For most of the 20th century, there was a thriving industry of pulp comic-style illustrated books called lianhuanhua that were popular throughout mainland China. Billions of these pocket-sized books were printed, and there were reading libraries around the country where people could pay to read through several volumes in a sitting. These books were often adapted from stories such as Journey to the West, or popular movies, both domestic and international.
After a lianhuanhua adaptation of Star Wars: A New Hope was unearthed and translated by Maggie Greene and Nick Stember, and subsequently went viral, Chinese writer and cartoonist Thomas Bini collected 11 different lianhuanhua adaptations of the same film and reviewed them in the following essay. The range of styles and approaches to the content give us a glimpse into the vibrant diversity of the lianhuanhua industry.
Below is the translated essay (edited for length) by Thomas Bini with scans of the illustrations. For an overview of the history of lianhuanhua, see the essay by Orion Martin here.
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You may remember the allegorical scene at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope (1977): a young man is working on two secondhand droids when an unexpected connection causes R2-D2 to project a hazy holographic image. There, an unfamiliar princess in white speaks of a distant war. “...The figure in the image was so striking that throughout the minute-long broadcast, Luke forgot to breathe.”
This scene may be the perfect metaphor for the first glimpse Chinese people had of Star Wars. At that point, we had no access to the film itself, but through the unclear projections of lianhuanhua adaptations, we experienced a cosmic adventure even more miraculous than the one George Lucas imagined.
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The original work begins with the original Star Wars trilogy, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983). None of the films were screened in mainland China. Personally, it wasn’t until 1995 on a bizarre pop science show titled Sci-Fi and Future that I first saw those stunning spaceships.
But while the world was engulfed in Star Wars fever, it was also imported to China in print adaptations — novels, illustrated books, and a format unique to China, lianhuanhua.
"A hologram of a beautiful girl projected from R2."
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It wasn’t until 1992 that the People’s Republic of China became a signatory to the Universal Copyright Convention. This means that throughout the heady 1980s, China’s publishing market seemed to be in a galaxy far away as well.
There were no limits on any adaptations of copyrighted materials, so countless outlandish versions of Star Wars were produced, numbering at least two dozen in total. There were some famous names working on the adaptations, and they had differences in taste and inclination. As a result, each volume is wholly unique. Due to challenges in standardization, some of them aren’t even titled “Star Wars.”
This winter I, Bini, with the obsessive heart of an alchemist, pored over the secondhand markets, ultimately collecting 11 volumes from these distant lands. I fear this is not a complete reckoning, but it’s enough to open one’s eyes. Beloved readers, I have given my full energy to the following. May the force be with you.
Star Wars (novel) Translated by Hu Jie and Chi MengHunan
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The first book on our list must be this one, as it formed the blueprint for all following lianhuanhua adaptations. Most of the cartoonists never saw the film, and only had this volume on hand while working on their adaptations. The first of the official Star Wars novels is translated in prose that reads today as surprisingly clear and smooth, and it is almost completely free of translation errors.
In the summer of 1980, the print quantity of this sci-fi novel was a staggering 300,000+ volumes. A booming era for print publishing, indeed.
Star Wars, Adaptation: Huang Ge, Illustration: Kai Jun
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Let’s move on to one that looks fairly standard in terms of illustration: this is the only volume in which all of the characters and objects are faithful to the Star Wars film. Not a single detail is overlooked, and it seems the artists were trying to show off.
I would guess that this edition by Hunan Fine Arts was based on a good deal of actual film stills, but did Mr. Kai Jun really see the movie? I don’t think so — otherwise he wouldn’t have confused the Death Star’s superlaser for its tractor beam, as seen on image two. In general, this edition’s art is too meticulous and measured, without enough otherworldly power.
Suddenly, the spaceship began to jolt about aggressively, and the gauges began making strange whistling noises—the spaceship had obviously just been pulled into an extremely strong gravitational beam.
It was the Empire’s newly built, massive, space battle station—the “Death Star”—that had grabbed hold of the “Millennium Falcon” and begun to pull it in. The “Millennium Falcon” looked like an infinitesimal speck next to this technological monster..
