The Many Faces of Sun Wukong: Three Classic Cartoon Adaptations of Journey to the West

Few figures in Chinese mythology seem better suited to being adapted to cartoons than the Monkey King, Sun Wukong 孙悟空:

khoo_monkey

Source:  James Khoo Fuk-lung’s (邱福龍) The Sage King,Issue 1, 2002.

Certainly, Nezha 哪吒 has found some success through his own films and cartoons, such as the classic 1979 Cultural Revolution parable, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King 哪吒闹海. And arguably Guangyu 關羽 , Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮, and Liu Bei 劉備 etc of popular video games such as Dynasty Warriors 真‧三國無双 and manhua series such as Lee Chi Ching’s 李志清 Record of the Three Kingdoms 三國志 share more in common with their mythological counterparts of Chinese folk religion than they do with the real-life historical figures whose names they borrow.

Even so, Sun Wukong surpasses them all. Reading his exploits in the Ming vernacular novel Journey to West 西游記 brings to mind a Looney Toon or Silly Symphony, some 500 years before Bugs Bunny ever delivered his first wisecrack. Consider the following passage:

 “Since hearing the Way,” Sun Wukong said, “I have mastered the seventy−two earthly transformations. My somersault cloud has outstanding magical powers. I know how to conceal myself and vanish. I can make spells and end them. I can reach the sky and find my way into the earth. I can travel under the sun or moon without leaving a shadow or go through metal or stone freely. I can’t be drowned by water or burned by fire. There’s nowhere I cannot go.”1

In another, even more graphic passage, Monkey brags:

Cut off my head and I’ll still go on talking,
Lop off my arms and I’ll sock you another.
Chop off my legs and I’ll carry on walking,
Carve up my guts and I’ll put them together.
“When anyone makes a meat dumpling
I take it and down it in one.
To bath in hot oil is really quite nice,
A warm tub that makes all the dirt gone.2

Indestructibility is of course, is perhaps the defining characteristics of a cartoon, brought to it’s logical conclusion by The Simpsons’ classic cartoon-within-a-cartoon, The Itchy and Scratchy Show:

Like Itchy and Scratchy, Sun Wukong makes the ultra-violence of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange look tame by comparison. To give just one of innumerable examples, consider the following scene in Chapter 44 of Journey to the West when Sun Wukong is gets fed up with asking two Taosist priests to let a group of 500 captured Buddhist monks go:

“We couldn’t possibly let them go,” the priests said.
“You couldn’t?” said Monkey.
“No,” the priests replied. By the time he had asked this and been given the same answer three times he was in
a terrible rage. He produced his iron cudgel from his ear, created a spell with his hands, made it as thick as a
rice bowl, swung it, and brought it down on the Taoists’ faces. The poor Taoists

Fell to the ground with their blood gushing out and their heads split open,

Wounds that were gaping wide, brains scattered everywhere, both necks broken.3

Continue reading

  1. Wu, Cheng’en. Journey to the West. Translated by W. J. F. Jenner. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2003, Chapter 3. []
  2. Wu, Cheng’en, Chapter 46. []
  3. Wu, Cheng’en, Chapter 44. []

Interview with Wang “Rollin” Rong: Of Course I Want to be Famous

Thanks to posts like this and this, Wang “Rollin” Wong’s “Chick Chick” has been viewed over 11 million times in the 7 weeks since it was first posted to YouTube on October 22, 2014. If you haven’t watched it yet, it’s worth a few minutes of your time to contemplate in all of it’s bat-shit crazy glory:

Victor Mair has written about the use of animal sound in the song on Language Log and Boing Boing and others have suggested that it could become the “song of the year,” or “the next Gangnam Style.” While Wang’s success is nothing to scoff at, as a point of comparison, Psy’s hypnotic ballad clocked over 10 times as many hits in the first two months after being posted on YouTube, meaning that “Cluck Cluck” is literally an order of magnitude less viral than the Korean megahit.

