Li Kunwu & Philippe Otie 2012
Translated by Edward Gauvin
“So yes, of course we are proud of what we’ve made, even if it’s not perfect yet. Especially since it doesn’t come from the profits of armed conquest, however legitimate, or from the exploiting of a rich subsoil, or from inherited capital skillfully managed to bear fruit. No – none of these things. You will find nothing but sweat here. From our brows and our children, to whom we bequeath lives that will also will be made of hard work and sacrifice, for we still have a long way to go down the road that will lead us from poverty, the road to development.” (690)
Read alone, the closing passage to Li Kunwi’s semiautobiographical graphic novel, A Chinese Life, carries an air of pride dusted with an undertone of cross-cultural jabbing, yet presented alongside the artwork of Kunwi portraying himself as an elderly and simple Chinese man, wandering the streets of the rising modern China, this musing is the perfect closing to a rich and beautiful tale of one man’s experience through the last 60 years of Chinese history.
Though not perfect as a historical reference – and never intended to stand alone as historical reference – this tale provides an entertaining portrayal of the experiences of a common man living through the Chinese struggle to become recognized as a world power in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, as portrayed by his teenage zealous fervor to promote the party mentality within his village by critiquing restaurant menus for being too bourgeois with high class dinner choices or providing drawings to the illiterate barber to demonstrate the approved and proper haircuts that should be worn by “the people.” At times Li’s storytelling depicts an unsettling sadness of struggle as his drawings show the emaciated and starving peoples of the famines following the Great Leap Forward. There are memorable moments that depict the cycles of public fervor, such as the melting of ancient relics thought of as “old ways of thinking” in order to promote the country’s steel production, or the destruction of thousand year old pagodas to use the wood for cooking and mulch for fertilizer. And as noted in the image I posted above of a home marked for destruction to lay way for modern skyscrapers, Li presents these occurrences as expected and part of the Chinese mentality that places unification and development above all in order to promote the movement toward the common good.
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.