LA Review of Books: Driving Toward the Chinese Dream

Forbidden Game coverHow to get me to pick up a book about golf: make it about golf in China. At the LA Review of Books main page, I have a review of The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, an excellent new book by Dan Washburn (who used to work down the hall from me at the Asia Society):

… golf “offers a unique window into today’s China,” a country of paradoxes perhaps best exemplified by the fact that although construction of new golf courses has been banned in China since at least 2004, more than 400 were built between 2005 and 2010, making China the only place in the world experiencing a golf boom. Government officials who enjoy hitting the links register at golf courses under false names, afraid of leaving a paper trail connecting them to a game most often associated with capitalism and corruption. And while massive golf course complexes lined with luxury villas populate large tracts of land outside Chinese cities, their owners attempt to hide the courses in plain sight, giving them convoluted names like the “Anji China Ecotourism and Fitness Center.” Like so much else in contemporary China, golf occupies a gray zone: officially forbidden, yet tolerated — even encouraged — behind the scenes, as local government officials and land developers reap massive profits from the construction of new courses.

Read the whole review here.

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Look Like a Shanghai Girl in Six Easy Surgeries

Shanghai girl posterGo into any antique market here in Shanghai and you’ll find plenty of reproduction posters featuring the famous “Shanghai Girls” of the 1920s and ’30s. These were calendars and advertisements for products like alcohol, cigarettes, soap, and so forth that featured qipao-wearing beauties with pale skin, pinned-back wavy hair, and a gentle demeanor. The Shanghai Girls posters advertised products associated with modernity and the West using “traditional” Chinese elements (silk qipaos, jade bracelets, natural scenery in the backgrounds) that actually weren’t always so traditional (the tight, slinky qipao is a 1920s design).

Shanghai Girl posters obviously disappeared during the Mao era, to be replaced by Socialist Realist propaganda art, but plenty of restaurants and stores have brought them back in advertisements and as decorations today. Using these images is a way to suggest vintage glamor, much like companies in the U.S. that designed 1950s-style ads after Mad Men became popular a few years ago.

When I walked into the elevator in my apartment building one day last week, I found a new use for the classic Shanghai Girl image: to sell plastic surgery.

IMG_6026

This is an advertisement for Ever Care, a cosmetic surgery clinic in my neighborhood. Plastic surgery is a growing business here—especially among women seeking employment—and I constantly see ads for it, but this one obviously caught my eye for its use of a historical reference in its imagery.

(Also, because I live on the 24th floor and the elevator is slow, so I always have plenty of time to memorize the ads hung inside.)

Not a great photo—the elevator only has two dim florescent lights—but the lines you see are pointing to the attractive features on the woman’s face. She has a forehead that reflects wealth (富贵额) and “a young girl’s cheeks” (少女颊) that feature “apple muscles” (苹果肌; I’m assuming that means red and firm). Her chin is that of a “beautiful person” (美人颏), as is her nose (唯美鼻), and she has a “rippling lip” (水漾唇; presumably a reference to the shape of her upper lip). Curiously, the ad doesn’t say anything about the shape of the woman’s eyes, even though “double-eyelid” surgery is a popular procedure in East Asia. My guess is that Ever Care doesn’t want to publicly advertise a procedure that suggests women want to look less Asian, though before-and-after photos of eye surgeries are prominently featured on their website’s home page.

So if you’re less than pleased with the shape of your chin or the tilt of your nose, head down to Ever Care and tell them you’d like the Shanghai Girl package. Qipao sold separately.

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Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave

Shanghai’s Power Station of Art

Shanghai’s Power Station of Art

One of the things that I have not done nearly enough of during my almost two years (!) in Shanghai is go to the many art shows that pass through the city. I often intend to and then don’t make it, or only hear about them when there are two days left and it’s a weekend and I know the show will be packed and I just don’t feel like dealing with it. And quite honestly, I know that my taste in art would be considered pretty pedestrian by people who actually know something about art—and that sometimes other people get excited about works, and I look at the pieces and think, “Huh?”

