According to my students over the years, China isn’t a superpower when it comes to anime, cartoons, or comics. According to them, that’s the domain of Japan and America — with profoundly different styles coming out of both countries. With recent high budget movies like White Snake and others, it’s something that may change in the decades to come. After all, science fiction is now a big thing in China when it wasn’t twenty years ago.
Unlike science fiction, cartoons and comics do have a history in China. Sure, it may not be the level of Hayao Miyazaki, but then again he’s in a class of his own. There is only one — and can only be one — Miyazaki. Still, China has been publishing comics for decades. They just don’t look like anything you would find elsewhere.
Typically, these can be found in antique markets these days. They are tiny, and they are largely black and white with one panel and caption per page.
There is a deeper, richer history than this, though. In this regard, I’m speaking of San Mao 三毛.
Zhang Leping 张乐平 created this character in 1935 as a way to show the economic plight of orphans and the poor in Shanghai. Of course, there was some anti-Japanese propaganda thrown into Zhang’s work. However, it is really hard to argue that San Mao is dogmatic. Zhang’s work does have a political point, but there is often a whimsical edge. Plus, he often depicted the humanity of what it’s like to be a poor and malnourished in truly chaotic times.
If I am going to be honest, I had never heard of San Mao before I moved to China. If I am permitted to say something weird (to me), I had never heard of San Mao or Zhang Leping until I walked into a shopping plaza. American shopping malls are not keen on putting on cultural displays. Often in the USA, commercial and cultural things are decidedly kept separate.
Global Harbour in Xinbei, however, has an exhibit dedicated to San Mao and Zhang Leping’s drawings. It’s on the fourth floor.
It’s hard to tell if the framed work are prints, reproductions, or originals. To an extent, does it really matter?
For me, it didn’t. I learned something new, and this whole exhibit is free and open the public. I wandered in with a super-jumbo cup of watered down espresso from Starbucks. I did this on a very lazy day off, and I could very easily see myself doing it again, soon.