Presentism and Comics Studies

Earlier this week, I received some comments from a reader regarding my research focus to “understand Chinese comics from the perspective of the present,” included in a previous post on this blog. The reader warned that this position could be interpreted as an expression of “presentism.” In light of this, I thought I might share some of my thoughts on this topic, as it relates to comics studies in China, and elsewhere as well.

As I understand it, “presentism” is a term that is used by historians and other scholars to criticize works appearing to be unduly influenced by the values and interests of their own historical moment. We often call these values and interests “cultural norms”, both in the sense that we tend to think of what we believe and care about to be “normal,” but also in the sense that values and interests shared by large groups of people are typically presented as also being “normative” — a standard to which other members of our society should aspire to.

Historians are primarily concerned with two tasks: first, accurately recording historical events; and second, interpreting the motivations of the historical actors responsible for those events. Presentism is less about the former (which we generally assume to be objective, although Hayden White and others might disagree on this point) and more about the latter. So, for example, a 20th century historian writing a history of Lewis and Clark’s 1803-6 expedition into the “void, the black land of desolation” (as one educational film has it) of the American West “from whence no man, foolhardy enough to venture into it might return” would likely discuss the inclusion of First Nations woman Sacagawea and African-American man York in the “Corps of Discovery [sic].” In our hypothetical historian’s account, they might suggest that Lewis and Clark were as much motivated by practical concerns for guiding, interpreting, and manual labor, as they were by more noble goals, such as protecting Sacagawea and her child from her “loving husband,” the abusive French fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau. An interpretation along these might ignore or downplay the fact that both Sacagawea and York were enslaved, the former as a young child by a neighbouring tribe (“for the Indians she is less than property”), and the later from birth, as the son of man enslaved by Clark’s father.1

In a sense, presentism is foundational to comics studies, because the term “comics,” as we use it now, only emerged gradually. In its earliest sense, comics referred to cheaply printed humorous illustrated publications, after Thomas Hood’s The Comic Annual, which was published in 11 volumes (skipping a couple of years) between 1830 and 1842. By the 20th century, the term had largely come to refer instead to comic strips, or “the funnies”, published as a supplement in the Sunday papers; and somewhat later, comic books. In his biography of Rodolphe “The Father of the Comic Strip” Töpffer, David Kunzle dances around the term, often referring to Töpffer’s “picture stories,” contained in “comic albums.”2 Although I largely agree with Kunzle that comic strips as they emerged in the 19th century are probably best understood as a “narrative form of caricature,” the fact remains that, even when we can trace a direct line of genealogical descent from “picture story” to “comic strip,” it is unavoidably anachronistic to discuss the emergence of “comic strips” avant la lettre.

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  1. And in fact, the film, released in 1950, omits York and slaves entirely, despite featuring several scenes which take place on plantations. See []
  2. David Kunzle, Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007). []

Oregon Native

Not an obituary.

In February, my aunt passed away. We had the memorial, of sorts, this past weekend — and by ‘we’, I mean my extended family in Portland. Before the coronavirus shut everything down I had been planning to fly back immediately afterwards, to be there, but ended up deciding to stay in London.

My aunt had struggled with medical issues most of her adult life, having accidentally been shot in her 20s by her (at the time) husband in the process of cleaning (what turned out to be) a loaded gun. The gunshot almost killed her, and she was saved (as she often told me) only by virtue of living on a military base with experienced combat medics fresh from Vietnam. Afterwards, they moved back to Oregon, living in rural St. Helen’s, just north of Portland, where they had both grown up. This was before the mountain blew up in May 1980 — an event remembered more in my family for an uncle (my aunt’s younger brother) who also almost died around the same time after fracturing his spine ski jumping on Mount Hood. The extent of the injury was only discovered a few days after the accident, when he had the left side of his body go numb after going over some train tracks in car. He was hitchhiking at the time, and fortunately the driver had the foresight to take him to the hospital for a second opinion.

