Watts

qianjuntao2Qian Jun-tao: Shanghai Private Kaiming Correspondence School, Members’ Club Quarterly, 1930. via 50 Watts

qian-juntao-modernwoman-1933Qian Jun-tao: Modern Woman, 1933. via 50 Watts

Michael Sullivan describes the struggles experienced by Chinese artists of the early twentieth century as “torn between the demands of a newly discovered self-expression, the problems of form and technique… and the challenge… to use their talent not for their own or for art’s sake but for the sake of society” (Sullivan, Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China, 25). As a new and expanding field, graphic design was able to reach a larger audience than traditional art. Designers could create a new face for Chinese visual culture and see it commercially distributed through books, magazines, and advertisements. By merging Western design styles with indigenous imagery, these artists promoted a new national identity, a China that was advancing and industrializing to grow with Western powers, but still connected to its rich, centuries-old cultural traditions. It was also a China that- likes it art- could re-invent itself, as would become increasingly apparent during the later revolutionary movement. This message reached urban Chinese audiences subtly and gradually through the work of artists like Chen Zhi-fo, Tao Yuan-qing, and Qian Jun-tao. In a time of national confusion and sweeping changes, graphic designers offered a unique and purposeful aesthetic, guiding China into a new modern age.


Julia Andrews. “Commercial Art and China’s Modernization.” A Century in Crisis. Edited by Julia Andrews and Kuiyi Shen. Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1998.

John Clark. Modern Asian Art. University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.

Stephen J. Eskilson. Graphic Design: A New History. Yale University Press, 2007.

Scott Minick and Jiao Ping. Chinese Graphic Design in the Twentieth Century. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.

Michael Sullivan. Art and Artists of Twentieth-Century China. University of California Press, 1996.

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