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November 12, 2010

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China's comics culture, commentary

MOVE over manga, a new exhibition is reminding its visitors of the vast history of Chinese comics. Wang Jie looks at the forgotten art form that offers humorous social commentary.

When many youngsters are lost in manga from South Korea or Japan, Chinese comics, although equipped with more than a century of history, seem to fade away.

However, a show titled "Retrospective Exhibition of Cartoons since the Founding of the People's Republic of China" invites visitors to recall the once-prevailing art form at Heng Yuan Xiang Xiang Shan Art Museum.

Organized by Xinmin Evening Newspaper and Heng Yuan Xiang Group, the exhibition features 258 comics created by 182 artists in the past six decades.

"This is the first such exhibition ever held in the country," says Zheng Xinyao, the chief curator of the exhibition. "The interesting thing is that, this exhibition is akin to a mirror, reflecting the changes, difficulties and problems in our society since 1949."

According to Zheng, Chinese comics are noted for their sharpness, humor and a close social link during different time periods.

It is said that a good Chinese comic has a real soul, as sometimes it contains the power that can't be easily conveyed through words. Sometimes it was even regarded as a "weapon" to defend or attack for different political purposes.

In fact, Chinese comics have a long history, from woodblock prints in imperial times, through anti-Japanese cartoons of the World War II era, to drawings used to teach communist values to the illiterate masses, and satire toward the unfairness of the society or keen observation of human traits. In other words, "comics culture" was once a part of life for ordinary people. The comic columns in several local newspapers are still favored by some aged people.

"I love to read the comics in Xinmin Evening Newspaper everyday, especially after dinner," says Wang Chunrong, a retired professor who visited the exhibition on its opening day. "It is a habit that I inherited from my parents. Sometimes I can't help laughing or pondering when reading them. The attitude of the artist toward life, jobs or different people is hidden smartly and humorously inside these paintings. But it is a pity that today young people prefer manga from South Korea or Japan to Chinese comics."

True, from the style - the trademark huge eyes of the characters - to the subject matters - martial arts, teenage love and science fiction - the main influence on today's Chinese comics is overwhelmingly Japanese, forcing Chinese comics to retreat from the mainstream particularly among the young generation.

"That's why we hope this exhibition could attract some young comers, and they might 'taste' the different flavor of Chinese comics," says Lin Mingjie, one member of the academic committee of the exhibition. "A good Chinese comic really evokes something deep, something philosophical and something witty."

Usually Chinese comics are simple sketches or drawings, perhaps such form is easily approachable for ordinary readers.

"But don't think this is an easy task, it is more difficult than expected," confesses Zheng Xinyao, the chief curator who also contributes to a comic column in Xinmin Evening Newspaper.

"In Chinese comics, an idea weighs a lot more than the technique," he explains. "But such fleeting idea is based on a careful and profound observation toward the surroundings, or to be exact, what is happening in our life or what the people are thinking about, otherwise the comics won't ring a bell in the heart of the readers."

Shanghai is the city that has witnessed the vicissitudes of Chinese comics.

In the 1920s, palm-sized picture books, or lianhuanhua in Chinese, were popular in Shanghai and these are considered the predecessor of modern day Chinese comics. In 1928, the first Chinese comics magazine was published in Shanghai.

"So it is meaningful that we are having this exhibition here in Shanghai," Lin adds. "Chinese comics have a long history and shouldn't be ignored in China's modern art history."

To render a complete review of what the Chinese comics have gone through, the exhibition also covers some works created during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).

Each of the paintings is labeled with related information for a better understanding for the visitors, and is arranged and installed chronologically.

"Visitors will find some interesting social phenomenon from different periods through these comics. In line with this exhibition, we also issued the catalogue, postcard and souvenir envelope," Zheng says. "To our surprise, many visitors were queuing to buy these souvenir items on the opening day. One visitor from Pudong said he was a fan of Chinese comics. We are really impressed that Chinese comics have not been totally forgotten."

Perhaps for many, the exhibition is a small kaleidoscope of the past life and society in which they grew up. But in Zheng's eyes, this exhibition is not merely a nostalgic one.

"We earnestly hope that this exhibition could re-ignite the interest of the public toward Chinese comics, and spread such interest to more people in the future."

Date: through November 20, 9am-4pm

Address: 2/F, Heng Yuan Xiang Xiang Shan Art Museum, 686 Jiujiang Rd


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