By the time I was born, my aunt was divorced (but still friends, which tells you something about the kind of person she was) and living in the ‘Painted Lady’, a sagging Victorian heap in Sellwood which was also my first home. Under the influence of her grandmother, who had run a flower shop back in Ohio (where she was born, before the whole family moved West), she had gotten into plants, after a stint running a window blind factory in the dodgy industrial strip on the east bank of the Willamette. She took classes at Mt. Hood Community College, paid for with scholarships from ‘the little old ladies’ as she liked to all them. Later she started a landscaping company with the uncle who (now with two fused vertebrae in his neck) also helped her build a kiln in her backyard, where she made fused glass art and chunky pottery. So that was where I grew up — in the great and glorious mess of my aunt’s house, filled with junk from estate sales and art projects inside, and plants and more junk and art projects outside. We moved out of the upstairs loft before I can remember, eventually moving into a house on the southside of Mount Tabor (another volcano) but it felt like my aunt was always there too. One of the first projects on that house was tearing out the front lawn to put in Japanese-inspired rock garden with native plants, and later we redid the bathroom together with broken tiles — the garden is still there, even though we sold the house years ago. I’m not sure about the bathroom.

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The Fake Foreign Devil is Great!

I haven’t posted much on here over the past year that I’ve been at Cambridge, and in part that’s because my work (as with most first year PhDs I think) has been pretty scattered. I’ve been reading a lot, and writing a lot, but very little of what I’ve written seems particularly blog-able. I do want to share some of the stuff I’ve come across in my research into lianhuanhua 连环画 however, and also give a quick summary of where I see my work going from here. As it happens, last week I was at the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing sharing a very brief version of just that on a very fun panel with comrades-in-arms and fellow graduate students Shan Xiaodan, Lyu Guangzhao, and Peng Qiao. I’ve done a quick write-up of the conference , which you can read here. What follows is an expanded version of that presentation, with a brief example drawn from two of my case studies.

The question that I’ve come to over various revisions of my project is this:

How can we, from the perspective of the present, make post-Mao lianhuanhua [comic books] intelligible?

Lianhuanhua being enjoyed by young and old 老少 at a streetside rental library

I’m using here something that Jonathan Culler once said about the work of Roland Barthes: “The critic’s job, Barthes argues, is not to discover the secret meaning of a work – the truth of the past – but to construct intelligibility for our own time [l’intelligible de notre temps].”1 Part of what I’ve been struggling with in my work is getting away from the idea that there is some sort of hidden message in the lianhuanhua that I’ve been looking at.

The working title for my thesis has also gone through several revisions, but for the moment I’ve settled on “Low Culture Fever: Chinese Comics After Mao, 1976-1983”.

As, you may have notices, I’ve referred to lianhuanhua as both “comics” and “comic books”. It’s intentional, even if it is a bit of a controversial point. I’ve also played around with adding the words, “Anxiety and Ambition in” before “Chinese Comics”. This was part of a previous revision which brought in affect theory to try to think my way out of an ideological corner I’d painted myself into. I’m still planning on using affect theory quite a bit, but after my last meeting with my committee, I’ve been rethinking how much I want to make that approach really front and center in my thesis, and how much I want to provide some alternative theoretical frameworks of my own invention.

But the real sticking point for the moment in my terminology is whether or not lianhuanhua are “comics” or “comic books”.

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  1. Jonathan Culler, Barthes (Fontana Paperbacks, 1983): 17; Roland Barthes, Critique et Vérité [Criticism and Truth] (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966), trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman (The Athlone Press, 1987): 260. []

Confessions of an Ivory Tower Postmodern Cultural Marxist SJW

So it’s been a while since I posted on here (more than a year!) and I’m afraid I don’t have much to report about Chinese comics, for the moment at least. It’s a been a big year: after five fantastic years in Canada, my wife (Chinese) and I (American) finally successfully applied for permanent residence…and then more or less right away moved to the UK. We’d actually decided on the move before we found out if our PR application was approved or not – mostly because if it was denied, we would have to leave anyways, since our work visas were going to expire in the spring of 2019.

