PRINT April 1973


I Fumetti di Mao

THE “COMIC” WAS NEVER less comic. It is a profound (although historically explicable) paradox that the word “comic” attaches to the phenomenon known as the comic strip only in English-speaking countries, where strips have long been the least comic of all. But if we expand the meaning of the term to encompass not only the funny but also what is intended to be broadly recreational, “comic” is no misnomer in the West. Those American strips which are the least outwardly comic in style and content, and which appear to take themselves so very seriously, are conceived and consumed as escapist entertainment. But we should look behind the guise of fantasy which they wear. United States adventure comics are not in the least innocent of political values, which are often of a fiercely reactionary kind.1

Critics outside the United States, whether they view such comics as corruptive or simply diversionary, are turning to socialist cultures for truly educational forms of popular communication. Now that bourgeois intellectuals are beginning to recognize that popular culture in socialist societies might well offer a paradigm for the development of “alternative cultures” in the advanced capitalist countries, and socialist concepts are beginning to make headway in Third World countries hitherto dominated by capitalist values, we can examine the Chinese transvaluation of what is legitimately regarded as an essentially Western art form.

It is surely no accident that the first major publication in the West of contemporary Chinese comic strips should come to the West from Europe. In France and Italy over the last decade the comic strip, particularly the American kind, has come under the scholarly scrutiny it deserves.

Didactic pictorial narrative is not new to Chinese art,2 but with the late development of printing it was necessarily limited in its influence. After the Opium War, strips were distributed recounting contemporary events, printed on a single page or broadsheet (Image d’Epinal style). Massive dissemination began in the 1920s, at the same time as in Europe, where the American strip soon established an absolute predominance. The Chinese strips recounted popular traditional stories, and condensed versions of popular operas. By the 1930s some American fantasy strips were available, catering to Westernized elements of the bourgeoisie.

In 1949, the victorious Communists instantly recognized the narrative strip as a potent means of educating a population 85-90 percent illiterate. Following the injunctions of Mao at Yenan in 1942, on that famous occasion when intellectuals were called upon to promote the struggle and share the life of the partisan, the artists have turned the printed strip into an integral revolutionary mechanism. It is distributed to an audience comparable, percentagewise, to that of the American newspaper strip and comic book. According to the director of the Institute of People’s Art in Harbin (Heilong-kiang Province of Manchuria), perhaps seven million books of strips are circulated per annum among a population of 80 million. The Institute of People’s Art in Shanghai prints 16 million such books per annum; its equivalent in Peking, 30 million. A single story (e.g. Lei Fêng) has sold two million copies. The booklets are sold in cafés, schools, barracks, village fairs, and bus stations, as well as in bookstores. They are not cheap (costing from 12-35 fen—a pound of pork costs 10 fen), and are, of course, shared. Gino Nebiolo tells in his introduction how he observed fellow passengers on a train deep in their strips, exchanging the book when they had finished it.

Unfortunately, none of the authors of the volume under review is art-historically inclined, or addresses himself to the question of the extent and character of the foreign influence. Umberto Eco merely notes, in passing, a similarity to the “subtle, realistic, painstaking, punctilious” character of certain English detective strips. One would also need to know how the style of the strips, which is remarkably homogeneous, relates to other forms of contemporary Chinese art. Limiting our comparison to works of Chinese revolutionary art known to the West, we find the clay figures of Rent-Collector’s Courtyard (perhaps the largest piece of didactic narrative sculpture in the world?) of Stalinist Baroque inspiration, and thoroughly un-Chinese; stylistically, the revolutionary posters intended for distribution abroad and available in the United States are equally un-Chinese: powerful, if gaudy designs couched in what may be termed the “international revolutionary Baroque” style. Even the woodblock movement, which emerged from the grass-roots struggle against Japan, strikes one as Russo-European in style. The comic strip artists on the other hand have patently tried to preserve many of the principles of traditional Chinese art. How are the comic strip artists trained, what models are they trained upon? Presumably they have taken to heart Mao’s warnings about “wholesale Westernization,” and “mechanical absorption of foreign material” and have avoided, as bidden, “gulping any of this foreign material down uncritically,” treating it rather “as we do our own food—first chewing it, then submitting it to the working of the stomach and intestines with their juices and secretions, and separating it into nutriment to be absorbed and waste-matter to be discarded before it can nourish us.”3

The authors of Woodblocks from the Liberated Areas,4 recognizing that the art of woodblock engraving was introduced from the West, indicate that the advanced shading techniques and complicated backgrounds used at first were not acceptable to the masses, and later artists adopted the simpler outline method from Chinese New Year pictures. If the 144 (undated) reproductions in the book represent mature and correct woodblock style, it is strikingly evident that the dramatic, directed lighting effects of the Western (and comic strip) tradition, are considered effective. Such lighting is entirely absent from the Chinese strips, all of which ignore shading and modeling as applied in the West.5

