New Era, New Media? Liánhuánhuà and the Hand-drawn “Cinema” of the 1980s

Julia M Keblinska UC Berkeley

In my dissertation project, I examine the media landscape of early postsocialist China (also known as the “New Era,” roughly 1978-1989). Following the official end of the Cultural Revolution and Maoism, the socialist mediascape changed dramatically. Everyday media products like film, comics, newly available television, and early digital culture presented Reform Era consumers with an array of new options: narratives, objects, costumes, genres, etc. from which to produce a cultural life-world that anchored their identity in the new historical moment. In this transitional period, new media or new imaginations of old media like film produced new modes of experiencing space and time. They created new mediated sensoriums at a moment when changes in the textures of commercialized everyday life, synthetic fabrics, plastics, as well as the vertiginous surfaces of skyscraper glass and reinforced concrete, transformed everyday life. The diversification of media products created new rhythms of postsocialist life that interlaced old fantasies and temporalities with global capitalist time as China reintegrated with the world economy. Media consumers faced a new and uncertain future as they experienced pleasure, ennui, or anxiety in the play of repressed histories of Chinese pre-revolutionary cultural imagery, the iconography of socialist modernity, and foreign films, screens, and technologies from sites as diverse as Japan, Eastern Europe, and the United States.

I began thinking about my dissertation through cinema, and the question of what happens to the medium that had been so crucial in imagining the socialist dreamworld of the Maoist years in the decades of dramatic media change that followed. To inform my understanding of film culture in the 1980s, I turned to film press where I found plenty of wonderful sources. For example, a comic strip from the January 1981 issue of Popular Cinema (Dazhong dianying), a popular film magazine with a circulation of eight million in the early 80s, offers a telling history of the continuities and ruptures of media in modern Chinese history.[1] The comic is titled: “Jiang Qing’s Career.” In the strip, Jiang Qing, the infamous wife of Chairman Mao, is pictured in a succession of film stills that trace her remediation as an image across several media formats. In the first still, labeled “1930s narrative film” (gùshì piàn), she appears in a dressed in form-fitting cheongsam. This is the Shanghai film culture of the pre-liberation China, known both for its left-wing products and indulgences in technologies of modern urban life. In the second frame, she appears as a model communist, holding the Little Red Book and dressed in a square Mao suit, this time in a “1960s documentary” (jìlù piàn). Now, in 1981, film records the “reality” of socialism. In the last frame, Jiang Qing appears as “the accused” in court, now featured in a “1980s television film” (diànshì piàn). The history of modern China is traced here in the shift of medium from celluloid fantasy, to socialist realist film, to the live stream of broadcast television. But, despite the dramatic shift of medium from film to television, the comic strip is framed by film and pictured as successive shots in a reel. Even the broadcast of Jiang Qing’s trial is labeled a “TV film.” Film here is not as a foreclosed medium, but a master media trope that can contain and introduce not only new types of media and media practice, but new narratives of Chinese history as a history of media transition.

And yet, looking back to this close reading of the satirical comic, an excerpt from a text that I wrote in the early stages of thinking through my prospectus, I am struck by a glaring oversight. In my rush to interpret film as a master trope for understanding media history, a prejudice likely stemming from my academic background, I have failed to notice the material and aesthetic foundation of this image. While it may represent film as a unifying trope, the comic strip that brings all the Jiang Qings together is literally unified by the material base of the medium of paper and the style of illustrator’s drawing. Indeed, the more time I spent in the archives, perusing popular press from the 1980s in China to get a sense of the historical background against which I was going to write about film and television, the more I interacted with print media and comic art. Instead of serving as a background or secondary source, print itself as an object and aesthetic form thus became a crucial part of the history of 1980s media culture that I want to tell.

I came to the particular print media object of liánhuánhuà, the primarily hand-drawn comic book format I will be discussing at the seminar, almost by accident. I did not read about it in an academic book or moth-bitten journal, but in a rather different archive. I first came across liánhuánhuà in the blog of a comic book enthusiast, Nick Stember. Stember, having stumbled upon another blog, that of historian Maggie Greene, in which she writes about discovering a 1980 Chinese adaptation of the 1977 Star Wars film at a flea market, used Greene’s serendipitous find as a starting point for his own post as post about the former popularity of liánhuánhuà in China. I was also fascinated by a lengthy Weibo post detailing the various versions of Star Wars liánhuánhuà published in the 1980s. The work of a mysterious Chinese Weibo comic artist who goes by the name of Magic Mountain (Mòshān), the post, “Star Wars Liánhuánhuà Encyclopedia: An Archaeology of Extraterrestrial Publishing,” is wonderfully illustrated, including with original gifs, and really worth a look even for those who do not read Chinese. It only seems fitting that I am now writing about this unorthodox research process in yet another blog post.

Myself a childhood enthusiast of Star Wars, Star Wars comics, and comics more generally, I was quite taken with the post and wanted to know more about the ubiquity of this cultural product that was so strangely absent from Chinese cultural history texts produced by the Western academy. Likewise, I was intrigued by Stember’s having framed liánhuánhuà as the pirated VCD of the pre-digital age. My MA thesis at Berkeley, “Discarded Technology and Pirated Copies: The VCD, Mimicry & Postsocialist Chinese Media,” details how the VCD, or video CD, an early, cheap, and easily-copied digital video format with a resolution slightly lower than that of a videocassette played a huge role in the dissemination of film and video in millennial China. This “substandard” medium allowed for the quick and easy dissemination of digital pirated images that became ubiquitous in urban daily life. Furthermore, VCD images resonate with the aesthetics of independent Chinese cinema which is usually only considered in terms of the freedom afforded by digital cameras and not the possibilities of censorship-subverting cinephilia afforded by VCDs. The film/not film dialectic was a productive approach in writing a short history of the marginal digital technology of the VCD and it attuned me questions of resolution and the coexistence of uneven technological temporalities in one media landscape that now inform my work.

