By Rebecca Scott
Lianhuanhua, while varying in size and format are generally palm-sized serial picture stories which emerged in China’s cities, particularly Shanghai during the Republican period and by 1949 were a ubiquitous form of urban-based popular culture read by adults and children alike. While comic publication boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, as the medium became an essential avenue for the dissemination of Party-State rhetoric, the diversity of genres available also speaks to the importance of popular consumer tastes. Emerging from the Cultural Revolution, lianhuanhua continued to play a pivotal role both in popular culture and broader discussions on the role of art and literature. While the medium began to decline in the late 1980s and 1990s due to competition from other forms of visual media, such as television, the 2000s saw a renewed interest in lianhuanhua. Signifying this, the Shanghai People’s Fine Art’s Publishing House restored the lianhuanhua publishing department, which in 2005 alone, issued over 50 titles.Lianhuanhua are currently readily available in bookshops, with republications of classics as well as new genres emerging.They occupy antique market stalls, while specialized websites for their retail and discussion have emerged online. This recent fascination with the medium has often centered on pre-Cultural Revolution publications, with lianhuanhua illustrated by the comic masters of the 1950s and early 1960s selling for high prices at auction. The fundamental importance of lianhuanhua to both local and national cultural discourses has also been marked by the placement of original prints from seminal comics, such as He Youzhi’s (1922-2016) serial Great Changes on the Mountain (Shan Xiang Jubian, 1961-1965) and Li Shuangshuang (1964) alongside Shanghai’s most celebrated works of the twentieth century in the China Art Museum. While scholarship in English on the medium is still relatively limited, in conjunction with the renewed interest in lianhuanhua from consumers and the artistic establishment, Chinese academic scholarship has proliferated. This essay seeks to examine existing significant scholarship in both English and Chinese to identify broad trends in the emerging narrative, about the medium in the 1950s and 1960s in particular.
Frequently, scholarly accounts in Chinese center on the artistry of particular comics and provide a useful reference for those perceived most notable from specific historical periods. Current judgements of comic value usually rest on their winning prestigious national art prizes or being produced by the acclaimed artistic “masters” of the medium. This academic literature often incorporates beautiful reproductions from such classics as Hua Sanchuan’s (1930-2004) The White Haired Girl (Bai Mao Nü,1965). These accounts provide an indelible impression of the comics and a sense of their enduring appeal. Notable in this trend is the Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House volume on lianhuanhua for its Fine Arts series.Providing a narrative history of the medium, this account details why specific comics are aesthetically valuable.
Meanwhile using works of the winners of the 1963 Comic Book Awards as a starting point, Wei discusses what made lianhuanhua of that era distinctive in four ways, namely theme, characterization, composition and artistic technique.At the same time, scholarship focusing on aesthetics has provided insights into the art market, and the republishing of specific comics in different formats over time and their current marketability. Recent examples of this are Liu’s account of the artistic significance and reissuing of Wang Shuhui’s (1912-1985) (usually described as China’s only female “comic master”) seminal comic The West Chamber (Xixiangji, first published in 1954) and Wen’s discussion of the multiple adaptations of The Water Margin (Shuihu zhuan) since the Republican period, including the famous series produced between 1955 and 1962, which involved six of China’s eminent artists.
Scholarship delving more deeply into the creative process has provided an understanding of both the lives of the artists themselves and the intricacies of illustrating lianhuanhua. Notably, Lin provides an overview of the career trajectories of fifteen significant 20th-century artists, who produced lianhuanhua, highlighting what made each distinctive.Accounts of individual artists (often based on interviews) have also cemented an understanding of the conventions of the medium in terms of composition and character portrayal, as well as the challenges faced in producing the medium in the early PRC.Notably, lianhuanhua were a form of “travelling narrative” and translating stories from other cultural mediums proved a persistent challenge, which was sometimes surmounted by directly mimicking the gestures of characters on film.The scholarship has also revealed the fundamental importance of artistic research as a bedrock for the creative process in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including grassroots observation and interviews with individuals in the communities in which the comic was set.Publications by artists themselves have long contributed valuable insights to this line of research. For example, in his treatise on how to illustrate comics, He articulated the importance of artist’s having an understanding of the step-by-step processes in people’s everyday lives, such as cooking a specific meal to enable a realistic depiction in serial form.Accounts of artists themselves are currently gaining renewed traction with republications and new collaborations. Notable of the trend is a recent publication based on Gu Bingxin (1923-2001) and He Youzhi’s famous lectures on the creative process, including the various stages of drafting, the materials required and character design.
