A Chinese Life: A Reception, Part I

January 21st, 2013 § 0 comments

Last September, SelfMadeHero published the 3 original volumes of A Chinese Life in a single massive tome. Reviews have been slow in coming, and naturally run long, but 700 pages is a lot to cover. It’s instructive to see some constants, both positive and negative, emerge from these detailed and considered reviews, admirable in the depth of their engagement with this deserving graphic novel—a monument, to be sure, but at 700 pages still but a mere sketch of the man’s life it’s meant to depict.

I’ve split this into two posts because the quotes are long. They’ll be posted a day apart.

At Page 45, reviewer Stephen pens a piece very sympathetic to Li Kunwu’s life and outlook:

A vital piece of social history brought vibrantly to life through Li Kunwu’s eye-witness account of all that he and his fellow village children instigated, propagated and then endured during the Cultural Revolution… right through to China’s meteoric industrialisation, modernisation, and the opening of its borders followed by Beijing’s triumphant Olympic games.

That it spans all six decades – of destruction and reconstruction – is key to the book’s success, bringing with it the contrasts and context vital to understanding how China is perceived by different generations of its own population, and in particular Kunwu’s very personal take which I found far from predictable as a Westerner. Seriously, you’re in for several surprises… You won’t believe it until you read it.

To his credit the artist and narrator shies not away from his own culpability, but his brilliance is in effectively helping us understand how it all came to this: the tiny details of their lives which foreshadowed what was to come.

Li is far more a witness than a commentator. He declines to cover the events of Tiananmen Square because, he says, he wasn’t even there (but that scene with his co-writer Philippe Ôtié shows him wriggling apologetically to avoid it – it was obviously a bone of contention), and you won’t see Tibet mentioned once. He’s far prouder of what China has accomplished in thirty-five short years and, as I say, once you’ve read the first half for yourself you will probably understand why.

There’s much to admire in the art with its fine sense of space, and which grows more precise rather representational the closer we move to the present. Some of the architecture is stunning (just flick to page 587 for a nocturnal courtyard of illuminated beauty) while the landscapes he visits later on are… pfff… off the scale.

I’ve only scratched the surface, and it occurs to me now that because of graphic novels like this, FORGET SORROW, PERSEPOLIS, PYONGYANG, SHENZHEN, SILK ROAD TO RUIN, and FOOTNOTES IN GAZA that I’ve learned far more about geography and history outside of Europe through comics than I ever learned during over a decade spent at school. Stuff I really needed to know, told through enlightening personal perspectives.

Sebso at Comics, French side echoes these sentiments:

I must admit that I have always been unable to figure out what these people think of their own history, how they feel about their country, about their leaders, about the evolution of their society.

Here lies the great quality of A Chinese Life. Li Kunwu is a Chinese artist whose father took part in every phase of the Chinese Communist Party since the Second World War. Based on Li Kunwu’s memories, Philippe Ôtié, a French writer, drafted a storyboard that was drawn by Li Kunwu himself. This close collaboration was successful and the resulting graphic novel is very pleasant to read: The story is clear and easy to follow, even for someone not specialized in Chinese history (whereas the historical events told are very complicated…). Li Kinwu’s art, with a strong influence from his Eastern formation, is original and nice.

A Chinese Life may not be a great masterpiece but it gives a fascinating insight into how it can feel like to have led a Chinese life for the past few decades.

Blogger HardlyWritten (one of the few to credit the translation) says:

Though not perfect as a historical reference – and never intended to stand alone as historical reference – this tale provides an entertaining portrayal of the experiences of a common man living through the Chinese struggle to become recognized as a world power in the 20th and 21st century. Living among the poor villagers of China’s Southwest, Li Kunwu grew up during Mao’s revolution of the 1950′s, suffered through the disasters of famine that resulted from the poorly managed Great Leap Forward, served in the People’s Liberation Army during the expansion of the country’s borders, and befriended the social elite during the economic expansion of the 80s-present day.

At times Li’s storytelling is humorous… At times Li’s storytelling depicts an unsettling sadness… No matter what you think of China’s history and its current status as a world power, this book is successful in depicting the Chinese people for what they are, a people living together through tumultuous and trying times, people afflicted with aspirations and naivete, afflicted with hope and the endurance to continue on and work for something greater for their children. Although this 60 year story largely ignores China’s fragile relationship with Taiwan and Tibet and only briefly mentions Tienanmen square, Li acknowledges these weaknesses by openly accepting that this is a story of his life, a single man, and no single man lives through all the history of his entire country (he didn’t know anyone affected by Tienanmen and therefore had little to say). Li is upfront about his artistic background as a party propaganda man, and in my reading I was cautious about a slanted tone, but this book is not propaganda, it is utterly honest and human, willing to demonstrate weaknesses and failures alongside triumphs and accomplishments.

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