Still, for China nerds, anything that gets China in the news for wackiness is a cause for celebration:

wang_rollin_wang_chickchick

In China, however, the fact Wang Rong is appearing on the websites of Time magazine and major other American media outlets seems to be causing a certain amount of hand-wringing on the part Chinese netizens and journalists, who are seem embarrassed that a cheesy song like this is attracting so much attention. One newspaper, The Mirror, managed to track her down for an interview, which I’ve translated below:

The Mirror 11/17 The singer Wang Rong, who first rose to fame with her 2007 song “I’m not Huang Rong” but has since fallen off the radar, is attracting attention again with her latest ‘viral tune’ “Chick Chick.” The song, which is entirely made up of lines like “chicken cluck cluck day,” “little chick cluck cluck day,” “rooster whoa whoa whoa” has attracted both both attention and scorn. Yesterday, Wang Rong agreed to an interview with The Mirror in Beijing.

法制晚报11月17日讯 因《我不是黄蓉》走红的歌手王蓉,沉寂多时,最近“神曲”《小鸡小鸡》再度备受关注。全篇都是“母鸡咕咕day”、“小鸡咕咕day”、“公鸡喔喔喔”的这首歌,引来关注的同时也招来了骂声。昨日王蓉在北京接受了《法制晚报》记者的专访。

I don’t care about the critics, my ‘viral tune’ came from a dream

The Mirror: How did you come up with this song?

Wang Rong: This song originally came from a dream I had. It was a really happy dream, where kittens, chicks, and ducklings looked like they were having a meeting, talking about really trivial stuff, like oh, today I laid an egg, and then I lost something, clucking and quacking away in disagreement. It was really cute. I could understand what they were saying though, just like in fairy tales. So when I woke up I decided I wanted to turn my dream into a song.

Continue reading

ICAF 2014: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the International Comic Arts Forum at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at the Ohio State University:

ICAF 2014

Going into ICAF, I really didn’t know what to expect, but like other first time attendees I was immediately struck by how friendly and outgoing everyone was. There was very little sense of the hierarchy that one often gets in more hoary academic circles. Instead, I found myself happily immersed in a group of fellow comic book fans and scholars, who were as excited to hear about my research as I was to hear about theirs.

As compared with the academic conferences and comic cons that I’ve attended in the past,1 it felt a little bit like a small indie comic fest, with the key difference being that the discussion of comics was being placed on the same level as the production of comics. I think this is something that other, non-academic comic fests could learn from ICAF. Unlike other media, such as film, I’ve found that the line between creator and critic is much less well-defined in comics. Sitting in the audience for panels, I noticed many attendees doodling in the notebooks provided by Ohio State. This artwork was enthusiastically shared online alongside more traditional commentary, and one presenter even made a comic book version of her presentation!

ICAF Doodles

 Source: Charles Hatfield

I’m entirely why comics studies as a field is so much more open to this kind of experimentation than other fields. Maybe it is because comics are (relatively) easy to make? Or maybe it is because comics are traditionally a ‘low’ medium so critics of comics are more willing to step into the role of creator? (Or maybe I’m just not familiar enough with other fields! The French New Wave director François Truffaut, for example, was a critic before becoming a director.)

The other aspect of ICAF that really struck me was the commitment to expanding the conversation beyond Anglophone North-American comics. During my panel, for example, my presentation on Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié’s graphic novel A Chinese Life, got people talking about the impact of State censorship on film and comics. Paul Morton’s presentation on the Serbian cartoonist Aleksandar Zograf likewise brought up questions of  the role of comics in representing history, as did Elizabeth Nijdam’s presentation on Anke Feuchtenberger and other post-1989 East German cartoonists, and Héctor Fernández’s engaging presentation on the Argentinian comic book Alvar Mayor.

Picture1

Detail from Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié’s 2010 A Chinese Life

Continue reading

  1. In 2010, I participated in an undergraduate conference for McNair Scholars at Portland State, and in 2013 I organized the graduate conference for the Asian Studies Department at UBC. I’ve also been to the San Diego Comic Con a couple of times, as well as the Stumptown Comics Fest, the Portland Zine Symposium, and for the first time this year, the Vancouver Comic Arts Fest. []

Infographic Department of the CCP (Part 2 of 5): The Three Unswerving Perseverances

This is part 2 of a five part translation of infographic referred to as the “Hong Kong ‘Occupy Central’ Ten Questions Infographic Version” 香港 “占中” 十问 漫画版 that was published on Weibo Friday, October 4, 2014, in response to the then ongoing Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong. Read more about the background of this info-ganda here.

 ccp_hk_info (10)

Question 3: Why do we say that the central government’s basic policy guidelines regarding Hong Kong haven’t changed, and will not change, besides which has always been Hong Kong’s greatest supporter ever since it’s return to the mainland?

