A Chinese Life' by Li Kunwu and Philippe Otie: Becoming a Chinese

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‘A Chinese Life’ is an autobiographic graphic novel written by Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié. The book presents a personal journey through China’s modern history, from the creation of the republic of China in 1949 till the present. The book covers two of the most important events in the development of modern Chinese state that are: The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Artist Li Kunwu was born in China’s poor southwest in 1955, he went hungry in the Great Leap Forward. He used to draw cartoons for his province’s paper, eventually ended up hobnobbing with mineral water magnates in the southwestern city of Kunming and French artists at Angoulême's famous comic festival. Li was a son of a party official and a peasant woman from the hills, he grew up in an age of reform. ‘A Chinese Life’ gives and immediate sense of how a man is shaped by modern China and the struggles that took place around him through its graphic display by the author.

Li’s family and school environment affected the way he thought of the Cultural Revolution. The aim of the Chinese people of this time was to beat the Brits and catch up with the Americans. The common mentality of the, world being divided in two, good guys and bad boys, “the good guys were our elder brothers, the Russians. The bad guys were the English and the American imperialist who exploited people, […]” (Li Kunwa, pg. 50). Li’s father told this to him making him understand the motive of the cultural revolution. All his childhood Xiao Li was taught to put Mao above his mother and father and so were other children. It greatly influenced their understanding of Mao as a great father figure, planting seeds of inspiration from him.

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The Cultural Revolution had four broad goals, first one was fighting ‘bureaucratism’ as Mao thought that routine is an enemy of executive power and that will infer in his ability to lead the country. Secondly, teach the younger generation revolution, he thought the new generation does not know what revolution is about. This goal of Mao had a large effect on the younger generation. Xiao Li’s school is a significant example. When ‘The Little Red Book’ also called ‘Yu Lu: Quotations for Chairman Mao’ was introduced in Li’s school, his classmates and himself were inspired to change their names to more revolutionary names. Later as an effect it encouraged student groups to take revolutionary actions. For example, when his friend talks about what is the bourgeoisie: “The bourgeoisie is a decadent and declining class that exploits us” (Li Kunwa, pg.100). Next was getting rid of level class differences as official class became elite class and it was not going to help Mao’s vision of a modern China. Here again, Li’s classmates and he was influenced by ‘The Little Red Book’. We could see Li’s understanding of cultural revolution getting even stronger as they took more actions against reactionaries. Li was asked to give contribution to the revolution and this is where his art played a role in his young age. An incidence with the Barber shows how Li was appealed by the idea of helping in his way. Li illustrates the haircuts with drawings and calls it his “revolutionary success” (Li Kunwa, pg. 114). The last one was changing succession that we give opportunities to everyone.

Li presents a bold vibrant images in this book. As he starts working away from home his relationship with his parents and even his marriage is ignored. He is drawn in by art, art that supports the vision of modern China. Li’s focus on drawing for the contribution affected his personal relationships. Li’s traditional landscape painting catches attention to the kind of China he used to live in. although initially, Li’s paintings limited to Mao the book shows great interest in showing the struggles around him by showing these details sometimes used ironically, as when showing deforestation during the great leap forward. Earlier when he meets his grandma, when she unwraps her bound feet or when eating precious piece of meat focusing on the greater issue of famine during the time as well. Moreover, the display of increasing darkness, jagged lines, dark-thread background emphasizes metaphorically on the situation of China at the time.

There are different features that are used to show the struggle in Li’s life in the book. There is distance created through time and suspense as when Xiao Li asks to join the army. “And that was that. I was going to be a soldier, like Lei Feng. A hero in the service of the people” (Li Kunwu, pg.204, image effect). One significant use of landscapes to show the sense of time passing is stressed on page 256-257 of the book, when waiting in the army truck, looking at various scenes to convey a mood without words; sometimes the passing of time is conveyed by several panels in which one moves father away from the object of its focus. The devices used for scene to scene transitions are effective in showing the thread of relationships. For example, Xiao Li’s mother writes, a letter to her daughter and we follow the letter as it travels to the daughter in a distant village (Li Kunwa, pg. 251-252). In addition, there is silent action to action panel transitions in which there is the same scene but each panel shows different actions in the same sequence intended to convey something emotional or the fluidity of series of actions such as in the scene where Xiao Li’s father and mother, after he comes back home from the reeducation camp, try to urge one another to take precious piece of meat (Li Kunwa, pg. 275). This again shows use the effect of famine China was facing. Li’s way of drawing symbolizes the situation of china during the cultural revolution. It gives the readers an anecdote rather than a statistical report of events through its graphic.

Furthermore, as we move in the novel we see the use of art as different, when we see art produced by Xiao Li, it is lighter, not as heavily blacked in by ink as his ‘reality’ sections. This creates a different feel that tells us that we are looking at his art now (Li Kunwa, pg.366, 655). The use of woodcut style is for the same effect, but it reminds us of the communist us of woodcuts in the 1937-45 period (Li. Kunwa, pg. 393). One of the important scene that struck me was when Xiao Li is secretly observing his love being forced to make love to her husband (pg.373) that shows a hierarchical mentality present in china at the time. Later we are shown a page with multiple images in it. Where a disrespectful man waves his hand and Xiao Li is reminded of his father after he dies. This can boldly show the class difference and emphasize on Xiao Li’s relationship with his father (pg.430). Repeating of images give a sense that some things remain the same as ever even in midst of the tremendous changes China has experienced. We can see in the image of Xiao Li’s mother looking at the tofu which its hawker says is soft and white as a young girl’s skin, this occurs in the beginning and the end of the story.

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A Chinese Life’ by Li Kunwu and Philippe Otie: Becoming a Chinese. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-chinese-life-by-li-kunwu-and-philippe-otie-becoming-a-chinese/
“A Chinese Life’ by Li Kunwu and Philippe Otie: Becoming a Chinese.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/a-chinese-life-by-li-kunwu-and-philippe-otie-becoming-a-chinese/
A Chinese Life’ by Li Kunwu and Philippe Otie: Becoming a Chinese. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-chinese-life-by-li-kunwu-and-philippe-otie-becoming-a-chinese/> [Accessed 23 Jul. 2024].
A Chinese Life’ by Li Kunwu and Philippe Otie: Becoming a Chinese [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2024 Jul 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-chinese-life-by-li-kunwu-and-philippe-otie-becoming-a-chinese/
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