Narratological Analysis of Fellow Ants, Please Be Aware!

By Nick Stember

Published in May 1980 by the Shanghai Fine Arts Press, Fellow Ants, Please Be Aware!is a 46 page long, full color lianhuanhua (linked pictures) with an initial print run of 400,000. While traditional narratological analysis (as exemplified by Vladimir Propp) is perhaps difficult to apply to this story given the distinct cultural and historical context, a more fluid approach to narrative theory (in the case of this essay, represented by the work of A.J. Greimas) reveals a cursory typology of the “scientific fairytale,” the genre of cultural production to which Fellow Ants belongs. Although the story is not paratextually identified as such, it would have been recognized almost immediately as a “scientific fairytale” on account of both content – a talking animal fable designed to impart not only a moral lesson, but also scientific knowledge– and also the style of illustration, which borrows heavily from neotenic facial and corporeal dysmorphia (or put more simply, googly eyes and big heads) of Disney and Japanese manga. 

As an approach to children’s cartoons in the PRC, neotenic dysmorphia can be traced back to the 1941 film Princess Iron Fan, which had been in turn been inspired by Walt Disney’s wildly successful feature length animated film Snow White. It featured heavily in the animated films produced at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio through the 1950s and early 60s,although by the late 1950s there was a conscious effort, led by studio director Te Wei, to “nationalize” by using more traditional forms of Chinese art in animation, such as ink painting.Little of this legacy can be seen in Fellow Antshowever.     

In terms of format, although full color illustrations are more typically associated with huiben(picture books), several details mark this publication out to be a lianhuanhua: for one, the physical dimensions of the book, which is oblong, measuring 7.87 cm tall by 10.92 cm long. Secondly, on the inside title page, we see both an original author (Chi Shuchang) in addition to an adapter (Xu Xinren) being credited. This is because, as with most lianhuanhua, the story was originally published elsewhere in what was likely a most text only version, possibly with marginalia illustrations. In the case of this version, the illustrations are credited to He Yumen and Feng Jiannan. Finally, there is the relatively the layout of “picture above, text below” which is a feature of not only lianhuanhua, but Chinese illustrated texts dating back to at least the Ming dynasty.     

The story is relatively simple: It begins with “Little Don’t Wanna,” a young ant who we are told has just begun school. On the second page we are introduced to his mother, who tells him that the colony will be moving because “our relatives are increasing by the day, and so it’s become too crowded here, we really must move or else!” Here we have an additional legacy of lianhuanhuavisual narration, the occasional use of “speech balloons” or “dialogue boxes” as they are known in Chinese, but with the twist that an image is included rather than text (Fig 1). These are only rarely used in lianhuanhua, and when they are, an image is almost always used rather than text. Spoken dialogue is more typically written out in the caption text, which in many cases would have been read aloud by a parent or older sibling, with the child following along with the pictures.[1]

Fig 1: Mama ant reminds Little Don’t Wanna about the big move

Returning to our story, after leaving his mother, Little Don’t Wanna then meets the Ant Queen, who recognizes him and again reminds him of the move, before asking the recalcitrant adolescent if he knows where they are moving to. Little Don’t Wanna replies that he “doesn’t wanna know,” but the Queen tells him anyway: under the big tree next to the vineyard. As they are leaving the colony, with the Queen and her retinue at the head of the procession, Little Don’t Wanna dawdles and falls behind. He soon runs into Mr. New Face, who is a stranger, but looks “a lot like one of his family members.” When Mr. New Face asks Little Don’t Wanna where they are moving to, Little Don’t Wanna says he has no idea and is simply following along. When Mr. New Face offers to carry him, he readily agrees, only to be swallowed whole – book bag and all (Fig 2).

Fig 2: Little Don’t Wanna meets his ignominious end

Mr. New Face then runs and catches up with the ants, who soon arrive at the big tree, where the worker ants are so busy building new homes for the colony that nobody notices Mr. New Face. It is here, on page 21, roughly halfway through the story, that Little Don’t Wanna’s mother comes in to report to the Queen he is missing. The soldier ants are sent out to search for him but find no trace. The next day, a second mother reports that her child also went missing, this time in the middle of the night. In response, the Queen holds a meeting where it is decided that “defensive work of the colony entrance should be strengthened.” This of course, does nothing, as the foe is, unbeknownst to the ants, already among them.

On an inspection tour of the colony, however, the Queen runs into Mr. New Face, who tries to avoid looking at her. When she gets a good look at him, however, she immediately recognizes him to be “our enemy, the Ant Spider!”  Her loyal subjects surround him, and after a tussle, eject him from the colony where he narrowly avoids being eaten by two birds. Alas, we are told, “the Ant Spider’s celebrations were premature” as the bites from the solider ants have pumped him full of formic acid (in Chinese, literally “ant acid”) and thus does he perish, shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, back in the colony, the ants have “learned a painful lesson.” The worker ants drag the Ant Spider’s corpse back to the colony where they “put it on display” on a plinth as a warning to other ants. Underneath, a sign reading “Ant Lion” is crossed in red, as was the custom for individuals who has been exposed as “counterrevolutionaries” and other enemies of the state during the now infamous “struggle sessions” of the Cultural Revolution. Finally, on the last page of the comic, we are told that “for the sake of firmly inscribing this incident in memory,” a picture has been taken of the corpse, and the words “Fellow Ants, Please Be Aware” written underneath, with “copies distributed for ants from all around to see” so that “they won’t be fooled again” (Fig 3).     

