Sanmao Comics and Chinese Politics, 1935-1962


A review of The Revolution of a Little Hero: The Sanmao Comic Strips and the Politics of Childhood in China, 1935-1962, by Laura Pozzi.

One would be hard-pressed to find a Chinese comic figure that could outmatch the little chap Sanmao 三毛 with his iconic three hair mohawk, both in long-lasting popularity, as well as in importance to twentieth-century Chinese culture and politics. Laura Pozzi’s dissertation is a thorough and illuminating study of the creation, dissemination, and transformation of Zhang Leping’s 张乐平 (1910-1992) most famous creation from its initial appearance on Shanghai’s bustling media scene in 1935 to its “final appropriation” by Chinese Communist Party propaganda in 1962. Although selected Sanmao comic strips have received some scholarly attention, this is the first full-length study in English of the entire Sanmao series, shedding new light on the unique role of Zhang Leping’s character in Republican-era as well as post-1949 children’s entertainment and its importance to Chinese graphic art history. Never losing sight of the cultural, medial, social, and political discourses in which the Sanmao phenomenon took place, Pozzi’s careful readings of Zhang Leping’s comic strips, their cinematic adaptations, and their reception are woven into a methodologically convincing and well argued account of Sanmao’s changing roles within the heavily contested and rapidly shifting discursive fields of children’s education and nationalism.

Pozzi’s dissertation is comprised of five chapters, each devoted to one phase in the history of the Sanmao strips through the mid-1960s. If Sanmao was, up until the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, still primarily a witty and perceptive observer of Shanghai’s urban culture, then his career during the war years up until 1945 underwent an important “political turn” that catapulted the beloved youngster from Shanghai’s pictorial magazines onto the national stage of resistance propaganda. During the postwar years and the following civil war the Sanmao strips addressed with increasing urgency social inequalities and political misconduct, while Zhang Leping himself became active in the promotion of children’s welfare. Sanmao underwent his last decisive transformation after 1949, when various works of Zhang Leping were subjected to criticism and Sanmao was reconfigured as a model socialist child.

The problem of accounting for the malleability of Sanmao as a cultural and political icon begins already with the definition of the media in which Sanmao appeared. As Pozzi points out, Zhang Leping’s Sanmao can be analyzed as comic strips or political cartoons, depending on whether they are read primarily as light entertainment or satirical social criticism. That she refers to Sanmao primarily as a comic throughout her study speaks to her commitment to view Zhang’s early Sanmao oeuvre as critical to the formation of his unique visual language and style, although these are not yet as message-driven as most of his later works.

In Chapter 1 Pozzi situates the birth of Sanmao within both Shanghai media culture as well as global graphic art history. When Sanmao made his first appearance in 1935 he joined a group of already popular cartoon heroes. Especially Ye Qianyu’s 叶浅予 Mr. Wang 王先生, which was the first Chinese comic successfully to combine Chinese satire (huaji 滑稽) techniques with a visual language influenced by Western comics, had a profound influence on the path the Sanmao comics would take. Sanmao itself was thematically based on German cartoonist Erich Ohser Plauen’s (1903-1944) Father and Son comics, taking inspiration from its bold black and white style as well as its wordless slapstick humor. Pozzi, however, also explores Zhang’s pre-1937 works from the vantage point of a new cultural economy of childhood. On the one hand, the increasing circulation and consumption of images of children and childhood provided Zhang with a fertile breeding ground for his youngster protagonist. On the other hand, Zhang also used the Sanmao character to comment on and critique the increasing political and commercial instrumentalization of children. Although these early Sanmao works have been viewed as geared primarily towards children’s entertainment, Pozzi’s careful readings reveal that Zhang engaged adult readers as well through rich, multidimensional narratives. Furthermore, the Sanmao character marked a clear departure from the rosy-cheeked and Shirley Temple-curled children’s images popular in Republican-era advertising and cinema. Sanmao’s skinny legs and scarce, spiky hair were not only novel and funny, but already visually prefigured the social critique he would come to embody in later works.

Chapter 2 studies the transformation of Sanmao during the Second Sino-Japanese War, during which Zhang worked for the Cartoon Propaganda Corps. While prior to the war Sanmao’s wit and mischief made him the antithesis of the obedient child ideal promoted by the state, the few war year Sanmao comics depict an entirely different child eagerly engaged in the resistance, either by exposing wrong adult attitudes toward the war or taking part in resistance efforts himself. Another important dimension to wartime depictions of children is their role as victims: if prior to the war Sanmao’s adult-like antics were a driving forces behind the strips’ humor that often caricatured idealized notions of children’s innocence, then during the war Sanmao became an embodiment of the innocent child fallen prey to the vicissitudes of violence and hunger.

