Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sanmao - Zhang Leping's Cartoon Look at Old Shanghai

This is not about Sanmao, the Taiwanese author. I say that because I first bought the Sanmao cartoon book off the Internet, not realizing that she had taken the pen name from a Chinese pre-Communist comic strip. Although the comic Sanmao is well known to Chinese people, I had never heard of it before, so it was a lucky coincidence that I ended up very much enjoying the comic book.

The book collected comics written in 1948 - Sanmao is a hard-scrappin' young kid, much in the mode of young heroes from early American comics. The difference is that the world Sanmao inhabits is much rougher and violent. If I may start off by showing the last page of the book, it shows Sanmao in the middle of a chaotic Shanghai, surrounded by rioting protesters, violent police, suicide and self-destruction, and general degeneracy:

Which is the general theme of the comic. Sanmao in more modern incarnations is a healthy but mischievous child, he menaces like Dennis and rides rockets to the moon and experiences Chinese history first-hand and boring things like that. In these older strips, though, he's barely getting by, in a world gone wrong. I love this following comic. It's so funny, about a subject that is so completely sad:

It's probably obvious, but those signs are price tags.

Sanmao starts out the comic as a war orphan, his benefactor killed in a battle between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Coming to Shanghai, he finds himself ignored by a generally resentful city:

Or even worse, treated as a pawn in some money-making scheme, by low-level scamsters who are themselves just trying to get by:

These comics were written after WWII but before Communism, and are very much aligned with then-current themes of Chinese Communism. San Mao's good heart and poverty is constantly contrasted against the disgusting wealth and complete selfishness of the rich:

While US soldiers, having defeated the Japanese forces only three years earlier, were depicted as brutal, ape-like alcoholics:

So I very much recommend having a look at Sanmao's original comics. The only English-language version was the 1981 "Adventures of Sanmao the Orphan," it shows up on EBay from time to time. However, the Chinese edition should be very easy to find, and there's no dialogue at all in the comics - written language is only important for a few background details, like sign fronts and so forth. But make sure to get these original, 1948 comics - most collections are of the newer, incredibly lame Sanmao. Here's a Chinese-Amazon link to what looks like the original comics - although I haven't myself confirmed this. It's about $1.


Anonymous said...

Good article, terrific graphics -- thanks for putting up the pictures that speak a thousand words

Joe Lai said...

Dear TC, this picture storybook is the first book mom bought for me at Chinatown when accompanying her to acquire pieces of jades to trade. I like to think it affected me alot because I remembered I cried reading it. I think it was my first lesson, a deep one, about empathy and kindness. It probably shaped how would treat others, especially the less fortunate. I think no one would go away reading without learning how to see the world in it complexity and understand the other person and his or her circumstances. I kept the book for many years but along the way it got lost. I managed to buy one in later years for keepsake and still have it with me. A treasure on ny bookshelf. TK