Big Red Book: A Review of Li Kunwu, A Chinese Life


As a pre-teen and teenager in China in the 1960s, Li Kunwu (李昆武) both witnessed and participated in the great crimes for which the great nation is still paying today, including natural deforestation and wildlife genocides, blind obedience to a leader whose nationalism led to famine and mass starvation, and the youth’s public humiliation of elders for adhering to reactionary, conservative, or traditional values. Now Li has teamed up with French writer Phillipe Ôtié to deliver A Chinese Life, a nearly 700 page autobiographical graphic novel. Li and Ôtié delve deep into the perspective of a man born in China in 1955 from his experience in the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the death of Mao Zedong, and the country’s current economic boom.

As A Chinese Life unfolds, it becomes clear that what it means to be Chinese has changed drastically over a relatively short period of time. Li, who grew up as the son of a Communist Party member in Kunming, Yunnan province in the country’s southwest, remembers his childhood fondly. His family was better off than many around him, and when Mao’s rise to power climaxed, he was in competition with his other equally impressionistic classmates to see who could be the best comrade in the school. He eventually graduated and joined the army, leaving his family behind. For the 20-year-old Li., Mao’s death in 1975 sparked an existential crisis: “Chairman Mao…how will I go on…without you?” The point is not that Li champions Chairman Mao or wants to justify him with this book, but to express how an average Chinese civilian was affected by Chairman Mao. As Li shows, what Chairman Mao meant to the people of China is hard for us in the West to grasp. Parents beat propaganda into their kids mouths as they were learning to talk (毛主席万岁, “may Chairman Mao live for ten thousand years!”).

What A Chinese Life fails to do, however, is to consider if Li has changed his opinion of Mao since his youth. Likewise, it’s frustrating that Li never comes out to fully denounce his former overly-patriotic self. Further, he remains opinionless on the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Perhaps as it is just “a” Chinese life that he is trying to depict, he doesn’t feel the need to describe anything he didn’t experience firsthand. Still, for someone to claim to love his country as much as he does, one would hope he would have felt compelled to share an opinion on such a nationally and globally significant event.

Then again, as writers such as Ben Marcus have shown, what is not said is as important as what is said; similarly, in a graphic novel is what is not depicted just as important as what is depicted. This seems right in step with many people’s highest criticism of China’s government, that of covering up or not even trying to find out the truth. While Li admits his repression with four panels that fade to a few dots to represent his hazy memory, he at least is making the effort to want to remember. It’s not like he has to protect himself at this point. He had already, as a pre-teen, humiliated many teachers and businesses across his town, for being reactionaries or traditionalists. Ironically, it was the school that forced the children to memorize Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in the first place where they all learned their opinions.

Regardless, Li does a great job subtly transitioning from 1950s China into modernity, adding a few power lines here and there, more and more cars and skyscrapers, altering fashion and hairstyles, and eventually ubiquitous Western restaurants like McDonalds and KFC that have since taken over every city in the country. Considering how the book ends up visually, and what I know of my visits to China, the first two hundred pages are shocking in how recent of a time they  depict. The illustrations of Li’s hometown of Kunming could just have easily been in the third century BC as  in middle of the 20th century.

While tackling such intense issues throughout A Chinese Life, Li isn’t without a sense of humor. His portrayal of the first foreigners to his hometown is rather comical (“uhhhh nii haaaaaao” one blurts out) as well as the more conservative culture’s concession to Western comforts (ie, non-squat toilets). Unfortunately, the subtle poetry of Mandarin is lost in translation, but the imagery does much to revitalize what is lost in English. Likewise, Kunwu and Ôtié helpfully translate certain phrases or non-dialogue characters in footnotes with Chinese characters as well as pronunciation (albeit, sans the tonal punctuation).

What A Chinese Life does best is to expose that what it means to be a Communist has changed over time.  The hyper-conservative, history-negating, and overly-critical and paranoid members of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s and 60s is nothing like today’s open-armed, capitalist embracing, Western-admiring CCP of today. On the back sleeve of the book, Li is proudly listed as a CCP member. That certainly explains why he chose merely to display events just as they happened with little commentary of his own. Clearly, this is not a textbook (despite its girth) and shouldn’t be judged as one. While it could have been a masterpiece had it gone deeper and more critically into governmental policies, the fact that Li doesn’t shows the strong-arm the government still has over its people (especially for newspaper writers). While Li does his best to paint as well of a picture of Chinese life that he can, we’ll unfortunately always be left wondering how many other panels of the graphic novel have conveniently been “forgotten” by the author.

Li points out that the country that used to be known to Westerners for its starving citizens (“Finish your dinner, there’s kids starving in China!”), has transitioned into “the land of ‘Made in China,’ skyscrapers, the Olympic Games and the World Expo.” But that’s not the China he loves and remembers. He is still nostalgic for a time when his mother would carry him “down streets no car had ever driven.” Again, that is something I think most Americans of his generation could never even imagine growing up in, even in (or especially in) our most rural and impoverished communities in our country. China is still changing – it hasn’t quite reached its full potential yet. Whereas our protagonist transitions from Xiao Li (小李, “small Li”) to Lao Li (老李, “wise Li”) by the sheer luck of growing old, China itself doesn’t have that luxury; the country straddles the line between ancient wisdom and reluctance to amend childlike idiosyncrasies. A Chinese life is full of smoking and mahjongg, massage parlors and snooker. A Chinese life involves puppy-love and funerals, celebration and protests, family and patriotism; A Chinese life is a political life. A Chinese life was, is, and will likely continue to be, a life in transition.

Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer based in Chicago. In 2012, he wrote Bikes Beer and Baozi and Beijing Nightlife, essays about his travels in China. His planned 2013 excursions include a trip to Brazil.

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