By Sean Macdonald
“Humanity is far from understanding itself. The turning point of civilization’s recklessly unrestrained exploration of the abyss of consciousness has been slow to arrive. Actually, we already know that Hell is our ideal way home (31).”[i]
Hu Xiaojiang, The Father on the Moon
Before I read this book, I was not aware of Hu Xiaojiang 胡晓江 as an independent comic book artist. Therefore, I am approaching this artist from the rather unique perspective of a book of short stories and illustrations. Comics, animation, and gaming have been growing as important cultural industries in China for the past two decades at least. From the limited amount of independent comics I have seen from China, including Hong Kong, such work shares a tendency to be idiosyncratic and personal (for want of better term), and often but not exclusively employs techniques that draw attention to the hand-made aspects of the art, features they share with independent comics outside of China. Although comic book artists often cringe at facile separations between mainstream and non-mainstream work, independent comics are first of all defined by numbers. The readership is lower. Distribution has a lot to do with this. But if a particular form or genre is permitted to thrive economically, niche markets can resolve this problem. Chinese studies has been slow to pick up on the importance of mass visual culture media like comic books and animation. Sometimes this is just a case of a lack of critical tools to discuss different forms of narrative and art. Sometimes it’s just a case of knee-jerk academic ideologies. Shocking as it sounds, some researchers have trouble with the idea of discussing predominant mass media forms. As if the novel isn’t a type of mass print media, for example. Or as if the only valid types of films for classroom discussion and research were independent documentaries and so-called auteur cinema, important in their own right but not the only point of entry for understanding media. Some academics might even question the existence of solid academic readings of certain forms of cultural production because they consider it beneath the cultural institution they represent. It’s a case of “Open up the floodgates, the cartoonists are coming to destroy real literature and film” or something like that. Thankfully there is academic freedom.
In China as in the West, cartoonists have been producing art for well over a century now. And depending on how you define “cartoon” or manhua, Chinese visual culture in print can be traced back to the Song (960-1279) at least. One excellent recent study by John Crespi focuses on the early twentieth century. Crespi has done important theoretical and methodological work to discuss very heterogeneous material. Crespi’s introduction is a detailed and nuanced exposition of manhua or, for want of a better word, the comic. After giving a close-reading of a multi-panel cartoon by Ma Xingchi (1873–1934), Crespi arrives at an effective and succinct definition of the form of visual culture called manhua/comics: “a media object that reflects on its own constitution.”[ii] Crespi avoids the high/low distinctions that so needlessly clutter cultural theory. With this approach, Crespi also credits the artists and the readers. I borrow this phrase unhistorically to capture a central aspect of Hu’s book. Hu’s book makes itself known as a book in material, tactile and, at times, even erotic ways.
In his afterword Hu discusses the book in some detail. When I received my copy, the first thing I noticed was the design for the cover where the title, in highly stylized printing, is reproduced within a large yellow circle. Online the title is animated so a stroke in the word qiu orbits around itself like the orbit of the moon. Hu makes an interesting claim about his book: “The Father on the Moon is my first picture-text (or graphic? tuwen) collection. In all the works, the pictures came first and then the texts. In the past ten years I have made thousands of illustrations for all kinds of print media. Although they are illustrations, they retain an independent flavor, so the original plan for this book required a few words for each picture, at the most one or two hundred.” But after he started writing his book, the original plan changed from a book determined by the pictures to a book determined by the text: “Reading the book is a little bit demanding. It’s definitely not one of those short story collections you can read in one sitting” (219). According to Hu, “The entire book in total contains eighty-six illustrations, forty-four texts, most independently grouped into chapters, and there are also not a few that have clear or secret links, gifts I have left for the careful reader. It seems as if each story has a different set up . . .” (221).
The book is divided into six chapters, “The Father on the Moon” (Yueqiu shang de fuqin), “The Spinning Landscape” (Xuanzhuan de fengjing), “Survivor” (Xingcunzhe), “The Assassin Practices” (Cike de xiuxing), “On the Ark” (Zai fangzhou shang), and “The Mother Who Doesn’t Exist” (Bu cunzai de muqin). Chapters one and four contain nine, chapter two, ten stories. Chapter three and six contain five stories, chapter five contains six. There are a couple of extra chapters as well. Most illustrations are on the left-hand page with the text on the facing right hand page. Some are as short as a paragraph, some four or five pages. The prose is dense. Some stories have additional illustrations, circles and figures in the middle of the page. Hu also places a black and white pair of binoculars on some right-facing pages (there is a voyeuristic figure staring with binoculars through apartment windows on the wrap-around band). If the reader accepts Hu’s claim that he wrote to the stories, that is to say the illustrations came first and the texts were written to accompany the illustrations, his claim is an implicit reversal of the conventionally illustrated text. At the same time, Hu’s stories, in length and detail, indirectly challenge the primacy of his own illustrations.
