A Chinese Life: A Reception, Part II (of II)

January 23rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Continuing our coverage of A Chinese Life by Ôtié and Kunwu, Andrew Hertzberg at Frontier Psychiatrist (one of the few to include hanzi in his review) has a few reservations:

As A Chinese Life unfolds, it becomes clear that what it means to be Chinese has changed drastically over a relatively short period of time…

What A Chinese Life fails to do, however, is to consider if Li has changed his opinion of Mao since his youth. Likewise, it’s frustrating that Li never comes out to fully denounce his former overly-patriotic self. Further, he remains opinionless on the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Perhaps as it is just “a” Chinese life that he is trying to depict, he doesn’t feel the need to describe anything he didn’t experience firsthand. Still, for someone to claim to love his country as much as he does, one would hope he would have felt compelled to share an opinion on such a nationally and globally significant event.

Then again, as writers such as Ben Marcus have shown, what is not said is as important as what is said; similarly, in a graphic novel is what is not depicted just as important as what is depicted. This seems right in step with many people’s highest criticism of China’s government, that of covering up or not even trying to find out the truth. While Li admits his repression with four panels that fade to a few dots to represent his hazy memory, he at least is making the effort to want to remember. It’s not like he has to protect himself at this point. He had already, as a pre-teen, humiliated many teachers and businesses across his town, for being reactionaries or traditionalists.

Regardless, Li does a great job subtly transitioning from 1950s China into modernity, adding a few power lines here and there, more and more cars and skyscrapers, altering fashion and hairstyles, and eventually ubiquitous Western restaurants like McDonalds and KFC that have since taken over every city in the country. Considering how the book ends up visually, and what I know of my visits to China, the first two hundred pages are shocking in how recent of a time they depict. The illustrations of Li’s hometown of Kunming could just have easily been in the third century BC as in middle of the 20th century.

What A Chinese Life does best is to expose that what it means to be a Communist has changed over time.  The hyper-conservative, history-negating, and overly-critical and paranoid members of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s and 60s is nothing like today’s open-armed, capitalist embracing, Western-admiring CCP of today. On the back sleeve of the book, Li is proudly listed as a CCP member. That certainly explains why he chose merely to display events just as they happened with little commentary of his own. Clearly, this is not a textbook (despite its girth) and shouldn’t be judged as one. While it could have been a masterpiece had it gone deeper and more critically into governmental policies, the fact that Li doesn’t shows the strong-arm the government still has over its people (especially for newspaper writers). While Li does his best to paint as well of a picture of Chinese life that he can, we’ll unfortunately always be left wondering how many other panels of the graphic novel have conveniently been “forgotten” by the author…

A Chinese life is full of smoking and mahjongg, massage parlors and snooker. A Chinese life involves puppy-love and funerals, celebration and protests, family and patriotism; A Chinese life is a political life. A Chinese life was, is, and will likely continue to be, a life in transition.

Reviewer Hillary Brown of Paste has a list of negatives:

Kunwu’s style—brushy, even sloppy, when it comes to depicting characters but better for landscapes and cityscapes—doesn’t assist the reader, either. Side stories can seem shoehorned in to illustrate particular developments, especially as Kunwu spent most of his life as a propaganda artist for the state and didn’t participate in political protest or the economic revolution. Most troubling of all is his persistent justification for problematic or horrific policies, as with the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the shrugging off of state-caused famine and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. It’s not exactly a full-throated defense, but the man who ends the book hasn’t changed much from the little boy at its beginning who was devoted to Mao.

But David Luhrssen at Express Milwaukee counters

Chinese dissident artists get all the press in the West, and Li Kunwu is not among their ranks. Now a Communist Party arts administrator, he grew up during the hateful Cultural Revolution of the 1960s (his family members were among the millions of victims) and brings an unusual insider’s view to his autobiography in the form of a graphic novel. With brush strokes often suggesting Chinese calligraphy, he moves easily between styles, usually emphatic black ink on white backgrounds. The artist expresses some dismay at many developments, but his bottom line, after witnessing warfare, famine and massive state-sponsored violence, is a “profound desire for order and stability.” Armchair activists in the West may snicker, but most of them have had easy lives compared to Li Kunwu.

And writing at Comics Bulletin, Daniel Elkin rebuts Brown’s point about Kunwu’s art:

Yes, this book is a memoir. Yes, it is one man’s life. But A Chinese Life is an enormous story — as big as China itself, and I’m not just referring to its 704-page size. It is huge in terms of its intent and scope. Through one man’s story we see a culture go through dramatic social changes, its development following the same trajectory of maturation as Li Kunwu’s: from an infant revolution learning to walk and talk, to a petulant teenager obsessed with appearances, to finally adulthood with a greater understanding of social order and its place in the global community. A Chinese Life shows the development of a country as much as it does a man.

And it is within this collision that so much of the power of the story is found. As an outsider, especially an American, I became intrinsically engaged in this book from its very first page. This culture, so alien and so secretive and so…. well… foreign, comes to life in the pages of A Chinese Life in a profoundly personal and visceral way. The reader lives through the history of China as it watches Li Kunwu’s life unfold. And it is turbulent, and it is chaotic, contradictory and filled with conundrums.

But there is something else going on as well. As much as “progress” is constantly referred to in this book, there is still a harkening back. As much as the government tried to break with the past, that past was and is still so much of what makes China, “China.” Li Kunwu’s story circles like a whirlpool, sucking everything in to a new depth, but, in its velocity, detritus of the past bobs to the surface giving us something to grab on to so as to moor us as we float in the narrative. And we need these dinghies to keep us above water because, as I said earlier, this story is enormous.

Adding to the engagement is Li Kunwu’s art. Loose and expressive, evocative of Chinese calligraphy, Li Kunwu’s brushstrokes flow across the page adding serenity in some panels, turbulence in others, but there is always a sense of movement, progress, of “never going back.” At times Li Kunwu leaves large swaths of the page a stark white indicating a vastness to the landscape that details would delineate too much. Other times there is a cacophony of lines, a confusion of shapes, a hubbub, a swirl of activity — here the claustrophobia of the crush of the population is almost overwhelming, choking. Li Kunwu’s art engages all the senses with what he chooses to express as much as what he chooses not to show.

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