Before she catches sight of a waistcoated, watch-wearing rabbit popping down a hole, a drowsy Alice famously questions, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Mr. Lloyd E. Cotsen apparently agreed with Alice’s wisdom. Cotsen, a 1950 Princeton alumnus whose family library for his own kids seeded the Cotsen Children’s Library, made illustrated works the focus of this special collection of international and historical children’s materials.
“Linked Pictures” for All Ages
Among Chinese materials, which make up the largest non-English language collection at Cotsen, are more than 1400 heavily illustrated story books. The Chinese term for such books, particularly those with images on nearly every page, is lian huan hua (LHH, 连环画), literarily meaning “linked pictures.” LHH books were not born as children’s literature, but were intended to entertain all ages when the format took shape in Shanghai in the 1920s. China’s population was poorly educated during much of the twentieth century. Semi-literate adults relied upon visuals to comprehend stories and avidly consumed LHH, just as children did. When Italian journalist Gino Nebiolo travelled on a night train in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he noticed that every passenger received a copy of LHH along with hot tea from the stewardess, and that workers, petty officials, and peasants were “all completely absorbed in their reading” (Nebiolo viii). (The modern urge to seek entertainment and distraction from handheld touch screens during any idle moment is not an invention by Apple, after all.) It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the “one-format-fits-all” model of print-entertainment began to disintegrate, owing to the steadily rising Chinese literacy rate, access to broadcast media, and the influence of Western- and Japanese-style “linked pictures” such as comic books and picture books.
Dated between the 1920s and 1940s, The World Turned Upside Down is one of the earliest LHH works held at the Cotsen Children’s Library. It is an illustrated story based on a Chinese creation myth. The publisher cleverly uses the cover to advertise its other LHH titles, which include Chinese mythology and folktales, kung fu stories, romance, and historical fiction, typical for early LHH works. Pre-1950 LHH copies are rare today, partly due to the ephemeral nature of flimsy paperbacks produced for the mass market, and partly due to recurring censorship campaigns launched by the Communist regime after 1950.
One panel from LHH Little Passengers offers a close illustration of Nebiolo’s report. Dressed in then-fashionable military uniform, a fifth-grader reads an LHH story about the soldier Lei Feng to a little boy he meets on the train. LHH was arguably the most popular and accessible reading format for Chinese children until the mid-1980s and was frequently referenced in the text and images of children’s books.
Layout and Art Styles
The Cotsen collection offers plenty of examples to help us appreciate the diverse visual styles, text-image relationships, subject matter, and intended audiences of Chinese “linked-picture” books. The prevailing layout of LHH includes one image on every page, horizontally oriented, accompanied by a short text along one side of the panel. Because most LHH art comprises black line drawings, it is tempting to equate Chinese LHH with comic books. Unlike in Western comics and Japanese manga, though, conversation balloons are not a persistent component of Chinese LHH. In fact, the 1970s saw a tendency to do away with speech balloons, which were thought to ruin the integrity of the pictures (Fei 474). Compared with comic books familiar to the West and Japan, most Chinese LHH from the twentieth century rely more on text than on sequential art for storytelling. This particular style of “linked pictures” would eventually give way to comic books, characterized by a tighter complementary relation between the text and visuals, and color picture books, which are better suited for beginning readers.
Although the page size of LHH books varies widely, those produced during the heyday of the format are typically palm-sized, measuring in the neighborhood of four by five inches. Miniature-size LHH works, defined as under 10 centimeters tall, were clearly designed with young readers’ small hands in mind. As shown in another post “Fresh from China,” some miniature books were thoughtfully constructed accordion style on thick paper to accommodate children’s limited motor skills.
Although LHH is most often associated with black line drawings printed on horizontal booklets, the umbrella term is inclusive of a wide array of visual and storytelling styles. Let’s showcase some examples.
