I finally got around to cracking open this ~700page graphic memoir, A Chinese Life, which is the collaborative brainchild of 李昆武 Li Kun Wu and Philip Ôtié.

Illustrated by Li, who was/is a Communist Party member & famous graphic artist, and written by Ôtié in French through Li’s notes, I got my hands on the English translation published via SelfMadeHero, in a small bookstore, Woods in the Books in Singapore (talk about transnational! :P).

Aesthetically, the emotive explosion that is Li’s work is quite breathtaking. Perhaps it is the way his character moves through the panels so effortlessly that gives this narrative memoir the sweeping pace that it has. It is a perfect complement to the time period that the novel covers, from Li’s own boyhood and induction into the Red Army, his journey into adulthood which spans the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the eventual death of Mao, and the rise of China under the direction of Deng XiaoPing, a China which a much older Li continues to move through and engage with.

His stark contrasts and use of bold brush strokes are extremely commanding, and he fills in his panels quite densely – which I think works well to evoke the landscapes of Chinese communities.
He features Chinese landscapes themselves, a beautiful gesture to a history of Chinese landscape painting, but also an aesthetic departure because of its graphic form, whilst also consciously invoking his long career as a propagandist by saturating parts of the narrative where he draws himself drawing effigies of Mao and other such visual propaganda.

Other interesting illustrative elements in the text that I thoroughly enjoyed was

  1. The use of black ink/black space in dynamic ways. The black shows up in shades. in textures, and renders the characters sharing space with it in partial and full obscurement.  IMG_5430
  2. The scrawling of Chinese words as onomatopoeia, and as part of the backgrounds themselves. The overwhelming amount of words in the panel below constructs not just a visual image of how these Da Zi Baos might have looked, but also the psychological, and emotional effect they had on the Chinese population they were directed at, and also on us as readers. It seems somewhat interesting, that for non-Chinese readers, a layer of non-comprehension further strengthens the visual impact of the panel. IMG_5434

My favourite thing about this book, however, is the fact that Li is unapologetic and pragmatic in his memoir. He does not feel the pressure to repent or apologize for the rocky development of Communist China, yet, he is able to reflect in nuanced ways on the missteps that were taken, and the damage that was done.

There are two particular moments in the text that demonstrated the complex position of Li as a narrator attempting to tackle something as complicated as the rise of ‘Modern China’.

The first is a flash-forward moment, where in the midst of recounting the immense destruction wrought by the Red Army (which he was a part of as a boy), particular against historical artifacts and buildings, an Older Li surfaces in a short interruption, moving through a much later China, before coming to rest on a broken tree stump with roots extending in all directions and a modern city in the distance.

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This is an extremely vulnerable moment of honesty, as Li recognizes the irreparable damages of a short-sighted revolution. But he also admits that, “Like many others, I try not to look back too often, to let memory tug me down the slope of remorse.” His sense of loss is reflected in the absence of the great tree whose roots fill up so much of the panel and spread so vastly in many directions.

At a much later moment in the storytelling, Li interrupts his story again, but this time with another flash-forward featuring a hotel meeting with Ôtié. They are discussing the infamous 6/4 1989 incident and how it should be presented in the story.

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Ôtié believes it must be included, and his viewpoint is an understandable one. A Chinese graphic memoir that doesn’t give mention to Tiananmen 1989 is suspicious, and is complicit in the erasure of this tragic and violent event from history.

Yet after long negotiations between the two collaborators, Li still resists offering it a more dramatized telling, because he wasn’t there – and in fact, living far away in Kunming, and being a member of the Communist Party – knew very little about it. The dilemma of having to dramatize a country’s history, while simultaneously being only an individual witness to a torrential deluge of events within a large nation is a problem that this text wrestles with constantly. The English title, A Chinese Life seems to posit Chinese history as its desired subject, and position Li as a stand-in character for the other faceless, nameless Chinese bodies also swept up in this drama of nation-making, but the Chinese title,《從小李到老李》is directly translated as, From Little Li to Old Li, a title that positions Li as protagonist, and subject of the memoir.

Going back to the moment of inserting Ôtié and Li’s conversation into the text, this narrative interruption cleverly  becomes the exact moment that June 4th 1989 appears in the story.
It emerges not as part of the narrative unfolding, but as part of the narrative construction.

What is even MORE interesting is that Li then goes on to explain to us his struggle over representing 6/4, and in that montage of images, uses the exact same panel from pg 131 of him sitting on a tree stump, holding a Chinese relic to him, gazing at the modern Chinese city in the distance. In doing so, he links these two moments with the same sense of conflicted regret and forgetting.

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Li reveals and reflects on the limitations of his perspective in this moment, acknowledging its controversial position, while also recognizing his lived history, and the turbulent history of the country that is roots, tree stump, Chinese relic, and modern city all at the same time.

A Chinese Life is a powerful work of storytelling that employs the candour of narration and the dynamism of image to craft a reading experience that feels honest. In our often contrived, lazy and simplified conversations around China as an economic power, and human rights violator, this text interferes with our complacent treatment of whatever China is.

Highly recommended to anyone interested.
I have a physical copy 😉

All images © SelfMadeHero, Li Kun Wu and Philip Ôtié

Posted by:jasmine

Jasmine is an editor, poet, and community arts organizer. She comes to poetry by way of Chinese music. This blog is a mapping of ways.

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