Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pride or Propaganda? A Chinese Life

Li Kunwu's A Chinese Life (Self-Made Hero) was originally printed in three separate volumes in France. Despite being an autobiographical account of his life of growing up in communist China, it is very much a European book. That's thanks in part to writer Philippe Otie, who wrote the script based on Li's original notes, but the actual formatting and formal qualities of the drawing are very European. Indeed, Li's skill with a brush rivals that of a master like Blutch, and there are any number of pages I stared at in awe. In some respects, the book is a weird cousin to Yoshiro Tatsumi's autobio book A Drifting Life. Both books take a long look at their childhoods, families and careers. Both are circumspect with regard to the romantic failures in their lives and in many respects don't care to spill much ink on their real secrets and emotions. What's different is that Li's book at a certain point went from being about a particular person's experience growing up in China to acting as a stand-in for the Chinese citizen in general, a burden that was most certainly felt in the third volume/chapter in particular. Both Tatsumi and Li are men consumed with their art, but they moved in entirely different worlds. Li's book in many ways is a more impressive achievement, both visually and narratively. All of that said, reading the book was an uncomfortable experience because I couldn't help shake the notion that the book is a work of propaganda.

I'll return to that thought when I examine the third volume of the book. The first volume, detailing his days as a child born right after Mao Zedong had taken power. Right from the start, when his father tried to get him to say their leader's name when he was just six months old, the volume relates the kind of craziness that can ensue under a cult of personality. Glorifying the Communist Party and the Revolution and allegiance to the infallibility of Mao were taken for granted as children. Of course, Li notes the ways in which that kind of allegiance crippled the country. First there was the Great Leap Forward, an attempt at aggressively industrializing China that helped to generate famine. The children were expected to help by killing pests, and to prove that they did, they had to bring a rat's tail to school. Poor Li had no success, something that led to a bit of ridicule.

Dogma got in the way of other pursuits like romance; there was one girl who was attracted to him whom he managed to put off by combining a romantic love letter with revolutionary lingo. It was hilarious, if harmless. Much more deadly was the Cultural Revolution of 1967, an event that lasted a decade. Li gave a first-hand account of this insane social psychology experiment, because he was one of its perpetrators. With slogans like "Revolution is not a dinner party", young children started shaming, bullying, lecturing and eventually reporting adults for being insufficiently devoted to the cause of revolution, for being bourgeois, and for being reactionary. It was sort of a reverse case of McCarthyism, only wholly adopted by children to use against their parents and their friends' parents. These young adults, who referred to themselves as the "Red Guard", got people killed, sent to re-education camps, and separated from their families for over a decade. The first book ends with Li in the army, his father in a camp and his sister working on a re-education farm. The climactic event of the book is the death of Mao, an event more catastrophic than any other for Li. More than that, it signals the end of a certain kind of idealism and naivete, both for Li and the nation itself.

Of course, it took time to get there. The second book opens with the "Gang of Four" being arrested for fomenting the worst aspects of the Cultural Revolution. These "excesses", including public "struggle sessions" and intense "self-criticism" that were essentially methods of public humiliation at best and torture at worst, tore China apart. Having a scapegoat allowed those who were still loyal to the Party (like Li and his father) to continue to hold on to their beliefs without examining them too closely. This volume drags much more than the other two, as it's mostly devoted to Li's attempts to join the Communist party while a member of the army. When he's rejected, he volunteers for farm duty. There are various failed romantic encounters, threats from other men and tedious accounts of life on the farm, until his skill with a brush is recruited for new propaganda posters.

Life as a propaganda artist for new leader Deng Xiaoping transformed Li's life, and I daresay it brought him into the bourgeoisie. Deng's "theory" preached pragmatism and development above all else. Li's father was released from a work camp and very quickly moved on from that period to embrace Deng. Hitting on the notion that becoming open to new ideas and techniques somehow didn't contradict the revolutionary mindset, noting "Thought liberation is also a form of revolution." The first tourists to China are introduced in this chapter, drawn in a comical and grotesque style. Li depicts this chapter as one where many Chinese, including his revolutionary father, started to come to terms with their pasts. The chapter ends with his father going back to his old village and performing old rites to honor his parents, who were "black bastard" land owners. The first two volumes reveal how Li was personally affected by the forces of history, though the second volume lost the intense focus of the first.