Part of a “Children’s Linked-Picture Story”(儿童连环图画故事) series, this title from early People’s Republic of China very much resembles beginning reader books found in today’s market. The brief text is thoughtfully printed in large font and with generous line spacing. Set in Tiên Lãng, Vietnam in the midst of the Indochina War, A Little Iron Boy is presented as a true biographical story of a ten-year-old Vietnamese boy who would rather endure torture than reveal the hiding place of three Viet Minh cadres to the French military.
One subgroup of LHH is movie spin-offs akin to what would be called “photonovels” in English. The format consists of film stills with captions, making it a most satisfactory proxy for moviegoing long before video tape players entered Chinese homes in the 1990s.
The booklet is based on a black-and-white 1963 movie by the same title. Lei Feng is the soldier hero whom the two boys are reading about during their train ride in the aforementioned Little Passengers. He has been featured in numerous LHH editions as a self-sacrificial role model.
After School is a spin-off of a 1972 anime movie directed by Yan Dingxian (严定宪). In this bright-colored anime story, children battle against an old candy man’s evil attempt to corrupt the politically upbeat message of their jump-rope rhymes. Numerous children’s stories from the 1950s to the end of the Cultural Revolution pit politically precocious children against regressive adults. Quick to embrace new and revolutionary ideas, children in fiction and nonfiction accounts accomplish feats beyond their tender age: a breakthrough in agricultural experiments that have been dismissed by older peasants; detecting a former land-owner’s sabotage of the collective property of the commune; or facilitating the arrest of an anti-revolutionist who might even be an authority figure in the child’s own family.
The Old Bean’s Birthday Party is a picture book that introduces the versatile industrial uses of soybeans. An elderly soybean is celebrating his birthday. His “offspring” (i.e., various soybean products) show up in all shapes, colors, and states of matter. From the left to right are: soybean oil, the elderly bean, a baby soybean, a soybean-based tire, soy sauce, soy milk, soy paint, and a bar of soap—an adorable and playful one at that. Imaginative and endearing anthropomorphic color images, text with pinyin phonetic guide, and relatively large page size make this book a friendlier offering for beginning readers than most LHH works.
Regretfully, many exquisitely illustrated picture books seem to have eluded critical attention and are little known today. Here are two examples.
A folktale that explains how the Chinese custom of preparing a ceremonial congee dish on the eighth day of the twelfth moon originated.
An adaptation of an aboriginal Taiwanese folktale that explains the origin of the famous Sun Moon Lake in Central Taiwan.
Where is My Inkstone is a humorous wordless picture book that portrays a sloppy boy’s frantic search for his inkstone, without which he cannot do his homework. By relying solely on visuals to narrate the plot, wordless picture books are the quintessential manifestation of “linked pictures” or “sequential art.”
Western-style comic books and strips make up a small portion of domestic LHH works.
A cross between Chinese-style LHH and Western comics, this edition of Tibet Back to the Big Family of the Homeland is dated about one year after the People’s Liberation Army entered Lhasa on October 26, 1951. This informational book covers the geography, history, social life and customs, religion, politics, and current affairs of Tibet. It presents a warm and collaborative relationship between the new People’s Republic of China and religious leaders of Tibet. The 1959 Tibetan Uprising, which led to the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s exile to India, was still years away. Unlike the treacherous dissident he would later be portrayed as in Chinese official media, this Dalai Lama (upper-right panel) is simply introduced as Tibet’s religious and political leader, at an impressively young age of eighteen sui (meaning seventeen years old).
The Adventure of the King of Grossness (邋遢大王奇遇记) / text by Ling Shu (凌纾); illustrated by Yan Shanchun (阎善春), etc. 上海: 上海人民美术出版社, 1986. 102 pages; 19 cm. (Cotsen 154540)
Notice how dirty-looking the book cover of our copy appears? Well, the protagonist of this comic book is a boy nicknamed “the King of Grossness” for his shameless neglect of personal hygiene. We shudder to think what type of young readers this copy has attracted! The book is the basis of an immensely popular thirteen-episode anime show by the same title released in 1987.