As suggested by Stember’s metaphors, I find that many liánhuánhuà that adapt films, like the Star Wars comic Greene found, likewise turn the “high resolution” of cinema, or television, into a “low resolution” image. Of course, in the case of liánhuánhuà, it is for the most part, an image rendered by hand, not a computer. In some cases, I later found, liánhuánhuà are also assembled from photographs (of films, television programs, and stage performances). At even a cursory glance, liánhuánhuà seemed to be a promising media object for further research.

Having run into writer’s block with the “master trope of cinema” approach, I decided to turn to liánhuánhuà. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of my experience with liánhuánhuà was initially mediated by digital technology. As liánhuánhuà are today primarily the objects of nostalgic appreciation and collection, I found that there are many enthusiast websites on which one can read digital scans. While I was also able to buy some interesting liánhuánhuà at flea markets in China, and through them to experience the materiality of the medium first hand, I found that when it came to finding particular texts, I had to go back to the internet. To get my hands on all the Star Wars adaptations I could find, for example, I had to learn how to circumvent digital payment policies in China to purchase liánhuánhuà on what is probably the world’s largest used book store, After considerable frustration, I was happily able to buy most of what I wanted for a few dollars. Materials in hand, I could finally sit down to start my work.

My dissertation is currently divided into chapters that each deal primarily with the problems faced by and the changing significance of one medium. Roughly, I will deal with the ways in which liánhuánhuà, television, and film compete with each other to best represent the material change of the decade and to best entertain 1980s audiences. I am attentive to what limitations and affordances each medium offers, and how each medium reshapes the time and space of its audiences.

I begin with a chapter on the new role of the old medium of liánhuánhuà in the early 1980s. I recognize the format as a transitional media object with a complex relationship to modern Chinese aesthetic and media culture in general and the media situation of the early to mid 1980s in particular. For decades, liánhuánhuà could, to a degree, provide for viewers an approximation of what the more technologically advanced medium of film looked and felt like. Although significant in the media landscape of Republican and Maoist China, it was in the 1980s that liánhuánhuà skyrocketed in popularity and readership. In terms of picturing futurity, hand-drawn liánhuánhuà could in some senses do more than both film and television could accomplish in the early years of the decade. Furthermore, they were part of a larger industry of hand-drawn images, including advertising copy and various kinds of illustrations and marginalia, that filled Chinese periodicals in the early 1980s. As such, they are part of a larger representational space that rendered images of modernity and futurity with one of the most rudimentary imaging technologies: the hand.

I take up the question of how the “low-resolution” of liánhuánhuà fares during the dramatic technological and material reorganization China undergoes in the 1980s. While film and television competed to spectacularize the material reorientation of domestic and urban life in post-Cultural Revolution China on colorful screens boasting the most up-to-date visual technologies and aesthetic styles, liánhuánhuà remained cheap, painfully low-tech, and materially and formally almost unchanged since their earliest iteration. Although the aesthetics of the images featured in each panel did change dramatically, liánhuánhuà were still the same small booklets right until their demise. The limitation of such a medium are clear. Liánhuánhuà offer one static image per page, accompanied by a caption, and are circulated to readers on pulp paper. They are cheap. By operating on a “low budget,” however, liánhuánhuà could produce by hand the fantastical visual narratives that Chinese filmmakers and television studios could not afford to record on film or tape. Likewise, thousands of stories of different genres could easily be produced at a time when film and television production at such a scale was impossible. And finally, small and cheap as liánhuánhuà were, they could become visual fetish objects that allowed readers to possess stories in a way that the fleeting images of film and television did not. They could be consumed at any time, in any place, even outside the reach of the still growing electronic network of television. To give a sense of the scope of their popularity, in 1985, the 860,000,000 million liánhuánhuà in circulation accounted for one third of all print media in China.

I frame my analysis of liánhuánhuà in a short history of the medium. I introduce its origin in 1920s Shanghai urban culture. There, it was denigrated as a regressive “bad object” devoted to the ideologically suspect mystical and strange martial arts genres (shénguài wŭxiá), but flourished in concert with the development of modern printing technologies and cinema. I briefly note liánhuánhuà’s important role in Maoist media culture, then read the phenomenal rise of liánhuánhuà in early years of New Era China and its decline later in the decade through a liánhuánhuà adaptation of the novel Real or Fake Celestial Palace, the aforementioned adaptations of the 1977 American film Star Wars, and the short lived career of the television-adaptation liánhuánhuà magazine Television Lianhuahua (Diànshì liánhuánhuà, 1985-1990).

I  am including several images. The first is the comic strip of Jiang Qing. The second and third are images of the Star Wars liánhuánhuà published in the 1980s that I have acquired. The third image shows how three of the texts illustrate Luke Skywalker’s encounter with Princess Leia’s “My only hope” hologram. The last image features two panels of mid 1930s liánhuánhuà that show the variety of content available to readers when the medium was still relatively young. On the left, an image of Edison demonstrating a film camera. On the right, a scene from the historical epic, The Romance of Three Kingdoms.

[1] Circulation reported in: “Increased Circulation of Popular Cinema,” Chinese Literature 6 (1981), 130.


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