Who is Hua Mulan?

So you think you know who Mulan is? Perhaps you know the feisty girl from the eponymous cross-dressing warrior of the 1998 Disney animated film Mulan. She is the rebellious teenager who escapes the suffocating social expectations for a maiden and heads to the battle zone, where she finds peace with who she is. Or, if you are a Chinese speaker, you may have first learned about the weaver-turned-soldier from the “Ballad of Mulan,” the lyrics of a folk song first preserved in writing in as early as the sixth century. In the memorable rhyming text she is the filial and brave daughter who is determined to shield her aging father from a perilous military life.

Mulan’s story is included in an advertisement booklet titled Women’s Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars in Color Pictures 女子二十四孝彩圖, published by a pharmaceutical company in Shanghai in 1941. Whereas the historic figures featured in the classic Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars were nearly all male, the booklet focuses on young Chinese girls’ and women’s filial piety. The caption emphasizes that when Mulan returns home after serving eleven years in the army, she is “apparently still a virgin” (page 7). The facing page advertises fish liver oil, said to have ingredients supplied by an American vitamin company. In Nü zi er shi si xiao cai tu. Shanghai: Xin Yi Pharmaceutical Company, 1941. (Cotsen 75832)

China’s Bravest Girl: The Legend of Hua Mu Lan, told by Charlie Chin; illustrated by Tomie Arai; Chinese translation by Wang Xing Chu. Emeryville, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1993. (Cotsen 17732)

Have you ever wondered, however, what kind of Chinese girl Mulan was? Weren’t women in ancient China supposed to have their feet bound? How could Mulan have gotten away from the crippling practice? Was Mulan’s family rich or poor–and does it matter? Did Mulan really grow up in those circular communal buildings portrayed in Disney’s live-action adaptation of 2020? If not, where was her hometown?

The Legend of Mu Lan: A Heroine of Ancient China, written and illustrated by Jiang Wei and Gen Xing. Monterey, CA: Victory Press, 1992. (title page) (Cotsen 13496)

“Hua Mulan,” text by Haimo, illustrated by Alang Illustrations Studio. Serialized in Xiao pi pa 小枇杷, 2013, no. 1, a magazine for young learners of the Chinese language in North America. (page 8) (Cotsen 153521)

Long before inspiring Disney films, the legend of Mulan was already being dramatized in plays and novels, retold in comic books and picture books, and reenacted in Chinese movies and television series as far back as the sixteenth century. Mulan’s malleability does not stop at changing her outfit and camouflaging her biological sex to enlist her service at a time of crisis. In adaptation after adaptation, the heroine amasses a growing inventory of virtues and qualities, from filial piety to chastity, bravery, superb combat skills, military acumen, humbleness, loyalty, patriotism, and selflessness. She also subtly shifts other dimensions of her identity at the service of messages embedded in the next new iteration. Let’s take a closer look at the girl in disguise.

What about footbinding?

Mulan’s military service is all the more extraordinary against the backdrop of what we assume to be a Confucian Chinese society that confines women within the domestic sphere. What if Mulan was not molded from the prototype of an ethnic Han girl immersed in the doctrine of Confucianism? Scholarship suggests that the origin of the character Mulan was foreign to the Chinese-speaking Han people (Dong 2011, 53), China’s largest ethnic group which got its name from the Confucius-worshipping Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). The ballad can be traced to the tradition of northern nomadic tribes, whose women were skilled at horse riding and archery (53). Active in the Mongolian area–to the north of the Great Wall–the nomads ran into frequent military conflicts with the Han empire, which collapsed in the year 220. The Tuoba clan of the Xianbei nomads, speakers of an Altaic language, eventually migrated south, established the Northern Wei in 386, and ruled northern China. The Xianbei rulers implemented Sinicization and assimilation policies in the fifth century, ushering in a period of cultural hybridity and social blending of Han and non-Han people that are subtly reflected in the lyrics (Dong 2011, 57; Millward 2020).