For Instruction and Entertainment
In his classic Understanding Comics Scott McCloud (20) points out that comics have been recognized as an excellent communication tool. The following examples show how the format of “linked pictures” has been utilized for literacy education, political socialization, and information dissemination among the general Chinese population and among specialized audiences.
The Radio is part of a Become Educated LHH series, which, according to an advertisement page at the end, uses simple language to help illiterate and semi-literate readers learn Chinese characters and advance literacy skills.
The General Line for Socialist Construction: An Illustrated Libretto (总路线图画唱本). 上海: 上海人民美术出版社, 1958. 31 pages; 10 x 13 cm. (Cotsen 72229)
A preoccupation with the literacy and education of the Chinese population is reflected in another title, also dated 1958. General Line paints a utopian picture of a prosperous China in the near future, promised by the “General Line for Socialist Construction” adopted by the Chinese Communist Party in May 1958. One page shows each member of a three-generation family being engaged in reading, music, art, and science. Notably, the grandma, who is dressed no differently than an elderly peasant woman, is playing the piano. In reality, the General Line policy heralded the reckless Great Leap Forward campaign and the massive famine of 1959-1961. To what degree should rosy pictures like these be held accountable for fanning people’s frenzy over what turned out to be a disastrous campaign?
Regulations of the People’s Republic of China for Punishment of Counter-Revolutionaries: A Popular Illustrated Edition (中华人民共和国惩治反革命条例: 图解通俗本). 上海: 华东人民出版社, 1951. 56 pages; 11 x 13 cm. (Cotsen 71295)
This title exemplifies perhaps the most sobering use of comic art. Published within three months of the enactment of “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China for Punishment of Counter-Revolutionaries,” it reprints all twenty-one articles of the ordinance, offers paraphrases in plain language and definitions of legal terms, and supplies visuals characteristic of political cartoons. The image above illustrates Article 3, which metes out death penalties or life imprisonment to those who “collaborate with imperialism and commit treason.” The colophon page indicates a staggering print run of 1.5 million copies. An LHH rendition of the first marriage law passed by the PRC in 1950 was also available by the same publisher.
On a no less serious note, this LHH has been published by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to teach basic defense knowledge against atomic, chemical, and biological weaponry attacks. Its title page indicates the book as “training material for internal distribution,” meaning it should not be made publicly available. It is always a question how widely such semi-classified “internal publications” actually circulated. Bibliographical records suggest that the Office of the Deputy Chief of the General Staff for Intelligence, Ministry of National Defense in Taiwan managed to procure another LHH that trains militia on defending against the same types of attacks. In 1972, when the Chinese and Taiwanese governments remained in a state of war, the latter’s intelligence office made a facsimile of that book but labelled a derogatory “Communist bandits’” to the beginning of the title (Guo fang bu).
This LHH is a collection of satirical cartoons that criticize One Hundred Thousand Whys, a wildly successful children’s popular science series published by the Shanghai-based Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House in the early 1960s. Mathematician Zhang Yitang, who was born in 1955 in Shanghai, mentions the series as his favorite reading from childhood in an interview (“Mei” 1). The best-selling series came under harsh condemnation and was banned during the Cultural Revolution for allegedly sending feudal, capitalist, and subversive messages to youth. The LHH allows us to witness how, even in the case of lively children’s books on science (a seemingly neutral political zone), there was no escape from the snare of power struggles and ideological wars.
“Linked Pictures” for Speakers of Other Tongues
Chinese LHH have been released in multiple languages to reach an international audience and ethnic minority groups. During the Maoist era, the aim was not to maximize profit, but to spread Communist and revolutionary gospels to the non-Chinese world.
An English translation of a Chinese LHH story set during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
A Spanish translation of a Chinese LHH story, which is also available in an English edition titled The Peasant and His Horse.