On the other hand, since my wife, Ding, is still working for her (and my former) Canadian employer (doing educational tourism for university students from China) under the current rules, we can keep our PR valid until we move back to Canada in a couple of years.  (We love it here, but we’re worried if we stay in the UK we won’t be able to get on an equivalent path to citizenship. Also, the cost of living in London is ridonkulous.)

The other outcome of this move was that I decided to apply to go back to grad school for my PhD. I had been on the fence about whether I wanted to do that for a while, and a couple of things conspired to convince me to take the plunge — the most important being that Ding was onboard with the whole ‘more school’ thing.

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May the Fourth (of October) Be With You!

Ah, Mid-Autumn Festival. A time of coming together, a time of thanks, but most of all, a time of…mooncakes. What are mooncakes you ask? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Often compared (in both shape and density) to a hockey puck, the mooncake is one of China’s most iconic pastries. Traditionally filled with  lotus seed or bean paste along with a duck egg yolk to represent the moon, folk tradition holds that mooncakes date back to the earliest years of the Tang dynasty. Following a major victory over the Xiongnu 匈奴 nomadic tribes to the north of the empire,  the Emperor ordered the Imperial kitchens to prepare ‘barbarian cakes with an image of the toad’ 應將胡餅邀蟾蜍 to be presented to the commanding officer, General Li Jing 李靖.1  At the time, toads were associated with the goddess Chang E 嫦娥, who was said to have gone to live on the moon after betraying her husband, the despotic Hou Yi 后裔. Later, the toad was replaced with a (much more marketable) rabbit.

Another story that gets told about mooncakes dates back to the Yuan dynasty, when China was under Mongol rule. Supposedly, Han loyalists printed patriotic messages in the cakes. Being illiterate in Chinese (or perhaps not yet won over to the joys of the Chinese equivalent of a Christmas fruitcake) the messages are said to have circulated right under the noses of the hapless foreign invaders.

Appropriately perhaps, last year Hong Kong mooncake mogols Meixin launched a new line of mooncakes imprinted with the insignia of a somewhat different Empire and Rebel Alliance:


An Alliance of Black and White
To Commemorate of Mid-Autumn

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  1. Recorded in Things Seen and Heard in Luoyang  《洛中見聞》. See []

Zhang Shijie’s 張士傑 Fisher Boy 漁童: Transformative Nationalism in New China

The following is based on a presentation I gave for the 2017 Association of Asian Studies annual conference in Toronto as part of the panel Materia Manhuanica: Reading Chinese Cartoons on March 16, 2017. Funding for this panel was generously provided by the Huang Yao Foundation, with Eileen Chow serving as discussant. Additional  revisions were suggested by my co-panelists John Crespi, Madeline Gent, and Orion Martin. Finally, I am indebted to Barbara Mittler, whose March 6, 2017, seminar “A King’s Two Bodies? Mao’s Death and his Legacy” at UBC got me thinking about how China’s “transformative nationalism” changed under Mao and the CCP, and what this might tell us about Zhang Shijie’s Boxer comics, and their eventual suppression.

I want to begin first by thanking Mississauga people of the Ojibwe Anishinaabe First Nation on whose ancestral lands we are hosting this event today. For those of you who are just visiting Canada for the first time, this might seem a little odd, but I encourage you, especially in the really, frankly, pretty frightening times we find ourselves, I encourage you to think about this question of ownership. Who does the land really belong to and where do we all come from? Where do our stories come from and who do they belong to? I think these are questions which we are going to talk about more during tonight’s panel, and also during our question and answer session.

Niubizi and John Crespi at the AAS 2017 Materia Manhuanica panel.

Secondly, I wanted to thank the Huang Yao Foundation for sponsoring this panel. If you haven’t heard of them yet, the Huang Yao Foundation is an amazing organization, which was founded by Carolyn Huang, Huang Danrong 黄丹蓉 and the Huang family in 2001, with the goal of preserving their grandfather’s legacy as a cartoonist, a painter, and a scholar. Over here, on our sign, you can see Niubizi, or ‘Willie Buffoon’ as he was known in English. The Huang Yao Foundation has been really tireless in collecting information on Huang Yao’s career, and the careers of his peers, and they have a lot of resources to share with Chinese comics scholars. I think almost everyone on the panel today has worked with them in some capacity over the years. So I encourage you all to check them out online at huangyao dot org, and also to keep an eye out for some of the publications and other projects which will be coming down the line over the next couple of months.