Hu’s art uses thick lines, both for the outline of figures and shapes and for the coloring. The illustrations resemble well-designed, colored woodcuts with two at the most three or four colors. Hu’s figures appear almost naïve at times. The artist’s thick lines reduce human figures to generalized, non-differentiated, but often gendered, figures. At times, Hu uses the page to create miniature landscapes with human figures sometimes occupying these spaces in hallucinatory ways. Some of Hu’s human figures are eroticized, filling up the space of the page like giants (some of them are giants). Since Hu is clearly drawing links between his illustrations and texts, if I were to generalize about his illustration-inspired texts, I would say the texts are generally narrative. Collectively they form short, fragmented, and disjointed narratives, but narratives nevertheless. Perhaps as a result of this, the illustrations themselves fall into the category of narrative illustrations. The stories are about the illustrations, which in turn stand as narrative illustrations of the stories they inspired. Hu’s illustrations can be deceptively direct and simple figural images. And as the reader spends time with the accompanying texts, the illustrations become complex, multilayered (polysemic?), ambiguous, and suggestive of interior spaces, especially domestic spaces. Indeed, even when Hu draws a landscape, that landscape often seems to be an interior, framed claustrophobically by the limited space of the page. Sometimes the human body is part of the landscape of the picture, or sometimes the image could be an anthropomorphized landscape—and what are landscapes, after all, except spaces defined by an observer?
Father, then, is a series of pictures and short stories. If, as Hu claims, the stories and pictures are combined loosely into chapters, the book as a whole still revolves around narratives anchored in themes and even locales, and one of those locales is the moon. First, we are introduced to a family, s is sleeping with his drunken mother. His father will return and put him out. Then s will have to sleep with the cat. Without getting too reductive, Hu’s family made me think about how the One-child Policy[iii] created the perfect symbolic trinity of father, mother, and child from psychology. In Father the family is ultimately an alienated unit in which the son is a powerless member torn between a father occupied with his work as a miner in the depleted mines of the moon, and an indifferent, alcoholic mother. The family are migrants to the moon. In “Night Flight” (Yehang) “s only needs a short ten minutes to get from the moon to earth. This is taking into consideration the one cubic meter constant spatial state of his body (with the certainty that the sieve is not smashed).” The sieve is the result of space being fixed in the process of teleportation, “the moment when the power of space starts up . . .” (25). Presumably s is the person sitting in what looks like an airplane seat in the illustration for the story. The figure is made minuscule as it floats between the enormity of the moon and the earth, the moon reflected in miniature in the water on the earth’s surface. I would not classify Father as strictly science fiction. But there are features of Hu’s stories which are unambiguously science fictional. Maybe the term speculative fiction would work better here. In “The Depths of the Moon” (Yueqiu shenchu), after giving a short speech where she claimed humanity would construct another earth out of the moon, mother falls into a five hundred meter deep moon mine when she carelessly slips trying to access a vending machine to purchase alcohol. As I read Hu’s book, I kept thinking of Lacan’s le petit a, that sign for the little other that emerges in childhood when the child desires his mother’s attention. Le petit a (the little other) is an aspect of myself in the other person. However, I don’t want to impose a Lacanian reading on Hu Xiaojiang. This is just an association I made while reading The Father on the Moon when Hu tells a story about “s” (a minuscule/small s), he keeps this initial in the diminutive. Instead of le petit a, we have a lower case s/ s xiaoxie — a diminished subject.
Fredric Jameson has saddled Chinese studies with two concepts. The first concept is “national allegory.” Writing in the 1980s, Jameson placed Ousman Sembène and Lu Xun together as “Third World” national allegorical writers producing narratives of their nations. Jameson was roundly critiqued for a reductive view of “Third World” literature. Ironically, national allegory was a floating theory that started out in Jameson’s own readings of British and European literature.[iv] Hu’s Father employs allegory, which is a good reason to be careful of allegorical readings. One of the themes in Hu’s Father is the extraction of resources, in this case through mining, from the moon. The new residents of the moon are migrants (yimin). The narrator’s father’s invesments in lunar real estate make his family the “largest lunar landlords” (dizhu) (74). Whatever our current period will be called in the future is anyone’s guess, but certainly the last two decades have witnessed the historic movement of Chinese workers, within and without China’s borders. Representing emigration is an important moment in contemporary cultural production. However, to reduce the images and narratives in Hu to allegorical signs would only account for one aspect of the writing. After all, the migration of workers from the country to the city, and from the cities to live and work abroad, voluntarily and not, is a type of human circulation that has been going in varying intensities globally since at least the seventeenth century. Hu’s allegorical moon migration reads like a speculative allegory of migration under global capitalism. Something sci-fi is suited to.
