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Allure of Illustrated Booklets

First appearing in Shanghai in the 1920s, cartoon-like depictions of ancient tales and Peking Operas enjoyed unprecedented popularity. An influx of Japanese and Western cartoons in recent years has left some artists wondering what can be done to preserve the medium.

At 64, painter Dai Dunbang is certainly not lacking in drive and direction. Not satisfied with painting the 108 characters in the Chinese literary classic "Shui Hu (Water Margin)," he wants to do it again.

Although Dai received nationwide acclaim five years ago for his work on "Shui Hu," he feels the work "didn't fully express" his ideas.

Aside from this personal challenge, Dai has a more ambitious plan in the pipeline. He wants to establish a museum for Chinese "lian huan hua" (serial comic strips) in Shanghai.

The establishment of such a museum is not only to preserve old comic books and their interesting history, says Dai, but to promote the art form to prevent it from becoming overshadowed by foreign cartoons.

"'Lian huan hua' is a fascinating part of Chinese culture," says Dai, director of the National Lian Huan Hua Association. "It has declined in recent years and we want to revive it."

"Lian huan hua" originated in Shanghai in the 1920s. It incorporates a wide range of media, including sketches, oil painting, traditional ink-wash painting and watercolor. It also features literary captions.

"'Lian huan hua' is a hybrid which imports all kinds of drawing styles and combines realism and exaggeration. The compositions and details of its pictures have a high standard," says 80-year-old painter, He Youzhi.

When they first appeared, the booklets were mainly adaptations of Peking Operas and Chinese literary classics. Most were line-drawings, sketches or ink-wash painting. During the 1930s, these pictorial books were called "xiao ren shu" (children's book) for their simplicity and heraldic subjects.

However, Lu Xun, father of modern Chinese literature, enjoyed their realistic style and earthiness and dubbed the medium "lian huan hua." Lu predicted that its most talented practitioners might one day stand out among painters.

"Lian huan hua" was one of the major sources of entertainment before China opened to the West. These illustrated booklets reached unprecedented popularity in the 1950s and early 1960s, when they were used to popularize new government policies and regulations in illustrated or short-story formats. The literacy rate in China was very low at the time.

"Though such books had a political function then, many famous painters such as He Youzhi drew 'lian huan hua' and their works are still seen as collectibles because of the detail and artistry that went into their creations," says Yang Hongfu, deputy director of the association.

The popularity of "lian huan hua" ended in 1966 with the start of the "culture revolution" (1966-1976).

From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, however, "lian huan hua" mounted an impressive comeback. Numerous publications were in circulation, adapting literary works from home and abroad. With a population deprived of literature and art for a decade, their revival was not surprising.

"I read 'lian huan hua' in my childhood and it introduced me to Chinese and foreign literary classics. It had a great influence on my life," says Zhang Yu, 32, a "lian huan hua" collector.

"'Lian huan hua' used to be an important source of entertainment and education for children and adults alike in China," says Dai. "But since the 1990s it has lost its glamour."

In modern China, where people have a wide range of reading material at their disposal, "lian huan hua" is one of many literary options. Today, popular comic books have almost made "lian huan hua" obsolete.

Though some artists scoff at the cartoon's simple lines and quaint plots, youngsters are drawn by their imaginative storylines and colorful images.

However, painters like Dai worry that popular comics will "impair the nation's aesthetic appreciation."

Says Dai:"Kids nowadays grow up with Japanese cartoons and their images influence children's artistic tastes to a great extent." Dai condemns the exaggerated big eyes and small lips identified with Japanese animation.

Teachers also say that violence and pornography in cartoons have a very negative effect on children psychologically.

Though many painters (even those who used to draw "lian huan hua") believe that the old medium no longer resonate with youth, Dai defends its historical importance. "The museum we plan to set up will not just hold exhibitions. We will also host auctions, gatherings for painters and readers, competitions and all kinds of activities to make it more accessible to people," he says.

Meanwhile, Dai and Yang agree that there are many weaknesses lying in "lian huan hua" itself, such as stale and limited topics.

Despite limited support, Dai and Yang are pressing ahead with their plan.

"Fortunately, we have a growing number of 'lian huan hua' collectors, from whom we get our strength," says Yang.

It is reported that roughly 20,000 collectors register with the Lian Huan Hua Association and the actual number of collectors is thought to be even greater.

At the moment, the biggest problem Dai and Yang face is finding a location for the museum. Though the two painters sell their work to earn money, it is not enough to rent a decent space.

"But we can't allow 'lian huan hua' to disappear," Dai says. "After all, generations were raised on it."

(Eastday.com February 06, 2002)

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