The impulse to render solid form as surface pattern, the perfectly contrived linear rhythms, that immaculate sense of interval and, above all, that expansion of silent, open space, which we admire in traditional Chinese art, are all present in the strips. Landscape, viewed with suspicion after the Revolution as an essentially elitist genre, is fully vindicated. The deliberate, ornamental use of landscape and the omnipresent bowls of flowers and garden shrubs in scenes of interior and exterior architecture seem very Chinese, not mere accessories but integral to the pictorial narrative. On the other hand, spatial recession in these same landscapes, and certain aspects of these same interiors, (such as the furniture, which has a Western geometricity about it and is drawn stiffly and literally—bureaucratically, one might say) seem to derive from concepts of Western Realism.6

Perspective in the Chinese strips may be simply described as a harmonious synthesis of Chinese formalism and Western science. Repoussoirs and other devices for spatial recession are used with Western logic and oriental delicacy. But the Western logic of construction in a single scene becomes non-Western when applied with complete consistency in the same manner over a long sequence which necessarily involves a number of similar looking scenes. There is an evenness of design tone which seems dull and monotonous to the Western eye, conditioned to more varied stimulus. The viewpoint is never chopped about in that restless, capricious, subcinematic fashion developed by the realistic adventure strips in the United States since the ’30s, and still current idiom.The frenetic succession of distant shots and close-ups, of bird’s-eye and worm’s-eye views, must appear to the Chinese as inappropriate as alternately whispering and screaming at a political seminar. The pace in these booklets, which are meant to be read at a single sitting, is slow and steady, avoiding those multiple climaxes demanded of the daily serial in the West. The style of the individual art-worker, discreetly distinct from yet basically homogeneous with that of his colleagues, does not suffer from that kind of solipsistic, almost self-parodistic exaggeration demanded of the Western artist, who needs above all to establish the uniqueness of his art, even (or especially) when the substance of it is the opposite of unique.

The major formal difference from the Western strip lies in the relationship of text to image. The Chinese strip is not primarily pictorial, as in the West. It is designed to increase literacy as well as political consciousness. The captions are relatively long, and are over—rather than under—explicit. Speech balloons are kept to a minimum, and ancillary to the caption. The vocabulary is deliberately limited, employing a maximum of 1000 ideograms.

Ideologically, the seven strips reproduced all represent different shades or stages of development in revolutionary thought. They cannot be judged by date (which ranges between 1964–67, the key period in the Cultural Revolution); the least Maoist and the most Maoist stories were both first published in 1965.

In the ’50s, there were a number of humorous and escapist strips; these were progressively purified during the following decade in order to cleave more closely to the Maoist line. The title I Fumetti di Mao is a misnomer, for it includes examples of stories no longer tolerated since the Cultural Revolution. The most glaringly peccant strip is called Following the Traces and resembles a fairly complex Western detective story. It recounts an unmotivated plot to destroy the electricity center of a large city by means of explosive toy cars, and was criticized for its total lack of revolutionary ideology. The criminals are not described as residual elements of the old bourgeoisie, and it is the professional police, not the people, who foil the plot. Red Women’s Detachment concerns the exploits of Wu Chiung Hua, a slave-girl who joins the Red Army, grows in political and military prowess, and defeats her former oppressor in action. But there is no evidence that she learns directly from the thoughts of Chairman Mao. They reach their proper apotheosis in Lei Fêng, named for a model soldier who learns from Mao how to overcome his desire for fame and personal vengeance in order to submerge his work in that of the community-at-large. Paradoxically, this most thoroughly doctrinaire of strips is rendered in a completely Western medium: that of the photo-novel. (This medium, employing a sequence of stills from a film, is unknown in this country, but in Latin countries it has largely supplanted the drawn strip in the domain of soap-opera. The Franco-Italian “fotoromanzo” is independent of film scenarios; Lei Fêng derives from a film.) Western-style close-ups of emotional faces and significant clues to the action are fully deployed here.

Correct political tactics dictate that force never be used when persuasion will work. (This may be described as an esthetic principle as well.) Blue Sea and Red Heart shows how courteously the peasants are treated by the Red Army, how they are persuaded to lend their boats needed for a military operation, and how the fishermen teach the soldiers elements of seamanship. This particular strip contains a moment of humor which is, nominally at any rate, at the expense of ideology: A soldier on board a fishing boat for the first time loudly proclaims his refusal to believe in all this seasickness nonsense, knowing that class consciousness can overcome any weakness. The boaster is later as sick as a dog, and incapacitated for several hours. Girl of the People’s Commune concerns the uprooting of traditional male chauvinist concepts. In a series of episodes imbued with some psychological finesse, and surely not lacking in humor (although both Umberto Eco and Jean Chesneaux imply the contrary), the once submissive wife is provoked to publicly denounce her idle, arrogant, quarrelsome husband, and further to expose the inefficiency and dishonesty of the male-dominated production system in the village.The other husbands naturally close ranks behind their humiliated fellow, but are forced to cede leadership to the courageous wife. Her husband leaves the village in high dudgeon, but returns, penitent, to a sentimental reunion. Thus is attained that essential Confucian harmony between private and public life.