The other concept Jameson saddled Chinese studies with was postmodernism, or at least particular perspectives on postmodernism. Jameson’s critique of postmodernism is complex, but one well-known example was the placement of a painting of peasant work shoes by Van Gogh beside Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes. For Jameson “. . . Warhol’s work in fact turns centrally around commodification . . .”[v] Jameson’s high modernist critique of postmodernism veers into the moralism of a distinction between is and ought one might make in a political science class. Is a postmodern description of commodification implicated in that commodification? Through the moon family and incidental images of a heavy industry like mining, Hu indirectly engages with modes of production. These modes are allusive of residual and emergent forms of representation, production, and reproduction. For not a few chapters, the settings for Hu’s illustrations and stories are large ships. The “Survivor” chapter begins on the moon, and includes the death of the mother. “Survivor” contains an eponymous story illustrated in four or five panels on page 78 like a chiaroscuro comic strip in black, blue, and red. The top panels could be split into three or four panels, the middle panel either functioning as an independent panel or the exterior to a cabin’s interior (the left panel) where a man sits eating and drinking on a bed. In the far-right panel, evidently on the deck of the boat, a man peers out to the right through a telescope, a fishing net at his feet. The panels underneath this one take place below deck and are divided in two by a sort of ladder. To the left of the ladder large squids, their tentacles draping over the ladder, stare to the right where a man is bisecting a squid with dark dead eyes. Two clumps of viscera are on the floor. As in the entire book, Hu employs warm, dark, and minimal colors for each illustration. In this illustration, the predominant color is red, both for the squid and the blood from the man cutting up a squid.
Similar to the story “The Depths of the Moon” that precedes it, “Survivor” represents a figurative extraction of resources. Implied and actual violence lend an ominous tone to the images. The squid stare menacingly at the man gutting the other squid and this panel seems linked to the top middle panel where a man stands outside the top left panel/cabin holding a bloody knife. Two large pools of blood on the floor are bleeding up from the bottom panels/below deck or vice versa. The imagery creates tension. A simple allegorical reading comes up against some bumps here. The text narrates the illustration as a computer game of a squid trawler with players killing the squids for points and weapons in a game that seems to operate with a scarcity associated with the real world. Thus the squid trawler is like a computer game map of a game that seems to be collapsing in on itself. Does the reader allegorize the game, the language used to describe the game, the language of the game, the language of gaming? The squids and the knives would be specific to this game, but the language of computer games is not. The illustration is apparently not on a screen (it remains an illustration in a book) unless the book’s page itself has become a screen (in a digital edition). The text is not so much an interpretation of the illustration, the text supplies a backstory to the illustration, in this case by inserting the semantic quandary of a story that narrates a simulation, which makes the story and illustration second order texts that describe a fictional game.
Is Hu critiquing industrial fishing here? Is he critiquing new forms of alienation from the material world through digital representation? (One aspect of the virtual economy is the exchange of real money for virtual goods in computer games). Hu abstracts an intersection between virtual and material worlds, each with separate and connected backstories. Hopefully we have come far enough from the reform 1980s when Jameson lectured on postmodernism at Peking University to appreciate that postmodernism isn’t just about some form of late capitalism with bad architecture. Hu Xiaojiang’s work is telling of new ways of looking at art and literature, especially the illustrated text. Hu’s illustrations and texts make space both quantifiable and fluid. The story “Night Flight,” alluded to above, explicitly creates paradoxical space:
“Ancient sophistry once said the arrow sent out doesn’t move. In a blink of an eye, we entered an interstellar era where humanity can fully employ the power of space and time. Space follows its own movement to become a new law of physics. People no longer need residential areas. A one-hundred square meter room seems to allow four hundred people to reside there perfectly. As long as each person retains their own constant .25 of a square meter, they can at the same time have the use of one-hundred square meters. This must sound amazing. Actually, it’s not incomprehensible. You only need to arrange the virtual perspective well, and make sure everyone agrees their space won’t overlap. It seems that one individual will forever never realize he is sharing space with four hundred other people (23).”