The people cheered for R2-D2’s successful delivery of the confidential information, and they happily lifted R2-D2 into the air.These characters aren’t really involved with the story, so this seems kind of awkward.
Star Wars, Adaption: Yu Xiuxi, Art: Yang Yilin
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Professor Yang Yilin is a fabled master of the lianhuanhua tradition, and this volume, drawn when he was 51 years old, showcases the full range of his remarkable talent.
Without doubt, Yang’s renderings are much more refined than those of the other illustrators, as even the sections of new material invented for the comic are gracefully executed. The dashing scoundrel Han Solo, the sagely Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the noble mountain of fur Chewbacca all appear to have just stepped out of Jean-Pierre Melville film.
There are not many people willing to draw comics like these anymore, and they grow fewer by the day.
“You are extremely lucky,” the old man said with a smile. “Your head is still on your neck.” Luke stared at the man in front of him, and spoke with tears in his eyes. “Thank you so much for saving my life.”
Luke’s father left his hometown when he was very young and became the most powerful Jedi Knight in the galaxy, but he was killed after being betrayed by the dark lord, Darth Vader. Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke about his past, hoping he would grow to be like his father.
They searched high and low, but found nothing at all. Not a single sign of the droid was found, and even the pilot had fled without leaving a trace. Darth Vader listened to the officer’s report, seething with rage, and quickly left the hangar.
The imperial soldiers were closing in. Luke was about to turn around to face them, when suddenly Princess Leia took his gun, swiftly blasted a hole in the vent next to them, and commanded them all to jump in.
Princess Leia’s hairstyle and Darth Vader’s mask don’t adhere to the film, but the designs are elegant.
Cosmic Empire, Adaption: Liu Yifang, Art: He An
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This book received an award for outstanding cover at the third annual National Lianhuanhua Awards. He has an academic background, and all of the books he illustrated in ‘82 were exquisite. Tragically, the script writer Liu Yifang seems not to have understood the source material, leading to all kinds of cause-and-effect disjunctures. The title “The Empire Strikes Back” somehow became “Space Empire.” Darth Vader doesn’t tell Luke, “I am your father,” and instead kicks him off the ledge.
Liu Yifang is a simple, conservative man. In the preface to this volume, he describes the core values of Star Wars:
“... No matter what, in order for justice to defeat brutality, a person’s subjective initiative must be activated. In the million realms of the stars, study skills remain paramount.”
Luke angrily faced the beast-shaped transport and opened fire, and in response he received a burst of dense gunfire. Luke and Rogue 3 buzzed the transport, circling around like insects. The vessel’s armor was too strong, so Luke directed the aerial fleet to fire a harpoon cannon with cables in order to tie up its legs.
Once again, Luke demanded Yoda train him to become a Jedi Knight, and Yoda led him toward an invisible teacher. In the empty, remote place a gentle voice immediately could be heard. Yoda said that it was the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi. “I have been training Jedi Knights for 800 years,” Yoda said. “Not everyone can accept such training.”
Han used his energy weapon to fire at Darth Vader, but couldn’t hit him. Darth Vader easily blocked the bursts of energy with his armor, deflecting them to hit the wall and explode.
The hydraulic platform suddenly dropped Han Solo down into a pit, and a stream of burning hot, molten liquid flooded down on him like a waterfall. The molten liquid solidified, turning Han Solo as hard as a rock. It looked as though he was an unfinished sculpture.
He An’s training is impeccable, with a perfectly defined line. In 1986 he moved to the United States and stopped illustrating lianhuanhua.
Star Wars (Volumes I-III), Adaptation: Yi Shuping, Art: Zhang Zuo
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This version is quite unique. The pages look much different than Chinese lianhuanhua. Amidst the characters we find scattered speech bubbles. Without doubt, this was not adapted from the film, but taken from a different comic.
A huge number of Star Wars comics were being published by Marvel at the time. In total, there are more than 100 of them, most of them depicting unofficial backstories of the main characters.