The ballad is likely set during the Northern Wei period (386-534), which predates the prevalence of footbinding among elite Han Chinese women of the Song dynasty (960-1279) for centuries. Mulan’s ruler is referred to by the Altaic title “Khan” 可汗 and the Chinese term “emperor” 天子 interchangeably. Philologist Sanping Chen (2012) proposes that “Mulan” (meaning “magnolia” in Chinese) is a Sinicized Tuoba word referring to “a large male cervid” (59) that includes stag, bull, and even unicorn—possibly explaining why, in the ballad, Mulan does not change her name (as she does in Disney films) and raises no questions among her fellow soldiers and Khan. Mulan’s capability of transitioning from a weaver to a soldier can be rationalized by the cultural mishmash of her time. That she begins in the ballad working at a loom reflects the influence of Han cultural expectations on women’s domestic role (Dong 2011, 57-58); yet she seems to adapt to military life smoothly, as a Xianbei woman might.

A portrait of Xu Wei (徐渭, 1521-1593), who wrote the first prominent adaptation of the Ballad of Mulan into a two-act play. (Wikimedia.org)

Chinese adapters of the ballad may have been aware of Mulan’s debatably uncertain ethnic background, but progressively shed non-Han elements from her identity and reshaped the story as one about Han people battling against invading nomadic tribes. In the first prominent dramatization of the ballad into a two-act play by Xu Wei during the sixteenth century, the protagonist introduces herself as a descendant of a prestigious military family from the Western Han dynasty–anachronistically, she has bound feet (Xu 1984, 44-45), necessitating a suspension of disbelief in her physical mobility on the battleground. Furthermore, Xu gives her the family name Hua (44), thereby transforming Mulan (“stag/bull”) into Hua Mulan (“flower magnolia”), a conventionally female name in Chinese. She enlists under the disguise of her father’s name, yet her feminine looks nonetheless draw fellow draftees’ immediate erotic attention (47).

Later adaptations invariably portray Mulan as a Han girl. During the first half of the tumultuous twentieth century, when China faced chronic military threats particularly from Imperial Japan, Han-centric narratives co-opted the filial daughter as a patriotic, self-sacrificing role model fighting a just war to defend the nation-state (Edwards 2016, 19).

Mulan Joins the Army 木蘭從軍, illustrated by Wang Shuhui. Beijing: Zhao Hua Fine Arts Publishing House, 1953. Third edition. (page 2) (Princeton University Library 5797/1126)

Caption: All of a sudden, the northern Tujue king led his troops and horses into Chinese territory, committed acts of rape, plunder, and all sorts of atrocities, resulting in many Chinese deaths and injuries. Men, women, the old, and the young were displaced and lost their homes.

Wang Shuhui (王叔晖, 1912-1985), one of the few female lianhuanhua illustrators in twentieth-century China. In Wang Shuhui, an Enduring Giant and a Master of Chinese Painting 巨擘传世: 近现代中国画大家王叔晖, by Zhao Deyang. Beijing: Gaodeng jiaoyu chubanshe, 2018. (page 10) (Marquand Library ND1049.W3647 Z436 2018)

In Mulan Joins the Army (1953), an adaptation in lianhuanhua form (akin to comic books) illustrated by Wang Shuhui, the heroine is explicitly named as a member of the “Han army” (Wang 1953, 30 & 32) fighting the invading Tujue nomads from the north, who are described as having inflicted great trauma on Chinese people (2). Published at a time when the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) was still clear in the rearview mirror, the indictment against the fictional Tujue recalls the Japanese wartime atrocities. The lianhuanhua is based on a Peking opera play with the same title written during the war by Ma Shaobo, a Chinese Communist Party official in charge of war propaganda (Wang 2001, title page). Ma took inspiration from multiple sources, including an earlier Peking opera play performed by the famed actor Mei Lanfang in 1912.

A cross-dressing Mulan as played by Mei Lanfang in Peking opera, premiered in March 1912. In Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳, edited by Liu Shaowu. Beijing: Beijing chu ban she, 1997. (page 59)

Since traditional Peking opera had a long history of using an all-male cast, there was a double gender-twist to Mei’s performance: he was a male actor playing the female role of Mulan on the stage, who is cross-dressing as a male in the story. Mei’s play was hugely influential, inspiring Ma Shaobo’s adaptation, which subsequently serves as the basis of retellings in a Henan opera, a Huangmei opera, and lianhuanhua in the second half of the 20th century.