Fig 3: The ant spider’s corpse as an object of struggle

While the contextual symbolism is clear, in terms of genre, as has been discussed, at the time it was published the story would have been described as a “scientific fairytale,” an innovation credited to the pioneering science popularization author Ye Yonglie. Ye, who was one of the first writers to openly write science fiction after the end of the Cultural Revolution, has described scientific fairytales as a way of getting around the restrictions on publishing science fiction during the Cultural Revolution, a time when even scientific textbooks were expected to express the “revolutionary” politics enshrined in “Mao Zedong Thought.”

Narratologically, if we attempt to apply the classic seven “function” typology of Vladimir Propp, looking only at the first half of Fellow Ants, it is clear enough we have a villain (the Ant Spider) and a hero (Little Don’t Wanna).[2]We can also argue that there is a dispatcher (the mother, who reminds our hero about the big move), and a donor/helper (in the form of the Ant Queen, who tests Little Don’t Wanna, and also provides the information about where the ant colony will be moving to). What is less clear, first of all, is who the “princess or prize” might be, and secondly, how one might apply Propp’s typology to the second half of the tale, in which the Queen becomes the hero in place of the unfortunate Little Don’t Wanna. This unsurprisingly perhaps, when we consider the fact that Propp developed his typology of functions from a study of 19thcentury Russian fairytales, rather than late 20thcentury Chinese ones.

Moving on to the more abstract narrative theories of A.J. Greimas, however, we can perhaps make more headway. Greimas argues that “an articulation of actors constitutes a particular tale; a structure of actants constitutes a genre.”[3]Beyond its abstractness, what makes Greimas’ approach particularly useful for our subject is the fact that it suggests that other “scientific fairytales” should feature a similar cast of characters to Fellow Ants. And indeed, this is what we see when we look at, for example, Patient of Unknown Origin, the scientific fairytale by Ye Yonglie. In Patient we also see a villain who disguises himself as beneficial insect and in so-doing causes harm to the community – in this case, however, he is a moth larva, and his crime is not eating other (harmful) insects instead nibbling holes in crops meant for human consumption. As in Patient, the foe-disguised-as-friend is found out at the end, and similarly beaten to death by those who he had fooled.

For his “actants” Greimas suggested a typology of six distinct roles, upon which all characters are based: Subject, Object, Sender, Receiver, Helper, and Opponent. Actants can either be animate or inanimate objects (such as magic sword), and a single character or object can embody in Fellow Ants, the subject is initially Little Don’t Wanna, whose object (or goal) is to arrive at the big tree beside the vineyard. He is sent on his quest by two helpers: his own mother, and also by the mother of all ants in the colony, the Queen. Instead of arriving at his goal, however, he is received by the villain, who dispatches him. The agency of Little Don’t Wanna, then passes to his mother, whose quest is to find her son. This quest is passed in turn to the Queen, who, as more ant children go missing, is forced to incorporate the search for Little Don’t Wanna into a much larger quest for the enemy that is stalking the colony.

What is striking about Fellow Ants when read in this manner, is the fact that we have a story in which the agency of the individual is repeatedly sublimated into the agency of the group – in this case, the colony. In the case of Little Don’t Wanna, his transgression of social norms (quite literally alluded to in his name) is punished with death. Because he is unwilling to keep up with the group during the big move, he becomes the enemy-from-within, who is just as much of an obstruction to social cohesion as the Ant Spider, who represents a more obvious peril, the enemy-from-without.

In Patient, on the other hand, the role of the well-meaning enemy-from-within, meanwhile, is played by the helpful praying mantises, who carry the injured foe into the Beneficial Insect Hospital, having been duped into believing him to be friend in need (Fig 4). The lesson is clear: Even altruistic acts can have dire consequences for the community if appropriate caution is not taken. While we must, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, “seek truth from facts,” and having done so, act as one for the benefit of all (“serve the people”), for specific implementation we should look to our leaders – and their statues and publications – not only for guidance, but moreover to avoid the tragic pitfalls of the selfish Little Don’t Wanna, or the kindly but misguided mantises.

Fig 4: Misguided mantises help a “patient”

Rather than reading this simply as artifact of communist ideology, however, we might consider the distinction between the “sage” and the “common man,” which goes back to the Classic of the Way and Virtueof the Spring and Autumn, Warring States period. Animal fables, too, have survived from this period, with the most well-known being collected in the Zhuangzi. In the Zhuangzi’s version of a “scientific fairytale,” for example, a praying mantis stands in the road, waving his arms at cart which is barreling toward him, giving rise to the popular saying “Trying to Block the Cart with Mantis Arms.” Again, the lesson is clear: for action to be effective, it should proceed from a position of knowledge, rather than one of ignorance.

Visually, semantically, historically, and typologically, as we have seen, both Fellow Antsand Patientclearly belong to the genre of “scientific fairytales,” but at the same time draw upon a much larger body of cultural knowledge and historical awareness that their readers – particularly the younger ones – may have only been vaguely familiar with. As with any text, beyond simply entertainment value, it is the complicated interplay of meanings that can be both be read into and out of a story that gives it lasting value and invites a text to be re-read, collected – and in the case of this text, scanned and given a second life on the internet, and from there, in the foregoing analysis.   

[1]Likewise, Republican-era manhua(cartoons), were more directly inspired by illustrated social and political satire in magazines such as Vanity Fair, and therefore show a marked preference for captions over speech bubbles. Prior to the influx of Japanese manga in the mid-1980s and early 90s, only comic strips (such as Ye Qianyu’s Mr. Wang) or adaptations of Western comic books (such as Tintin) made extensive use of the speech balloon.

[2]Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, revised by Louis A. Wagner (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968 [1928]).

[3]Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method, trans. Danielle McDowell, Ronald Schleifer, and Alan Velie, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983 [1966]), 200.


Nick Stember is currently a PhD student in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK. He is a translator and historian of Chinese comics and science fiction. He completed an MA in Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia with his thesis on the Shanghai Manhua Society.  

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