Lianhuanhua: China's Forgotten Comics Empire

Yin Guifu’s cover for Bianjiang Xiao Shaobing (The Little Guard in the Frontier) 1977. Source: Xiling Yinshe Auction Company, 2014.

 

A Comics Industry Like No Other

In 1985, there were 8.1 billion pocket-sized comics (lianhuanhua) printed in mainland China. That’s eleven times more than the total of all books and magazines sold in the United States in 2017. We don’t often think of China as having a rich tradition of comics making before the 1990s or 2000s, but from their beginnings in the 1920s until their popularity bottomed out in the 1990s, lianhuanhua were among the most widely read literature in the country.

Image of a man dodging an arrow.

Caption: “Mr. Yu quickly shifted his body to the side and the arrow hit the wall. It stuck there, quivering and making a buzzing sound.” Baling Nüxia (Baling Woman Warrior), 1985. There were 670,000 copies of this book printed.


Origins in Republican Era Shanghai (1920s-1930s)

Any longtime resident of China will notice piles of cheaply printed lianhuanhua at antique markets or street-vender stalls. Most of the volumes that can still be found in China were printed in the late 1970s and 1980s, during the last heyday of lianhuanhua publishing, but their history reaches back much farther. The lianhuanhua industry began in Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s, though some scholars trace the origins of the format to Song Dynasty scrolls. Using newly imported lithographic printing techniques, publishers began putting out periodicals that contained illustrated stories. These works came to be called “lianhuanhua” 连环画 (linked images), or “xiaorenshu” 小人书 (children’s books). The most popular series from magazines were reprinted in palm-size paperbacks or boxed sets. Considered too low-brow for bookstores, lianhuanhua developed a separate distribution network, including a system of streetside reading libraries(Cite Kuiyi Shen article). For a few coins, patrons could sit down on wooden stools and read several dozen lianhuanhua.

Readers at an outdoor rental, Hong Kong, 1947.

Many of these early comics were multi-volume adaptations of martial arts epics or folk tales such as Journey to the West. Others were adapted from theater shows or popular films. Production schedules were extremely rushed, with turnarounds of less than 24 hours. After the release of a new film or theater production, illustrators and printers would work through the night so that they could sell lianhuanhua outside the theater for less than the price of a ticket. As Nick Stember notes, one of the earliest surviving lianhuanhua is an adaptation of All Quiet on the Eastern Front, suggesting that many early works were based on films or novels. This focus on adaptations will continue to be a hallmark of the medium until China becomes a signatory of the Universal Copyright Convention in 1992 (and after). 

In 1932, literary icon Lu Xun argued against the prevailing attitude that lianhuanhua and other popular comics of the era were cheap thrills. He believed they were a new form of artistic production, and participated in publishing Die Passion eines Menschen by Frans Masereel. The newly-formed Communist Party of China also took an interest in lianhuanhua. They saw the comics as a tool for propaganda and education of the masses, believing that they could use illustrated stories to promote literacy. At the time, it was estimated that 90% of Chinese citizens were illiterate, and basic literacy was a major priority for the party.


Covers of some of the titles sold by Paradise Systems at book fairs.

 

Disruption Due to War and Political Pressures (1940s-1960s)

During the Japanese occupation, publishing crawled to a standstill due to shortages of ink and paper. Shanghai, the center of China’s publishing industry, was especially devastated by the war. Lianhuanhua production rebounded after 1960, and for the first time since the 1940s, comics spread throughout the country. The Communist government tightly controlled the content of lianhuanhua during this period. Many are informational guides or adaptations of Socialist Realist works.

Lianhuanhua production came to a near standstill with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 when many publishers, writers, and illustrators were “sent down” to work in rural areas. Due to the low quality of lianhuanhua printing and the periodic campaigns that the CCP launched against them, few lianhuanhua from before 1970 survive. Those that do are rare antiques.

A socialist realist image of soldiers, farmers, and workers marching forward.

“The People’s Airforce team shall remain on high alert, fully prepared to annihilate any enemy who dares to invade.” From Renmin Fangkong Zhishi (People’s Airforce Knowledge) 1978.

 

Lianhuanhua Renaissance (1970s-1980s)

From the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 until the 1990s, lianhuanhua went through their final golden era. The comics were printed in larger numbers than ever before, and many of the prohibitions on subject matter and art style that the Party had put in place were lifted. As a result, there was a tremendous diversity in subject matter. Professor Minjie Chen writes,

Traditional stories set in ancient China, criticized in the 1960s for featuring royal and upper-class protagonists rather than contemporary proletarians, reappeared in lianhuanhua works. Folktales, fantasy, and fables—genres suppressed during the Cultural Revolution for reasons ranging from superstition to preaching feudalism, capitalism, and revisionism—came back to entertain young readers. (Personal correspondence, September 2014)

Han Solo facing off against Darth Vader in this panel split by a vertical lightning bolt.

“Solo was about to fire again when suddenly an invisible force swept up his pistol and delivered it to Vader’s hands.” Diguo Fanjizhan (The Emperor Strikes Back), 1982.

Adaptations of foreign works from Europe and the United States were also produced. These comics gave Chinese citizens their first look at foreign films like Star Wars, which had yet to be imported to mainland China. Chinese cartoonist Bini Xiao has catalogued a set of 11 different adaptations of Star Wars, all made in the early 1980s.