Hu alludes to Zeno’s paradox of the arrow to construct his own paradox of a space augmented by virtual optical illusion. Would it be facile to read this division of living space as an allusion to real estate industries? Before 2016, who could have imagined a real estate mogul could become President of the United States? How many have had to deal with landlords and land rent these past two years? And Hu’s science fiction often takes absurdist and facetious spins. This passage reminded me how the early discussions of hyperspace tried to quantify the relationship between virtual and “real” space, as if virtual space might actually augment real space. The key word here is “virtual” (xuni). Imagine the owners in VR headsets. Are Hu’s speculations utopic or dystopic?
Space also imprisons, as in the story “Tilt” (Qingxie), where the frames of photos enclose a couple as if within prison bars. The photos stare down on the couple as they joyfully make love next to a single wall that creates both an outside and an interior. Or the woman in “Prison Break” (Yueyu) in a room laid with one million tatami. The space of the room is difficult to make out, the walls are incomprehensible, there is no trace of at least two walls. Hu bends and warps space with his descriptive language. Language is “made strange” through the descriptions of virtual spaces, spaces that are both virtually digital and virtually speculative. The illustrations, meanwhile, anchor meaning to a possible image of what is being described in the text.
Hu’s strategy here is not easily pinned down to one genre of writing or illustration. His illustrations are often ambiguous, dream-like, nightmarish, at times possessing a playful beauty where the figures smile joyfully. That Hu works in print is significant. Some of the illustrations are erotic images of couples making love, the large circle with an ‘N’ in the center covering genitals doesn’t detract at all from the joy of these images. For Hu the book itself is an erotic object. In “The Killer is Too Cold 4” (Shashou tai leng si), two volumes of Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales serve as props for a nude young couple, one volume on the man’s lap, the other open between the woman’s breasts. The chapter itself is structured with a kind of symmetry, with “Today the woman who will be killed” (or the woman who wants to be killed, or the woman who wants to kill), and later a female assassin, who later realizes she is dreaming, a motif we see again in “Crash” (Zhuiji), the sixth story of “The Assassin Practices,” where a couple makes love on an airplane.
The book’s wrap-around band describes the collection as “A fantastic extraordinary collection of current and future stories.” The band is something of a promotional tool, but I would not dismiss such a description as marketing hyperbole. I think it is an appropriate way to describe this collection. Hu’s book is a hybrid of genres and media. That he would choose to work in print media, at times eroticizing this form, is significant. He is after all using science fiction within what could be called an archaic form; namely, print media. Hu’s sci-fi frames are also reminders of another narrative genre, the “story of the strange” (zhiguai). Although stories of the strange are usually associated with ghosts and fox spirits, many zhiguai were self-aware and skeptical of the phenomena they recorded, especially later collections.[vi] The “On the Ark” chapter partakes of a kind of eschatology of floods. In one story from this chapter, “Water Monster” (Shuiguai), the narrator becomes diminutive: “If you liken all of the human world to an ant nest beneath a peeing child, I would be the very first ant to drown in the urine” (173).[vii]
These postmodern allegories are confusing. Walls are missing. Space is unclear. Space asserts its materiality through absence. Hu cites two authors, Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera. Both were enormously popular in English translation in the 1980s. Calvino was known for his use of self-referential narrative. As I note above, Hu uses two volumes of Calvino’s Italian Folktales for the couple in “The Killer is Too Cold 4.” For his epigraph, Hu borrows a line from Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I wouldn’t want to make too much of it, but Hu is clever with his epigraph: “If the first rehearsal for life were life itself, then what would life itself be worth? Precisely because of this, life is always like a sketch.”[viii] Actually, the speaker in Kundera revises the use of the word sketch to emphasize the indeterminacy of life over art. Hu has deliberately retained the point about the sketch. Hu frames his own meaning here. Not that Hu’s work doesn’t celebrate indeterminacy. In the 1980s, Kundera was lauded in the West for writing political novels, as if he was engaged in writing dissident literature, something he denied. What is political in one context will be apolitical in another, and what is apolitical in one context may be political in another. One problem with allegory is that you need to anchor the work to a kind of moral lesson. Ai Weiwei is a nakedly political artist next to Andy Warhol, but when Ai brought Andy to China, they had to leave out Andy’s paintings of the Chairman.
