By Chuanhui Meng
Rebecca Scott’s PhD dissertation, “The Production and Distribution of Lianhuanhua 1949-1966″ (University of Nottingham, 2016), looks at an intriguing and understudied medium lianhuanhua (linked pictures) during the first 17 years of socialist China. Through comprehensive and in-depth survey of both the production and distribution of lianhuanhua, Scott sheds exclusive light on political culture during the early Mao era. According to Scott, during the early years of the socialist era, lianhuanhua was a relatively new medium of which the Party-State had had little experience utilizing prior the establishment of the PRC. As a result, the process of its regulation is very informative of the dynamics in the governance of the culture sphere and censorship in China during the early 1950s. Through an examination of the Party-State’s attempt to regulate the production and distribution of lianhuanhua, Scott discovers the complicated situations faced by the top-down censorship because of the existence of the semi-private distribution venues. Scott continues to argue that the rise of lianhuanhua from a new medium to the most popular one before the start of the Cultural Revolution discloses linkages between socialist realism, traditional techniques, ideological discourses and popular cultures.
One of the key questions around which Scott structures her project is a paradoxical situation the Party-State faced: how to make lianhuanhua didactic and popular at the same time? As Scott explains, “the Party-State’s brand of political culture was inherently ideological and was used to propagate ideas about orthopraxy and orthodoxy. Paradoxically, however, this culture also needs to be genuinely appealing and entertaining.” In her explication of this topic, Scott brings to the fore the medium specificities of lianhuanhua as visual signs and the impact of this on the Party-State’s establishment of its distinctive political culture in the transformation of the existing cultural ecology.
The complicated and question-beckoning process of the institutionalization of lianhuanhua stands at the center of Scott’s inquiry into the production and circulation of the medium. Placing the institutionalization of the medium against the larger background of the nationalization of the cultural industry during the first decade of socialist China, Scott looks at many unique aspects of Chinese political culture through the lens of lianhuanhua study. On the one hand, not enough examples ever existed before the PRC regarding the regulation of the comic book industry as even the USSR did not have such precedent examples. On the other, the polyphonic nature of the Party-State’s regulation of lianhuanhua indicates many understudied aspects of its political-cultural domination: even after 1956 when the industry had been successfully co-opted, for example, the continuous production and circulation of various different genres, working along with the regulations or not, negate the assumption of a top-down censorship and political domination over the cultural industry. The relationship between cultural bureaucracy and the publishing industry (especially the less managed kind like the Civil Administration) is also examined closely and alternatively by Scott in her dissertation project. She further extends her research of lianhuanhua to include the complicated interactions between writers, artists and the Party-State, with an exceptional emphasis on the determinist impact of the medium specificities of lianhuanhua.
Chapter Two analyzes the history of lianhuanhua prior to 1949, focusing on characteristics of its publication and distribution. Telling the previous story of lianhuanhua during the Republican era, Scott specifically writes about the Nationalist Government’s concern over the dangerous impact lianhuanhua may impose onto children and its justification of necessary censorship of the medium. This chapter also covers the history of lianhuanhua in the base areas of the Chinese Communist Party during the civil war before 1949, telling an interesting story of how the CCP historians managed to rewrite this pre-history into revolutionary narratives after the establishment of the PRC.
Chapter Three sheds light on the nationalization of the lianhuanhua publishing industry from 1949 to 1956. Scott starts with analyses of the lianhuanhua’s popularity among urban audiences, explaining the Party-State’s endeavor to transform the industry in the early years of the PRC. Digging into the relatively early administration of lianhuanhua, Scott examines the role of various institutions ranging from the civil administration, the cultural bureau, and the publishing agents. Specifically, she zooms into the censorship issued by the Party-State in the promotion of “revolutionary lianhuanhua,” focusing on the bafflements the CCP encountered in the regulation of a medium unfamiliar to them till the establishment of the socialist state. The chapter ends with the discussion of an interesting situation in the early administration of the medium – the question-provoking absence of Soviet influences in the realms related to lianhuanhua comparing to the circumstances in other cultural industries.
Chapter four and five focus on the ongoing struggles over the publication and censorship of lianhuanhua before 1966. Chapter four addresses the Party-State’s cultivation of both propaganda and educational functions out of lianhuanhua. It investigates an intriguing phenomenon of the asynchronicity between the fast-changing official agenda and the actual circulation of lianhuanhua in various distribution venues. Besides, this chapter deals with an important question laid out in the Introduction in the previous section: how the Party-State utilized the characteristics of the medium to carve out propaganda functions in their telling of revolutionary tales? In her answering of this question, Rebecca’s methodological inquiry of the relationship between medium specificities and mechanisms of political culture is fully fleshed out in this part. Last but not the least, Rebecca sheds light on the various genres of comics in circulation, both as evidence for the polyphonic nature of the distribution of lianhuanhua and as resources of their later adaptation in the following era marked by frenzied politicization of culture.
Chapter five focuses on the issue of censorship. Describing the ways of censorship over the production and circulation of lianhuanhua, Rebecca explores the randomness and volatility of the Party-State’s regulation of the medium. She specifically looks into the lack of consistent official strategy in the lianhuanhua industry and its social-political consequences before the Cultural Revolution.
Chapter six discusses the interesting role played by some “creative cadres” in the production and circulation of lianhuanhua from 1956 to the early 1960s. The chapter zooms into the interactive relationship between artists and the Party-State agencies, attributing this to the medium specificity of lianhuanhua that managed to bring popularity to the propagandist content. Rebecca continues to trace the influences lianhuanhua artists received from several important political campaigns – the Hundred Flowers, the Anti-Rightest, and the Great Leap Forward, focusing specifically on the vicissitude of their artistic styles. “Finally, I conclude that by the early 1960s lianhuanhua artists had been able to reconcile the two inherent contradictions in Communist Art policy.”
Chapters seven and eight delve into the distribution of lianhuanhua. Chapter seven examines the roles played by bookstore, school and library distribution in the dissemination of lianhuanhua. Rebecca not only looks into the Party-State’s regulation of the content of lianhuanhua but also the way people read it. Chapter eight proceeds to investigate one specific venue of the circulation of lianhuanhua – the street vendors. As a less regulatable way of circulation, the street vendor provides an intriguing case in which the Party-State faced challenging situations in forcing official registration and appropriate locations. According to Scott, however, it is precisely because of the lack of control over the street vendors that lianhuanhua continued to circulate in major cities until the 1960s despite its disreputable fame being “un-educational” or even “harmful” gained in the late 1950s.
 Rebecca Scott, “The Production and Distribution of Lianhuanhua, 1949-1966,” PhD diss. (University of Nottingham, 2016), 9.
 Ibid, 19
Chuanhui Meng received her M.A. in East Asian Studies from Duke University (Durham, U.S.) and is currently a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (Minneapolis, U.S.). Her research fields include modern Chinese film and media history and theories of film and media. She is now focusing on the study and theorization of film genre in socialist China, looking at the production and experiment of various genres ranging from comedy, documentary to thrillers.