Chen writes that in the 1980s, “new publications came to embrace a wider range of goals that included intellectual development and education in science and culture for young people.” In the years directly following Mao’s death, there were even adaptations of Scar Art, a literary and fine arts movement that dealt directly with the recent trauma of the Cultural Revolution.

Pages from the comic showing a student during the Cultural Revolution.

“Before, she was the group secretary for grade 3 class C and an excellent student… When the campaign began, she was among the first group of ‘Rebels’.” From Feng (Maple) in Lianhuanhua Pictorial, 1979. Scanned here.

 

Characteristics of Lianhuanhua

In the 70s and 80s, the most common format for lianhuanhua was a palm-sized 5 by 3.5 inch black and white paperback, typically with more than 100 pages. The paper was so thin that the pages are often translucent, and the sales price, always printed on the back of the books, was never more than a few pennies. Although some lianhuanhua include speech bubbles, the majority feature one image per page with a block of narrative text below it. The closest US equivalent is the Big Little Books series published from the 1930s to the 1960s. It should also be noted that a significant number of the lianhuanhua printed in the 1980s were made using captured film stills instead of hand-drawn illustrations.

There has been some debate about whether lianhuanhua, composed mostly of illustrations captioned by text, meet the definition of the term “comics.” I would argue that because lianhuanhua are a print medium of visual storytelling that combines images and text, they fit under a broad definition of the term “comics.”

Lianhuanhua illustrators employed a huge range of styles. Some are clearly inspired by Japanese and Western comics, while others adapt the stylized gong bi line from traditional Chinese ink painting. This diversity of technique reflects the diversity of backgrounds among the illustrators. Some specialized in lianhuanhua illustration, while others were painters who found paid employment illustrating comics. Artist and curator Luo Fei notes lianhuanhua illustration was a good day job for artists before China developed a contemporary art market. Some of these artists, such as He Youzhi, brought new influences and experimental designs into their illustrations and were widely known for their work. Lianhuanhua were often the first exposure that children had to fine arts. Luo Fei writes, “When I was young, my first experience drawing was copying lianhuanhua,” (personal communication, October 2014).

Illustration of a couple walking through the countryside.

“They walked together in silence. The flowers glowed warmly, and the pungent smell of the wild grasses came through the air on gusts of wind. Shujun said softly, ‘I want to join up. Does that make you happy?’ Dachun nodded his head. Shujun said again, ‘Others are joining up, does that make you happy?’” From Shan Xiang Ju Bian, 1978. He Youzhi’s illustrations.

 

Lianhuanhua Boom and Sudden Decline

What’s truly astounding about lianhuanhua is the scale at which they were consumed. During the early 1980s, lianhuanhua accounted for a quarter of all publishing in China. 1985 was the peak year for lianhuanhua production, when there were more than 7 books printed for each person in the country. Some titles had print runs of more than a million copies.

In the late 1980s, however, the comics quickly decreased in popularity until only a few hundred thousand were printed in 1990. There are a range of theories for why they fell out of fashion so suddenly, from a deluge of poor quality works to increased competition from television and Japanese manga. Professor Minjie Chen suggests that increasing content censorship decreased the relevance of lianhuanhua to the rapidly changing country.

Illustration of the Monkey King eating peaches.

“After expelling the others, the Monkey King removed his robe and hastily climbed a peach tree. He easily picked a dozen and sat on a branch freely eating them. After that day, he went back every two or three days to sneak a few.” From Nao Tian Gong (Havoc in Heavon), 2009. Note that the text is hand-lettered.

For many who grew up in China, particularly those born before 1990, lianhuanhua continue to hold nostalgic value as some of the first books they read. Collectors have driven up the prices in recent years, and in 2014 a complete set of Romance of the Three Kingdoms lianhuanhua auctioned for CNY 200,000 (roughly $32,500). Publishers have also begun reprinting some of the most popular lianhuanhua in larger hardcover editions.

In 2018, Paradise Systems 格物天下 released the first two books in our series of contemporary lianhuanhua — Two Stories by gantea and Migraine by Woshibai. These works differ from the lianhuanhua conventions in many ways, but their landscape orientation panels were easily adapted to the classic pocket-sized format of lianhuanhua. In the same year, we began selling vintage ‘80s lianhuanhua at book fairs and talking about the rich history they hint at. There is so much more that could be done with these fascinating books, from translations of classic works to cultural analysis of the daily life they record. We hope that by connecting our work with this tradition, we will bring more attention and resources to this largely forgotten history of comics publishing.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Chen, Minjie, “Chinese Lian Huan Hua and Literacy: Popular Culture Meets Youth Literature.” Cynthia B. Leung, and Jiening Ruan. Perspectives On Teaching and Learning Chinese Literacy in China. Dordrecht ; New York: Springer, 2012.

Wu, Diyou, "The Memory of Lianhuanhua." Norman Rockwell Museum, 2012.

Xiang, Ting, "Lianhuanhua Investment Focus: Significant Room For Growth in Classical 80's Lianhuanhua." China Economic Net, 2014.

 

A version of this essay was first published on The Comics Journal. Special thanks to Jason Li and Shannon Finnegan for editing this essay.


 


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