“Goddess of Beauty,” a story in Hu’s “The Assassin Practices” chapter, addresses the problem of context. The illustration shows a version of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Venus stands alone like a mannequin from a de Chirico painting in her shell surrounded by water. Lines that indicate surprise or awareness issue from her faceless head. Her skin is peeled back, her hair flows ribbon-like to the top corners of the picture. In computer games the “skin” is the surface image of a character. Skins can be swapped out and applied to a body. Here the skin is grotesque. The story is about a beauty in a small town where “ . . . the store names have openly copied the big city names of fashionable brands, but it’s a small place so no one follows up” (147). But the knock-off brands and their originals are not the focus here. The original here is the beauty of a young woman from a small town whose beauty cannot be represented outside the context of her small town. Indeed, her beauty is only noticeable when she is in her hometown. Why is it that when they saw her away from her hometown “she looked so average, like a mass-produced molded doll . . . as if she lacked something essential”? Photos and videos saved on phones fail to capture her beauty. Life goes on and finally the classmates who used to get together on new year’s dwindle down to her and one other classmate, a tall, unremarkable man who asks her the question that had puzzled him for so long. In her drunkenness, she gets closer to him, her laughter tickling his ear, never had it been so real to him: “Because I am just like this town, no one remembers how it was originally” (149).
What was the original? Like the deliberate Botticelli swipe, Hu’s art calls back to woodcuts and hand-made drawings. He makes books, physical books, sexy, filled with possibilities and calling up worlds filled with images and stories. The original suggests a utopic moment of loss here. I feel a pensive realization that modernity is incapable of filling in this loss, indeed modernity was responsible for its disappearance. The original is not an intellectual property, a trademark; the original was and will always be a confluence of locale and story. Digital photos and videos are framed and decontextualized representations incapable of capturing what we remember. In “Memory” (Jiyi), a child sleeps on the top bunk with his toy beside him, his body cat-like beneath a blanket, his mother sits up in the lower bunk surrounded by household objects, a broom, a chamber pot. Standardization has been installed:
“He was born in a future that has already lost the record of what year it will be, the earth collective memory 1970s has been made into injections, injected into each newborn, before he turns fourteen, he sleeps deeply in a space capsule, setting out on long interstellar journeys, living within a carefully written virtual childhood. This is because civilization no longer has evolution as a goal, the target has devolved to dissolving barriers. Each child is provided with a similar environment for growth and roughly similar experiences. The experience of nature varies from person to person and can have subtle differences. Surprisingly, people still possess different emotions and personalities (12-13).”
Why are stories about childhood believable? Hu’s fictional childhoods trick the reader like a warped perspective. Hu’s narrated illustrations are dense miniatures that nibble away at larger narratives of history. Are they successful in this task? Who knows? Tropes of allegory and a modernity long since left behind and silently rejected only account for some of the brilliant visual and textual strategies of The Father on the Moon. If you are looking to read a comic book, Hu Xiaojiang has published some of those. If you are looking for a very pleasurable book of incredible illustrations and fantastic stories that end in mise en abymes filled with joy and questions, The Father on the Moon is the book for you.
[i] Hell is a translation of diyu, literally “earth prison.” In religious terms, hell/earth prison is the afterlife.
[iii] The One-child Policy was a program to control population implemented by the Chinese Communist Party from 1980-2015. My comment is just in passing. I do not know if the author was directly affected by this policy.
[iv] See Fredric Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndham Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979: 87-104. Available online: https://archive.org/details/fablesofaggressi0000jame/page/n5/mode/2up (Accessed January 18, 2022).
[v] See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991: 9.
[vi] See David Pollard’s superb collection: Ji Yun, Real Life in China at the Height of Empire: Revealed by the Ghosts of Ji Xiaolan, trans. David E. Pollard, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2014: pages 41-42 are interesting in this regard. Admittedly, Ji is a singular case, but such is literature.
[vii] My translation is awkward here: “. . . 如果把整个人类世界比作顽童胯下的蚁窝，我也只不过是被最先尿死的那只蚂蚁吧。”
[viii] I changed the English to fit the Chinese version in Hu. The original text comes from a dialogue between the protagonist and his lover. The full translation (Hu’s epigram is in bold) reads: “There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No ‘sketch’ is not quite the word, because sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline for no picture.” See Milan Kundera, The Unbearable lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim, New York: Harper Perennial, 1991: 8.
Sean Macdonald teaches Chinese language and culture at SUNY Buffalo. Sean has published on modern Chinese literature and culture, animation studies, and Chinese-English translation. He is the author of Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media (Routledge, 2017).