“The Three Unswerving Perseverances” 三个坚定不移
• Unswervingly persevere in implementing the “one country two systems policy and basic law;
• Unswervingly persevere in supporting Hong Kong’s lawful advance into democratic development;
• Unswervingly persevere in safe-guarding Hong Kong’s long term prosperity and stability.
[Box] In reality, for the last 17 years, the central government has been Hong Kong’s greatest supporter.
“The Eight Embodiments” 八个体现
[From left to right.]

  1. Be trustworthy in politics.
  2. In financial administration, do not collect taxes.
  3. In development, give special protection.
  4. In trade, do not collect customs duties.
  5. In travel, support for all people.
  6. In economics, willingly provide backup assistance.
  7. In the lives of the people, first rate care.
  8. In accordance with Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the regulatory procedures of international organizations and international conferences, strongly support participation in international affairs.
ccp_hk_info (11)

Question 4: What is the essential reason 本质原因 for “Occupy Central”?

The Decision of National People’s Congress regarding the election of the Chief Executive Officer of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has give the representatives of foreign powers a difficult to cross threshold to seize the highest level of political power in Hong Kong.

[Stone monument with three representatives of foreign powers loitering in front, one labeled USA, one wearing an American flag shirt, and one looking vaguely British? Monument reads:

The 12th National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the 10th Conference. Starting in 2017, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Chief Executive Officer Election can use the method brought about by universal suffrage.]

Accepting the National People’s Congress joint decision —> means that –>

The opposition party which has for many years been supported by the West will spend a long time pointlessly trying to seize the office of the Chief Executive Officer of the Special Administrative Region. –>

This will make the foreign powers waste money and waste time supporting the pro-colonial Hong Kong opposition party, causing their many year attempt to control the political power in Hong Kong to come to nothing. —>

The opposition party which has received the support of foreign powers are thoroughly anxious and panicked. –>

Through “Occupy Central” they are misleading the people to participate in a large scale mass incident. –>

  • Quickly weaken the governance of the Hong Kong SAR.
  • Quickly control the right to speak.
  • Quickly expand the political survival space 政治生存空间 of the opposition party.
  • Attempt to quickly warm the political soil of political power from the right and left of the opposition party.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Infographic Department of the CCP (Part 1 of 5)

This is part 1 of a five part translation of infographic referred to as the “Hong Kong ‘Occupy Central’ Ten Questions Infographic Version” 香港 “占中” 十问 漫画版1 that was published on Weibo Friday, October 4, 2014, in response to the ongoing Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong. It has since circulated in Chinese state media reports, inspiring Didi Tatlow to write a short article about it for Sinosphere, the China blog of The New York Times. Although the authorship is, as Tatlow points out, “unclear” given the wide circulation it has received in state media, it seems likely that it was created by the Publicity Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party 中共中央宣传部,  or a related organ. Regardless of who created it, it is a great example of contemporary Chinese propaganda:

Hong Kong Occupy Central Ten Questions - Question 1

Hong Kong “Occupy Central” Ten Questions

Signs: Occupy Central! Peace!

Question 1: How did Hong Kong’s “Occupy Central” start?

Occupy Central” refers to the illegal gathering which is currently taking place in our nation’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

“Occupy Central” The full name is “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” 让爱与和平占领中环, the abbreviation is “Peacefully Occupy Central” 和平占中 or “Occupy Central” 占中.

March 27, 2013, proposed—–September 28, 2014, officially began.

Sign: Peace.

In recent years, the “Occupy” movement has appeared in many countries, and it has already become an important form of street politics 街头政治 it’s a important method for parts of society, in particular young and vigorous 血气方刚 students, to publicly express their political demands 政治诉求, and express even stronger spirit of confrontation 对抗性.

The kind of excited confrontational expression of demands [shown by] the “Occupy Central” activity -> will often lead to bloody conflicts and social unrest in countries where there is mood of serious antagonism.

In any country, they are always illegal and the police always have the right the use the law to deal 处置 with them.

question2

Question 2: August 31, 2014, what did the standing committee of the National People’s Congress 全国人大常委会 actually say about the decision made regarding the Hong Kong problem?