Finally, I wanted to thank all of you for being here today. I know there are always a lot of demands on people’s time during AAS, and it really means a lot to us that you were willing to stop by and geek out on Chinese comics for a bit. I know that comics sometimes get a bad rap, and comics scholars are pretty notorious for spending a lot of time and energy on justifying their interest in what is, aside from being physically ephemeral, also pretty crude art form. Even if comics aren’t nearly as “declassee” as they once might have been, thanks to the material turn, I think there is still a big question that looms over any discussion of comics, which is, “Why comics?” Because there really is something that compels comics fans (like all of us here) to really “stand by our man” [hua].

Okay, no more bad puns, I promise!

So one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is being thankful and mindful of the spaces we inhabit. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it brings up this question of belonging. ‘Belonging’ is one of those great words that goes both ways—in the sense of belonging to a place, and places belonging to us.

Nanabozho piles muskrat’s earth on the shell of a turtle while beaver and otter look on in “The Creation of the World” Daphne Odjig (b. 1919, Potawatomi and Odawa First Nation), 1972.

So here we have this great mural by Daphne Odjig from the 1970s, which depicts the trickster god Nanabozho piling mud on the back of turtle to create the world. Over here you have beaver, and muskrat, who for modern viewers might bring to the mind the fur trappers, who formed the vanguard of Western imperialism in North America, and particularly here in Canada. So there’s one reading of this piece, which is basically a straight reading, as being about a creation myth, and another one, which is more subjective, but gets into a different kind of creation myth—the creation of Canada as a nation.

Now, I don’t know what Odjig would say about her painting, or if she would agree with this sort of reading, I did find this quote from her from 1968 that I think speaks to what I want to talk about today:

“If you destroy our legends you destroy our soul.”
– Daphne Odjig, 1968 (from Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair’s introduction to Manitowapow: Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water)

And that’s really a great launching off point for talking about Zhang Shijie, and his ‘folk’ stories set during the Boxer Uprising at the turn of the 20th century, but actually collected and edited (pretty heavily in some cases) and published towards the end of the 1950s and up to the mid-1960s. What’s interesting about these stories, one collection of which was called 义和团传说故事 or ‘Boxer Legends,’ is that they are mostly remembered today for the comic book and cartoon adaptations.

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Future Perfect: Ye Yonglie 葉永烈 and the Origins of Chinese Speculative Fiction

The following is based on a short talk on Chinese science fiction which I had the honor of presenting to the CHIN 40: Popular Culture in Modern Chinese Societies course at UCLA on February 16, 2017, at the invitation of Micheal Berry. I had originally planned on posting this a couple of weeks after giving the talk–it seems a little superfluous to be talking about obscure Chinese authors and artists with everything that is going on in the news at the moment. At the same time, I’m starting to wonder if the situation we find ourselves in has something to do with our inability not only to come to terms with history (particularly as a mirror for the present), but whether it stems from a more fundamental failure to think about what words really mean. Politics is about discourse, about framing ideas and making calls for action. But if we fail to interrogate that discourse, to pick apart those ideas, and question those calls for action, then we give authoritarians an open door to exploit the weak for the sake of the powerful.

Okay, so I’m going to start off on a bit of an odd note for a talk on Chinese science fiction, but I’m going to start with a nod to the Tongva people, on whose ancestral and unceded lands we find ourselves today. This is something they do up in Canada, thanking the First Nations peoples and acknowledging the enormous debt of gratitude (and almost impossible degree of contrition) that we owe to them. If you’re planning on giving a talk any time in the future, I encourage you to do the same.

I would also like to thank Professor Berry for inviting me, and thank all of you for signing up for this course! I guess we should also thank UCLA for making it possible for you guys to learn about Chinese pop culture, something that’s hardly a given these days with budget cuts and all.

