21. ‘A Chinese Life’ by Li Kunwu and P. Ôtié

My first thought on picking up this book and reading that the cartoonist still lives in China was, ‘How?’ I’ve read Wild Swans, I know the Chinese government notoriously doesn’t like to talk about the brutal events of the Cultural Revolution, especially not with Westerners, so how could Li Kunwu – whose life story this book tells – speak openly about the things he experienced to a Western audience and still be a successful cartoonist in China?

a chinese life cover

Well, I’ll get to what I think is the answer, but first a little context. This book is a memoir in graphic novel form. It opens in colour, with Kunwu discussing his plan to write an epic cartoon of his life with his friend P. Ôtié. Ôtié is a French writer who wrote the text that accompanies Kunwu’s drawings, and he says in the opening that he will help to make the story accessible to foreign audiences. The rest of the book is in black and white, and it follows Kunwu’s life from childhood, through the Cultural Revolution and all the way up to modern China. The drawings are compelling and show amazing contrasts between cities and countryside: some are full of movement and action, with ambient noises depicted by Chinese characters, and others are still, sad and show the smallness of the people in the landscape.

As for the story, I read Maus earlier this year so was expecting something in a similar vein (the life story of somebody who lived through tragic events), and to a certain extent it is. Kunwu’s father was a member of the Communist Party, but during the Cultural Revolution – which started in 1966 – he was stripped of his role as a civil servant and sent to a re-education camp. At that time, anybody who showed signs of being bourgeois was mercilessly ridiculed and punished. Humble farmers and labourers were looked up to as heroes, whilst even having a grandparent who had once owned land (as in Kunwu’s case) was enough to expose you to taunting and exclude you from being a member of the Party.

a chinese life jungle

What I find most fascinating is the role of children in the Cultural Revolution. Kunwu and his friends were young at the time, and also hugely politically active. They inspected people’s homes to make sure they were living by Maoist principles, turned people in who did not conform, and eventually went on to join the army or send themselves to the country for reeducation with poor farmers. The level of passion for Mao and the Party was so high that, for example, when the Party announced that they wanted to rid the country of sparrows because they destroyed crops, everybody started chasing the birds away whenever they landed. There were so many people doing this that eventually the sparrows just dropped out of the sky, dead from exhaustion. I think Western audiences would find this level of mass devotion difficult to understand.

And this is the real power of this story: I went into it expecting to read about the horrors of Chinese communism, but what I found was a lot more complex. For example, Kunwu briefly touches on Tiananmen Square. We all know what happened there was awful and oppressive, but he doesn’t linger on that. He says that, rather than dwelling on the human rights issues of the past, China needs stability and determination to move forwards. He’s not trying to justify what happened, he’s just being pragmatic about what needs to happen for the future to be better. Kunwu reveals similar complexities when talking about his attitude towards Chairman Mao: it’s just too simplistic to think of it as brainwashing and “He loved Big Brother”.

a chinese life rights

In this book there is a constant feeling of the divide between East and West, even though in modern China the lines are more blurred than they perhaps used to be. I think what this book does (and this is why Kunwu is still able to live and work there) is present the Chinese communist life philosophy, from the point of view of someone who genuinely believes in it. I found that it helped me to look at my own culture from the outside: it’s easy to assume that the values of your environment (eg: individualism, self-improvement, competitiveness, consumerism) are universal, and it takes a special kind of book to make you think about other ways of doing things. There are flaws in all systems of government, but we shouldn’t be blind to everything outside of our own. People are brought up under different regimes, but we all want to escape the troubles of the past and build a better future.

In short, this book doesn’t condemn Chinese communism, but neither is it all praise and celebration. It’s an absolutely fascinating insight into one man’s view of the world, and it’s a brilliant way for western readers to look through a different pair of eyes. I would highly recommend it.

“The strange feeling I nurtured for you [Chairman Mao] cannot be described, so complex, so contradictory.”

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

One Comment on “21. ‘A Chinese Life’ by Li Kunwu and P. Ôtié

  1. [A comment from my uncle, who taught English in China]:

    Claire, very interesting review.
    Of course you would expect me to show an interest in that particular book. The story about the sparrows is quite old by now. When I first heard it. It was pigeons. My guess is that it’s a bit of an exaggeration. It might not be, The Cultural Revolution was certainly responsible for all kinds of stupid madness

    Here are some comments written by my students in 1981. (We were practising the use of ‘used to’).
    This is what they came up with – It’s funny, sad, tragic bizarre and quite revealing, I think.

    > “I used to learn English with my doors shut”.
    > “I used to pay no attention to my work because there was no need”.
    > “People used to act a lie and used to tell a lie”.
    > “I used to be a funny girl”
    > “I used to help the peasants with their crops”.
    > “I used to be poor”.
    > “I used to be a staff in the army”.
    > “I used to get a high salary”.
    > “I used to wonder if I could come back to Shanghai some day”.
    > I used to hope to live together with my family”.
    > “I used to be asked to read some pamphlets which were written by the Gang of Four’s writers”.
    > I used to be asked to attend political meetings almost every day”.
    > I used to live in the countryside”.
    > I used to keep silent and say nothing”.
    > I used to feel sorry that so many many youths were sent to the countryside….”.
    > I used to work in a factory together with my classmates”.
    > “I used to weed with the country girls”.
    > I used to sit at riverside and listen to the singing of the birds”.
    > I used to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the countryside in the spring”.
    > I used to cure some serious and common diseases when I was a doctor. Such as deaf and mute, numb disease (especially for the children), penis trouble (cannot hold up etc), insomnia, convulsive contractions, and mental disease”.
    > “Great changes have now taken place all over our country. Our great motherland has been saved. The sky is bright and blue. The sun is warm and soft and kissed the cheeks of the people. Oh the spring of our motherland has come back. I believe that those what I used to do and the way I used to live will never come back again”.

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