Stellina’s pen mightier than Xi Jinping’s sword

The cartoonist’s new exhibition pokes fun at the Chinese leader and Taiwan’s diplomatic upheavals

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Caricatures created by Taiwanese political cartoonist Stellina Chen (Source: Stellina Chen)

Caricatures created by Taiwanese political cartoonist Stellina Chen (Source: Stellina Chen)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A gold-framed watercolor painting hangs on a bright red wall. In the painting, China’s leader Xi Jinping (習近平), dressed in a yellow imperial gown adorned with embroidery, reclines on the back of a dragon. The modern emperor wears a restrained smile under his fringed court hat.

► "All Hail Emperor Xi" by Stellina Chen (Photo: Teng Pei-ju)

The painting sums up Stellina Chen’s new exhibition of political cartoons, which is called, “Xi is All Over.” Among the 23 showcased images created by the 27-year-old Taiwanese cartoonist, the majority are associated with turbulent cross-strait relations and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.

In a nearby illustration, Danilo Medina, president of the Dominican Republic, is having a body checkup to find out the reason for his stomach problem. The doctor tells him he has consumed too much Chinese money, “You ate too much recently!” In another caricature, Xi Jinping is busy making art. The Chinese leader is trying to glue his nation’s five stars on the flag of Taiwan. These bitingly funny depictions of the diplomatic adversity show how Beijing poaches Taiwan’s allies, isolates the nation from the international community, and attempts to undermine its sovereignty.

China’s bullying and threats are the norm for the 23 million people living in Taiwan, regardless of their age, ethnicity, or socio-economic status. The government of Taiwan protests every now and again when an ally switches recognition from Taiwan to China and every spring when the country is excluded from the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva. While many Taiwanese learn to accept these political and diplomatic slights, Stellina fights back with her pen and pokes fun at the political turbulence.

“Ideas are better conveyed through images than words,” Stellina says. She hopes that her amusing and satirical illustrations will draw attention around the world to Taiwan’s difficult situation. She only decided three years ago to combine her artistry with her academic background in diplomacy and international relations, in order to produce cartoons regarding domestic and international politics. But she has quickly made an impact. Apart from regularly contributing to News Lens International, Stellina’s work has appeared on a number of global platforms that promote political cartoons.

► A visitor looks at the work at the exhibition "Xi is All Over" (Source: Stellina Chen)

While she continues to create images ridiculing politicians, Stellina has also drawn extensively about human rights issues, from the legalization of gay marriage last month in Taiwan to the “rehabilitation” camps the Chinese authorities built in Xinjiang to oppress the Muslim Uyghurs. Currently, she is working on a graphic novel about the Islanders and Mainlanders of Taiwan, exploring the ethnic issues that inform and intertwine the contentious “independence” and “unification” movements on the island.

Even though political cartoons have never been a big thing in Taiwan, Stellina is positive and fully intends to be a career cartoonist in the future. If drawing political cartoons any implications for her life, it is that the young cartoonist will never be able to travel to China now that she has committed “blasphemy” against Xi Jinping.

“I have never received any warnings or threats. But, you know, I wouldn’t want to put myself in danger,” Stellina says, giggling, standing in a dim room by the bright red wall. Behind smiling Emperor Xi shines a torchlight, where a shadow image of a dull-eyed man is seen covering his mouth with his hand as a giant hand clutches his own torso – it is the hand of the authoritarian state.

The man is Lee Ming-che (李明哲), a 44-year-old Taiwanese who has been imprisoned in China since 2017, having been given a five-year sentence for “subverting state power.” What did he do exactly? He merely discussed Taiwan’s democracy with friends in China via social media. Stellina’s art shines a light on China’s firm grip on freedom of expression and violation of human rights.

► The exhibition "Xi is All Over" (Source: Stellina Chen)