What is it about?

Political cartoons make meaning by drawing on scenarios that must be immediately recognizable by their intended audience. Crucial meaning-making mechanisms in these scenarios are visual metaphors. In this paper we investigate 69 Chinese and 60 American political cartoons published in 2018 and 2019 that pertain to the two nations’ trade conflict. We find cross-cultural similarities and differences in the use of key metaphors: TRADE CONFLICT IS JOURNEY; TRADE CONFLICT IS WAR; and TRADE CONFLICT IS GAME. We also chart how "USA" and "China" are portrayed. America is often depicted metonymically as Donald Trump or Uncle Sam in both nations' cartoons. The Chinese cartoons depict "China" via the stereotypical "Chinese citizen." We end by briefly discussing some other knowledge sources that are necessary to understand the cartoons, pertaining to (1) intertextuality, (2) idioms and expressions, (3) themes and "topoi"; and (4) comics' symbols.

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Why is it important?

Lakoff and Johnson have claimed, in Metaphors We Live By (1980) that we can only think metaphorically, namely by coupling abstract, complex phenomena (here: TRADE CONFLICT) with concrete, physical, perceptible phenomena (here: JOURNEY, WAR, GAME). Such structural metaphors reveal universal ways of making meaning -- not just in language but also in pictures. It is worthwhile investigating the similar and different ways in which Chinese and American cartoonists make use of these universal metaphors in depicting a highly sensitive political issue. A research project like this one shows how structural, universal metaphors acquire culturally-specific dimensions.


We found that BOTH the Chinese AND the American cartoonists were much more critical of America than of China. However, since all the Chinese cartoons appeared in the state-controlled China Daily, the Chinese view may have been at least partly caused by (self)censorship. For the same reason, it may not be a coincidence that President Xi Jinping was never depicted in the Chinese cartoons. In both nations' cartoons it was often suggested that America's supposedly misguided behaviour was a result of Donald Trump's personal crusade. In several cases Donald Trump's opponent was, tellingly, not China but Uncle Sam!

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: Metaphor and metonymy in Chinese and American political cartoons (2018–2019) about the Sino-US trade conflict, Pragmatics & Cognition, December 2020, John Benjamins,
DOI: 10.1075/pc.20013.zha.
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