Some recent scholarship has moved away from a central focus on aesthetics to interrogate the development of lianhuanhua publishing and situate the development of the industry within broader socio-political and cultural developments. For example, scholarship has revealed the tension which existed between Shanghai as the lead in lianhuanhua production and Beijing as the administrative center in the early PRC, as well as the comics prescribed role and some of the Party-State distribution schemes through factories and schools.Adopting a more localized approach, Li’s study of the Beijing comics gives an overview of the changes the industry experienced after 1949.Meanwhile, Cheng provides a more comprehensive (if not always highly analytical) overall assessment of how the medium developed after 1949.Recently, taking the Party-State’s efforts to popularize the industry as a framework, Li identifies trends in lianhuanhua production over the last 70 years and critical national players in the medium’s development, while Wang uses the theories of Pierre Bourdieu to understand the political, economic and cultural factors impacting lianhuanhua production from the early twentieth century to the 1990s.Meanwhile Zhang uses detailed examples from a range of different periodicals and newspapers to explore criticisms levelled at particular comics in the 1950s and 1960s.Zhang also looks at the way publishers and authors responded to these condemnations as part of a “controlled loop,” and in so doing offers valuable insights into the role of media criticism in Party-State building more generally.
Assessments of Republican era lianhuanhua are usually less forthcoming and often critical of the content of the stories and the quality of the artistry with the 1950s and 1960s presented in contrast as the period in which the medium experienced marked advancement.Zhang’s analysis of media criticism is a significant exception to these mostly positive narratives.Generally, studies also tend to avoid the complexities of the transition period, the persistent difficulties in regulating lianhuanhua in the 1950s and 1960s and the inherent tensions in the medium’s role as both political culture and popular consumer culture. It is also worth noting that while the above research has offered unique insights into lianhuanhua’s importance as a hand-drawn art form, it has often had the effect of shifting the focus away from lianhuanhua’s role in literary culture, and those involved in the writing process, namely adaptors (gaibianzhe) and authors feature much less frequently in the narrative. There is, however, a rich and expanding assortment of scholarship available on lianhuanhua in Chinese which seeks to highlight the enduring importance of the medium to national artistic discourses and provide valuable insights into notable comics and artists, specific techniques and critical trends in the overall development of the medium.
The ephemeral comics have garnered less focused and ongoing attention from scholars writing in English than media such as high literature, film or other genres of art. Despite this, there were early attempts to understand how lianhuanhua communicate their message especially in comparison to comics from other cultures, their role in broader political, cultural discourses and more recently and with access to previously untapped archival resources the institutionalization of the medium. Early on in a discussion of the “People’s comic books,” Nebiolo noted that the decision to incorporate text in lianhuanhua in the 1950s was quite surprising given literacy levels and that as a result lianhuanhua less resembled European and American comics, which are more inclined to incorporate minimal text and balloon captions.Later, in an interesting, if not always a wholly convincing discussion of lianhuanhua in his essays on mass media, Eco identifies key pointers concerning the functioning of lianhuanhuatext and image and how they work together.Eco suggests that the use of text to convey essential meaning allows for artistic realism and strict delineation of perspective rather than having to rely on cartoon-like imagery to emphasize different points.
Discussions of lianhuanhua have featured in broader studies of Maoist literary and visual culture. For example, highlighting both the medium’s centrality to literary discourses but at the same time, the penchant for the scholarship to favor fiction, drama and poetry, Farquhar includes a chapter on the medium in her analysis of twentieth-century Chinese children’s literature.She focuses specifically on comics which garnered widespread acclaim, notably Zhao Hongben’s (1915-2001) Monkey Thrice Beats the White Boned Demon (Sun Wukong San Da Bai Gujing). More recently and also from a literary perspective, in his analysis of the “red classics,” King discusses some famous lianhuanhua adaptations, such as Li Shuangshuang.This situating of lianhuanhuain discussions about literature makes a notable contrast to the oft contextualization of the medium in China.
There are also a few studies which take a holistic approach to the study of culture more generally and thus draw comparisons between lianhuanhua and other forms of literature and art. In his broader discussion of the development of Maoist political culture and three key themes, namely, nationalism, Party-State control and Soviet influence, Hung combines an analysis of manhua and lianhuanhua.Meanwhile, in her analysis of Cultural Revolution music, art and speech, Mittler explores the thematic content of select comics questioning whether the “chained pictures” actually “chained readers.”Recently, using comic art as an all-encompassing term to include cartooning, comic strips in newspapers, caricature, animation and lianhuanhua, Lent and Xu explore commonalities in the histories of these different mediums, their role in artistic discourses more generally and links to society and influences from outside China.In the first published book-length holistic study of Chinese comic art in English, Lent and Xu supplement analysis of existing research with evidence gathered from interviews with key players in the forms of media analyzed.
