Do you think is possible make complexity simple avoiding commonplace?
The answer is not clear and opens a contemporary debate about the unlimited access to a huge number of information. However, having the access does not mean having the capability and the critic skills to select and understand these information even though they can deeply influence our choices.
Li Kunwu and Philippe Otie tried to simplify China’s complexity with their latest work A Chinese Life, 从小李到老李, cóngxiǎo Lǐ dào lǎo Lǐ, literally “from the young Li to the old Li”. A Chinese Life is an autobiographical graphic novel about Li Kunwu’s life divided in three sections: The Time of The Father, The Time of The Party, and The Time of The Money.
Li Kunwu is a Chinese cartoonist with a fifty years career who published more than thirty successful graphic novels. Moreover, some of his works were published in chinese most famous comics magazines. Nowadays, Li works in his hometown Kunming as a journalist of the Yunnan Ribao, Yunnan Daily.
Li uses images to tells his stories painting strips, 漫画 mànhuà, in Chinese, about Kunming social and political life. He uses an informal storytelling full of anecdotes, and his graphic style is strongly influenced by Yunnan rural landscapes. Li is a member of the Communist Party and the administrator at the Yunnan Association of Artists and the Chinese Institute for the Study of Press Illustration.
After the meeting between Li Kunwu and the French Philippe Otie, the ambitious graphic novel comes to life addressing to an international audience. The three volumes were published from 2009 in 2011 in France. This work is a mix between the style of Chinese traditional illustration, in which text and image are separated and there are no dialogues; with a Western approach featured by a cinematic narration focusing not only on action, but on feelings and emotions too.
The graphic novel is translated in 13 languages and received several awards, such as two nominations at the Eisner Award and the highlighting at the Angouleme International Comics Festival drawing the attention of all participants and receiving positive feedbacks from both readers and reviewers. In Italy the book was recently published by Add Editore in its Asia series.
The first volume talks about the turbulent period of reforms passing through The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution. During this period the young Li starts questioning the figure of his biological father, a veteran accused of contro revolutionary crimes and sentenced to a long period of re-education far away from home.
At the same time Li has to compare himself with his ideological father, the father of all Chinese people: the president Mao. In fact, the story of the first book ended with The Great Helmsman’s death. Mao’s death marks the end of an era, of a lifestyle, of an ideology. It marks the end of a world as it was known until that moment.
The narration does not show any value judgments about party’s actions and decisions, it wants simply to tell the story of a boy who knows only a worlds ruled by the communist regime. There are no direct critics and Li does not take any positions. There are only fragments of true and deep memories collected in the framework of a permanent revolution which leads the reader to reflect about his ethical and political role in the society.
In this framework, made of red books, dazibao and the destruction of the historical memory; Li understands his vocation. It is clear that his destiny is inevitably linked to the history of his country, a country hypnotized by Mao’s presence and words: “It was my first artistic success, and it wasn’t just any success. It was a revolutionary success.”
The narrative structure of the graphic novel has some feature typical of the scar literature, a literary wave born right after the maoist period aiming to show the facts of the Cultural Revolution. This wave goes further the Chinese realism used for propaganda and comes closer to a deeper and educational style which help, thanks to the technique of the stream of consciousness, the writer to find his identity in order to overcome the trauma.
At the same time, the novel can be compared with Liu Heng’s and Yu Hua’s neorealism. There are many similarities between A Chinese life and To Live! by Yu Hua, a novel about the story of a Chinese family from the end of the Empire until the Cultural Revolution, as we can see even in Zhang Yimou’s film adaptation. In fact, this is how Li talks about his creative approach “My professor is life, society is my classroom.”
We had a conversation with Ilaria Benini about A Chinese Life. Ilaria is the curator of Asia series by Add Editore and the founder of Flux Kit | Connecting Cultures. She organized in Myanmar Contemporary Dialogues Yangon, an international festival of art and culture. Moreover, she is a member of the Consultative Committee for the South East Asia of The Ministry of Culture of Taiwan.
How did you find A Chinese life?
We found A Chinese life online while I was doing some researches, nobody called us to propose the book. I saw that the graphic novel was extremely successful in France and that it was translated in 13 languages. And in a moment I started being curious and that maybe it could be a thing. I made additional researches, I asked some opinions around and when we contacted the agency there was no other Italian press publishing house interested in this book, for what I know. I was not surprised, because we know that the Italian publishing industry is not so interested in these kind of topics.
Why did you decide to publish this book? What did you like most?
There are two aspects that convinced me to publish A Chinese life: the autobiographical one and the graphic and visual one. Both of them are perfectly in line with our Asia series. For us the autobiographical aspect is very important since we only publish real stories about real people. Talking about the visual aspect, we wanted to follow the experiment we did with Twilight over Burma by Inge Sargent. We decided to enrich the publication with Elisa Talentino’s illustration in order to draw the attention of a broader audience. I like the fact that our books talk about Asia addressing not only to experts and Asia lover, but even to all those people who is interested in the communication medium.
Does A Chinese life follow the successful trend of the graphic novels?
Well, yes. As I said, our is goal is reaching different kinds of audience. We want to talk to Asia lovers and to reading lovers, but first of all we want to take all those people who don’t know anything about this world by surprise helping them to know more about these topics in a easy and funny way.
What is the value of Li’s story for the readers?
Li Kunwu makes his story universal helping the reader to better understand Chinese history and Chinese people’s behaviours such as the passive acceptance of a dictatorship. Moreover, I think that the book offers to readers food for thought especially referring to contemporary facts. Cultural Revolution took place only 20 years after Western fascism, and as our grandpas say, we don’t have to take for granted that those facts won’t occur again.
The Time of The Father is the first of three volumes. Have you planed to publish the sequel?
Well, we hope to. If the first volume will be successful we would like to publish the whole trilogy. There was the option of publishing the integral version, like in England, but it was our first graphic novel and we didn’t want to start with a 500 pages volume. In addition, the narration is strong and coherent and I think that the first book can perfectly stand alone.
How and why does the Asia series come to like?
First of all Asia series is the result of a personal passion. I lived in South East Asia working in the contemporary art sector. When I was there I found new and incredible creative strategies. I noticed that Asian people, generally speaking, have a strong awareness about Western world and they are able to find a way to adapt several Western features to their context. I think they are much more curious than Western people and they always look for what they don’t know. On the contrary, we are usually stuck in prejudice, and literature is a perfect example.
There many arrogant people who believe that if they don’t know something, it is because there is no need to. It is easier to discover all those cultures closer to us that use our narrative forms, like novels. But we are far from recognize and understand that there are many others valuable and valid expressive forms. This is why the main purpose of Asia series is trying to bridge the gap between cultures, publishing autobiographical stories about real facts and people. We would like to give more tools to shorten the distance and overcome prejudices.