Comic book review: A Chinese Life (从小李到老李)

A Chinese Life is a three-volume comic book that tells the life of a Chinese man since he is born in the middle 1950s until the present day. This Chinese man is Yunnanese artist Li Kunwu (李昆武) and he also draws and co-writes this comic book, the other co-author being P. Ôtie, a French writer and personal friend of Li Kunwu who came up with the idea of creating a comic book about growing up during the Mao era. The Chinese title is 从小李到老李 which literally means “From Little Li to Old Li”. I read it in Chinese but it seems the original version is in French and it was first edited in France.

 

 

The first book starts telling the story of how his parents met: his father was a Communist Party official in Yunnan and his mother was a peasant. Then it continues remembering his childhood. This is not a Chinese history book, but a collection of memories and personal experiences from someone who lived during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or the economic reforms of the 80s and recalls them without any kind of commentary or political criticism. He just tells the events as they were and as they affected him personally as a kid/man living in Kunming.

 

One of the first anecdotes in the book happened when he was very small, almost a baby. His father read in the newspaper a story about a 6 months old girl who at that tender age could already say “Long live Chairman Mao”. His father then tried to make him say it but he could barely say mommy and daddy, so obviously he didn’t pronounce the words “Long live Chairman Mao” and his father gets angry and thinks he might be a little retarded.

 

He recalls the obsession China had during the Great Leap Forward to surpass the United States and the United Kingdom in steel production. To achieve it, every town and village would have their own furnace and everybody contributed to the task bringing any metal articles they could find around their homes (this also appears in Zhang Yimou’s movie “To Live“). When they ran out of coal to keep the furnaces’ fires, they cut all the trees. Later there was another movement in which citizens also had to participate: kill every bird and insect that could spoil the crops. Schoolchildren spent their free time hunting flies and mice while peasants starved in the countryside.

 

 

Then it’s the Cultural revolution and it’s time to eliminate every glimpse of modernity and intellectuality. Schoolkids patrol the town looking for suspects, like the hairdresser, whose pants are very tight: if a bottle can’t pass through the ankle opening of the pants then you are a nasty bourgeois! At school it is knows that Li Kunwu can draw, so he gets in charge of illustrating several educational posters. One of them is for the hairdresser, to let his customers know which haircuts are Revolution-approved and which aren’t.

 

It seems kids were quite happy during the Cultural Revolution. They didn’t have to go to class and could insult teachers and denounce them as counterrevolutionaries. But soon purges start and Li Kunwu’s father is sent to a forced labor camp. When he is a little bit older, Li joins the army. The first book ends when his battalion knows about Mao’s death.

Spoiler alert: Mao dies.

In the second book Li is still in the army, goes to the countryside to work as a peasant and tries to get accepted as a member of the Communist Party. But there are two big problems: his father was an official and his grandfather owned land. The third book describes the economic reforms and openings of the 80s. It’s not Li Kunwu personal story but the tales of people he knew; some of them worked hard and ended up rich and leading successful businesses while others were not so lucky. As I mentioned before, don’t expect to find any political criticism in A Chinese Life. Some reviews I read online reproach the authors for not doing so and taking a position. However, I think that the people who lived during that time did what they did because they had no other option, and they really adored Chairman Mao and thought of him as a father. A little bit like current North Korea, maybe. If you are interested in reading A Chinese Life you can find it on Amazon, Book Depository and other online bookstores. In China you can get it in Amazon China or Taobao. Have you read any Chinese comic books? I’m looking for new readings!

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