Starting in 2017, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Chief Executive Officer Election 香港特别行政区行政长官选举 can use the method brought about by universal suffrage 可以实行由普选产生的办法.

–The 12th National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the 10th Conference passed the ” Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Issues Relating to the Selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by Universal Suffrage and on the Method for Forming the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the Year 2016.

1. At the time of universal suffrage: A council is formed to nominate candidates which has wide representationality.

2. According to a democratic process, candidates are nominated.  Every candidate must receive a majority support from the nomination committee. This will produce two to three candidates for the Chief Executive Officer.

3. Qualified voters 和资格选民 of the Hong Kong Administrative Region have the right to choose the Chief Executive Officer and according to the law will choose a Chief Executive Officer.

Following the results of universal suffrage, the Central People’s Government will appoint 任命 [the winning candidate to the position of Chief Executive Officer].

CONTINUED IN PART 2…

  1. It’s interesting to note that in Chinese the word for “comics” and “cartoons” manhua is also used to describe infographics like this. []

Wu Youru: The “First” Chinese Cartoonist

Firsts are always controversial. If the first Chinese cartoonist was the student of another, earlier cartoonist or proto-cartoonist, either by instruction or by inspiration, then he wasn’t really the first Chinese cartoonist, was he?

In a way, it all depends on how broadly or narrowly you choose to define the word “cartoon,” or kǎtōng 卡通 or “comics” mànhuà 漫畫 in Chinese. Strictly speaking, the first time the word “manhua” was used to describe a cartoon-like drawing by a Chinese artist occurred when Zheng Zhenduo 鄭振鐸 published drawings by Feng Zikai 豐子愷 under that name in the periodical Literature Weekly 文學周刊  in 1925. Most scholars agree however that Feng’s work represents a synthesis of earlier works. Geremie R. Barmé, for example, has found particularly strong stylistic and thematic resemblances to the popular Japanese artist Takehisa Yumeji 竹久夢二 (1884-1934) whose work Feng was exposed to while studying abroad for 10 months in 1921.1

Chinese scholars Bi Keguan 畢克官 and Huang Yuanlin 黃遠林, meanwhile, have “[traced] a genealogy back to such pre-modern proto-cartoons as stone etchings (shike 石刻) from the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE) and humorous brush paintings from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).”2 These stone etchings were likely based on earlier works in more ephemeral media, like wood or paper, which themselves would have found inspiration in the oral tradition.

In short, it’s cartoonists all the way down.

More importantly, perhaps, as Tom Gunning points out in his landmark essay on “the first” fictional and comedic film (the Lumiere brothers’ L’Arroseur arrosé), the whole process of arguing over who is standing on whose shoulders can get in the way of looking at things which really matter, or as he puts it, “the issues history involves.” Even so, Gunning makes a good argument for paying attention to so-called “firsts” not so much out of respect for their chronological precedence, but instead to consider the ways in which they set a precedent for works yet to come:

“Firsts” are the bane of film history. Not only are they usually dubious (given how many films have disappeared), they also obscure the issues history involves. If this Lumiere film has a significance for the history and theory of film comedy…that significance comes precisely from the films that came after it, from the way it set up a widely imitated prototype.3

In this spirit, I think a strong argument can be made that it was not until the last decade of the 18th century that works which meaningfully anticipate manhua began to emerge, and that moreover the most influential “cartoonist” during this time period was the mysterious Wu Youru 吳友如 (1841-5?-1893?), one the most prolific “newspainters” of the late-Qing who created illustrations for the Dianshizhai Pictorial 點石齋畫報, published by the British entrepreneur Ernest Major’s 美查 Dianshizhai lithographic press4 in Shanghai from May 8, 1884, to August 16, 1898.5