Although Mulan has consistently been re-imagined as a Han girl, some subtle inclusive changes can be detected in adaptations in the 1980s. In a version illustrated by Wang Zhongqing (1984), the text retains the emperor’s Altaic title “Khan,” and the image portrays the ruler with a prominent aquiline nose and eyes set somewhat deeper than for other characters—a slight symbolic hint of non-Han facial features and a nod to China’s long history of ethnic multiplicity.

Mulan’s ruler Khan as depicted in The Poem of Mulan 木兰辞, illustrated by Wang Zhongqing. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1984. (partial image on the 19th panel)

The enemies, a tribe from northwestern China, on horseback, waging a battle at the border of the Great Wall. In Mulan Joins the Army 木兰从軍, text by Yu Peiming, illustrated by Xiang Weiren. Shanghai: Juvenile & Children’s Publishing House, 1983. First edition. (cover and page 1) (Cotsen S-000381)

Another version, illustrated by Xiang Weiren (1983), eventually absorbs the invading nomads into the expanded Chinese identity, thereby transforming the Chinese-against-foreigner conflict into a domestic conflict. In his version of the story, the enemies are a tribe from present-day “northwestern China” (1), who, after their defeat, pledge allegiance to a benevolent Chinese emperor. The peaceful resolution folds ethnic minorities into the Chinese empire, and is aligned with the People’s Republic of China’s orthodox political ideal of integrated, harmonious inter-ethnic relationship accomplished by a powerful, paternalistic central government.

To sum up, the Ballad of Mulan originated as a product of cultural exchange and amalgamation, but in adaptations by Chinese writers, the heroine is divested of her non-Han origin and participates in a Han-dominant narrative that assigns ethnic minorities as “other,” foreign, and invasive. It was not until the 1980s that adaptations attended to the non-Han as part of a multi-ethnic China, three decades after the PRC touted the ethnic unity project in the 1950s.

Is Mulan’s family rich or poor?

The ballad does not articulate Mulan’s socioeconomic background, but clues abound: her family owns a loom and livestock, and is able to purchase a horse and riding equipment. In Xu Wei’s dramatization, Mulan’s family owns a servant girl. Beginning in the 1950s, whether Mulan is portrayed as being rich or poor carried political significance under the Communist regime. A concern for Mulan’s class background can be discerned in Ma Shaobo’s foreword for his play. A seasoned Party member, Ma would be fully conversant with the Communist class theory and familiar with the land redistribution campaigns that targeted rich land owners. His foreword introduces Mulan as coming from a “farming family” 农家 (Ma 1949, 1), implying a humble background but stopping short of declaring her poor. As the script reveals, Mulan, though never labelled as being well-off, is more likely to be from a property-owning family. As she educates a less enthusiastic fellow recruit, to defend one’s country is congruent with the private interest of protecting the safety and property of their own families. If everybody refuses to fight as a soldier, “by the time the enemy takes the world, we would lose our country and our homes! We can’t even protect our ancestral graves, farming fields, and gardens 田园, much less spend time with children and grandchildren,” Mulan points out (22; emphasis mine).

Ma did not author the second sentence, but apparently lifted it verbatim from the script of Mei Lanfang’s stage performance (Zhui yu xuan 1922, 16). In spite of Ma’s class consciousness, his adaptation preserves the economic status of Mulan’s family, because it fosters a motive to join the army by appealing to the audience’s self-interest. The play would not risk alienating members from any class that had the capacity and motivation to contribute to the war effort. The Party redirected attention to “class struggle” only after the defeat of the Japanese (Jackal 1981, 107). Literature and media from the later Mao era gradually sharpened a dichotomy between the virtuous poor peasants and proletariat and the evil rich landowners and capitalists, bolstering the moral justification for punishing the latter.

In fact, a 1950s version of Mulan presented her family as being even more affluent. This time, her story was reenacted in a Henan opera play during the Korean War. Chen Xianzhang, the main writer of the script, and Chang Xiangyu, the lead singer actress who played Mulan, were a married couple. After the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) of China joined the Korean War and suffered setbacks in June 1951, Chang formed an ambitious plan to donate a fighter aircraft to the PVA. She succeeded in collecting enough money to purchase a MiG-15 jet fighter by touring China between 1951 and 1952, performing the extremely popular Hua Mulan on stage up to 120 times (Jing 2000, 10). The Henan opera play makes a stronger suggestion that Mulan is identified more with the property-owning class than with the destitute poor. She reasons with a fellow recruit who complains about the unfairness of having to leave his parents, wife, and children behind:

