A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu

Written by Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié
Illustrated by Li Kunwu
Translated from French by Edward Gauvin
Published by Self Made Hero

Learning about the history of China in the twentieth century is tricky business - the rise of the Communist party and the decades of cultural upheaval it brought about are usually seen in a negative and suspicious light. Famines, purges, family turned against family, destruction of cultural heritage, censorship beyond measure - need I go on? It’s pretty scary. But today, China exists as a paradox -- the dramatic and painful changes put into motion by the Communist Party have, perversely, had some hand in improving the standard of living for the vast majority of the Chinese people. Thus, any modern Chinese stories run the risk of being damning or propagandistic -- China is horrible! China is great! The Chinese people are oppressed and are clueless about how horrible their lives are! Chinese people have come so far and are so superior to the rest of the world! If a Chinese story is not redolent of tragedy, it arouses suspicion.

All this to say, when I picked up a big brick of a graphic novel called A Chinese Life, all kinds of expectations swelled up. Seeing that the author, Li Kunwu, is a Communist Party member raised my suspicions further. What pro-China pro-Communism propaganda fest am I getting myself into here? The answer is just as complex, beautiful, and problematic as today’s China, and even if it’s not a perfectly clear-eyed view of things, it’s absolutely worth the read.

First of all, the best way to understand A Chinese Life is as a personal history of China written expressly for a non-Chinese, and specifically,a Western audience. Philippe Ôtié, a French diplomat, helped the author, Li Kunwu, shape his memories into a narrative that would touch on moments familiar to a Western audience, including the Great Leap Forward, and subsequent widespread famine, the Cultural Revolution and the rooting out and re-education of counterrevolutionaries. A great example of the Chinese paradox of progress is present in Li’s own family story - his father is sent to a work camp for his supposedly counter-revolutionary sentiments, and Li laments the tragedy of his father’s arrest while at the same time seeking to join the Communist Party for better career prospects. While not unbiased by any means, A Chinese Life does well to preempt questions of how could you? and why did you? and how could you not defy the authorities? -- because in the thick of things, you do what you have to do for yourself and your family.

Fascinatingly enough, Li was able to secure work as a propaganda cartoonist for the Party, and it shows in the way he illustrates his story --  alternately specific and sweeping, with epic views of Yunnan’s golden mountains, delectable feasts,and political gatherings, but also humorous caricatures of party officials, bombastic friends, city slickers, and in later years, bumbling American tourists. His fluid movements between micro and macroscopic illustrations of his world are a fitting match for his wide-ranging narrative.

So, why should you read this even if you don’t give a hoot about China? Well, first of all, you may want to consider giving a hoot about China, since it’s the most populous country in the world and a major world power. But, beyond that, Li Kunwu’s life spans the twentieth century and his story feels epic and specific, universal and unique. It’s a fantastic and accessible introduction to why you should care about modern Chinese history, and how much impact China, and the Chinese people, stand to have on the world in the next century. Furthermore, it’s a smooth and surprisingly quick read, so well-constructed that you almost forget how much you’re learning in the process. Not without a smidge of Chinese apologetics, but remembering the writer and his intent, it’s totally a worthwhile perspective to immerse oneself in, and reflect upon, for the few hours it’ll take to read because you can’t put it down.