The third volume, "The Time Of The Money", is Li's modern-day take on China's assimilation of capitalism (which they refer to simply as a "market" economy). Li became an editorial cartoonist for a daily newspaper, and his job was to go out in public and draw what he saw--draw the "real" China, as was happening on the streets. Li portrays himself as a crusader against the kind of corruption brought about by greedy men trying to rip others off, but doesn't see this as a reason to be down on capitalism. Indeed, he follows the careers of friends who become incredibly successful businessmen. One is a husband-and-wife team who open up a restaurant that eventually becomes a franchise. Another is the owner of a successful mineral water company that later goes on to merge with a European company. Li also navigates us through failures, like a cousin who had a temporary big hit with a billiards hall but never struck it rich, or a woman in a spa who had dreams of making it big but never got there.

Li considers all of these stories to be part of the Chinese tapestry of hard work and achievement in the capitalist system. Sure, there is grumbling from factory workers he interviews about giving up their "iron bowl" (guarantee of employment) for a "clay bowl" system (market economy). However, Li spends only a little time with Shan Guoyong, the head of Da Shan mineral water that later merged with Nestle', in terms of introspection. There are a few pages where Shan wonders if all of this consumerism is really worth the trouble, and how at one time in his life all he wanted was a bicycle. Of course, those concerns are shoved aside when it comes time to merge with Nestle', and Li is content to let those feelings go. Indeed, the look we get at a Dashan corporate retreat reveal the same kind of collectivism and loyalty oaths that were given to Mao, only now they were directed toward a corporate leader!

The whole philosophy of the book is very much "the past is the past". This was very much the attitude espoused by his father, who preferred not to talk or think about his time in prison but instead move on in his new government post. The eras that come under the greatest criticism, like the Cultural Revolution, are criticized not so much for the human rights atrocities but rather how it destabilized China and left them way behind the rest of the world. Indeed, while Li admitted some nostalgia for the simple China of his childhood, he revealed that he felt "like we (China) weren't there; everything in the world happened without us." In other words, we once again go back to the Deng doctrine of "Development is our first priority". As Li describes it, it's the only priority.

This leads to an interstitial scene where Li and Otie' argue about how best to present his view on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Otie' stresses to him the importance of this event to Western readers, and Li is resistant, because he said that he wasn't anywhere near Beijing, only listened to the reports on the radio and has no idea what actually happened. Because he "didn't personally suffer", it wasn't something that was really part of his story like the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, etc. If that sounds like a cop-out, Li goes on to further give his real opinion on the matter. He notes that while he understands that lives were lost and people suffered, he considered the event within the context of Chinese history. Essentially, he was tired of China being a whipping boy for foreign interests and invaders. He was tired of instability. He was tired of being behind the industrialized nations of the world. The most salient quote is "China needs order and stability. The rest is secondary." The past is the past. Development is the first priority.

It's a statement that makes a degree of sense within the context of a countryman who suffered during the prior youth revolution (indeed, some women in his story fear the events of the protests as the potential return of the Red Guard). It's a statement that makes sense when you consider his pride that China became a world economic leader, and he takes shots at both the US and Europe for how they managed to accomplish this through force of arms and/or old money. It is disappointing, however, to see an intelligent man like Li who fancies himself a moralist in rooting out corruption to simply toss aside human rights and freedoms as expendable when the corporate well-being of China is involved. It is a kind of moral compartmentalization that reeks of hypocrisy, the same kind of hypocrisy he faced (and was part of) during the Cultural Revolution. It values dogma (or progress) over humanity. The past can't really be left behind for Li, because China is reliving and perpetuating it in a different form, one that may be dressed up with technology and civic pride, but ultimately has the same price: human misery. Li's amazing skill with a brush conjures up human misery at a visceral level when it is convenient (people dying of famine during the Great Leap Forward) and glosses over everything else when it's not. The nostalgia-soaked final sequence with his mother speaks to Li's skill in depicting the warmth of their relationship but also puts a bow on the ways in which A Chinese Life acts as propaganda for the China of the 21st century, celebrating its achievements while downplaying its flaws.


  1. Looks like you have absorbed your share of American propaganda about Mao and China yourself, Rob.

  2. Believe me, I am no American apologist. To quote Benjamin Franklin, "Anyone who chooses security at the expense of freedom deserves neither". This is my response to government surveillance and control.

    There is also no excuse for slavery, native american genocide and the other atrocities the US is responsible for. Papering over these events and saying "the past is the past" is what I would refer to as American propaganda and I will have no part of it.

    It is the duty of the citizen of each nation to own the faults of the nation and not sweep them under the rug in the name of pride or progress, and this is unfortunately what Li does in his comic.

  3. principles are for those who can afford them.