They originally appeared in newspaper comic strips. Zhang Zuo broke out each panel, altered the composition, and copied it. This bizarre method of forced adaptations for foreign comics was not all that uncommon in recent decades. Let’s just leave aside that discussion for now.
-Those are Luke’s droids! I knew! Chewy, quick, get them on the ship!
-Han! Why on earth do you care so much for these machines? Is this walking carpet not enough for you?
As the ship descended closer to the droids, Solo could see them more clearly. The objects floating in front of them really were his good friend Luke’s droids! He immediately commanded Chewbacca to go rescue the droids. But he didn’t think that the insults coming from Leia would make Chewbacca roar so loud.
-Leia…your virtues sure are starting to fall short of that sharp tongue!
He made a few sharp remarks before he allowed his ape companion to put on a space suit and carry out his command.
Luan Shuping's magical translation ↑ Star Wars (Part 1) | 1983
Original Comic ↓ Star Wars #1 | The Constancia Affair | 1979
Star Wars (Vol 1, Vol 2), Adaption: Yi Ping, Art: Jiang Gaoyi and Zeng Xiaofeng
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If not for its shoddy art, Yunnan People’s Publishing’s version may have become a classic.
The whimsical cartoonists Jiang Gaoyi and Zeng Xiaofeng depict a princess in a tented, vaguely transparent blouse, a Luke Skywalker dressed in the trim trousers of an activist, and an Uncle Owen clad in a dry cleaning bag. The dark lord Darth Vader is wearing the high waisted jumpsuit of a gymnast.
The text does not stray far from the source material, though Yi Ping hardly mentions Han Solo and seems entirely focused on bringing Leia and Luke together. The final panel has the two siblings facing one another, bathed in rays of love. To be honest, it’s much more interesting than the American comics.
Darth Vader Grand Moff Tarkin
Starting with character introductions is a holdover from earlier martial arts novels. ↑
The thick smoke began to disappear. C-3PO gazed at the end of the channel and tried to make out a slim silhouette as he stroked R2-D2.
Princess Leia is always surrounded by floating sparkles in this version, for no clear reason.
After his meal, Luke returned to the warehouse and realized that the two droids weren’t there. Luke pulled out a small control box and turned on a signal, calling out to his droids.
Luke, looking like a Tatooine middle school RC copter expert.
The two lightsabers crashed together, creating countless sparks and flashes of light. Kenobi was old and weak, and it had become difficult to fight his enemy. Step by step, he retreated toward the ship.
Darth Vader’s outfit, brought to you by an Antarctic longjohn manufacturer.
When Luke gazed at the beauty and grace of Princess Leia, his whole soul was captured by her. Princess Leah noticed Luke's loving gaze and looked at him with a smile.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. They come together in the end.
Star Wars, Adaptation: Yuan Haiting and Wang Zheng, Art: Zhang Shouyi
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Few people raised Star Wars to the level of class struggle, but Yuan Haiting made it work. Luke’s family is portrayed as a peasant household oppressed by the Empire, while Darth Vader is an evil agent of the wealthy landowners and monopoly controlling oligarchs. Uncle Owen works on behalf of the peasants and is burned to death for it. Young Luke dries his eyes, vows to never again have illusions about the exploiting class, and devotes his life to violent uprising.
Zhang Shouyi’s art is undoubtedly the most psychedelic of these volumes. As such, I developed a profound interest in his artistic background. My Life of Design — Zhang Shouyi, published in 2007 by China Travel Publishing, notes that because of his irritable stomach, Zhang “lived consuming almost only beer for many years, drinking three bottles per day… a drunken immortal of the illustration world.” You see? As long as you’re willing to dig to the roots, everything has a reasonable explanation. One pot of rice wine and you’ll be ready to ridicule Sith and Jedi alike.
In a distant galaxy, far, far away, an evil group overthrew the “Old Republic” and established the Empire. The Empire brutally oppressed every planet in the galaxy. To resist the oppression, the planet Alderaan’s Princess Leia led the oppressed people in a fierce conflict with the Empire.
