The political cartoon On Fertile Soil by John Knott illustrates the vulnerability of China to Russian Bolshevism as a result of continuous unrest, devastating famines, and frequent uprisings during the 1930s of the country. The cartoon published in the Dallas Morning News on May 5th, 1931 depicts “Chaos”, “Famine”, and “Rebellion” as China’s soil that helped plant the seeds of “Bolshevism”, hence the title On Fertile Soil. Additionally, the man holding the bowl of seeds and spreading them onto the soil represents a Chinese man that has been “Sovietized” by Russian influences (Dallas Morning News). According to the Dallas Morning News editorial accompanying the cartoon, China’s Fifth of May, the Chinese Nationalist Party sought to reorganize China’s government and stabilize the country before organized oppositions with relations to Soviet Russia are able to induce a period of “rebellion and discord” which, in combination with China’s famine and financial depression during the time, would allow Russian propaganda an advantage in reaching its goal of “Sovietizing” China. Furthermore, the Nanking Government in China acknowledged the presence of “major foreign powers”, such as Japan, Great Britain, and the United States, and their “extraterritorial privileges” as a potential threat to the nation (Dallas Morning News). Japan aggression, especially in 1931, led to the Chinese seeking aid from the U.S. since Japan was a mutual enemy (Phillips). The U.S. supplied China the aid the nation needed; however, the U.S.’s first priority was defeating Germany and as the Nationalist Party became more concerned with “eradicating” the Chinese Communist Party that rose instead of “confronting the Japanese occupation”, the U.S. assistance to the Nationalists would decrease and eventually die out when the Nationalists are defeated by the Communists (Phillips). President of the Nationalist Party, Chiang Kai-shek, strongly opposed communism and desired to force Soviets and other Communist troops out of China, which in turn led to the protracted conflicts between the Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party (Weigelin-Schwiedrzik).
Unrest in China during this time resulted from the mixture of foreign invasion from Japan, political instability, and economical depression, along with the other two issues depicted in Knott’s cartoon, famine and rebellion. With the Nationalist Party weakness being the north, Japan was able to invade Manchuria without being contested, leading to the beginning of World War II in China in 1931 (Calkins). Due to Japan pushing to conquer Chinese territories, the people of China would have to deal with the immense pressure of war in China, resulting in more chaos in the country. As Herbert Gibbons stated in his editorial Unrest In China And Its Meaning For Other Nation, Bolshevist propagandists held the benefit of gaining the Chinese citizens’ trusts by acting as the cure for the “economic ills” and stability of China during its time of anarchy and discord. The Chinese man wearing the Soviet cap in Knott’s cartoon symbolizes this idea of Soviet influence and communism being dispersed in China, foreshadowing the creation of the Chinese Soviet Republic in late 1931. However, with President Chiang leading the Nationalist Party, communists were ”killed or driven to exile” to combat the “Moscow Propaganda”, but even then the idea of communism would still exist even after this forceful tactic in the form of the Chinese Communist Party (Weigelin-Schwiedrzik & Gibbons).
Famine was a major recurring theme in the nineteenth and twentieth century of China (Pong). The diseases that occurred around the date of publication of Knott’s cartoon were ones that were the result of natural disasters, such as the flooding of the Yangzi River in 1931, leading to an outbreak of diseases and the destruction of several fields and homes in China (Pong). As a result, the people of China had to deal with widespread epidemics and destitution from the lack of food and financial instability due to the loss of crops and property. Another cause of famine was population growth in China because population was seen as a “major burden” to “agricultural economy and the natural environment” when population “outstrips the ability of land to produce food” (Pong). The calamitous effects of famine led to fear and agitation in China, allowing Bolsheviks to take advantage of their adversity and plant their “seed” on China’s soil, as depicted in Knott’s cartoon.
Since China’s government has been unstable until 1949 when the People’s Republic of China formed from the Chinese Communist Party, there was a great deal of conflicts between the Nationalist Party and the Communist party beforehand. In fact, a Chinese Civil War erupted between the two parties from 1927 to 1949 and China’s government became “lost” in this era (Miller). The war began after Chiang of the Nationalist Party was “no longer willing to work with Communists because he did not trust the Soviet influence [the Communist Party] heeded”, leading to him severing the “informal alliance” with the Communist Party in 1925 (Miller). As a result, the Communists attempted to overthrow the Nationalist government, yet failed, which in turn led to the Nationalists counterattacking, causing the civil war and several conflicts thereon after (Miller). Since Soviet influence is still pouring into China during this time, more and more Chinese citizens would favor Bolshevism. As mentioned before, the Chinese Soviet Republic was formed in 1931, in the middle of this civil war. Along with leading the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong was the Central Executive Committee of this republic as well; however, he would soon have to abandon this republic as a result of its decline in 1934 (Weigelin-Schwiedrzik). He would continue leading the Communist Party, which would brutally defeat the Nationalist Party while they were cut off their food supply, leading to the Nationalists surrendering to the Communists, ending the war, and the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
As Mao Zedong led the Chinese Communist Party to victory in the civil war and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, initiating the Chinese Communist Revolution and proving to be true that communist took over China after all (Calkins). Following this establishment, China and Russia signed a “treaty of friendship and alliance” and China would follow the “Soviet development model” for the next decade, developing the Sino-Soviet Alliance in the 1950s (Hyer). Several Russian advisers were sent to China in order to train Chinese students and some students were also sent to study in the Soviet Union in order to spread Bolshevism (Hyer). However, China eventually grew resentment of “Soviet domination, ideological differences between the two countries, and boundary disputes” which resulted in the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, and a border war in 1969 (Hyer). The Soviet Union indeed played a large role in spreading communism in China, but Mao Zedong eventually branched off of Bolshevism ideology and incorporated his own view of communism in China with the People’s Republic of China.
The political cartoon On Fertile Soil by John Knott in 1931 acted as a warning to China during its instability and vulnerability to Bolshevik influence. It foreshadowed that communism would come to rise and take over the Nationalist government due to the presence of Soviets in China, spreading their ideology while China was lost in the middle of chaos, famine, and rebellion. Soviet influence was deemed as successful as Mao Zedong sought to learn from the Soviet Union and dispersed communism in China. Even though the Sino-Soviet Alliance experienced a split in the 1960s, Knott was able to foreshadow the course of China and the presence of the Soviet Union in the country in the next 30 years with his political cartoon.
Miller, Esmorie. “Chinese Civil War (1927–1949).” Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment, edited by Jonathan F. Vance, 2nd ed., Grey House Publishing, 2006, pp. 74-77. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Phillips, Steven. “China–United States Relations.” Encyclopedia of Modern Asia, edited by Karen Christensen and David Levinson, vol. 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002, pp. 23-28. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, Susanne. “CCP-Controlled Areas.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of China, edited by Daniel Leese, Brill, 2009, pp. 92-94. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section Four: China Vol. 20. Gale Virtual Reference Library.