Party to a giant’s growth

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - XIUNG my

& Philippe Otie

abrams vis­ited China once, way

and even that was ex­cur­sion to Shen­zen Much of China to me, so it was that I ap­proached this 700-page most other was in­trigued by of­fered.

Li Kunwu lit­er­ally in­ter­est­ing yet deeply per­grow­ing up dur­ing for­ma­tive years in cen­tury.

was also co-writwriter and diplo­mat ex­plores many of the shaped the coun­try nearly 60 years – Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, For­ward. and China’s rise

eco­nomic pow­er­house per­sonal and yet at the

loses sight of the show­ing the de­velop- ment of the coun­try as much as it does that of a man.

The child­hood years of Li – the son of a Com­mu­nist Party mem­ber in Kun­ming, Yu­nan prov­ince – pro­vide some of the most in­ter­est­ing and fas­ci­nat­ing por­tions of the book.

It is a child­hood that is deeply rooted in party ide­ol­ogy and shows how even at a very young age, chil­dren were taught to re­spect Chair­man Mao Ze­dong and treat the party’s word as the gospel truth.

It is easy to see and imagine through Li’s art what the peo­ple went through as early pro­pa­ganda in­cited the peas­ant pop­u­la­tion to “beat the Brits and catch up with the Amer­i­cans”.

Farms are col­lec­tivised, forests are cleared and peo­ple give up their iron for smelt­ing all in the name of eco­nomic progress dur­ing the dis­as­trous Great Leap For­ward move­ment that re­sulted in wide­spread famine.

Li’s per­sonal ac­count of the famine puts a hu­man face to the harsh times as he re­counts how one un­cle was gored to death by a buf­falo while at­tempt­ing to steal food, and an­other went in­sane from hunger.

It is al­most painful to read his de­pic­tion of the sup­pres­sion of an­cient Chi­nese cul­ture and folk­lore, with an­cient pago­das torn down dur­ing this pe­riod.

To main­tain a sense of au­then­tic­ity, most of the sig­nages within the graphic novel’s pan­els are writ­ten in Chi­nese, but thank­fully Li and Otie have in­cluded help­ful foot­notes with the trans­la­tions or mean­ings so they are not lost on non-Chi­nese-lit­er­ate read­ers.

Li’s sub­se­quent chap­ters fo­cus largely on his adult life as a con­script in the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army where his artis­tic skills were recog­nised and put to use paint­ing pro­pa­ganda posters and later, dur­ing his years as an artist for the lo­cal news­pa­per.

While in­ter­est­ing in some re­spects, they pale in com­par­i­son to the sto­ries told in the ear­lier half of the book.

The story loses some fo­cus and is less in­ter­est­ing dur­ing the mod­ern age chap­ters when Li talks about his dif­fi­culty in com­ing to terms with the new China.

The book is il­lus­trated en­tirely in black and white, yet there is so much de­tail, drama and emo­tion in each panel that it is easy to get lost in the pages.

Li’s loose and ex­pres­sive style charm­ingly brings to life the char­ac­ters in his sto­ries.

There is also a slow, sub­tle evo­lu­tion in the art style as the char­ac­ters’ de­pic­tion grows from car­toon­ish dur­ing his child­hood to more re­al­is­tic as he ma­tures.

Li lists him­self as a mem­ber of the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party on the back sleeve of the book. This could be why he con­ve­niently skips over con­tro­ver­sial top­ics like the 1989 Tianan­men Square democ­racy protests. Nor is the artist-writer crit­i­cal of the gov­ern- ment’s poli­cies like the dis­as­trous Great Leap For­ward.

With China’s rise to promi­nence on the world stage, A Chi­nese Life is def­i­nitely an in­ter­est­ing read for any­one who is in­ter­ested to know more about how life there was back in the day.

In some way, there is a sense of change re­flected both in Li’s life story and the coun­try it­self as we see China morph from its hy­per-con­ser­va­tive and in­ward-look­ing so­ci­ety to today’s mod­ern and open econ­omy.

The graphic nov­els fea­tured here are avail­able at Ki­noku­niya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail ebd3_kbm@ki­noku­niya.co.jp or visit www.ki­noku­niya.com/my/.

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