Adding meaningless English characters was a popular method at the time. Coca-Cola seems like the most likely suspect.
Biggs Darklighter saw that Luke did not understand, and said to him again, “Luke, you need to understand, the Empire leaders’ insatiable greed is never-ending! They’ve already taken control over many of the planets around us, and they continue to take over planets. How long before you, your uncle, and all of Tatooine will be reduced to nothing but their subjects?”
Biggs Darklighter plants the seeds of revolution in Luke. This scene appears in the book, but not the film.
Uncle Owen suddenly lost his temper. “Obi-Wan Kenobi! He’s a sly, secretive wizard, don’t bother with him. Besides, he probably died at the same time as your father.” Luke thought to himself, “I wonder if Kenobi is still out there.”
The Russian-style meal is depicted with solemn formality.
Though Zhang Shouyi speaks of his stomach, it didn’t stop him from dining in Moscow.
The person who arrived was, nevertheless, an old man. This strange traveler wore layers of clothing wrapped around his body. His weathered face and flowing beard revealed that he had seen a great deal of life. R2-D2, hiding behind a rock, saw the old man but showed no fear, and moved toward where Luke lay on the ground.
Obi-Wan Kenobi may be old, but his political consciousness is sharp as a knife.
The elegant image vanished away, and Luke felt deep regret. The old man said, “Don’t be surprised, child, I was once a Jedi Knight of the Old Republic, just like your father.” Luke was absolutely speechless. He had never heard this about his father before.
All the Jedi Knights are dressed as Roman warriors, so it makes sense they would fight the Gauls.
Darth Vader made a gesture to the outside, and a black, metal sphere immediately moved in, suspended in midair. All kinds of metal arms and appendages extended from the sphere, terminating in countless metal instruments. Princess Leia, in terror, stared at the object and panicked as the demon slowly moved closer...
The description of this scene is quite gothic. It’s rare to see such peculiar vocabulary in lianhuanhua.
Princess Leia spoke disdainfully. “Violence fails to unite the Empire, you stupid man!” After listening, Moff Tarkin laughed sinisterly. “If you are unwilling to reveal the rebel base, we’ll simply have to target your home planet, Alderaan, to set an example!”
Leia said it best. Grand Moff Tarkin looks just like a Capitalist running dog.
The sound of Chewbacca’s groan led the two to the back of the small bar. They saw a young man in a small room who introduced himself. “My name is Solo, captain of the ‘Millennium Falcon.’ Chewbacca said you needed to get to Alderaan. Is that right?”
Opportunist and anarchist Han Solo appears with lumpenproletariat member Chewbacca.
They finally squeezed out of the tight encirclement and escaped. Princess Leia excitedly twisted her body to hug Chewbacca.“We did it!”
Mr. Zhang, the book is finished. Have a drink.
Star Wars, Adaptation: Zhou Jinzhuo, Art: Song Fei
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Let us now turn to the most widely known — many have probably already seen this one, as it’s the one that Maggie Greene of Montana State University purchased in a Shanghai market. It was disseminated online and mocked by Star Wars enthusiasts the world over.
It must be said that while Zhou Jinzhuo’s translation is fairly standard, Song Fei’s art is much much much too rushed. Absurd, bizarro materials that have no connection at all to the source are worked into each and every panel in order to complete the story. The only way to describe this unnatural creative process is 'the dark side of the force.'
Popular Science Publishing of Guangzhou adapted a good deal of sci-fi movies in the early 1980s, and Song Fei contributed more than any other artist. After a quick comparison to his other books, I found that most of the scenes in his work were made with existing compositions and modular components. I would deduce that these lianhuanhua illustrations were made by collaging previously completed materials. This strikes me as analogous to old American B-movies from the 1940s and 50s. Working on tight budgets and expecting quick turnaround, productions tended to re-use complicated sets and makeup from recent productions, supplemented with as much artsy filler as could be shot; in this way, libraries of fragments were created to be recombined for new material.
