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


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)

Ride an Elephant and a Happy Lunar New Year

This Saturday, January 25, is Chinese New Year. Happy Year of the Rat!  To celebrate this holiday, we invite you to read a post by Minjie Chen from 2013 explaining all the auspicious symbols in a Chinese New Year print in the collection.

The Cotsen Library is home to an international poster collection that depicts children and reflects childhood from diverse historical periods, geographical areas, and cultural backgrounds. Through a pilot project in 2012, the Cotsen Library enhanced catalog records of a small set from its Chinese-language poster collection to allow researchers to search for posters by title, creator, or publisher information in both Chinese characters and pinyin phonetics. Subject headings were standardized to bring consistency to terms that describe the posters. A brief summary of the visual content is also provided.

The small set of about 50 posters dates from the early twentieth century through the mid-1980s. They cover a delightful variety of subject matter, including nianhua (年画, New Year prints) that decorated people’s homes, instructional wall charts for classroom use, and Communist propaganda posters that sent political messages to children and adults alike.

An untitled and undated New Year print gives us a glimpse of multiple facets of Chinese art, culture, history, and political dynamics. The only text in the picture is a red stamp of “Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop” (天津楊柳青畫店), a press based in one of the most famous production centers of Chinese New Year prints. Traditional Yangliuqing art was known for the so-called “half printed, half painted” woodblock New Year prints: combining mass production and original folk art, pictures were first printed in monochrome outline, and each piece was then hand-colored by artisans. The Costen’s copy was printed and painted on a sheet of xuanzhi (宣纸, Chinese rice paper), measuring 30 x 20 inches.

Catalogers occasionally find themselves facing the little-envied job of coming up with titles for library materials that carry no such information. This New Year print posed such a task. How would you name an image portraying three children on the back of an elephant? The old catalog record suggested a title about celebrating the harvest. In order to justify that theme, one might have expected to see depictions of abundant grain overflowing from containers. However, could the basket of fruit in the young Chinese girl’s hand be an Eastern equivalent of cornucopia?

New Year print: [Ji xiang ru yi] (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year). Tianjin, China: Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop, circa 1958-1980. Cotsen Children's Library, call number 64129

New Year print:
[Ji xiang ru yi] (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year).
Tianjin, China: Tianjin Yangliuqing Painting Shop, circa 1958-1980.
Cotsen Children’s Library, call number 64129

Boy on the back of an elephant. A common pattern for traditional Chinese folk art. (Image source)

Boy on the back of an elephant. A common pattern for traditional Chinese folk art. (Image source)

It is unclear whether this New Year print was made around 1958-1959, when the Yangliuqing Painting Shop was established but not yet merged into the Tianjin People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, or around 1974-1980, when the shop name was restored.1 The picture is a fascinating manifestation of how tradition underwent adaptive transformations and survived a new political environment under the Chinese Communist regime.

Traditional Symbols and Communist Twists

Chinese New Year prints traditionally employ visual symbols and homophonic riddles to convey good wishes for the coming new year. Young children are among the favorite subject. Often portrayed with pink cheeks and chubby torsos, healthy-looking youth symbolize the success of family reproduction and a hopeful future. It is important to point out that images of children in Chinese New Year prints did not denote a child audience, but were intended for all viewers, particularly adults who wished to accomplish the foremost Confucian virtue and goal of raising a large family with sons and grandsons. Children were nonetheless an important part of the viewing experience. Superstitiously believing that children’s naïve voice carried some realizing power, an adult would engage a child in observing and talking about the pictures on the morning of the New Year’s Day, hoping that those lucky words from a child’s mouth would make happy things happen.

This New Year print from Cotsen is both a continuation of that “baby-loving” tradition and a departure from certain age-old characteristics. In a society that favored sons over daughters, boy figures dominated the subject of traditional New Year pictures. The presence of two young girls in this post-1949 picture, however, reflects an adherence to the idea of gender equality promoted by the Chinese Communist Party. All three children wear red scarves, indicating their membership in the Young Pioneers, which is a school children’s organization that answers to the Chinese Communist Party. (Former Chinese president Hu Jintao was the national leader of the organization in 1983-1984.)

Giant-sized peaches, shown in the basket on the right, are a traditional symbol of longevity in Chinese culture. The golden pineapple on the left also conveys wishes for good things, because the name of that fruit and the word for “prosperity” are homophones in southern Fujian dialect. Another homophone is played on the elephant. In the Chinese language, qixiang (骑象, riding an elephant) and jixiang (吉祥, auspicious) sound similar. The visual motif of elephant riding can actually be traced to the popular depiction of Samantabhadra, a bodhisattva often seen perched on an elephant in Chinese art and sculptures.

A final point of interest is the blossoming branch held high in the girl’s hand on the left. Traditionally, a more common object held by the elephant rider would have been an expensive-looking ruyi (如意). The term literally means “wish fulfillment,” and, according to popular belief, it has originated from the use of the handheld object as a self-sufficient backscratcher. Ruyi made from precious metals and stones used to be royal possessions. In Communist China, it would likely be a distasteful object associated with wealth, power, and privilege, and thus wisely avoided by the anonymous folk artist of this picture. The position of the girl’s arms, and the way she tilts her head closely resemble what we see in a ruyi-holding boy in traditional depictions. Is the pink flower branch an earthly substitute for rich men’s ruyi for political safety?

A ruyi decorated with pearls, made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source)

A ruyi decorated with pearls, made during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. (Image source)

An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year

You may find this picture in our library catalog by its new title: “Ji Xiang Ru Yi” (吉祥如意, An auspicious and wish-fulfilling year). Attesting to the flexibility and resilience of a folk art tradition, “Ji Xiang Ru Yi” has merged old and new, catered to both popular and political tastes, and wished for another new year of good luck to come.

(The author thanks Mr. Don Cohn for offering insightful cultural information about Samantabhadra.)


1. Tianjin Yangliuqing hua she. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2012, from http://www.tjwh