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Scarred Dragon—Historical Trauma Narratives in the Graphic Novels of Li Kunwu and Gene Luen Yang

By Nicolas Schillinger

China is a dragon covered with scars, stigmata of another time, haunting memories of murderous cuts.
—Foreword to Scars[1]

While strolling through a flea market in his hometown Kunming, the capital of the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, Old Li happens upon an antique store where he encounters old Japanese woodblock prints depicting scenes from the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Upon further investigation, he reveals a huge collection containing thousands of Japanese prints, photographs, maps, pictorial magazines, picture books, and diaries dealing with the Japanese military presence in China between 1894 and 1945. Old Li, determined to preserve this historical treasure, begins to photograph the materials and arranges for their translation and documentation. Eventually he unearths a Japanese soldier’s diary that reports the bombing of Kunming in 1938. This discovery evokes memories of his traumatic family history, since Old Li’s father-in-law lost his mother, grandmother, and sister—not to mention his own leg—during the bombing.

Old Li is the protagonist of Scars, the autobiographical graphic novel by Li Kunwu, which recounts this brief but momentous episode of his life. However, Scars deals not only with the pain and trauma of an individual and his family, but also with the unresolved war memory of the Chinese nation. It depicts, in Michael Berry’s words, a “centripetal trauma”, which has its causes outside of China and inspires a re-examination of the nation. Obversely, a “centrifugal trauma” is a narrative of trauma originating from within; or in other words, a self-inflicted trauma that results from the actions of, and the violence emanating from, the state or “national center” (Berry 2011, pp. 1-20). Berry’s book, A History of Pain, deals with the portrayal of historical atrocities, from Japanese colonialism to the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Tian’anmen Massacre, in Chinese literature and film. He argues that fictional popular culture works strongly affect the construction of cultural memory, popular discourse, and the national psyche, establishing a powerful historical narrative of violence, pain, and trauma. This trauma narrative does not replace, but supplements, official and academic historiography. Moreover, the “conception of trauma that emerges is a conflation and, sometimes, synthesis of national and individual trauma” (Berry 2011, p. 18, emphasis in the original). The centripetal trauma of pain caused by foreigners in the first half of the twentieth century, including primarily the Japanese invasion addressed in Scars, lies at the center of Chinese national consciousness. In other words, the very idea (or myth) of China is not only rooted in the demarcation between the Chinese and other nations, it is inextricably linked to the idea of being humiliated by these other nations. The inter-Chinese violence in the history of the People’s Republic of China since 1949, on the other hand, entails a “centrifugal force of trauma” which destabilizes official discourses and unanimous narratives of the nation. Moreover, according to Berry, the forces of trauma interlace and are interdependent, comparable to the yin yang principle (Berry 2011, p. 7).

In this essay, I argue that the trauma narrative provides the framework for a number of recent graphic novels which are set against the background of twentieth-century Chinese history. In particular, this examination deals with Li Kunwu’s books Scars, The Railway Above the Clouds, and A Chinese Life, as well as Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints. With regards to Chinese comics, these works represent a novelty in graphic style, depth and complexity of storytelling, and detailed historical narrative.[2] Fitting Berry’s model, the history of modern China in Yang’s and Li’s books is defined by the different, but intertwined forces of trauma. On the one hand, to varying degrees, the two authors tackle events that are depicted within the Chinese narrative of shame and humiliation by other nations. On the other hand, they show or hint at violence among Chinese people which often, but not exclusively, originates from the state. These graphic novels not only adopt and mirror the trauma narrative but also perpetuate and shape the idea of a violent, painful, and scarred modern history in Chinese popular culture, which is at the heart of Chinese national identity.

While the first section of this article treats the mostly centripetal forces of trauma in Li’s Scars and Railway Above the Clouds, the second section focuses on the centrifugal trauma in Li’s A Chinese Life. Finally, the third section deals with Yang’s Boxers and Saints, which begins and ends with the pain brought to the Chinese nation from abroad but also shows the civil-war-like situations resulting from the anti-Christian purge by the Boxers. The graphic novel therefore represents an equilibrium of traumatic forces, and stands as an interlude linking the rather tendentious stories of Li Kunwu. Addressing both centrifugal and centripetal traumas in a more balanced way, Boxers and Saints offers a more nuanced view on China’s twentieth century history and provides additional insights in the way national remembrance and identity construction works.