Continue reading

  1. Geremie Barmé, An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975) (University of California Press, 2002), pp. 52–71. []
  2. Christopher Rea, ‘He’ll Roast All Subjects That May Need the Roasting’, in Asian Punches – A Transcultural Affair, ed. by Hans Harder and Barbara Mittler, pp. 389–422 (p. 392); Keguan Bi [毕克官], 黄远林 and Yuanlin Huang, Zhongguo manhua shi 中國漫畫史 [A History of Manhua in China] (Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 1986), Beijing. []
  3. Tom Gunning, ‘Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy’, in Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. by Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 87–105 (p. 88). []
  4. itself a part of the larger press, Shenbaoguan 申報館, responsible for the first newspaper in China, the Shenbao 申報 []
  5. Wagner, Rudolf G., ‘Joining the Global Imaginaire’, in Joining the Global Public: Word, Image, and City in Early Chinese Newspapers, 1870-1910 (SUNY Press, 2012), p. 131. It should be noted that Ernest Major himself left Shanghai in 1889, at which time the Shenbaoguan, and the Dianshizhai along with it, came under new management. Wu Youru left the press around the same time to start his own illustrated periodical, the Feiyingge Pictorial 飛影閣畫報. []

The Interbellum Manhua Boom

Between World War I and World War II China experienced it’s first boom in the production and appreciation of cartoons and manhua. Although several notable cartoon and proto-cartoon publications predate World War I (and more importantly in China, the collapse of the Qing in 1911),1  it is the 1920s and 1930s which saw comic strips and cartoons reach their highest social currency in China, one that has perhaps yet to be rivaled even today.

In large part this is thanks to the work of a group of loosely affiliated artists, writers, and publishers who collaborated on several key publications produced primarily (but not exclusively) in Shanghai. Many of them are featured in this 1936 illustration by Wang Zimei 汪子美, who also drew himself in the middle row, on the far left (dressed in a pair of very handsome knickerbockers and what appears to be a hounds-tooth jacket) :

manhua_circle

The cartoon circle climbs the mountains for Double-Ninth 漫畫界重陽登高圖

According the caption, they are (from left to right):

Bottom row:  Wang Dunqing王敦慶 (1899-1990),  Liang Baibo 梁柏波 (?1911-70),Ye Qianyu 葉淺予 (1907-95), Huang Miaozi 黃苗子 (1913-2102)
Middle  row: Wang Zimei 汪子美, Lu Fu 魯夫, Zhu Jinlou 朱金樓, Te Wei 特偉 (1915-2010),  Huang Yao 黃堯 (1917-87), Zhang Guangyu 張光宇(1902-65), Zhang Zhengyu 張正宇  (aka Zhang Zhenyu 張振宇 1903-76), Hu Kao 胡考 (1912-94), Lu Shaofei 魯少飛 (1903-95), Gao Longsheng  高龍生, Zhang Leping 張樂平 (1910-92)
Top row: Zhang Yingzhao 張英趙 ,Lu Zhixiang 魯志庠,Ding Cong 丁聰 (1916-2009),  Cai Ruohong 蔡若虹 (1910-?)2

As I am currently in the process of writing my MA thesis on the networks of economic and social capital which made manhua periodicals possible during this time period,3  most of these names are very familiar to me. Wang’s illustration, however, is the first time I’ve seen them all in one place.

Continue reading

  1. For example The China Punch was an early cartoon magazine produced in Hong Kong, and Puck, or the Shanghai Charivari the Dianshizhai Pictorial 點石齋畫報 were both published in Shanghai durin the last decade of the 19th century. For more on China Punch and Puck, or the Shanghai Charivari see Christopher Rea’s essay “He’ll Roast All Subjects That May Need the Roasting’: Puck and Mr Punch in Nineteenth-Century China.” in Asian Punches, edited by Hans Harder and Barbara Mittler, 389–422. Berlin: Springer, 2013. For more on the Dianshizhai Pictorial, see Rudolph Wagner’s chapter “” in Joining the Global Public: Word, Image, and City in Early Chinese Newspapers, 1870–1910 . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007. []
  2. Dates and image courtesy of Mary Ginsberg and Paul Bevan at the British Museum. who included this image among others collected by Jack Chen in the exhibition The Art of Influence: Asian Propaganda, on display May-Sep 2013. []
  3. The research question I am trying to answer is:  For what reason (or reasons) did manhua magazines cease publication  in 1930s Shanghai? I believe that I can plausibly answer this question by completing a close reading of a selection of manhua periodicals, combined with biographical research into the contributors and publishers, and historical research into the economic and political realities of 1930 Republican era China. Another way to put this is that I am attempting to write a typology of failure for manhua magazines, ergo my working title  “Manhua Magazines in 1930s Shanghai: A Typology of Failure.”  I might change this to “Manhua Magazines in Republican era China: A Typology of Failure,”  if the scope of my thesis expands significantly beyond Shanghai. []

