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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1767- Li Kunwu and P. Otie: A Chinese Life

Another book brought to my attention courtesy of Paul Gravett's Mangasia book was A Chinese Life written and illustrated by Li Kunwu with assistance from P. Otie. Gravett had used it as an example of historical comics, a genre that enjoys popularity across a large swath of Asia.

It's interesting to note that A Chinese Life is also Kunwu's autobiography as I found myself questioning his role as history teacher. Documenting China from 1949 (creation of the People's Republic of China) to the present, it is through one individual's eyes; one who was a celebrated propaganda artist for the Republic and became a member of the Communist Party. P. Otie, who is French, states in his intro that he tried to balance patriotism against fact, propaganda against critique. And while I'd suggest that they succeed on that front, I wondered if one man out of a billion would be representative. I'd be okay if he wasn't (it's A Chinese Life after all, not Chinese Life), but when all was said and done, I do feel that I have a better sense of China as a whole, rather than just of Li Kunwu.

This period of history is fascinating and like nothing I can compare it to in Canada. The overt and sudden upheavals brought on with Mao, the adoption of Communism, the Cultural Revolution, felt almost shocking in its intensity. Children ratting out adults resulting in imprisonment, outright disdain for cultural history, modern technology coming almost shockingly late compared to most of the world, the hybrid of socialism and capitalism that they have currently adopted... it's all so very overwhelming.

Li Kunwu's art is perfect for this story. It actually (and this will probably seem like an odd comparison) reminded me of Jim Unger's Herman cartoons. This was in the inky, rough, caricatures. Clearly the roughness was intentional. Describing his time as a propaganda artist, Kunwu shows some of his Mao art and we can see that he is quite capable of refined line work. But there's something more truthful about the roughness. It also seems at times like Kunwu barely raises his pen, and it gives the history more of a connection, more of a natural fluidity.

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