There are tens of thousands of soldiers and generals on the frontier. Who do not have elders, children, farming lands, estates, and homes 田产家园? If all are attached to their homes and refuse to fight, the fire of war would have been burning at our doorsteps. (Chen and Wang 1954, 15; emphasis mine)

The phrase “farming lands, estates, and homes” expands upon the “farming fields and gardens” in Ma’s version and connotes even more wealth. Given the priority of fundraising for the Korean War, it makes sense that the script writers would see no conflict between the moneyed class and contribution to the war.

“Who do not have elders, children, farming lands and estates?” the titular character Hua Mulan (played by Chang Xiangyu 常香玉) sings in the 1956 movie version of the Henan opera. (YouTube.com)

In illustrated adaptations of these plays, Mulan’s socioeconomic class is never specified verbally. However, even though the text is noncommittal about this dimension of her family background, visual artists may have to commit to a firmer choice in depicting people and their material environment. Their illustrations show a comfortable home in accordance with what is implied in the source text. The characters’ clothing shows no patchwork, which is a common visual shorthand for poverty in lianhuanhua and the wider visual culture of Maoist China. In multiple versions Mulan either reads the military post that summons her father to the battlefront, or, as in Wang (1953), writes a letter to the marshal explaining her request for leave (38). Being female and literate in China would put Mulan among the privileged who had the wherewithal and willingness to give daughters an education.

In Mulan Joins the Army, illustrated by Wang Shuhui, Mulan is shown dressed as a scholar (page 38). (Princeton University Library 5797/1126)

After coming home and changing back into maiden’s clothing, Mulan meets her fellow soldiers in a living room that exudes affluence. In Mulan Joins the Army 木蘭從軍, illustrated by Liu Danzhai. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1955. (page 43) (Columbia University Library 5237.49 4942)

The most remarkable tension concerning Mulan’s economic status arises in Liu Danzhai’s (1955) picture book. Half of the scenes are set in Mulan’s home, showing a capacious dwelling tastefully furnished—including a day bed inset with large, gray-veined white marble panels (39)—and artistically decorated with painted screens, potted plants, and wooden stands made from carved tree roots (37, 43). Her house is skirted by a corridor with red latticed railings, looking out to a serene garden replete with banana leaves and other lush greenery (7, 41). Somewhere in the back the family have pens for a fat pig and a stubborn sheep, to be slaughtered to celebrate their daughter’s homecoming (35). As an artist trained in classical Chinese painting, Liu visualized in meticulous detail the idealized high culture of a rural gentry home from an unspecified bygone era.

The trouble was that Liu had to wrestle with an incongruence between his interpretation of Mulan’s family background and that made in the paratext of his picture book, which was prefaced by the historian and folklorist Gu Jiegang 顾颉刚 (1893-1980). It is unclear if the painter had access to the preface during his creative process. If he did, then he apparently chose not to bend his mind to the historian’s view, but made a small compromise. Gu prefaces the picture book with an analysis of the Ballad of Mulan, and opines that the poem reflects how the oppressive ruling class of the Western Wei dynasty forced civilians to join the army, imposing hardship especially on the elderly and the poor (Liu 1955, 3). Liu has instead portrayed what appears to be a financially solid family sending their daughter to the war, except that in Mulan’s otherwise impeccable dwelling, the pink outer layer of an exterior wall of her loom room is in disrepair at a corner, exposing several gray bricks. Is this small defect the artist’s compromise with the historian’s interpretation? It looks almost as though Liu added the detail as an afterthought, a gesture to meet Gu’s concern for the poor halfway, but this surmise will have to be falsified/confirmed by consulting the artist and publisher’s archives.

The exterior wall of Mulan’s loom room is shown as exposing gray bricks, the only unkempt corner in an otherwise impeccable dwelling. In Mulan Joins the Army, illustrated by Liu Danzhai. (page 5) (Columbia University Library 5237.49 4942)

Where is Mulan from?