Now, on the Chinese science fiction!

So, we’re going to be talking (a little) about Ye Yonglie 葉永烈, a science fiction author I’m interested in who was born in 1940. I think he’s important, because he was born at more or the less the midpoint of the history of contemporary sci-fi in China, which has just over a century and a half of history, depending on how you define what sci-fi is. For that reason, his career makes a useful frame for talking about Chinese science fiction, and what that means. In fact, I’m not going to be talking very much at all about Ye, so I encourage you to read The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry if you’d like to know more about Ye and the stories he wrote.

A lot has been written about Chinese science fiction in English, but one essay I recommend for covering the key points is Regina Kanyu Wang’s “A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction.” Jeffery Wasserstrom’s recent article for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative on the same topic is also worth checking out for a shorter, and more academic take. Finally, Ou Ning has compiled a list of classic Chinese and English sci-fi novels, which echoes some of what we see in these two pieces, but with some interesting additions as well, as we will see.

But before we can start unpacking all of this, I’m afraid we’re going to have to talk about some pretty abstract concepts, and I’m not a very abstract kind of guy. So I thought we might use an old parable to help frame our discussion:

Does anybody recognize this image? If you do, don’t shout it out just yet okay?

I went ahead and edited the illustration (and the Chinese, for those of you who read Chinese), but if you look you’ll see there are five men—five blind men, to be specific.  And the five blind men are touching something:

One of them says, “The thing that we are touching is rope, it’s long and thin.”

And the one over here says, “No, no, no, it’s a pillar, it’s thick and strong.”

And this guy right here says, “You’re both wrong, it’s a wall, it’s long and flat.”

And the guy in yellow says, “You guys really are blind! It’s a definitely a metal pipe, can’t you tell?”

Finally, the guy at the end says, “Pipe? What pipe? This obviously a rubber hose!”

Now of course, it’s none of these things at all, it’s a…drum roll, please…


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Saving the Nation Through Twisted Means: Zhang Yimou’s 張藝謀 Great Wall 《長城》

The Japanese occupation of China, beginning with the annexation of Manchuria in 1932, and culminating in full-scale invasion via Shanghai in 1937, forms a key turning point in the history of modern China. If this seems like an odd (or inauspicious, or even politically incorrect) jumping off point for a review of Zhang Yimou’s latest film, Great Wall, bear with me for a moment.


Taotie 饕餮 (‘the gluttonous horde’) mount their attack in one of the opening scenes of Great Wall


As many scholars have argued, without Japanese occupation, the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to have been able to defeat the Nationalists, whose failure (as so many textsbooks argue) to defend the Chinese heartlands turned countless young patriots against them. It is curious to note then, that so many prominent Nationalist politicians and military officials chose to collaborate with the Japanese invaders:


"Portrait of the Late Wang Jingwei" 汪精衛遺像 Ye Qianyu 葉淺予 (early 1940s)
“Portrait of the Late Wang Jingwei”  汪精衛遺像 Ye Qianyu 葉淺予 (early 1940s)


While founding KMT member Wang Jingwei 汪精衛 (1883–1944, pictured above in a mock-memorial by Ye Qianyu) is of course the most obvious and well-known collaborator, there was also his right-hand man Zhou Fohai 周佛海 (1897–1948), his brother-in-law Chu Minyi 褚民誼 (1884–1946), and, in no particular order: Chen Gongbo 陳公博 (1892–1946), Jiang Kanghu 江亢虎 (1883–1954), Bao Wenyue 鮑文樾 (1892–1980), Ren Yuandao 任援道 (1890–1980), Xiao Shuxuan 蕭叔宣 (1894–1945), Yang Kuiyi 杨揆一 (1885–1946), Tang Erho 湯爾和 (1878–1940), Chen Zenmin 陳則民 (1881–1951), Zang Shiyi 臧式毅 (1884–1956), Li Shaogeng 李紹庚 (1896–?), Wang Zihui 王子惠 (1892–?), and Zhang Yanqing 張燕卿 (1898–1951).


