In times of pandemic, freedom of speech is essential to survival. In China, government censorship has provoked a wave of public outrage, especially following the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, the COVID-19 whistleblower who subsequently died of the virus. Chinese citizens, especially the digitally savvy generation, have expressed concerns about the government’s banishment of  the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech behind the nation’s firewall on the internet and on several apps. Artists are using their art to point out the importance of freedom of information and share their vision of the world. We reached out to artist, Miyabi Matsumaya, currently living in China, to talk about her beautiful and macabre art, coping with COVID-19, and the importance of freedom of expression in such hard times.

Lola Who: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your inspirations for your art? 

Miyabi: Maybe it’s a prejudice but, in my understanding, many women like to read and to fantasize about love stories in their adolescence. I didn’t. When I was a little girl, I fell in love so badly with Junji Ito’s mangas. I also liked reading horror stories and thrillers. Horror stories filled my childhood and fed my fantasies of dark art.

In college, my major was product and industrial design. I didn’t really like it. After graduation, I worked as an interaction designer, six months as a web designer, and as a  design director at a game pr company. I never gave up on illustration, either in college or at work.

Speaking of inspirations, I never thought that they come from art itself, but from all my life experiences. As you can probably imagine, I was not an optimistic and pleasant girl from an early age. I’ve loved reading since I was a kid, not just fiction, but history, literature, and philosophy. The philosopher who has most influenced me in recent years is E.M. Cioran, alongside movies, music, games, exhibitions…  All of these gradually built up my outlook on life, values and worldviews, and they are also the source of my inspiration.

Naturally, Junji Ito is one of my favorite artists, and Satoshi Kon is the greatest animation director in my mind. The artist who had the greatest impact on me in terms of creative thinking was Zdzisław Beksiński, many a night I weep for his critique of human nature and the sticky smell of death. Among the artists who have passed away, I also love the works of H.R. Giger and Kazimir Malevich. Among contemporary artists, I admire Olafur Eliasson, Joan Cornellà, Isaac Cordal, Studio Zimoun and many artists whose names I can’t remember, they make the world a better place. As for why I draw illustrations and engage in other forms of artistic expression, my answer is probably: I am good at it and love it.

Lola Who: Your images convey a great sense of solitude and darkness, leaning towards Japanese ghoul art… In these somber times of skyrocketing Covid-19 death tolls and confinement, how are your emotions affecting your artwork? 

Miyabi: When disasters occur, the most beautiful and ugly aspects of human nature are revealed, especially in the face of such a global crisis. For two and a half months I have often felt desperate because I have seen so many ugly and terrible people and things. At the end of January, I tried to calm myself down, but I cried almost every day. I cried for the people who were silenced, for the pets who were crushed to death, for the people of Wuhan who were discriminated against and beaten up…

You may wonder why I don’t look at the good things in life. However, the ugly things in life need to be remembered, and I’m the one who does this. For the past two months, I have been thinking of myself as a tomb keeper, and I have used my artwork to mourn the miserable world.

Lola Who: What is it like to be a young artist in China in the 21st century. Do you sometimes feel limited in the type of message that you can express in your art?  

Miyabi: For me personally, censorship in China doesn’t affect me directly because I didn’t target the Chinese market in the first place. My focus is more on the relationship between the world and death than on politics. This being said, it’s conceivable that my work would not be liked by the Chinese government, even though I have accumulated many fans in China. 

In China, the government always says you can’t promote “negative energy(负能量)”, you can’t promote death and violence, and unfortunately these are the most important parts of my work. What’s more, you don’t even have the right to express sadness and anger. Even in the midst of the pandemic that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, the Chinese government is demanding a paean to what it calls “positive energy(正能量)”.

Of course, once my work touched on sensitive topics, politics and satire, my Weibo account was permanently blocked.

Lola Who: The international press has been talking a lot about the sad fate of doctor Li Wenliang and the censorship conducted by the Chinese apparatus to stop the spread of “rumors” about the deadliness of the novel coronavirus and the actual number of deaths in Wuhan… Is there anything that you would like to share about the extent of that tragedy?

Miyabi: This is a very good question. The western world is focused on the whistleblower’s tragedy and the consequences for the world of the Chinese government’s lies. In the Chinese mind, doctor Li’s whistle was not only for the novel coronavirus, but also for the freedom of speech, which is difficult for people outside China to understand.

The day after Wuhan was blocked, I  told my Chinese fans on Weibo that I hoped they could record what happened every day in a safe way, because any information online could be deleted at any time, including mine. At the same time, I kept a daily record of what was happening, and sure enough, a few days later my account was eliminated.

Around 9 pm (Beijing time on Feb. 6), the People’s Daily tweeted an update on Li’s death, the tweet, which was forwarded by overseas Chinese to Chinese social networks, set off a huge wave of public outrage. Many Chinese said: don’t our people inside the great firewall deserve to mourn Dr. Li? It was around 1 am (Beijing time on Feb. 7) that the Chinese state media announced the death of Dr. Li Wenliang, saying it took the hospital four hours to try to resuscitate him. At this point, the rage was at its peak, people were protesting under the hashtag # I want  freedom of speech (我要言论自由).