Fujian Tulou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, photographed by Song Xiang Lin (unesco.org)

A young Mulan chases a hen up the rooftop of the tulou. In Mulan, directed by Niki Caro. Disney, 2020. (YouTube.com)

In Disney’s live-action version Mulan (2020), the girl’s family lives in a circular building large enough to house an entire clan. Called tulou (earth buildings), such structures are the signature dwellings of Hakka Han Chinese communities, most often found in rural Fujian, China. The unique architectural style adds to the visual interest and cultural curiosity of the film, and the intended defensive function of tulou ties to the plot of the story. Does that setting make Mulan a local of Fujian Province?

As it turns out, Mulan is just as fluid when it comes to her birthplace. The original ballad cites vague geographical markers such as the Yellow River and Yan Mountain, making it difficult to pin down where the story is set (as well as giving interpreters liberty to choose). Not only has Mulan been adopted as a fictional Han girl, the popular filial daughter has also been naturalized as a historical figure, proudly claimed as a native in various regions, and recorded in local gazetteers since the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Dong 2011, 87).

Mulan is depicted as a local of Yan’an, Shaanxi Province, wearing a wool head wrap distinct to the area. In Mulan Joins the Army 木蘭從軍, by Ma Shaobo. Shanghai: Shang za chu ban she, 1953. Revised edition. (title page) (East Asian Library 5715/7293)

In the preface to his play, Ma Shaobo (1953) names at least seven locations that, to his knowledge, had been claimed as “hometowns” of Mulan (2). The place Ma selected—Shangyi Village, Yan’an Prefecture, Shaanxi Province—was a convenient choice. The play was first written in 1943 and performed in Communist-controlled areas to “boost morale” (1953, 1). Associating Yan’an, the then headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, with the heroine’s birthplace lent the seat of the Communist proto-state the positive light of a virtuous historical celebrity; it made the local daughter, who models patriotic behavior on a par with the standards of a Communist army soldier, more relatable to the audience. Having served its war mobilization tasks in that region, Yan’an eventually faded from later adaptations, in which Mulan is not tied to any particular locale. She is simply a Han Chinese girl and shares her identity with a much wider range of readers across China.

I Am Mulan 我是花木兰, one of the latest retellings of the Ballad of Mulan in Chinese picture books, written by Qin Wenjun, illustrated by Yu Rong. Beijing: China Children’s Press & Publication Group, 2017. Available in Swedish edition Jag är Hua Mulan (Hjulet, 2021) and English edition I Am Mulan (Balestier Press, 2023), translated by Anna Gustafsson Chen and Helen Wang respectively.

Throughout the 1500 years during which Mulan’s story has been disseminated in oral, written, visual, and performance cultures, from possibly a nomadic tribe to a Chinese context to a transnational stage/screen, the girl in disguise has proved to be more pliant than required simply for the feat of cross-dressing. At the core of a Mulan in perennial transformation is a persistent readiness to offer her service. In the story, she is ready to change her appearance and to feign a male identity for the service of her family or country. In the omnipotent hands of storytellers, different dimensions of her identity are altered, be it her ethnicity, hometown, or class background, for the service of particular agendas, like boosting morale among the audience, modeling patriotism for readers, raising funds for the war effort, gracing political images, or increasing the box office profits.

References

Chen, Sanping. 2012. Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Chen, Xianzhang 陈宪章 and Wang Jingzhong 王景中. 1954. 花木兰: 豫剧 [Hua Mulan: a Henan Opera]. Xi’an: Chang’an shudian.

Dong, Lan. 2011. Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Edwards, Louise. 2016. Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackal, Patricia Stranahan. 1981. Changes in Policy for Yanan Women, 1935-1947. Modern China 7 (1): 83-112.

Jing, Hua 荆桦. 2000. 常派艺术的铺路石: 我所知道的陈宪章先生 [The Paving Stone for the Chang School of Henan Opera Art: Mr. Chen Xianzhang as I Know Him]. Dongfang Yishu (02): 10-12.

Liu, Danzhai 刘旦宅, illus. 1955. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], first edition. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe.

Ma, Shaobo 马少波. 1949. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army]. Shanghai: Xinhua shudian.

Ma, Shaobo 马少波. 1953. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], revised edition. Shanghai: Shangza chubanshe.

