Arts & Entertainment

The cartoonist on the dark side of China’s history

By Jesus Centeno

Kunming, China, May 21 (EFE).- They were times of collective madness, re-education camps, systematic violence and even famines, which artist Li Kunwu experienced first-hand and then went on to express in comics despite them being one of the most tragic and controversial episodes in the history of China’s Communist Party.

Li’s generation has not forgotten those dark episodes of history such as that of the fanaticism of the red guards – groups of militant university and high school students formed into paramilitary units as part of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) – which the Party will ignore in the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of its founding on Jul. 1.

Li, born in 1955 – six years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China – receives EFE in his studio in the southern Chinese city of Kunming convinced of the need to look back.

This is the theme of his best-known work, the three-volume “A Chinese Life”, in which he narrates, with bittersweet tone, his childhood and adolescence, mixing Western comics with Chinese pictorial tradition and Maoist imagery.

“Yesterday’s China is closely related to today’s China. What I want is for people to have a more balanced perspective while talking about the country,” Li explains.

The way the “counter-revolutionaries” were identified during the Cultural Revolution, the endless sessions of self-criticism, the humiliation of teachers, the delegations and the beatings “to end the vices of bourgeois society” are depicted in his comic strips, which were translated into dozens of languages and received awards and praises in Europe.

“In France, or in Spain, comics are the ninth art, but in China they still play a very small role,” Li says.

However, after receiving accolades in France, many people (in China) turned against him: “I was supposed to speak well of the Party, but, in reality, I was neither criticizing nor praising anyone. I just wanted to put on record what happened at a critical moment in my country’s history,” he argues.

Helped by the French diplomat and co-writer Phillipe Ôtié, Li tugged away at his memory to recall every detail of the time (from everyday expressions to large propaganda banners) despite the pain this process caused in his innermost circle.

Li’s father, a member of the CPC, was sent to a re-education center, something that did not prevent the artist from applying, years later, for the Party’s membership to clear his family’s name and work as an illustrator in the Yunnan Daily, a newspaper that is still published in his city.

“Young people are unaware of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. They only have the experience of today, and yet that had a very deep impact, to the point that even though 40 years have passed, society still retains a lot of what happened then. It made us turn against each other,” the artist says.

Li believes that even if communist ideology has lost its relevance and been replaced by nationalism or money, in order to move forward it is necessary to also remember the good.

“There was pain but, at the same time, happy moments. I don’t like the materialism and competitiveness that prevails today. Young people should know more about how workers (from the lower classes) live,” he says.

“Four days ago since Great Helmsman left us. I never imagined this would happen to us, that we were going to have to live like this, without him, alone, helpless,” Li writes in the novel, describing how he felt at the death of leader Mao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China and the chairman of the CPC.

Li’s work does not fail to touch upon the blunders committed by the then CPC, acquitted with the institutionalized message that “Mao did 70 percent of good things and 30 percent of bad things.”

“When he died,” the artist recalls, “we felt that everything was over, that there was no hope anymore. I was 21, in the army and had no idea what would happen next.”

The Party, he says, changed course after blaming the Gang of Four – comprising of Mao’s wife, among others – for the abuses committed during the Cultural Revolution, which created a sense of collective liberation, reflected in the second volume.

The third volume chronicles the period of China’s Reform and Opening (1978) which, in Li’s eyes, led to prosperity but also new problems, including inequality, rural exodus and the one-child policy.

The one-child policy led to “the masculinization of the population due to the disappearance of girls, who were abandoned or aborted,” academic Ye Liu tells EFE.

Related Articles

Back to top button