Chinese Star Wars Comic (Part 6 of 6): A Fitting Memorial to the Empire

This is the final installment of a six part post in which I translate a 142 page Chinese comic book adaptation of Star Wars originally published in Guangdong, China, in the 1980s. Thanks to Maggie Greene for giving me the go ahead to re-post her scans, and Brendan O’Kane for bringing this to my attention. In this episode the Rebels mount a surprise attack on the death Star, with both sides suffering heavy losses…

Chinese_star_wars_comic_manhua_llianhuanhua (125)

122. The Empire originally thought that the Rebels would have put all of their energy into defending their base, so they are entirely unprepared for the [Rebel] offensive, forcing them to rush to employ high-energy weapons and lightning (shan dian 閃電) to repel [the Rebels].

 

Chinese_star_wars_comic_manhua_llianhuanhua (126)

123. The Rebel fighters fly back and forth, firing upon the [radar] equipment [and gun arrays] on the “Death Star.” Luke’s sharpshooting leaves a string of fireballs across the sky.

 

Chinese_star_wars_comic_manhua_llianhuanhua (127)

124. But Luke’s spacecraft can’t turn in time, forcing him to fly directly through the fireballs. Luckily the space craft can withstand the extremely high temperatures, allowing Luke to escape by the skin of his teeth.

Continue reading

Chinese Star Wars Comic (Part 5 of 6): We have to destroy the Death Star!

This is part of five of a six part post in which I plan to translate a 142 page Chinese comic book adaptation of Star Wars originally published in Guangdong, China, in the 1980s. Thanks to Maggie Greene for giving me the go ahead to re-post her scans, and Brendan O’Kane for bringing this to my attention. In this episode, Obi-wan sacrifices himself  so that Leia and droids can be escorted to Yavin IV,  Han and Chewie take off with their big reward, and Luke joins the Rebel assault on the Death Star… 

Chinese_star_wars_comic_manhua_llianhuanhua (87)_Page_17

100. Luke takes out a small communicator and impatiently yells for C3PO, but he gets no response. Just as all four of them are about to be crushed by the walls of the garbage chute, C3PO’s reply is transmitted [through the radio]. Luke quickly asks him to turn off the device which is controlling the garbage chute so that they won’t be turned into a meaty pulp (roujiang 肉醬).

 

Chinese_star_wars_comic_manhua_llianhuanhua (87)_Page_18

101. Once the two walls have returned to their original position, Luke pushes aside the trash covering the escape hatch so that he can see the [garbage chute] number clearly. Right away he radios C3P0, saying, “Open the inspection hatch for [garbage chute] 336-191.” In this way they are able to escape from the garbage chute.

 

Chinese_star_wars_comic_manhua_llianhuanhua (87)_Page_19

102. But as soon as they enter the corridor they run into the Imperial Stormtroopers again. Solo takes Chewbacca to fight them off while Luke and Princess Leia run off down a side corridor only to discover a bottomless chasm blocking their way. With no way forward and the enemy close behind, what can be done?

Continue reading

Putting 25 Years of Silence in Context with Comics and Animation

The Tiananmen Square Massacre is an incredibly difficult topic to discuss without getting smeared with the brush of anti-CCP demagogue or, alternately, pro-CCP apologist.1 The modern Chinese historian Jeff Wasserstrom has argued that the term “Tiananmen Square Massacre” itself is something of a misnomer, given that most sources seems to agree that most (if not all) deaths occurred in the streets of Beijing rather than the square itself.2 Perhaps for this reason, the Chinese term is the much more neutral 6/4 六四, not unlike 9/11 in English. Meanwhile the iconic image of the Tank Man, together with student leader Chai Ling’s 柴玲 heart-rending (albeit unsubstantiated) account of seeing students flattened by tanks in the Square, has overshadowed the much more numerous deaths caused by PLA gunfire. Equally critical, is the fact that workers and inhabitants of Beijing stood up and were killed along with the students, and that Beijing wasn’t the only city which experienced massive unrest: Shanghai experienced worker strikes and student walkouts, as did Wuhan, Guangzhou, Xi’an, Nanjing, Chengdu, and likely other cities as well.3

Unsurprisingly, the protests and crackdown remain sensitive topics in the PRC even today. More surreal, perhaps, is the fact that many younger Chinese know almost nothing about them and those that do often have little interest in discussing them:

Tiananmen Square: On This Site, in 1989, Nothing Happened

Simpsons Episode 12 “Goo Goo Gai Pan,” Season 16, aired March 13, 2005.