In a scene-by-scene and line-by-line analytical comparison of a sequence from Lei Fêng with an episode from an American strip, Umberto Eco summarizes the difference between the ideologies promoted by governments, capitalist and socialist. The American example is a page from Terry and the Pirates, one of the most famous in comic strip history, for it was widely distributed in the army during World War II (1942), cited in the Congressional Record, reproduced in comic strip histories7 and may even (according to the implausible suggestion of Umberto Eco) have been known to the creators of Lei Fêng. In Caniff’s drawings, Colonel Corkin admonishes Terry, who has just been awarded his wings, never to forget all the underlings and back-room boys who make, service, and fuel the machine upon which his exploits will be founded. Lei Fêng is admonished by his superior to ensure that his heroism be silent and serve the collectivity, rather than himself. Terry is served by the collectivity in his laudable quest for fame; and (one may add) this service is squarely based upon technology. In Lei Fêng, it is the political consciousness, the social attitude which is the motor of victory.

Ideology apart and superficially viewed, the Chinese stories handle themes not so dissimilar to those of the American strip: intrigue, war, heroic exploits, combatting of evil. But these themes have in the West become pretexts for scenes of cruelty and violence, such as have been endemic to post-Renaissance art and are comparatively lacking in the Chinese tradition. The Chinese strip seems to go out of its way to avoid depicting violence; gratuitous brutality (to preserve Mao’s metaphor) is the principal waste-matter to be discarded. The most violent story is that of the Opium War, where the stabbing and killing is depicted with a naiveté reminiscent of 19th-century Imagerie Populaire. The English soldiers, in their rigid marching lines and formalized dying postures, are rendered with much less realism than the Chinese villagers who defeat them. The defeat of the English is as it were automatic and inevitable, and needs no emotional reinforcement. Red Women’s Detachment leans away from scenes of fighting toward representation of strategic planning and comradely cooperation; and in Letter from South Vietnam, the American practice of torturing prisoners is briefly referred to in captions, and not depicted at all. The Western physiognomic racist bias, by which foreigners tend to have vicious-looking faces and Anglo-Saxons virtuous ones, has no counterpart. Physiognomic differentiation is subtly present, but it is the expression of the face (anger, deceit, humiliation) which marks the American captain as the villain. Westerners in the Chinese strips do not bear the mark of Cain stamped permanently upon their features, like the Orientals in Western strips; it is their role, not their race which is condemned.

––David Kunzle



1. Cf. Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s Para Leer al Pato Donald, Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaiso, 1971, a devastating exposure of the capitalist-imperialist ethic in the Disney comic.

2. In his Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century, Michael Sullivan points out that long handscrolls, in the continuous narrative technique which was introduced from India at the end of the Han period, were produced on themes drawn from contemporary life, both social-traditional (popular village festivals) and political (e.g. how land reform came to a North China village). These were, however, drawn in a traditional, not realistic style, reminiscent of the village life scrolls produced under the Six Dynasties.

3. Mao Tse-tung on Literature and Art, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1967, p. 74

4. Tsou Ya and Li P’ing-fan, published by the People’s Art Publishing House, 1962.

5. From the dozen or so issues of the comic book Lianhuanhua Bao available in the Oriental library of the University of California at Los Angeles (pointed out to me by Jim Hurtak) dating from 1958, the style at this time of peak Russian influence appears remarkably eclectic. There are as many styles represented as there are separate stories or items in any given issue (typically, around ten), most of Western inspiration. A few, however, are consciously traditional in style—and even shape, i.e. all the scenes conceived like a vertical wall hanging, as in the account of a Chinese folk-myth. The same issue which contained the latter wall hanging strip (No. 10) has a tale from the life of the People’s Liberation Army, an episode from the life of Lenin (both entirely Western in style), and an incident from early Russian history, couched in a fairytale manner not unworthy of Alex Raymond’s Prince Valiant. Its chief formal distinction is, however, one I have never encountered in any save the most sophisticated and recent of the Franco-Italian “bandes dessinée, pour adultes” (“art-strip”): The frames to the 17 scenes have a different ornamental shape.

6. There is a certain resemblance with the work of P’ang Hsün-ch’in, which perplexed Chinese art experts in the ’40s because it did not tall squarely into either of the two camps of art teaching and production: the Western, and Chinese traditional. (See his Kuling landscape reproduced in Sullivan, pl. 55.)

7. Stephen Becker, Comic Art in America, 1959, p. 201.