Behold the August 21-27 cover of the Economist: The illustration is of two bodybuilder torsos, elbows planted firmly on the globe, arm wrestling. One bicep sports a dragon tattoo; the other a tiger. The headline reads: "Contest of the Century: China v India." But the overall effect conjures not so much civilizational struggle as Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. More precisely, the cover art implies a zero sum game -- one winner, one loser -- which is hardly how anyone in China or India, busy as they are trying to assemble deals and profit from each others' growing economies, sees the future.
To be fair, it's hard to capture the enormously complicated and consequential story of the simultaneous rise of China and India in an icon. Visual clichés and journalistic shorthand exist for a reason, and Foreign Policy has admittedly relied on its fair share of stereotypes, from China's Yao Ming to turbaned Indians bathing in the Ganges. Yet Western headline writers and art directors really should try to do better -- it's getting pretty tiresome out there.
Let's start with zoology. America is the eagle, and Russia the bear, but China and India each have not one, but two emblematic animal icons that have nearly opposite connotations. China is alternately a cuddly panda or a threatening dragon, depending on the author's message. (Interestingly, in Chinese folklore a dragon is a wise and positive force, not a menace to be slain by St. George.) India is either an elephant or a tiger -- a wise, slow-moving giant or a surging predator. A March 19, 2007 Businessweek cover story, headlined "The Trouble with India: Crumbling roads, jammed airports, and power blackouts could hobble growth," showed an elephant shattering like a clay doll. A Feb. 3, 2007 Economist cover, "India Overheats," depicted a tiger with its tail on fire.
If the dragon and the tiger fight, the panda and the elephant seek refuge from the world -- as in yet another Economist cover, which shows those two animals taking shelter from a storm beside a limp little tree and beneath the headline, "China and India: A Tale of Two Vulnerable Economies." (Occasionally the panda does get mean, as when the Economist depicted one ascending the Empire State building, a la King Kong, on a cover captioned: "America's fear of China.") If there's any larger meaning to be gleaned from this set of magazine covers, the West, it seems, is worried that India might fall apart -- and that China might get its act together.
Then there's the Great Wall and the China's omnipresent red and yellow flag -- or both, together, as in a 2007 Time cover, "Dawn of a New Dynasty," which shows a yellow star rising over a red Great Wall. Mao is popular, too, as is stylized Cultural Revolution-era art. To modern Chinese, however, this seems about 30 years behind the times, the equivalent of illustrating the United States today with Ike or LBJ. Yet Mao's mug shot remains more familiar to most Americans than any recent Chinese politician -- in part because our art directors keep recycling his image.
Time's 2006 "China's New Revolution" cover, for instance, features old Mao. Newsweek spoofed this convention in a 2009 issue, "Everything You Know About China Is Wrong," which featured an upside-down Mao portrait, then embraced it again for its 2000 "Wired China" issue. The Economist has used revolutionary peasants to illustrate "The Rising Power of China's Workers" today.
India, meanwhile, is doomed to be shorthanded with the "typical Indian": for magazine covers, either an attractive young woman or an old man with a carpet. Take, for instance, the young telemarketer with a bejeweled hairstyle and a modern earpiece on Time's 2006 "India Inc." cover. Or the Economist's "Can India Fly?" issue, featuring a cross-legged man suspended in air, laptop and cellphone in place of magic carpet.
What about books? In theory, dust jackets have less need to scream a clear, single message and are assembled under less deadline pressure -- and indeed, the current crop of China and India books deploys fewer pandas and tigers than magazine racks do.
But consider the cover of Thomas David Kuhn's well-reviewed book-length essay, "How China's Leaders Think." Or James Mann's political science volume The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China. Or Sam Goodman's get-rich-quick manual Where East Eats West: The Street Smart Guide to Business in China. Each of these very different books, and countless others, looks extraordinarily similar: red background, collage of yellow stars. These might be the laziest covers of all; worse, they give the impression that dealing with China today is simply dealing with the government.
There is not, at least not yet, a large number of books aimed at a general audience about Indian politics or doing business in India, and so flag motifs and bureaucratic assemblies fairly seldom appear on India book jackets. Instead, the image of India is usually timeless, mythic, and above all exotic -- think turbans and Taj Mahals. Many recent such book covers would be equally suited to gracing a new edition of E.M. Forster's A Passage to India.
So, for example, we have the inexplicable coiled cobra on the cover of India's Global Powerhouses: How They Are Taking on the World, by Nirmalya Kumara, and the blurred photo of hundreds of men in white -- are they pilgrims, commuters? -- processing through a train station for Nandan Nilekani's Imagining India. Over the past few years, China's largely grown out of this convention, yet publishers still seem enchanted by the contrast of modernity and hidebound, centuries-old civilizations. Take the cover of Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India. Is it still shocking to any world traveler that a camel-driver might also own a cell phone?
One of the few mainstream China books to break outside the standard tropes is Jeffrey Wasserstrom's China in the 21st Century, which juxtaposes Beijing hipsters with dyed hair and ironic T-shirts on the top panel, and men in suits clapping at an official-looking banquet on the bottom panel. When asked about the unusual cover, Wasserstrom told FP: "The top part is an image of something Westerners may still have trouble even imagining exists in China. Whereas the bottom half of the cover is something that looks eerily unchanged from an earlier era. It complicates expectations."
The sad irony is that while Western art directors are busy drawing on decades of dull clichés about China and India, the two countries themselves are home to thriving creative design communities and tens of thousands of photographers and artists who -- on a daily basis -- find new ways to represent their breakneck cultures and economies. Maybe it's time the West tried stealing a page from them.