In 1985, there were 8.1 billion pulp comics (lianhuanhua) printed in mainland China. Most lianhuanhua were black and white paperbacks with a single illustration and a few lines of text on each page. They looked similar to the Big Little Books published in the United States from the 1930s to 1950s, but they were published in quantities that make the US comics market look tiny. Brian Hibbs analyzed the 2012 BookScan report and found that there were about 9.5 million comics sold in the US throughout the year. In the mid-80s, some lianhuanhua titles had single printing runs of more than 1 million copies.
We usually don’t think of China as having a rich tradition of making comics, and discussions of Chinese comics focus on manhua, the Chinese comics that were inspired by Japanese manga. While it’s true that most of the comics being produced now are manhua, this was not the case for much of the 20th century. From their beginnings in the 1920s until their popularity bottomed out in the 1990s, lianhuanhua were some of the most widely read literature in the country.
Most of the lianhuanhua that can still be found in China were printed in the late 1970s and 1980s during the last heyday of pulp comic publishing, but their history reaches back much farther. The lianhuanhua industry began in Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s, though some scholars trace the origins of the format to Song Dynasty scrolls. Using newly imported printing techniques, publishers began releasing periodicals that contained stories and illustrations. They called these works “lianhuanhua” (linked images), though there were various regional names. Some of these stories were text accompanied by images while others used speech bubbles or text inserted into the image. The most popular series from the magazines were reprinted in palm-size paperbacks, and before long rental shops sprung up in alleyways throughout the city. For a few coins, patrons could sit down on wooden stools and read several dozen lianhuanhua.
Many of these early comics were multi-volume adaptations of martial arts epics or folk tales such as the classical Chinese novel, Journey to the West. Others were adapted from theater shows or popular films such as King Kong. After the release of a new film or production, illustrators and printers would work through the night so that they could sell lianhuanhua outside the theater the next day for less than the price of a ticket. Most of the lianhuanhua were not original stories, and this focus on adaption continued into later generations of the medium.
In 1932 literary icon Lu Xun argued against the prevailing attitude that lianhuanhua were cheap thrills. He believed they were a new form of artistic production, and participated in publishing Die Passion eines Menschen, the wordless novel by Flemish artist Frans Masereel. The newly formed Communist Party of China also took an interest in lianhuanhua. They saw lianhuanhua as a tool for propaganda and education of the masses, believing that they could use the illustrations to lure illiterate peasants into the world of the written word.
During the Japanese occupation, publishing crawled to a standstill due to shortages of ink and paper. Shanghai, the center of China’s publishing industry, was especially devastated by the war. Lianhuanhua production rebounded after 1960, and for the first time since the 1940s, comics spread throughout the country. The Communist government tightly controlled the content of lianhuanhua during this period. Many are informational guides or adaptations of Socialist Realist works. Political socialization was another major theme, and many comics depict the Sino-Japanese War.
Lianhuanhua production stopped again with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 when many publishers, writers, and illustrators were “sent down” to work in rural areas. Production would not pick up again until the late 1970s. Due to the low quality of lianhuanhua printing and the periodic campaigns that the Communist Party launched against them, few lianhuanhua from before 1970 survive. Those that do are rare antiques.
From the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 until the 1990s, lianhuanhua went through its last golden era. The comics were printed in larger numbers than ever before, and many of the prohibitions on subject matter that the Party had put in place were slowly lifted. As a result, there was a tremendous diversity in subject matter. Professor Minjie Chen writes,
Traditional stories set in ancient China, criticized in the 1960s for featuring royal and upper-class protagonists rather than contemporary proletarians, reappeared in lianhuanhua works. Folktales, fantasy, and fables—genres suppressed during the Cultural Revolution for reasons ranging from superstition to preaching feudalism, capitalism, and revisionism—came back to entertain young readers. (Personal communication, September 2014)
Adaptations of foreign works from Europe and the United States were also produced. These comics gave Chinese citizens without televisions their first look at foreign films like Star Wars. These adaptations were printed alongside informational guides. Chen writes that in the 1980s, “new publications came to embrace a wider range of goals that included intellectual development and education in science and culture for young people.” In the years directly following Mao’s death, there were even adaptations of Scar Art, a literary and fine arts movement that dealt directly with the recent trauma of the Cultural Revolution.
In the 70s and 80s, the most common format for lianhuanhua was a palm-sized 5 by 3.5 inch black and white paperback, typically with more than 100 pages. The paper was so thin that the pages are often semitransparent. Although some lianhuanhua include text in speech bubbles, most are a sequence of images captioned by text. Under some definitions of the term “comics”, these lianhuanhua would be excluded because the text and illustration are often redundant. Because lianhuanhua are a form of visual storytelling that combines images and text, I think it is fruitful to consider them in a comics context.
The lianhuanhua illustrators employ a tremendous range of styles. Some are clearly inspired by Japanese and Western comics, while others adapt the stylized gong bi line from traditional Chinese ink painting. This diversity of technique reflects the diversity of backgrounds among the illustrators. Some specialized in lianhuanhua, while others were painters who found paying employment by illustrating comics. Artist and curator Luo Fei notes lianhuanhua illustration was a well-paid day job for artists before China developed a contemporary art market. Some of these artists, such as He Youzhi brought new influences and experimental designs into their illustrations. Lianhuanhua were often the first exposure that children had to fine arts. Luo Fei writes, “When I was young, my first experience drawing was copying lianhuanhua,” (personal communication, October 2014).
During the early 1980s, lianhuanhua accounted for a quarter of all publishing in China. 1985 was the peak year for lianhuanhua production, when there were more than seven comics printed for each person in the country. Given the numbers printed and the fact that they circulated widely, lianhuanhua were among the most widely read works of visual storytelling ever made.
After 1985, the comics quickly decreased in popularity until only a few hundred thousand were printed in 1990. There are a range of theories for why they fell out of fashion, from a deluge of poor quality works to increased competition from television and Japanese manga. Professor Minjie Chen suggests that increasing content censorship decreased the relevance of lianhuanhua to the rapidly changing country.
Just as comics were not considered a legitimate study for academics in the West, lianhuanhua have garnered little attention from Chinese academics. Outside of the academy, lianhuanhua hold nostalgic value for many Chinese people born before 1990 as some of the first books they read. Collectors have driven up the prices in recent years, and this summer a set of Romance of the Three Kingdoms lianhuanhua auctioned for CNY 200,000 (roughly $32,500). Publishers have also begun reprinting some of the most popular lianhuanhua in slightly larger hardcover editions.
Unfortunately, only a few of the more than 50,000 lianhuanhua work have been translated into English. Those interested to read more can find them at Chinese websites that have scanned them, or seek out those that have been translated online.
Minjie Chen, “Chinese Lian Huan Hua and Literacy: Popular Culture Meets Youth Literature.”
Brian Hibbs, Comic Book Resources, 2013.
Diayou Wu, 2012.
Nick Stember, 2014.