Just like old sci-fi and horror films with their shoddy mass production still hold some audiences captive, one can still be enthralled by the Chinese lianhuanhua of this time. The Star Wars cult subculture has already broken this down for analysis like a prism revealing the color spectrum.. So at this point I warn you, dear readers, don’t look at these lianhuanhua for any kind of deep meaning. These are just insignificant artifacts shaped by human civilization.
In a certain vast galaxy, the entirety of which was ruled by the Galactic Republic (Yinhe Gongheguo 銀河共和國) in the past, but now this Republic has been destroyed and is now ruled by a Galactic Empire (Yinhe Diguo 銀河帝國). Not only does the Galactic Empire use despotic violence to oppress all of the planets in their galaxy, but they also are trying to rule the entire universe.
So it begins. Camrade Vader visits the Jiuquan base in Gansu Province.
It looks like [Leia] won’t be able to escape from Vader’s clutches. Carrying secret marching orders, rebel leader Princess Leia immediately takes the robot R2 (Atu 阿圖) to a secret storeroom and, after pressing and turning certain parts on R2, faces him with urgent agitation and begins to speak.
Princess Leia is outfitted in a typical Spanish bullfighting outfit.
Luke ignores [C-3PO] and continues to stare at the image longingly. “Who is she? She’s really beautiful! Is that all that was recorded? It sounds incomplete.“ He reaches out with his hand to touch R2, and R2 pulls back in fear. C-3PO is very displeased with his partner’s behavior.
Dashing scamp Luke sports an innocent mustache.
Aunt Beru (Beilu Dashen 貝魯大婶) calls everyone to dinner, so Luke has to leave the two robots. While eating dinner Luke asks Owen if Obi Wan Kenobi is [the full name of] Ben Kenobi who lives nearby. Owen doesn’t deny it, but tells Luke to stay away from him.
The four necessities for any Tatooine family: microwave, rice cooker, induction cooktop, and thermos. Uncle Owen’s hobbies include collecting clay pots and raising asparagus ferns.
After the 3D image disappears, Luke asks in astonishment, “She called you a general, and said that you served the Republic, are you…” Kenobi says, “I am a Jedi Knight (Jiedi Qishi 傑迪騎士), just like your father. We were both old guards of the Republic, sworn to protect and serve.”
This image is adapted from American fantasy artist Frank Frazetta.
Kenobi pulls out something which looks like the hilt of a sword. With one press of a button, the guard of the sword [hilt] emits a blue-white beam resembling an incomparably sharp blade. He tells Luke, this is a lightsaber (jiguanjian 激光劍, lit. ‘laser sword’) , the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Those who can master the lightsaber are one in a million (butongfangxiang de ren 不同凡響的人).
From the logo on the blinds, we know that Obi-Wan is a fan of J&B Whisky.
Luke asks how his father died. Kenobi says he was murdered by Vader. Originally Vader was Kenobi’s brightest disciple, but he ended up using the martial skills which he learned and his own extraordinary innate powers to help the Empire destroy virtually all of the Jedi.
Mr. Song Fei is really quite well read — this composition is also taken from Frank Frazetta.
Meanwhile, in the meeting room of the “Death Star,” Vader is staring fixedly at star map. Fascinatingly enough, even after the largest device of mass destruction ever—the “Death Star”—destroyed the planet Alderaan, this star map looks the same as always. Indeed, it is only after careful inspection that it becomes apparent that a tiny dot is missing [from the map].
Darth Vader takes his responsibilities seriously, even visiting Kennedy Space Center.
Kenobi wants R2 to connect his data port (cha tou 插頭) to the computer with a cable so that he can download all of the data from the “Death Star” and find the power source for the tractor beam. The lights flash up and down R2’s chassis and the drone (weng weng sheng 嗡嗡聲) of the computer operating at high speed continues for several minutes before the task is complete.
R2-D2: “There’s something wrong with the electrical component, run a lap and you’ll feel better.”