All of which is to say that I made a special effort to go to a show that I’d heard good things about, but that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to get much out of it. “Cai Guo-Qiang: The Ninth Wave” is at the Power Station of Art, a converted power station (obviously) on the remote South Bund that opened in 2012 as the first state-run museum of contemporary art. Cai is an artist who works in a variety of media, but is best known for his fireworks displays (such as at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics) and “gunpowder drawings” (I’ll explain in a minute).

“The Ninth Wave,” as I heard in this story by Frank Langfitt of NPR News, explores China’s pollution crisis through art. As you might expect at at state-run art museum, certain politically sensitive topics can’t be touched—Ai Weiwei isn’t going to have a Power Station show anytime soon—but the government has at least paid lip service to the idea that it’s as concerned as anyone else about China’s environmental problems, so “The Ninth Wave” is politically safe. It’s also, I found, a really, really good show.

The titular piece caught my eye as soon as I entered the ticket line, and I kept turning to look at it as I waited for the clerk to find change for the two women ahead of me. “The Ninth Wave” is a large fishing boat whose deck is filled with (fake) seasick animals—a kind of dystopian Noah’s Ark.

“The Ninth Wave”

“The Ninth Wave”

Poisoned by their environment, the animals are draped over the side of the boat in various poses of agony. Some seem to be asleep/dead, while others appear to be mid-seizure. They’re an unhappy—but certainly compelling—crew.

Unhappy animals

Unhappy animals

Animals enjoy a happier existence in the next work that I saw, “The Bund Without Us,” one of Cai’s gunpowder drawings.

“The Bund Without Us”

“The Bund Without Us”

As far as I can tell (we never made gunpowder drawings at Summer Arts Camp!), Cai creates the drawing by using lines of gunpowder on paper as his “ink,” varying the thickness of the lines based on the effect he wants to create. When everything is prepared, he then lights the gunpowder, and the resulting explosions burn the image onto the paper. “The Bund Without Us” is a long horizontal scroll, reminiscent of classical Chinese landscape paintings, that imagines Shanghai’s Bund having been taken over by nature. Monkeys clamber over the historic buildings, while oxen take a swim in the adjacent Huangpu River.

Detail of “The Bund Without Us”

Detail of “The Bund Without Us”

It made me think of abandoned colonial-era buildings (such as some at Moganshan) that have become rotted and overgrown; it seems somehow appropriate that those isolated old structures in the wilderness would be gradually consumed by the wildlife around them, but it’s so much harder to envision the Bund succumbing to that fate. An interesting mental exercise, though.

More gunpowder works in the next major room I visited, this one featuring four large square porcelain panels, each one linked to a season of the year. The porcelain reliefs depict fairly standard seasonal symbols—chrysanthemums in fall, birds on bare branches in winter—but each one has been blackened by the fireworks that Cai exploded atop it.

“Summer”

“Summer”

A video of this plays in the room, (over-)dramatically showing the moment of ignition and the snap crackle pop of fireworks on porcelain. It’s pretty amazing, as some of the flower petals and such are exceptionally thin, but didn’t get broken by their contact with the fireworks. As the exhibit brochure explains, this series “Delicately [balances] the violent, instant impact of the gunpowder explosion and the frailty of the porcelain.” It also leaves the whole room smelling faintly of sulphur.

Smell was the first sense that the next piece, “Head On”—my favorite—hit as well, as I walked into a noticeably warmer room and my nose picked up a vaguely unpleasant animal odor. The immediate sensation was kind of like having a dog breathe on me, but it was mild enough that I didn’t notice after a minute.

“Head On”: wolves fly through the air with the greatest of ease ...

“Head On”: wolves fly through the air with the greatest of ease …

... and then crash headfirst into a glass wall.

… and then crash headfirst into a glass wall.