 

This contrasts starkly with the situation abroad, where China is perhaps best known for the events of June 4, 1989. As a student of modern Chinese cultural history I find myself intensely conflicted about talking about 6/4. On the one hand, as a historian, I recognize that history should be a neutral, “true record” of events as they actually occurred, something which often conflicts with the desires of nation states and political parties to paint their pasts in the brightest colors possible. 4

On the other hand, as someone who is passionate about Chinese literature and culture,  I often find myself frustrated with the extent to which the discourse on China is dominated by 6/4. Chinese literature in translation, in particular, seems to be almost singularly restricted to works which are “banned in China.”5 This leads to a very skewed perspective on Chinese popular culture in North America, which is in many ways every bit as vibrant (and trashy) as popular culture anywhere else in the world. Romance, horrormystery, and sci-fi are all thriving, both on the internet and in bookstores. And even “serious literature” is thriving, too: two of the most popular novels in translation are 1984 and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

And as Maggie Greene points out in her recent post on the surprisingly warm reception her Star Wars comic received on the internet last week, there have been other, earlier periods of “thaw” in censorship, particularly during early 1960s following the Great Leap Forward, and again in the 1980s, after the Cultural Revolution. 6

I think this is a much larger issue than just 6/4, one which can be traced back to Cold War. The communist takeover of China and the polarizing figure of Chairman Mao perhaps irrevocably connected China with socialist and totalitarian politics in the American imagination. Theodore H. White’s 1967 Emmy-winning documentary, China: The Roots of Madness is emblematic of this association, and of the desire to connect the man-made tragedies of the Mao-era with earlier cultural traditions in China:7

 

While the desire to understand the madness of the Cultural Revolution is understandable, blaming the excesses of radical Maoism on 2000 years [sic] of Confucianism is a little bit like saying McCarthyism was caused by the same Puritanical-thinking which led to the Salem witch trials. And while it might seem like this kind of thinking is far behind us, consider the the widespread belief that China isn’t “ready” for democracy or that Chinese people are incapable of creativity.8

That said, there are many accounts of 6/4 which do an excellent job of placing it in a larger historical context. I personally think autobiographical comics and animations are well suited to this purpose. Memory is incredibly subjective, and photographs have a tendency to seem much more objective than they often actually are. When we look at a drawing of a memory we are forced to acknowledge that memories are created and re-created over and over, rather than being preserved like fossils waiting to be unearthed.

 

1. Wang Shuibo’s 王水泊 Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square 天安門上太陽升

The visceral sense of the betrayal Wang Shuibo experienced after 6/4, having grown up in a “New China” where Mao was treated as essentially a demi-god and the CCP were his sacred protectors is palpable in Wang’s 1998 Academy Award nominated short animated film. This is something I have seen first-hand among my Chinese friends who seem to be angrier about the fact that the government continues to lie to them about the past than they do about the massacre itself, the impact of which has faded somewhat with the passage of time:

Continue reading

  1. Or in non-academese, Panda Hater or Panda Hugger. []
  2. In this this piece he wrote for the Huffington post for example, he refers to it as the “June 4th Massacre.” []
  3. The website for the excellent documentary, Gate of Heavenly Peace, has a long list of publicly available resources: http://www.tsquare.tv/links/ []
  4. Take, for example, the way the historical repression of organized labor has been pushed out of American classrooms in favor of subjects such as the Civil Rights Movement and WWII. []
  5. The interest in “forbidden fruit” is also equally true for Chinese readers, of course: http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2013/07/19/hong-kongs-banned-book-fair-is-big-hit-with-mainland-chinese/ []
  6. And, of course, there were equivalent periods during the Republican-era and the late-Qing and other earlier dynasties, as well. []
  7. For a great take-down of this awful, awful film, see http://www.filmthreat.com/features/22523/ []
  8. Admittedly, Chinese writers themselves are often the most vocal proponents of such theories. []