Li Kunwu hard at work.
On the first page of “A Chinese Life,” one of three pages in color that introduces this long but fast-moving, black-and-white graphic novel, cartoonist Li Kunwu draws the argument between himself and his co-author, French diplomat Philippe Ôtié, which led to the creation of this book. Li protests against drawing his own life story as a comic book because “I’m just one Chinese person among millions of others. Who’d be interested in the story of someone as ordinary as me?”
Ôtié answers: “But that’s exactly where the appeal is! Through the life of an individual like yourself, foreign readers could come to understand China.”
The book stands as evidence that Ôtié won that argument, and also validates Ôtié’s idea that Li Kunwu’s “representative” Chinese life in comics format can provide an appealing, engrossing and effective way for foreigners to gain understanding of China’s recent history.
In their argument, Ôtié goes on to promise Li that, for his part of the bargain, “You can count on me to make sure foreign readers can relate! To make it accessible!”
Then Ôtié disappears for the rest of the book, except for a conversation on pages 483 to 486, which reveals the working method of their extremely successful collaboration, and breaks their usual eye-witness narrative format to address “the ‘6/4’ question,” when “the powers that be put an end to student demonstrations, most notably the occupation of Tiananmen Square” in 1989.
In a brief foreword, Ôtié explains how this project had forced Li, whose art background was as a Communist Party propaganda cartoonist, and later as an illustrator for advertisements, to find a new, more serious cartooning style. The style that Li had been using before could not communicate the depths of suffering chronicled in this book. Li’s new style uses images drawn in brush without gray tones (for almost all of the pages), unprettified faces, ever-changing panel breakdowns, lots of crowd scenes, frequent high-angle views as though we were watching events from a tower, mixed with many intimate, dramatically-lit close-ups. It conveys a serious story without the stuffiness of carefully proportioned bodies inhabiting two-point perspective drawings. The whole book looks fresh, as though Li had sketched it all from life rather than reconstructed this half-century of Chinese history from his memories, his diary and the old newspapers that he used to cartoon for. The visual details of people’s buildings, clothes, furnishings and so forth are drawn with the convincing lines of a skilled artist describing his own life.
A theme, introduced early, arrives in this quotation from Chairman Mao: “It is on a blank page that the most beautiful poems are written.” Li Kunwu’s Communist father tells the assembled people: “China is a blank page on which the party and the people will write a magnificent story.”
The horrors that followed appear as consequences of this over-eagerness to erase the past and begin anew. As the book concludes — with China’s rapid industrialization — Li celebrates the prosperity which demolishes old neighborhoods to make room for new skyscrapers as he had in his youth celebrated and participated in the earlier waves of destruction. He values “development” as a path out of the old life he remembers with nostalgia, but also as an isolated and impoverished one, abounding in unhappiness.
A table of contents or index might have been a welcome addition, so the reader could quickly find The Great Famine of 1959-1961, The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao, the Gang of Four or the other important events, but such easy access might have tempted readers away from the more rewarding path of simply starting at the beginning and allowing themselves to get caught up in Li Kunwu’s memories of how he saw these events unfold.
As one of the first Chinese cartoonists to participate in France’s legendary Angoulême International Comics Festival in the mid-1990s, Li Kunwu found his encounter with the wider world of comics eye-opening.
On page 665, he draws himself in front of a large wall of mostly European comics thinking: “Who would’ve thought comics could be like this? The shock was as great as fifteen years earlier, they’d told me man had walked on the moon. A new world opened up.”