I was too busy taking in the 99 wolves distributed around the room—arranged in a circle that extended from wolves walking on the floor, to flying in the sky, to hurling themselves into a glass wall at one end of the room, to lying crumpled on the floor, to picking themselves back up and rejoining the line to leap into the air. I don’t know how good an explanation that is, but the piece is stunning. It’s also the most politically sensitive work in the show; though Cai designed it for a 2006 exhibition in Berlin, and the glass wall is meant to represent the Berlin Wall, it’s not hard to link the wolves’ blind following of the pack and willingness to rejoin it even after suffering the consequences to the political campaigns of the Mao era, or even today. “Head On” is amazing, and I went back to see it again after I walked through the rest of the show (possibly a first for me and art).

There are several movie exhibits, but the only one I sat through for any length of time was of Cai’s fireworks extravaganzas, which are pretty amazing. Still, I got the feeling that some of the movies were kind of filler material—the Power Station is a huge space.

The last major piece that I saw was “Silent Ink,” an enormous pond dug out of the Power Station floor and filled with jet-black ink that comes down from the ceiling in a small waterfall.

“Silent Ink”

“Silent Ink”

This was the piece that I felt I “got” the least … is the ink supposed to remind the viewer of oil? Is this what ponds will look like in a post-industrial age? While the brochure had offered pretty direct explanations of what the other pieces were trying to say, on “Silent Ink” it was, um … silent.

Reading through the brochure now, it seems that I somehow missed “Air of Heaven,” described as being inside the Power Station’s chimney. Not sure how I overlooked it, but these things happen.

As you can probably tell, I thought “The Ninth Wave” was amazing and definitely recommend seeing it if you’re in Shanghai between now and its closing date of October 26. Getting to the Power Station is kind of a hike, but it’s absolutely worth it.

[I wish the photos in this post were better, but I forgot my regular camera and had to make do with my phone. Sorry.]

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GradHacker: My Dissertation Sweater

“If your dissertation were an object, what would it be?” As I write in my first GradHacker post, published today, I had to answer this question a couple of years ago when I attended a summer school at Heidelberg University (ah, Heidelberg). I replied that my dissertation was a hand-knit sweater, which turned out to be an even better comparison than I realized at the time:

When I learned to knit, about a year before starting my PhD, knitting an adult-sized sweater seemed an impossible undertaking, just like writing a dissertation did when I was a first-year graduate student. Sweaters (and dissertations) are so big! So complicated! I’d have to learn so many different techniques! How could I ever think of tackling that kind of project?

Of course, I eventually got over my fear of both sweater-knitting and dissertation-writing, though the sweater I eventually knit for myself is sitting in Philadelphia, unworn, because I never really liked the way it looked on me. Let’s hope the dissertation doesn’t suffer a similar fate and get stuffed in a digital drawer, unrevised and unpublished.

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LA Review of Books: China’s Forgotten World War II

forgotten ally coverI wound up doing a sort of sequel to my China’s Forgotten WWI post for the LA Review of Books China Blog, this one looking at—no surprise here—China’s forgotten WWII. The new post is a Q&A with Oxford historian Rana Mitter, author of Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937–1945. I’ve used this book a couple times now in teaching, and have assigned sections from it again this semester, and my students are always shocked to learn that China was an American ally during World War II. They usually say that their high-school history classes focused on the war in Europe, with a quick mention of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and that as a result, there was some fighting in the Pacific. But actually, the war in China was a really big deal (especially for the Chinese!), and Mitter brings out the full story exceptionally well in Forgotten Ally, moving between the big picture of the war’s events and the on-the-ground effect it had on the lives of millions of Chinese. Definitely a book worth reading if you’re interested in this topic.

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False Finishes

IMG_6022So, I guess I’m done? Sort of? Maybe? Almost?

It turns out that there’s an unexpected amount of ambiguity about when exactly one finishes a PhD. When I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the graduation ceremony was the official point of completion. That’s not the case with a doctorate—especially if, as I did, you go to the graduation ceremony months before even finishing your dissertation.

So obviously, the first step in the real graduation process is to complete the dissertation. I did that. I sent it to my committee members, who all read it and decided that they were okay with passing me. Yay. But it turns out all of that was the easy part of graduating.