Millward, James. 2020, September 25. “Mulan: More Hun than Han.” Los Angeles Review of Books: China Channel, accessed June 6, 2024, https://chinachannel.lareviewofbooks.org/2020/09/25/mulan-xinjiang/

Wang, Shuhui 王叔晖, illus. 1953. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], third edition. Beijing: Zhaohua meishu chubanshe.

Wang, Shuhui 王叔晖, illus. 2001. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], text by Yang Ying 杨英, first edition. Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe.

Wang, Zhongqing 王仲清, illus. 1984. 木兰辞 [The Poem of Mulan], first edition. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe.

Xiang, Weiren 项维仁, illus. 1983. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], text by Yu Peiming  俞沛铭, first edition. Shanghai: Shaonian ertong chubanshe.

Xu, Wei 徐渭. 1984. 四聲猿: 歌代嘯 [Four Cries of a Gibbon: Songs in Place of Howls], first edition. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe.

Zhui yu xuan 綴玉軒. 1922. 木兰从军: 梅兰芳秘本 [Mulan Joins the Army: Mei Lanfang’s Private Script]. Hongkong: Xianggang tonglehui. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b3961359

Acknowledgement

Thanks go to Dr. Lena Henningsen (University of Heidelberg) and Dr. Emily Graf (University of Tübingen) for their insightful comments on the first draft of this post; and to Dr. Helen Wang, on her invaluable editing and feedback on my second draft!

Thank Columbia University Library for making its copy of Mulan Joins the Army illustrated by Liu Danzhai, a full-color picture book rare for Chinese publishing of the 1950s, available for interlibrary borrowing.

Alumnus Donates Chinese Comic Books to the Cotsen Children’s Library

A Princeton alumnus made a generous donation of lianhuanhua (Chinese illustrated story books or comic books) to the Cotsen Children’s Library, adding 180 volumes to its growing collection of this unusual format of reading material. Sometimes translated as “linked pictures,” lianhuanhua, which resembles comic book storytelling by combining sequential art and text, was a popular format enjoyed by adult and child readers alike in China during much of the 20th century. It touched the childhood of many generations and is fondly mentioned in numerous memoirs.

Xue Gang Rebels Against the Tang Dynasty 薛刚反唐, a historical novel adapted into lianhuanhua series (donation to Cotsen)

Ren Rongrong任溶溶, China’s most celebrated translator of children’s literature, was born in 1923. The son of a successful business owner, Ren spent a comfortable childhood in Shanghai and Guangzhou.

As long as I was supplied with lianhuanhua and A-fu clay figurines, I would be quite content. I kept myself entertained and asked for no adult attention…My beginner readers were not fairy tales about kittens, puppies, chickens or ducklings, but lianhuanhua stories about Zhao Zilong, Wu Song, Huang Tianba [heroic figures from historical novels] and the like.” (Ren 14-16)

Lianhuanhua works featuring women warriors and Communist heroines

Xu Guangyao徐光耀, one of China’s best children’s writers of the 20th century, was born in 1925 and grew up in a poor village in Hebei Province. The earliest joyful memory he recalled in his memoir was the time when his father, otherwise an often bad-tempered, emotionally distant dad, told stories from lianhuanhua to him and his sister (Xu 2). His sister became enamored by historical women warriors such as Hua Mulan and Mu Guiying, and loved drawing them. “They are all donned in armor, astride horses, carrying spears and flags, their heroic spirits captured on paper” (4)–just like how they are depicted on the covers above (bottom row).

Capitalizing on its immense popularity, individuals and interest groups packaged into the palm-sized booklets not only riveting stories and appealing images but also information and ideologies. Lianhuanhua was utilized to promote literacy, patriotism, and Marxism, to condemn political rivals and class enemies, and to disseminate knowledge and technical know-how. The Communist Party launched a crusade against lianhuanhua in the 1950s after becoming the ruling party of China, weeding out works whose messages were incongruent with orthodox political views.

Chinese children’s books and entertainment began to diversify in the 1980s. By 1990, lianhuanhua in its traditional style had retired to forgotten corners of cupboards, second-hand book markets, and closed stacks of public libraries.