While studies such as the ones described have provided useful insights into commonalities and dominant thematic discourses institutional analysis has also helped to draw out what crucially made the medium distinctive. With a more specific focus on lianhuanhua, Seifert analyzes the link between the medium and socio-political developments in China from the advent of the early Republican period to the present day.Seifert argues that the reason the comics declined in the 1990s was that in light of Tiananmen their primary prescribed role of political and social guidance since the 1950s no longer seemed legitimate. While her focus is primarily the Chinese Artists Association and artistic developments in the academies from which lianhuanhua were primarily removed, Andrews discusses what made the medium distinctive in terms of institutional set up in her seminal study of the Chinese art world in the early PRC. She suggests that two significant contradictions in Communist Art policy, namely maintaining popular appeal versus retaining high artistic standards and combining traditional artistic techniques with Socialist Realism, were most successfully resolved through the medium of lianhuanhua.
Andrews also produced an article on the development of the lianhuanhua industry from the Republican period to the 1980s, commenting on early attempts to market the medium in the 1930s, Lu Xun’s early advocacy, the broad transformation of the industry in the 1950s and significant characteristics of the work of acclaimed artists, such as their ability to convey believable emotion.More recently, in his analysis of the fate of Shanghai Book Trade Association (SBTA) during the transition period from 1945-1957, Volland touches on lianhuanhua producers stating that they made up a large proportion of Shanghai’s small scale publishers, who expanding in number exponentially in the late 1940s felt marginalized by the larger publishers dominating the SBTA.Meanwhile, while Shen studies the birth of lianhuanhua‘s unusual distribution network during the Republican period which centered on street stalls, Scott explores the tension between lianhuanhua as both consumer and political culture and the conflicts between these “guerrilla vendors” and cultural agencies in the early PRC as the Party-State tried to regulate distribution networks.Utilizing journal and newspaper articles, the writings of the artists themselves, and a wealth of municipal archival records from Shanghai and Beijing, Scott’s thesis explores the intricacies of the transformation of the lianhuanhua publishing and distribution during the “seventeen years.”She focuses on what made the medium distinctive and analyses the transition period, the publishing set up, censorship, the role of the artist and writer and avenues for vending and dissemination.
How to define lianhuanhua has and continues to garner debate. In varying contexts, lianhuanhua have constituted and continue to constitute political culture, popular culture, “mass” art, currently “high” art, children’s literature, adult literature and “travelling narratives” to name a few. Attempts to interrogate the historical significance of the medium have unsurprisingly and necessarily been somewhat disparate, with historians adopting varying analytical approaches and definitions. These diverse approaches are by no means a negative thing and speak to the centrality of the medium to political communication, art and literature as well as social histories of every day life and understandings of publishing, state institutions and even business to name but a few. Nevertheless, the future perhaps calls for a more cohesive and collaborative approach to analysis and more attempt to situate lianhuanhua‘s importance to various fields, while not losing what makes this medium so distinctive as popular culture.
Pan 2008, 714.
One example is da lianhuanhua, painted on traditional paper and often framed. They are intended for exhibition, appreciation, collection and auction. Li 2019, 192.
Liu 2019, 107. Wen 2015, 147.
Zhang 2012; Lu 2005.
For example, Zhong 2011, 44.
He 1982, 26.
Lian 2012, 98.
Li 2019; Wang 2017.
Wang 2017, 137.
Nebiolo 1973, xiv. Nebiolo’s account includes reproductions and translations of Cultural Revolution comics, such as the Red Detachment of Women. In another early analysis of the medium during the period, Hwang (1978) suggests their proliferation and importance to propaganda discourses.
His comparisons of the medium with comic strips from other cultures are less well developed.Eco 1994, 148.
Eco 1994, 155.
Farquhar 1999, 192.
Hung 2011, 55.
Lent and Xu 2017.
Seifert 2008. Seifert’s account in German and is, as far as this author is aware, the only published book account focusing solely on lianhuanhua outside China.
Andrews 1994, 134.
Volland 2014, 242.
Shen 2001; Scott 2017.
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———. “Literature in Line: Picture Stories in the People’s Republic of China.” Inks: Cartoon and Comic Art Studies4, no. 3 (1997), 17-32.
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———. “‘Seizing the Battlefield’ in the Face of ‘Guerrilla Vending’: The Struggle over the Dissemination of Lianhuanhua, 1949 to 1956.” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture 29, no. 1 (2017): 136–71.
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Dr Rebecca Scott received her PhD in modern Chinese history from the University of Nottingham in 2016. She subsequently lectured on historical research methods and Chinese nineteenth and twentieth-century political, cultural and social history at the Universities of Nottingham and York. Currently, Rebecca teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses at King’s College London. Her research interests lie in the fields of modern Chinese cultural and political history, with a particular focus on the interactions between Party-State agencies and cultural producers in the early PRC. Her doctoral thesis focused on the production and distribution of lianhuanhua, and she has previously published on the comics.