(Note: I realized about five minutes into the following process that I had made things much harder—on both myself and the amazing staff of the UCI History Department—by not being in California at the time of filing. The process is simply not designed to be carried out across an ocean and a 15-hour time difference. I owe enormous thanks to Arielle Hinojosa, the department administrator who patiently assembled all my forms, coordinated the collection of various signatures, and handled the actual filing of my paperwork with the Graduate Division.)

I filled out one form, scanned it, and sent it over to my committee member in Chicago, who printed it, signed it, and mailed the form to California for my other two committee members to sign. So far, so good. Once I had all their signatures, I uploaded my dissertation to ProQuest, which was a big, anxiety-inducing moment that sort of made me feel like I was finished.

But no. The bureaucracy wants more.

More forms! Including one that had to be signed in ink by me, and which I wound up having to FedEx from Shanghai (not as expensive as I feared it would be, but still—I wish I’d been able to avoid that). I had to pay a filing fee, which I discovered was cash or check only (come ON, UCI, you can’t take credit cards?), so thank you to my mother for handling that step of the process.

Then, UCI requires that graduates complete two exit surveys. One is from UCI itself and asks a number of questions that mostly boil down to “Are you happy that you got your PhD here?” The other is the “Survey of Earned Doctorates,” “an annual census conducted since 1957 of all individuals receiving a research doctorate from an accredited U.S. institution in a given academic year” and sponsored by six federal agencies. It is, as you would expect of anything created by six federal agencies, annoying, repetitive, and occasionally (but surely unintentionally) funny. My favorite part was when I finished—not just because I was done, but because I got a Certificate of Completion that someone created in WordPerfect back in 1996:

Suitable for framing

Suitable for framing

Finally—finally!—my paperwork was done, the necessary signatures were obtained, the surveys were completed, and Arielle could take everything to the Graduate Division to file it. I woke up this morning to a message from her saying that she’d done that … so I think I’m finished? Except that according to the Grad Division’s outline of the graduation process, I’ve only completed three steps of five. I suspect I’m not truly done until the University Archives processes my dissertation submission to ProQuest (that’s step four). And it won’t be officially official until the Grad Division confers the degree (step five).

But my participation in the process is done, and that’s good enough for me. Even though I know I’m still not really finished, I think I can safely move on … to postdoc applications.

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Visualising China: On Child Poverty in China

pa02-004.jpg

For anyone who would prefer not to read the 225-page version of my dissertation (and who can blame you?), the 500-word version is now up at the Visualising China blog. Visualising China is an online photo archive run by Professor Robert Bickers of the University of Bristol (who also wrote one of the China in World War I books I reviewed a few weeks back). They’re trying to post more regular features at their blog, asking guest authors to pick a photo from the archive and riff on it for a few paragraphs. I had a lot of fun digging through the archive and had a hard time picking just one picture to talk about—so you might see more Visualising China guest posts from me in the future.

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Twelve Years a Graduate Student? Yes, Twelve

“Oh, you’re still in school?” I don’t think any doctoral student can refrain from cringing at this question. Friends, relatives, and airplane seatmates unfamiliar with the PhD process don’t always understand how unbounded it can be: it takes as long as it takes to get through coursework, pass a set of rigorous qualifying exams, draw up a dissertation prospectus and have it approved, conduct the necessary research, and write the dissertation. Some people pass through these five stages quickly, while others require more time (like an average of nine years in the humanities). While universities do have policies meant to prevent students from lingering in any one stage for an excessive amount of time, my observation has been that those policies are usually softer in practice than they look on paper, especially if the student has personal or medical issues that require attention.

Still, I was a little surprised when I checked out the website for the PhD in Progress Podcast (created by Jason McSheene, one of the authors I now work with at GradHacker) and saw that the most recent episode was titled “12 Years a Graduate Student.” Twelve years? It’s pretty rare to meet a twelfth-year student. I was curious, so I downloaded the episode this morning and listened to Northwestern University PhD candidate Parag Gupta share the story of his twelve-year odyssey to a doctorate in mechanical engineering. (For a shorter version, see Gupta’s TEDx talk.)

