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A Chinese Life

A Chinese Life A Chinese Life A Chinese Life

A Chinese Life back

Philippe Otie, Li Kunwu & Li Kunwu


Page 45 Review by Stephen

A vital piece of social history brought vibrantly to life through Li Kunwu’s eye-witness account of all that he and his fellow village children instigated, propagated and then endured during the Cultural Revolution… right through to China’s meteoric industrialisation, modernisation, and the opening of its borders followed by Beijing’s triumphant Olympic games.

That it spans all six decades – of destruction and reconstruction – is key to the book’s success, bringing with it the contrasts and context vital to understanding how China is perceived by different generations of its own population, and in particular Kunwu’s very personal take which I found far from predictable as a Westerner. Seriously, you’re in for several surprises.

Understanding is all, and the first thing you have to understand is the Chinese people’s utter devotion to the Communist Party instilled in them by Chairman Mao whom they loved and worshipped unswervingly even during the height of the chaos, anarchy, cruelty and civil war which the Cultural Revolution brought with it. It was also instilled in Li Kunwu by his father, a provincial Secretary in 1950 which is where the story kicks off, pretty much where Belle Yang’s own family tale FORGET SORROW left off.

Xiao Li, as he was known when born, didn’t understand the pressures and responsibilities shouldered by his father who took his work very seriously indeed. To him, village life was full of pageantry: hearty and colourful celebrations of traditional holidays. Then came the Great Leap Forward to “beat the Brits and catch up with the Americans” – a single-minded smelting or ore and anything with a trace of metal in it which meant the furnaces had to be fuelled which led to the frenzied demolition of the forests resulting in barren soil for the villages. Was this reported? No, for as well as communal cooperation there was a fierce sense of competition so no one wanted to lose face, and everyone reported bumper harvests while in fact they were all of them starving. Xiao Li’s father, now District Chief Li, decides to talk to the Regional Secretary:

“Don’t worry too much about it. Content yourself with working properly.”

Well, that will fill stomachs.

The famine lasts for years, and the details will make you weep. At the same time an anti-Feudalism movement began which set the younger generation against the old, leading to a little early rebellion in Xaio Li. But that was as nothing compared to the double whammy of Mao’s call to worship soldier Lei Feng who died aged 23 “in the service of the people” which began to militarise the village’s children… and, in Spring 1966, the coming of the Cultural Revolution as dictated by Chairman Mao’s ‘Yu Lu: Quotations’ known over here as ‘The Little Red Book’. The teachers, who loved Mao, dutifully commanded their pupils to learn each quotation by heart, and the children lapped this up too. But then the teachers began to talk of poisons which needed to be eradicated (basically it boiled down to anything perceived to be bourgeois… pleasurable… individualistic… traditional…) and the children, already fervent and pugnacious, took it upon themselves to rise up against their elders and do the eradication for them. Of them.

Haircuts were proscribed, menus decried and those who indulged in culture denounced. Whole shops full of art and artefacts were raided and raised to the ground, burning the books that they housed. Anyone contradicting the kids was threatened with being reported. And then… then it was time to turn on the teachers.

At this point my jaw was on the floor. You won’t believe it until you read it. And remember, Li Kunwu was amongst the most active, drawing those haircuts deemed acceptable, turning on a shop keeper and standing up to his father who’d long been worrying where this was all going, and joining in excitably with the hanging of signs all over the village denouncing whomever they could think of. There’s a lot of denouncing in this book.

A movement founded on the principals of discipline had ended up destroying it. Neighbours were at each others throats. It’s one big catalogue of self-destruction in which Li Kunwu was as guilty as anyone else. They came for his father next.

To his credit the artist and narrator shies not away from his own culpability, but his brilliance is in effectively helping us understand how it all came to this: the tiny details of their lives which foreshadowed what was to come. What follows is a sustained period of poverty of all, as Li leaves home to join the Red Army for a pittance. With his father in a re-education facility, his mother desperately ill and his sister away, his family is completely split up yet each member strives their hardest to keep in touch and keep each other’s heads up in spite of adversity. It’s a wonder any of them made it through alive.

What I’ve attempted to do is pick out the most salient points from the first fifth of the book which to me explain the creator’s attitude to what he observes around him in the second half after Chairman Mao’s death, the denunciation of the Gang Of Four, the gradual reversal of the Cultural Revolution and the sudden explosion of wealth. Far from having destroyed his faith in the Communist Party or the ideals behind it – the state providing for the people, the people in service to each other and a great big sense of community – he is desperate to join the Party and is frankly baffled to begin with when his artistic career takes off and the military encourage a sensuousness in his art which had been firmly forbidden during his apprenticeship.

Li is far more a witness than a commentator. He declines to cover the events of Tiananmen Square because, he says, he wasn’t even there (but that scene with his co-writer Philippe Ôtié shows him wriggling apologetically to avoid it – it was obviously a bone of contention), and you won’t see Tibet mentioned once. He’s far prouder of what China has accomplished in thirty-five short years and, as I say, once you’ve read the first half for yourself you will probably understand why.

Tellingly, however, the banners translated throughout in footnotes have stopped sporting slogans of social exhortation and become adverts for the worst in capitalism like “betting, pools, raffles”. What he sees around him is a squandering of food and money when once they had so little. There’s a funeral which takes a turn for the surreal (and surely expressionistic) when they sacrifice burnt offerings of money, brand-name clothing, a house and a car. Then there’s a grotesque display of gluttony and waste at a restaurant when one boastful boss, high on his own supply of ego and self-esteem, starts berating a waitress and innocent owner in terms of “Do you know who I am?!” – which is possibly the least impressive way of trying to impress people.

As to education, it becomes so valued and therefore competitive that the system itself justifies ways of earning a little extra cash so that those who can afford to open doors for their daughters or sons will do so – including Li Kunwu – and there goes equality for all. He also bears witness to outright corruption at the gates of a factory which, as a cartoonist now at the Yunnan Ribao newspaper, he uses his press pass to thwart. Meanwhile, within that factory – many about to close down having only just opened (over two centuries of industrial revolution in the west have taken just two decades in the east) – older workers are fretting about being left behind in a world they no longer comprehend. Then come the bulldozers, destroying old neighbourhoods and displacing neighbours to brand-new skyscrapers on the edges of town where there is no sense of community. But once again for a sense of context all you have to do is turn back to the first half of the book and, well, it ain’t perfect, but it’s predominantly progress as far as Kunwu is concerned.

There’s much to admire in the art with its fine sense of space, and which grows more precise rather than representational the closer we move to the present. Some of the architecture is stunning (just flick to page 587 for a nocturnal courtyard of illuminated beauty) while the landscapes he visits later on are… pfff… off the scale.

If you’re wondering why this single review is as long as all last week’s put together, the book comes in at a whopping 700 pages. I’ve only scratched the surface, and it occurs to me now that because of graphic novels like this, FORGET SORROW, PERSEPOLIS, PYONGYANG, SHENZHEN, SILK ROAD TO RUIN, and FOOTNOTES IN GAZA that I’ve learned far more about geography and history outside of Europe through comics than I ever learned during over a decade spent at school. Stuff I really needed to know, told through enlightening personal perspectives.

So the next time someone belittles this medium you love to your face, pick up this kilo of culture, and smack them over the head with it.

It’s closer to two kilos, actually, but I quite like the scansion; forgive me.
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