Taotie queen 母兽 or Japanese collaborator? You decide! 1


Of these, Wang Jingwei and Jiang Kanghu were known anarchists (as young men at least), with Wang spending 1910-1911 in prison for an assassination attempt of Prince Chun 和碩醇親王, father of the Puyi, the last emperor of China. One theory, known as “saving the nation through twisted means”   曲线救国, holds that these collaborators were actually serving the Nationalists by directing the Japanese forces to target Communists. As Chiang Kai-shek himself is supposed to have once famously said, “The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The Communists are a disease of the heart日本的侵略是皮肤病,共产党才是心脏病.2

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  1. Tried very hard not to make a 日本鬼子 comment here, but it does seem relevant to point out that in the PRC the Japanese, to this day, are referred to as ‘devils’ or ‘demons’ in casual conversation. []
  2. This quote may very be apocryphal. The Chinese appears to be a back translation from English, which fits with the fact that the most convincing source appears to be a June 30, 1941, letter from Ernest Hemingway to Henry Morgenthau, United States Treasury Secretary. Hemingway had accompanied his then wife, the journalist Martha Gellhorn, on a trip to wartime capital of Chongqing in spring of that year, where they had both met Chiang Kai-shek. In the letter, however, he simply quotes a ‘KMT official,’ not the Generalissimo himself. See “In love and war: a Hong Kong honeymoon for Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn,” Post Magazine, February 13, 2016. []

Turtles All the Way Down: Dr. Fix-it 改造博士, Mr. Wang 王先生 and the Origins of Chinese Comics

The following is based on a lecture on Chinese comics which I had the pleasure of presenting to the Asian Art and Visual Culture working group at the Townsend Center for Humanities at UC Berkeley on February 3, 2017, at the invitation of Hannibal Taubes and Weihong Bao. I’ve edited the original text slightly to reflect the comments I received before and after my presentation.

So, starting off, I’d like first thank the Asian Art and Visual Culture working group, and Hannibal Taubes and Professor Weihong Bao for inviting me to be here today, and Andrew Jones for taking the time to meet with me before this talk. It’s really an honor for me to be able to be here to not only share my research, but also have the opportunity to learn more about the projects you guys are all working on in your own fields. It’s always amazing to me to see the ways people studying things I had no idea about can inspire me to think about my own work in different ways.

I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge the Chochenyo band (today Muwekma) of the Ohlone People on whose ancestral and unceded territory we are holding this event today.

Just now, Professor Jones and I were talking about this, and I said, “I know it seems a little hokey…” But Professor Jones, to his credit, said that he didn’t think it was hokey at all. And then he told me a story, one that I hadn’t heard before.

Just to preface, I’m from Portland, so we were talking about Ursula K. Le Guin, who has lived in Portland for most of her adult life with her husband, Charles Le Guin, a historian who taught at Portland State University (my alma mater).

What I didn’t know about Ursula K. Le Guin, is that she was originally from Berkeley, and her father, Alfred Kroeber, taught at the university. (That’s where the K in her name comes from.) Kroeber was an anthropologist, one the earliest students of Franz Boas at Columbia, and Le Guin’s mother, Theodora Kroeber, was also an anthropologist, having written Ishi in Two Worlds: a biography of the last wild Indian in North America in 1961. Ishi was said to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, of the Yana people from Northern California, and he just appeared all of a sudden in 1911, after most of his tribe had been killed in the Three Knolls Massacre of 1865. The part of this story that I think is really relevant to my talk today, is that in her book, Theodora Kroeber describes how Ishi never actually told anyone his true name–just like Ged and the wizards in a Tale of Earthsea.

So we have these threads, the power of names, and the way ideas and traditions move through generations.

I’m going to try and avoid talking about politics here, because I know—or at least I think if you’re here for this talk today, it’s probably at least in part because you want to think about something else for a little while. But avoiding politics is itself political, and we are at Berkeley, which is in the national news for the protests here just two nights ago, for protests which ended in the university cancelling a talk by the white supremacist / internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos.

