A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié, translated by Edward Gauvin
No other word than epic describes this almost 700-page tome. It’s epic in content: six decades of one ordinary man’s extraordinary life, told through detailed, rich depictions in swirling black-and-white pen and ink that never seem to still. It’s epic in context: 60 years of tumultuous history in a country still in the throes of unrecognizable change. It’s epic in heft: just carrying it around should add a few sinews of muscle (although once you start, you just might read it through in a single sitting).
In 2005 Beijing, a foreign publisher and writer present a Chinese artist with a plan. His response? “My life as a comic book? Nonsense! I’m just one Chinese person among millions of others! Who’d be interested in the story of someone as ordinary as me?” he questions. But the pair are insistent: “… that’s exactly where the appeal is. Through the life of an individual like yourself, foreign readers could come to understand China.” In a clever twist of the final panel of that short preface, the child who was Li Kunwu – known by his childhood nickname, Xiao Li, as in “Young Li” – looks up at a faceless voice calling out to him, “Someone wants to see you! Odd fellow. Says he wants to send you to the 21st century.” And so the journey begins …
In “Book I: The Time of the Father,” Xiao Li’s parents meet, marry, and bring two children into an uncertain world. The People’s Republic of China has just been birthed and the young country is struggling itself into existence under the leadership of Chairman Mao. Xiao Li is born in 1955, miraculously survives the Great Famine of 1958 which lasts three years, followed in 1966 by the brutal sufferings during “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Shockingly, Xiao Li’s devotion and loyalty to the Communist Party never wavers.
Mao’s death in 1976 – which ends Book I and begins “Book II: The Time of the Party” – brings forth sweeping changes of leadership .. and opens the country to a new ‘socialism’ depicted in the aptly named “Book III: The Time of the Money.” China is ready for reinvention, testing foreign ideas, welcoming foreign contact and exchange, and developing the seemingly unlimited potential of foreign investment.
As the contemporary Li looks back over the decades, he recognizes well that his China is “not the land of ‘Made in China,’ skyscrapers, the Olympic Games and the World Expo.” But of course, “we’re proud of what we’ve made, even if it’s not perfect yet. Especially since it doesn’t come from the profits of armed conquest, however legitimate. Or from the exploiting of rich subsoil or from inherited capital skillfully managed to bear fruit.
“You will find nothing but sweat here. From our brows and our children, to whom we bequeath lives that will also be made of hard work and sacrifice for we still have a long way to go down the road that will lead us from poverty, the road to development.”
Sharing Li’s journey proves unforgettably epic – that word once more! – because by the final page, you’ll feel like you, too, have borne witness to some of the greatest transformations of the 20th century … with the promise of more yet to come.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2012 (United States)