Gupta begins the podcast interview by admitting that he’s going to sound “a little bit obnoxious” as he outlines his initial successes in higher education: valedictorian of his Mississippi high school, a full merit scholarship to Vanderbilt, bachelor’s and master’s of engineering degrees earned within four years, internships at both NASA and Lehman Brothers, actively courted by several doctoral programs. He was clearly moving full-steam ahead and expected that he would finish his PhD in record time.

And then he didn’t. Although Gupta doesn’t phrase it in quite these terms, what I heard is that he foundered in grad school because he was a great student, but not prepared to be the independent researcher that earning a PhD requires. He knew how to follow directions and get As—not how to design and execute his own research project.

He was also, he realized, in the wrong subfield, and decided in his third year at Northwestern to move from computational to experimental mechanics, which required him to resign a National Science Foundation fellowship and find his own source of funding. Gupta decided that he could support himself by playing poker.

This did not go well.

After turning to his father for a bailout when the poker-playing scheme failed (big time), Gupta got back on track with his graduate work … and then found himself laid low by several herniated discs in his back. He tried to continue with his dissertation research at Argonne National Laboratory, but regularly wound up lying on the floor beneath his desk in an attempt to relieve the pain he was experiencing. Another setback.

Now, it seems that Gupta is finally within sight of finishing his PhD, and he’s telling the story of his path through grad school to encourage other students to take action if they find themselves running up against some of the same difficulties he faced. Some of those are obviously unique to Gupta (the ill-advised poker career, his medical problems), while others are more general issues that grad students encounter—particularly the realization that for all his academic successes, he wasn’t actually prepared for graduate school. Gupta is especially vocal in urging grad students to take advantage of campus resources such as the counseling center, office of student life, and so forth, which often appear geared toward undergraduates but are available to aid grad students dealing with professional or personal crises as well. Again: grad schools often look hard-nosed on paper, but there are people behind those policies, and they will generally find a way to help a student in need without penalizing him/her too much.

Twelve years in a doctoral program is a long time. But Gupta describes himself as an optimistic person, and he clearly views his graduate career as a valuable learning experience in nearly every way possible (professionally, financially, personally).

Listening to his interview also helped me articulate something that I don’t think is said often enough: one of the worst things someone can ask a PhD student is, “Aren’t you done yet?” It might seem like someone is “hiding out” in grad school or avoiding “the real world,” but he or she is probably more worried than you could ever imagine about how long the PhD process is taking, and asking why they haven’t graduated yet will only stir up anxiety. Not everyone will be as comfortable speaking about their setbacks and detours as Parag Gupta is today (and it certainly doesn’t sound like he would have been as comfortable six years ago). As I wrote at the beginning, it takes as long as it takes to get a PhD, and there’s no prize for crossing the finish line first.

How long did I spend in graduate school? Six years in my PhD program (which is comparatively fast), but four years before that in what I think of as “PhD preparation” work—language study in China, a master’s degree in the US, and back to China for two more years in grad school there. It’s been exactly a decade since I graduated from college, and that entire span of time has been devoted to getting my PhD. So, yes, I have answered “Aren’t you done yet?” more times than I’d like to remember.

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Bookshelf: In Spite of the Gods

Luce cover

Okay, the cover is a bad cliché. But, you know … don’t judge a book by its cover.

I have an on-again, off-again relationship with a book club here in Shanghai that’s loosely formed around some of the Johns Hopkins alumni in the city. I’ll go for a meeting or two, then skip several in a row because I’m busy or out of the country or don’t feel like reading the work of political theory that everyone else voted for. But I made it to yesterday’s session because the group had selected a book that’s long been lingering in the middle of my to-read list: In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, by former Financial Times South Asia bureau chief Edward Luce.