I would like to say that even though things look pretty dire right now, the struggle for equality and freedom from oppression is something that’s been ongoing for a long time now. I’d like to think that his Orangeness in Chief, and Brexit, and the crackdown on NGOs and lawyers and free speech in China…I’d like to think all of those things are just temporary setbacks.

I do think the tide of history is against them, in the same way that the First Nations peoples of North America, and indigenous peoples around the world are finally starting to gain some recognition for the injustices that were done to them in the past, and new policies are being put into place to address the ongoing legacies of those injustices.

And I want to thank the community here at Berkeley for standing up to the people who would have us the go the other direction, by having us betray the fundamental values of American democracy.

Okay! So, now, on the really pressing matter of the day: Chinese comics!

Statue of three stacked turtles in a public square in front of a curios shop.Statue of three stacked turtles in a public square in front of a curios shop.

So, the title of this talk is ‘Turtles All the Way Down’ and I guess that’s a little confusing for some people, because what do turtles have to do with China or comics?

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Huang Shan: Ten Years of Studying Chinese and Making Comics

This morning I realized that September marked my tenth year of studying Chinese. It’s put me in something of a reflective mood, so bear with me while I reminisce (or feel free to go watch this video of a porcupine eating pumpkins instead).

Ten years ago I had just started my third year of community college, where I was completing computer science pre reqs. Comp sci was a bit of a stretch for me, nerd though I am, since I’ve never had a very good grasp of math.1 So the simple answer I give for why I switched majors to Chinese is that I flunked out of calculus. (Although it might be just as fair to say I flunked calculus because I was studying Chinese.)

I’ve always liked computers though, for making obscure information accessible—being able to Telnet to my local library was just about the coolest thing ever, and I’m probably one of the only people in the whole world who’ve read Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia from end to end. (Before that, all I had was a set of 1968 World Books that didn’t mention the Civil Rights movement.) After that it was Geocities and Livejournal and—glory of glories—Wikipedia.

Chinese started out as a whim, based on the fact that I had read that it was one of the harder non-European languages. Comp sci required me take two years of a foreign language, and despite the fact I’d already spent a year in Germany, and studied several years of Spanish and French, I wanted to challenge myself to learn something further removed from English. And, as a bonus, back in 2005, China was in the news in big way and it seemed like picking up a basic competency would be a good way to improve my future job prospects.

More broadly, I think I was also attracted to the idea of finding an unknown place. Robinson Crusoe was one of my favorite books growing up, along with The Little Prince, and the movie version of Lawrence of Arabia. My dad had spent a gap year bicycling around Europe back in the 1970s, and I think that inspired me in a big way, too. And then while I was living in Europe myself I got into the Beats—Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Burroughs, especially. When I got back to the States I became obsessed with the idea of radical simplicity, thanks in large part to the pamphlet Fighting for Our Lives which an ex-girlfriend had sent me. I dropped out of school and moved to an organic farm on the East Coast, where I spent a year trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life.

Eventually I got the idea of trying to backpack from Bangkok to Yunnan, but ended up running out of money in Phnom Penh. After a couple of desperate months teaching English in Cambodia I’d decided it was time to go home and try something new. It’s a fun story to tell now, but at the time I remember being absolutely terrified. I was broke, and I’d become convinced that my family was going to end up footing the bill to life flight me home after getting into a traffic accident or worse.  It wasn’t an especially rational fear, I’ll acknowledge, but in hindsight it got me thinking about the fact that privilege it not really something you get to accept or reject. Privilege is about family, it’s about where you are born, the way you speak, not just the way you interact with the world, but the way the world interacts with you.

So I would like to think that dedicating my life to studying (and now translating) Chinese has been about continuing to work from a position of privilege to create social change. The ideological struggle of the 21st century is arguably cultural homogeneity vs heterogeneity. A Starbucks on every corner and an iPhone in every home, but also bubble tea and taco trucks on every other corner and Chinese and Korean and Latin American science fiction in every home, too.  I think this ties into the fight against climate change, which is really only the second existential global crisis we’ve faced (the first being the atom bomb). Fossil fuels and the infrastructure that supports their extraction and consumption are the epitome of big business. But cultural production and consumption (arguably) represent a different kind of business, one that is potentially much more sustainable given how many humans we have running around on the planet these days.

