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.

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