As you might expect from a journalist who worked for an economic and political news publication, Luce begins In Spite of the Gods by declaring his impatience with romanticized “paeans to India” written by foreigners who view the country through a gauzy veil of mystical spiritualism. Luce is a numbers guy (oh boy, is he a numbers guy!), a realist whose goal in the book is “to provide an unsentimental evaluation of contemporary India against the backdrop of its widely expected ascent to great power status in the twenty-first century.” Like China, India has been growing and changing at a remarkable rate over the past several decades, yet, as Luce remarks (and I’d say the same for China, though it’s probably even more true for India), “the nature and scope of the changes are sometimes exaggerated.”

In Spite of the Gods is a broad book; Luce covers lots of ground, both thematically and geographically. He travels the length and width of the country to interview people who can comment on the big topics he’s investigating: the economy, politics, history, corruption, the judicial system, society, religion, and international relations. Luce devotes one chapter to each topic, which helps keep things compartmentalized and manageable, but each of these themes can (and have been) the subjects of full-length books in themselves. In Spite of the Gods is an introduction to India, not a comprehensive monograph on the country—and it sports a 2007 publication date, meaning that some of its statistics and predictions have become somewhat dated by now.

But the big questions that Luce is grappling with remain as relevant now as they were at the time of writing: Where is India going and how will it get there? Will it blossom or implode? How can vibrant democracy and endemic corruption coexist? What is the role that religion, caste, and regional identity play in twenty-first-century India? How can the country achieve economic development that benefits the greatest number of people? What should India’s relationship with its neighbors—and the United States—look like?

Many of these questions are the same ones that people have been asking about China for the past twenty years, and a number of academics and government officials in the West are pushing to view the two countries within a unified framework of analysis (for example, The New School in New York houses the India-China Institute). As Luce remarks, “India is now hyphenated to China. It is ‘China-India.’” I’m not sure anyone has told China that, however; the Middle Kingdom doesn’t seem to spend much time thinking about the country to its southwest. (Though Chinese president Xi Jinping is traveling to India later this month, so I expect a couple of China-India articles to appear in the state media here, which will proclaim the friendship of the two countries before chastising India for hosting the Tibetan government-in-exile.)

Luce is a good storyteller who occasionally lets his narrative get bogged down under the weight of too many statistics, and it took a lot for me to slog through some of the book’s middle chapters. Statistics are certainly one way to demonstrate how India is changing—or not—but I’m always more interested in the stories of people’s lives, and In Spite of the Gods has fewer of those. It’s probably a good first book to read about India, to get a sense of the big picture and the historical background (Luce’s chapter on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is particularly good, I think, not that this is my area of specialty), before moving on to books that are more driven by personal narratives, such as Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers or Aman Sethi’s A Free Man (both of which are very good, in my non-expert opinion).

Going around the circle at our book club meeting yesterday, the other members and I mostly agreed that In Spite of the Gods was a good choice for a group of people who know much more about China than India. A couple of the discussants said that they had hoped for a more academic tome—something that would, for example, discuss Indian democracy and corruption within a theoretical framework. But as I’ve said, political theory’s not my thing. Give me a good clear overview by a world-weary journalist with a sense of humor and I’m happy. That’s exactly what Edward Luce delivers.

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Sanmao Saturday: Introducing Zhang Leping and His Sanmao the Orphan Comics

Way back when I was in my first year at UCI, I had to write a research paper and was struggling to find a topic. I knew that I wanted to do something on popular culture, but I only had about ten weeks to do all the research AND write the paper—no time to make a big research trip to China, or even another library in the United States (the UCI library’s China collection is good, but limited). So I went to my advisor for advice, hoping that he would be able to point me in the right direction. Or, really, any direction.

Jeff and I talked over and discarded several ideas before he remembered the Sanmao the Orphan comics and mentioned those to me. I found just enough about them online to pique my interest, and then the deal was sealed when I discovered that UC San Diego had a full collection of Sanmao reprints in its library. I requested them by interlibrary loan, but UCSD wouldn’t release the books for circulation. No matter—San Diego is only 90 minutes south of Irvine, so I went down there for a couple of days and photocopied everything Sanmao I could find.