People started to repost my Weibo post. They thought that the illustration reflected the reality of Chinese people being oppressed, which is why my Weibo account was reported and banned forever.

The rage continues to this day. The last time a protest broke out was on April 4th, Qingming Day, the day when the Chinese mourn their dead. People said that if it had not been for the 404 that the government had started, there would not have been today’s global catastrophe. These comments were not surprisingly deleted.

I wrote a line on my other social media account asking: if being honest was a crime, would you still choose to tell the truth?

The government USES the suppression of rumors as an excuse to silence the people and then fabricates rumors on its own. Rumors of internal strife in the communist party are rife, flimsy but still widely believed. Regardless of whether rumors are true or false, it’s worth asking why people choose to believe them.

Lola Who: Can you explain to us the context in which these two illustrations were created and are they related to the current pandemic? 

Miyabi: They had nothing to do with the pandemic before. They were created at the end of December 2019. My original intention was to use them to explore how much human activity comes from “free will”. I added a lot of my own feelings to the piece about China, because ultra-nationalism has been on the rise there these past two years. As someone who sees herself as a citizen of the world, I was disgusted by the Chinese government’s promotion of nationalism.

They did later become associated with the epidemic, and since the post went viral the day after Dr. Li Wenliang’s death (Feb. 7, Beijing time), it was reported by Pinkies and my Weibo account was permanently banned. 

In China, young people who have been brainwashed by the government, who preach ultra-patriotism and nationalism, and who are keen to report democratic speech online are called “Pinkie (小粉红)”.

Translation of Chinese text: When I posted these two, in fact, I had been thinking a lot about whether I would touch the bottom line of Weibo, and even prepared to be deleted and blocked. I immediately realized that I was censoring myself, that’s the scary thing about this kind of top-down pressure. Every year, the number of available ISBNs is decreasing, academic books from a decade ago are now being blocked, all the websites in China are silent, more and more words are censored… Sometimes I just don’t think the world will be a better place.

Lola Who: How do young artists in China address politics and freedom of speech, or get around it?

Miyabi: Your question made me reflect on myself, because I didn’t pay much attention to the situation of my peers before, let alone the creative restrictions on Chinese artists. Still, I know something about it… One Chinese artist I have to mention is Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei went into exile after being persecuted for investigating the true death toll following the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. Anyone, not just artists, who dares to find out what the CCP doesn’t want to tell you will either disappear, be persecuted or go into exile. Please remember these names: Chen Qiushi, Li Wenliang, Li Zehua… They sacrificed themselves for the freedom of the Chinese people.

In the two months since Dr. Li’s death, Chinese artists have been fighting back with their work. Countless social media accounts have been blocked in China. Some are writers, some are artists, and more are ordinary people fighting oppression. 

After years and years of brainwashing, many Chinese believe that art should not be political, and that people have no right to criticize the government. In ancient China, people called officials “father-mother officials”, which means that government officials are like the parents of the people. In traditional Chinese culture, children have no right to criticize their parents no matter how big a mistake they make.

Politics permeates every aspect of Chinese life, even in primary schools, the CCP is teaching its children that communism is more important than their own lives. The truth is not that art cannot be political, but that politics should not interfere with artistic creation, let alone education. Here, however, the cart is before the horse. And I loathe the poison dripping down from generation to generation.

Lola Who: With 2047 approaching – date when Hong Kong will integrate with the mainland – what kind of future do you see for China in terms of human rights, and what is the role of youth in shaping it? 

Miyabi: I’m not too optimistic. My lack of optimism comes from both policy, and from a distrust of human nature. Due to the existence of the great firewall, it is difficult for mainland Chinese to have a real understanding of the real situation in Hong Kong, and many Hong Kong people also have a puzzling sense of superiority. They think that they are superior to mainland Chinese, and in a bad way discriminate against mainlanders, which is not conducive to the cooperation between the two sides to achieve the goal of human rights.

After more than two months, I have lost all confidence in the young people in mainland China. They are like the red guards in the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, and all intellectuals will be persecuted by them.

Lola Who: Your images can be quite macabre – with splashes of blood, knives and skeletons – how do you find harmony and peace in this nightmarish world stricken by death?

Miyabi: I’ll take your question as a compliment! In my view, the answer to this question may be cultural as well as philosophical. For example, Ruth Benedict’s book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword seems to me to be rather shallow. However, it does also illustrate an issue, that is, the inner harmony of contradictions under the background of Eastern culture. Like Yin and Yang. A gothic magazine once interviewed me and asked me why I wanted to make this kind of “dark” work. I said, “What good is it if there is only brightness and happiness in this world?” I still hold that view to this day. 

Tragedy is a cornerstone of many people’s worldview. Some people think that darkness and sorrow awaken the worst in human beings, but I think they awaken the conscience and compassion of human beings in most cases, and vice versa. As Cormac McCarthy wrote of such a cruel Blood Meridian, it is not because he hates human beings, but because he still has so much desire for human nature. Everything fades away, but death endures. To me, this is another kind of endless growth. I’m not a death worshipper. As I said before, I see myself as a tomb keeper.

By Hélène R. Hidalgo