Chapter 3 treats Zhang’s return to Shanghai and his first Sanmao work after the war, Sanmao Joins the Army 三毛從军记. Lesser known and appreciated than his most famous work The Wandering Life of Sanmao 三毛流浪记, Sanmao Joins the Army stands out from the prevailing future-oriented discourses of the postwar years by taking a hard and humorous look back at the war and its social, ecological, and cultural ramifications. Pozzi’s analysis of the last panel in the comic is particularly illuminating in this respect. It depicts Sanmao trying to figure out how to get home at the end of war. Cutting through a field laced with crosses, a forked path in the shape of a V for victory forces Sanmao to choose between two equally grim perspectives: an abandoned factory or a decrepit tree. What path will the hero take? And what will be the fate of the comic strips once they have left the trenches? Through tropes of ambiguity and hesitation as well as a refusal to resolve narrative tensions facilely, Sanmao Joins the Army distinguishes itself not only from Zhang’s own war-time propaganda work, but also marks a self-reflexive turn in his humorous style of social critique.

In Chapter 4 Laura Pozzi turns to Zhang’s most celebrated creation, The Wandering Life of Sanmao. At a time when war-time refugees were flooding the city and the government proved itself unable to grapple with the most pressing social and economic issues, the little hero returns to the city of Shanghai in the role of a street urchin. Although primarily centered on the hardship of orphans, a problem that had reached devastating magnitude in the aftermath of the war, Wandering Life also reflects on the new conditions of city life. Food shortage, inflation, political interference from the U.S., corruption, and the urban housing crisis are among the numerous topics addressed in the strips. During this time Sanmao’s popularity skyrockets. Zhang enlists his little hero in the service of various donation drives, most famously the “Sanmao Life Exhibition” organized by Sun Yat-sen’s wife Song Qingling. Although always critical of the Nationalist government, Zhang’s strips were never openly supportive of the Communist Party; only after the movie adaptation of Wandering Life, to which the director Zhao Ming 赵明 added live footage of the People’s Liberation Army marching into Shanghai, did Sanmao set off on a path towards model childhood.

Chapter 5 traces the transformations Zhang put his little hero through after 1949 in order to come to terms with the new political order. In the new strips Zhang adopted two different strategies: first, after 1949 Zhang changed Sanmao’s appearance into a properly-clad and anatomically well-proportioned little boy; second, he substantially revised Sanmao’s personal history. Sanmao Stands Up 三毛翻身记, for instance, written against the backdrop of the Korean War, recounts Sanmao’s journey just like Wandering Life up until the early post-liberation days. This time around, however, Zhang put a strong emphasis on Sanmao’s proletarian class background as well as on the generosity he receives from his compatriots, now standing united in their struggle against the American military. Wandering Life itself continued to be published, although with significant omissions and changes that to a certain degree also reflect Zhang Leping’s transformation from a comic artist into an educator. Sanmao’s new role as model child comes to its logical conclusion in The Days in which Sanmao Welcomed the Liberation 三毛在迎接解放的日子里 (1962), where he is no longer a street urchin struggling for survival, but an underground activist for the Communist Party.

The Revolution of a Little Hero is a study rich in source materials that sheds new light on the evolution of the Sanmao comic strips as well as highlights their unique role in the history of Chinese children’s culture and pedagogy prior to the Cultural Revolution. Giving due attention to Zhang’s lesser studied works as well as the artist’s own biography, Laura Pozzi’s dissertation is an important contribution to the growing body of scholarship on popular culture of the Republican and socialist periods that, once published, will be of great interest to scholars of modern China as well as historians of children’s culture and graphic art.

Jessica E. Imbach
Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies
University of Zurich, Switzerland

Primary Sources

Zhang Leping 张乐平, Sanmao 三毛 (1936)
— — Sanmao Joins the Army 三毛從军记 (1946)
— — Sanmao’s Unauthorized Biography 三毛外传(1946-47)
— — The Wandering Life of Sanmao 三毛流浪记 (1947-1949)
— — Sanmao’s Denunciation 三毛的控诉 (1951)
— — Sanmao Stands Up 三毛翻身记 (1951)
— — Sanmao’s Diary 三毛日记 (1956)
— — Sanmao Yesterday and Today 三毛今昔 (1959)
— — The Days in which Sanmao Welcomed the Liberation 三毛在迎接解放的日子里 (1962)

Dissertation Information

European University Institute, Florence. 2014. 367 pp. Primary Advisor: Stephen A. Smith.

Image: Zhang Leping’s comic strip serial “Sanmao Joins the Army” (1946), with permission from the artist’s family.

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