Though I initially chose the Sanmao comics as my paper topic for purely pragmatic reasons, the more I saw of them, the more I wanted to learn. Shanghai artist Zhang Leping began drawing the Sanmao cartoons in 1935; those early comic strips show the (mis)adventures of a curious young boy, a sort of Dennis the Menace type. Sanmao went on hiatus for eight years during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), when Zhang traveled around the country drawing anti-Japanese propaganda with other cartoonists. Zhang returned to Shanghai at the war’s end in 1945 newly invigorated with communist politics and angered at the corruption he had seen in the Nationalist army. He drew a new Sanmao collection, Sanmao Follows the Army, that showed the cartoon character—still a young boy—as a lowly army recruit who suffers at the hands of senior officers. Although Zhang was still allegedly drawing the Sanmao cartoons for the enjoyment of children, I doubt most six-year-olds understood the politics of his work.

Statue of Sanmao and Zhang Leping outside Zhang’s memorial hall in his hometown of Haiyan, Zhejiang Province

Statue of Sanmao and Zhang Leping outside Zhang’s memorial hall in his hometown of Haiyan, Zhejiang Province

The next Sanmao collection is Zhang’s most famous, and even today remains the reason most Chinese are familiar with the character. The Wandering Life of Sanmao, published in 1947 and 1948, depicted Sanmao as a homeless child in Shanghai in the middle of the civil war between the Nationalist and Communists. Sanmao is hungry, cold, and dressed in rags, but the wealthier residents of Shanghai either ignore him or treat him badly. He finds occasional kindness from other poor residents of the city, who are willing to share what little they have with a homeless orphan. Again, Zhang’s Sanmao comics were presented as pop culture for children, but delivered a political message that resonated with adults.

After the founding of the PRC in 1949, Zhang went to work for state newspapers and media agencies, and drew more Sanmao comics off and on. But the post-49 cartoons celebrate Sanmao’s life under Mao’s regime and are lacking in the impassioned activism of Zhang’s work from the late 1940s. They’re still important, especially for showing how popular culture was co-opted by the communist state in the 1950s, but Sanmao has turned into a goody two shoes—and that’s never an interesting figure. (I’ve previously posted some samples from Sanmao Learns from Lei Feng, which is perhaps the epitome of brown-nosing Sanmao.)

Zhang’s life interested me almost as much as his cartoons did: he came to Shanghai as a teenager in the 1920s, leaving his rural Zhejiang Province hometown to make it as an artist in the big city. He was successful enough, and became a major figure in the comic art movement that swept through Shanghai in the 1930s, but his real fame came with the late-1940s Sanmao works. After 1949, Zhang and his family moved into a house in Shanghai’s former French Concession—only a few blocks away from where I used to live, in fact—and he drew cartoons for newspapers like the Liberation Daily and served in various artists’ associations. But when the Cultural Revolution broke out in the summer of 1966, Zhang was one of the first artists to be targeted in Shanghai, and he spent the next several years suffering from the weight of political accusations.

Zhang could finally return to work in the early 1970s, but he was never really the same after the Cultural Revolution. He continued drawing Sanmao comics throughout the 1980s, as China entered the Reform era and the political atmosphere changed yet again. Zhang died in September 1992—but Sanmao lives on, ever changing with the times. The newest Sanmao books in my collection follow his exploits as an adventurous young time-traveler.

For a few months, I was planning to write my entire dissertation about Zhang and Sanmao, but I finally discarded that plan when I decided I wanted to be more creative with their story than a dissertation would allow. (Instead, I wrote about child welfare issues in Shanghai during the first half of the twentieth century, which allowed me to bring in some pieces of Zhang’s work, such as The Wandering Life of Sanmao.) Now that my dissertation is done (and, by the way, approved by my committee—the filing paperwork should be processed sometime next week!), I can turn back to that project. I’ll be posting bits and pieces of it here throughout the fall as I work on the book manuscript.

Posted in Sanmao, Writing, Zhang Leping | Tagged | 1 Comment