Monkey King stories in lianhuanhua

The donor behind Cotsen’s recent acquisition of lianhuanhua earned an advanced degree from Princeton and prefers to remain anonymous, “in line with Maimonides’ guidance on charity,” as he wrote us. He kindly provided the context of his collection at my request:

I first discovered lianhuanhua as a foreign student studying in Beijing in the 1980s. At that time, the books were ubiquitous, sold in most bookstores and rented out of street-side stalls. I admired the artwork and the storytelling and, for someone whose Chinese reading skills were still rudimentary, the books were an accessible and affordable entryway to a wide range of literature and history. The first lianhuanhua I purchased was a two-volume retelling of a portion of Journey to the West, adapted from an animated TV series. I acquired most of the books in my collection in the mid-1990s from used booksellers in Beijing. Some of them had stalls in weekly markets, such as the one at Panjiayuan潘家园, but most operated on the street, laying their books out on the sidewalk or displaying them on wagons. I bought indiscriminately, attracted often by subject matter and sometimes by the artwork. I had hoped one day to use the collection as a basis for a study of lianhuanhua as a vehicle for popular cultural literacy, but I am very pleased to know that the Cotsen Children’s Library will now be able to make them available to the wider scholarly community, which will make much better use of them than I ever could. (anonymous donor)

Stories about the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), in “Patriotic Education in Lianhuanhua” series

Lianhuanhua featuring fictional and historical female protagonists

Lianhuanhua published for Uygur-speaking readers. The titles include biographical stories of Lenin, Friedrich Engels, and Maxim Gorky, as well as tales adapted from The Arabian Nights.

One type of lianhuanhua was produced by adding captions to movie stills. Before television sets–much less video players–became ubiquitous in China, it offered quite a satisfactory substitute to watching animated graphics on the screen! The Man and the Monkey is based on a movie with the same title, a tragedy about a Peking Opera star who wins fame by playing the role of the Monkey King.

Left: poster of the movie The Man and the Monkey (1983)
Right: cover of the eponymous lianhuanhua based on the movie

Left: a screenshot of the movie
Right: one page from the lianhuanhua

Lianhuanhua is heavy with adaptation, drawing sources omnivorously from novels, opera plays, movies, television shows, traditional oral storytelling, and translated works.

The A-Team in Chinese lianhuanhua (1985), with the protagonist BA (“Bad Attitude”) shown on one page.

From its publication statement it is unclear if the Chinese adaptation of The A-Team was based on the television show first released in 1983 (and subsequently illustrated by Chinese artists) or translated from the comics version of the show published by Marvel Comics. The latter is more likely, because speech bubbles are not common in Chinese lianhuanhua, the way they are in manga and comics.

Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin series in Chinese translation (1984-1985)

A double-spread in Hergé’s The Blue Lotus in Chinese translation

In this Chinese version of The Adventures of Tintin, the comic strips were rearranged to fit the customary size of lianhuanhua. The Chinese edition was published before China joined the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literacy and Artistic Works and the Universal Copyright Convention in 1992. It is unclear if it the translation was unauthorized or had acquired proper rights.

The scholarly value of East Asian comic books as primary source materials has slowly become appreciated. I myself analyzed lianhuanhua stories about the Sino-Japanese War to trace the shifting narrative of the war as presented to young readers. Comic books are the subject of a recent study titled North Korean Graphic Novels: Seduction of the Innocent? by Martin Petersen (Routledge 2019). Children’s literature scholar Yeo-Joo Lim (2012) examined the appeal of South Korean educational comic books in her dissertation, titled Seriously, What Are They Reading? An Analysis of Korean Children’s Reading Behavior Regarding Educational Graphic Novels. Beyond Princeton, another special collection that houses Chinese lianhuanhua is the library of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

With this post the Cotsen Children’s Library wishes to express gratitude to the anonymous alumni donor. First, thank you, as a young student, for embracing Chinese language learning with intellectual courage. Second, thank you, as a collector, for being open-minded to a format of ephemera that was losing its popular appeal. Third, thank you, as a donor, for showing a generosity guaranteed to advance scholarship as researchers return attention to this once hugely influential format of popular consumption.

Princeton’s catalog of lianhuanhua holdings can be found at https://catalog.princeton.edu/catalog/.

References:

Ren, Rongrong任溶溶. 我也有过小时候: 任溶溶寄小读者. 杭州: 浙江大学出版社, 2015.

Xu, Guangyao徐光耀. 昨夜西风凋碧树. 北京: 北京十月文艺出版社, 2001.

(Edited by Jessica Terekhov)