Luke suggests that they rescue her but Solo says he won’t go. Luke tries to appeal to his morality (xiaoyi dayi 曉以大義) but Solo still won’t do it. Finally, Luke promises him a big reward (dabi choujin 大筆酬金) and Solo is forced to agree. They put Chewbacca in manacles, and pretend to be two Imperial soldiers escorting a captive out of the small control room.
The Great Sage secretly rejoiced: "Fortune, fortune, business is here."
Despite the enemy’s [best efforts to] intercept and attack their spacecraft, they manage to shake them, swiftly arriving at the secret [Rebel] base on the fourth moon of the faraway planet of Yavin (Yawen 亞文).
The resistance spent huge sums of money to recreate the Chinese Millenium Monument, and then adorned it with a few miniature Sphinxes.
After careful analysis they come to the conclusion that the Death Star’s only weakness is a two meter wide exhaust vent. The [exhaust vent covers] an unshielded duct which leads directly to the reactor which powers the base. If they can hit the exhaust vent with a proton torpedo, it will set off a chain reaction which will destroy the Death Star.
If we blow up this Death Star, our company can develop serviced apartments here.
Before Luke boards the X-Wing (X-Yi Feichuan X翼飛船) he is to fly into battle, Princess Leia comes to see him off and wish him success. R2 will accompany Luke on his ship, so C3PO arrives to see off his partner, too.
The Resistance spacecraft are operated by Malaysia Airlines.
The Death Star explodes! It sends out a flash that is brighter than the stars in the distance, so bright that it is difficult to look at directly. A split second later, the air is filled with a hundred million shards of metal, a fitting memorial to the Empire.
Darth Vader dies? How will the next two volumes handle that…
At the victory celebration, Princess Leia gives Luke, Solo, Chewbacca, and the droids R2 and C3PO each a medal.
The celebration ceremony was held at the Pantheon in Paris, with CCTV on hand to broadcast the proceedings.
Luke feels as if his entire heart and soul have come under the sway of the Princess. Noticing his unrestrained gaze, she smiles.
Leia even wore a wedding dress. You know what that means, Luke.
银河帝国的反击（小说） | 张若衡 陈月泉 译
湖南人民出版社 | 1980
That’s about all the books we’ve got for today.
When I put all of the materials in chronological order, I noticed something peculiar: the first Star Wars adaptation to be published in mainland China was not one of the volumes described above. Instead, it was the March 1980 publication of the translated novel, The Galactic Empire Strikes Back. Why did the leadership of Hunan People’s Publishing decide to skip over the first volume and instead publish the second? 36 years have passed, the people involved have been scattered, and this mystery may never be solved.
Translator Zhang Ruoheng was a serious scholar. The Commercial Press included one of his books, a translation of Hume’s Political Essays, in its list of “Masterworks of Chinese Translation.” On that winter many years ago, when he received the publisher’s notice that he was to translate the middle chapter of a strange science fiction trilogy, he found a story with no beginning and no end. It featured a magnificent fantasy story, set in the chaos of a galactic war and a tragedy that would lead one to unknowingly seek to murder their father… The confusion and shock that rocked Zhang that day may rival the surprise we feel when fanning through these publications today.
However, he translated it meticulously, taking it one line at a time. On these yellowed pages, the backlit youth still sings to us in a familiar voice. The past is gone, unchangeable, and the future has yet to arrive.In that moment, there were too many thoughts to put into words
Thomas Bini is a writer and cartoonist based in China.
Translation and Editing Team
Orion Martin is a translator and writer based in Brooklyn. He is the founder of Paradise Systems. www.paradise-systems.com
Lucy Pappas was born and raised in Vermont. She studied Chinese language and literature at Middlebury College, where she found a particular interest in modern and contemporary Chinese film and theatre. She also loves taking photos of people, places, and all sorts of things. You can find her work at www.lucy-pappas.com.
Joey Schwartzman is a translator and editor from New York. Joey studied at Vassar College and Qingdao University and has been translating since 2010. He can be reached at IG: @sammydavisxiv.
Nick Stember's translations were used for Zhou Jinzhuo's adaptation. You can find Nick's work at www.nickstember.com.