A Kazakh translation of a biographical story about the childhood and adolescence of the aforementioned hero Lei Feng. The Latin alphabet used in the book has become obsolete and been replaced by the Arabic script currently used by the Kazakhs in China.
A Uyghur edition of Anton Chekhov’s short story “A Chameleon” in color LHH. The Uyghurs are among the top five largest Chinese ethnic minority groups. Likewise, the Latin alphabet used in the book is now obsolete. The Uyghurs in China have also adopted the Arabic script for their writing system.
Access and Reading of LHH
Travelling Children’s Library / photographed by Sam Tata in Shanghai, 1949. (Image source: Virtualshanghai.net)
This photo shows an open-air rental stall for LHH, where readers could hire the booklets at a cheap price. The renting business model was highly successful in maximizing the accessibility of LHH for the poorest consumers. Upon close examination, the title “Travelling Children’s Library” is a misnomer for the photo. Engrossed in their reading are a little girl, an adolescent boy, and an adult, plus a curious toddler who is likely tagging along with his big sister, getting a healthy dose of interest in reading for fun.
Adventures of Sanmao the Orphan (三毛流浪記. 1) / 張樂平作. 上海: 上海大公報館, 1949. 3rd edition. 18 x 19 cm. (Cotsen)
In his nearly wordless comic strips Adventures of Sanmao the Orphan (三毛流浪记) first serialized in 1947, Zhang Leping depicted a LHH rental shop just like the one captured by Tata’s keen lens. The comic version does afford more spacious shelfing so that the artist could show us (his made-up) titles of the booklets–they all send a sensational vibe of kung fu chivalries, murders, supernatural experiences, and even erotica. Here Zhang was echoing a widespread concern over child readers’ exposure to age-inappropriate stories that flooded the LHH market. In the six panels titled “A Lesson Learned,” Sanmao’s friend decides to sit down at a LHH stall for a joyful read while Sanmao leaves to fetch allowance to pay for the rental fee. He promptly runs into a boy who has apparently been practicing flying from a tree. The source of his stupidity, Sanmao concludes after spotting the booklet that has fallen off the boy’s hand, must be the seductive story, which is about a flying kung fu man. Sanmao immediately doubles back and snatches away the book his pal is reading (one about pursuing magic Taoist power), lest the boy, too, should fall to its bewitching influence.
The modern multiplication of publication formats, broadcast media, and digital communication tools means that the Chinese will not return to a time when linked-picture booklets served as the prevailing platform to inform and entertain the general populace. Given their immense popularity and wide influence, LHH open a vivid window into the literature and art, childhood, social life, and political dynamics of twentieth-century China. Cotsen’s LHH collection has not been systematically reorganized, but the bibliographical records of most titles can be located by keyword searches for “comic books” or “lian huan hua,” with a limit by language to Chinese.
Fei, Shengfu费声福. “谈谈连环画的图文并茂.” 中国连环画艺术文集. Eds. 林敏 & 赵素行. 太原: 山西人民出版社, 1982/1987. 470-475.
Guo fang bu Qing bao can mou ci chang shi國防部 情報參謀次長室. 共匪民兵 “三打” “三防”知識畫冊. 臺北市: 情報參謀次長室, 1972.
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 1st HarperPerennial ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.
“Mei li xin ling美丽心灵: 访数学家张益唐.” 小枇杷 3.3 (May 2015): 1.
Nebiolo, Gino. “Introduction.” The People’s Comic Book: Red Women’s Detachment, Hot on the Trail and Other Chinese Comics. Tran. Frances Frenaye. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1973. vii-xvi.
A historical overview of Chinese “linked pictures” during the twentieth century can be found in–
Chen, Minjie. “Chinese Lian Huan Hua and Literacy: Popular Culture Meets Youth Literature.” Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Chinese Literacy in China. Eds. Cynthia B. Leung and Jiening Ruan. Springer, 2012.
(Edited by Miranda Marraccini)