We’ve been given an amazing gift of a brain that thinks and learns and yet most of us spend our time engaged in mundane tasks, buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have.2 And even worse, we’re destroying the planet to do it.

I’d like to think that we can turn the corner on this thing, and that my small contribution will be measured in words and pictures, rather than in dollars and carbon. There is no shortage of coverage of China in the news, but so little of it is of real substance.  The average American doesn’t understand China because they don’t ever get a chance to. China isn’t tea and Beijing opera and kung fu, nor is it smog, corruption, and a growing income gap—or rather, it is all those things, but also a lot of other things, too. Real Chinese voices are diverse. They don’t always agree with each other. A great number of them don’t even live in China.

So, in the spirit of sharing an alternative voice, and something I made, rather than bought (just in time for Christmas too!) I tracked down an old project of mine that’s been sitting in a desk drawer for the last couple of years. (There are also a couple dozen print copies floating around, and at one point you could check it out from the Multnomah county zine library. Alas no more.)

At the end of my first year studying abroad in Harbin, I lucked out and got to spend a month seeing the sights with my fellow China nerd, Oregonian, and BFF Kim. Kim had been planning the trip with Martin, a German China nerd who she met in Beijing, and they were generous enough to let me tag along. We climbed mountains, visited Qufu, where Confucius was born and buried, toured the Tsingtao factory, and got lost in Shanghai. In short, it was the kind of trip you can only have when you’re in your early twenties and have China on the brain.

Two years later I self-published a short comic about one of the more memorable incidents from the trip, on Huang Shan (aka Yellow Mountain):


huang-shan-page-2 huang-shan-page-3 huang-shan-page-4 huang-shan-page-5 huang-shan-page-6 huang-shan-page-7 huang-shan-page-8 huang-shan-page-9  huang-shan-page-11

huang-shan-page-10 huang-shan-page-12 huang-shan-page-13 huang-shan-page-14 huang-shan-page-15

Okay, so maybe not a masterpiece, I admit! But I’ve been thinking a lot about this comic lately, and the spirit of generosity that went into it. I didn’t make any money from it, but I made a lifelong friend—Nim, the founder of Research Club, was sitting next to me at the Portland Zine Symposium and we bonded over stories of misspent youth and art making. That led to a whole circle of artists and zinesters that I ended up spending my last year in Portland with, before heading back to China in 2010.

My second Chinese experience was amazing too, in a different way—I got back together with Ding, and we built a life together in Shanghai. I had my first adult job, with suits and everything! But I also made sacrifices that I didn’t need to make. I mostly stopped drawing and writing comics.3  Life got simpler, but it didn’t get easier. Going back to school was a part of that process of finding a way to make a living but not let the bastards grind me down, so to speak.4

I feel lucky for all of the opportunities that studying Chinese has given me, especially now that I find myself (miraculously) gainfully employed as a translator of Chinese comics and sci-fi, among other things. I don’t think I would have predicted that I would end up here, though, and it’s hard to say how long it will last. Sometimes I feel like life is more about finding out what you don’t want to do that it is about finding what you do want to do (or can make a living doing). I used to think that once you found it you were done, but now I’m starting to realize that it’s a constant process, shaped not only by opportunity and privilege, but by consciously spending your time doing this and not that.

It’s about finding that big thing and seeing where it takes you.


  1. I also mix up left and right, and can’t read music or follow dance steps to save my life, meaning like most left brainers scarred by years of math classes I probably have a mild case of dyscalculia. []
  2. To quote St. Carlin []
  3. I’ve actually been making comics since high school, but I when I stopped I was in my mid-twenties. So the ‘ten years’ in the title of this blog post refers to two separate, but overlapping periods of my life. []
  4. To quote St. Atwood. []