The Humiliated Nation

As a theme, “scars” recall of a specific genre of literature, the so-called “scar literature”, referring to literary works dealing with suffering and violence during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).[3] According to literary scholar David Der-wei Wang, “scars” represent a typology used by Chinese authors, since the beginning of the twentieth century, to describe the violence and backwardness of traditional Chinese society. Since 1949, both Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese writers have used the “scar” theme when writing about the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 (or War of Resistance Against Japan, to use the official Chinese term), as well as the Civil War of 1945-1949, and the division of the Chinese nation into the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC, or Mainland China) (Wang 2004, 148-182). Wang asks, “Is the scar a sign of rehabilitation indicating an alleviation of the pain of the past? Or is it a reminder of injury pointing to the past that, once lacerated, can no longer be fully healed? Does writing about scars let the author and reader face the past, or does it represent the ‘irrepresentability’ of the past, which can only be recovered as a trace?” (Wang 2004, 174, emphasis in the original). While writing about the past in literary form—particularly about the physical and psychological pain, and the individual and national trauma generated on China’s way to modernity that are expressed by the metaphor of “scars”—writers “constructed or repaired the national myth” (Wang 2004, p. 151).

Li Kunwu’s Scars is not concerned with inter-Chinese violence, but with the centripetal trauma caused by the Japanese invasion, the very climax of what the Chinese government, popular history books, and school textbooks officially term the “century of humiliation” (bainian guochi) and “national shame”. According to these texts, the “century of humiliation” started in 1839 with the First Opium War and ended with the end of the Second World War in 1945. This period overlaps with what, in Chinese historiography, is narrowly defined as “modern history” or jindai lishi.[4] The historiography within this humiliation narrative focuses on iconic events of foreign aggression, ruthlessness, destruction, and brutality, such as the Second Opium War, the Boxer War, and the Nanjing Massacre. Similar to the theme of “scars”, the discourse about national humiliation began in the 1910s, in the early days of the republican national state in China. Between 1927 and 1940, the government even celebrated multiple official national humiliation days throughout the year (Callahan 2012, Hevia 2007).

After 1949, Marxist historiography viewed the “century of humiliation” as a transitory stage during which capitalist-imperialist forces destroyed feudalism and, in turn, had to be fought by socialism and the “people”. However, from the late 1970s, and particularly after the bloody 1989 student protests in central Tian’anmen Square, the Communist Party and socialist ideology faltered. After the turn of the millennium, the party increasingly promoted nationalism as the new identity-forming principle. It sought to counter its crisis of legitimacy by emphasizing its primary historic role in re-establishing “China” after the century of humiliation. Moreover, final redemption of the national shame would only be possible under the guidance of the party, which struggles to restore China’s deserved leading role in the world. The Chinese government uses foreign imperialism and invasion before 1945 to justify both a more aggressive foreign policy and drastic domestic policies, and to govern historical memory and national identity sympathetic to the party’s rule. To this end the slogan “never forget national humiliation” (wu wang guochi) appears in textbooks, commemorative plaques, and an increasing number of commemoration ceremonies (Wang 2014). As William Callahan observes, “the master narrative of modern Chinese history is the discourse of national humiliation”, which is reproduced in such popular cultural products as feature films and novels, official documents and statements, history books, museums, theme parks, public monuments, exhibits, dictionaries, and atlases (Callahan 2004, p. 204) as well as “reconfigured historical sites” such as the old Summer palace that became “national heritage” (Hevia 2007, pp. 193, 200).

Rana Mitter points out that the Second Sino-Japanese War only received attention as perhaps the most central part of the century of humiliation in both Chinese academic historiography and popular media after the end of the Cold War. The hitherto defining historical narrative was class struggle and the conflict between capitalism and socialism, leading to the neglect of the Nationalist government’s contribution in the War of Resistance Against Japan and the emphasis of the Civil War. And, for Cold War strategic reasons, Japanese war atrocities were downplayed. According to Mitter, starting with the recognition of the PRC by Japan in 1972, a “new remembering of World War II” (borrowing Arthur Waldron’s term, see Waldron 1996) slowly began, which emphasized Communist and Nationalist unity against the Japanese aggression and violence. At the same time, particularly from the mid-1990s on, the (centrifugal) traumas of the Communist post-war era were, albeit not forgotten, put in the rear. Journalistic reportage by first-person narrators, Mitter argues, significantly contributed to popularizing the traumas from the War of Resistance and making it a part of the social and public memory beyond individual experiences (Mitter 2007, pp. 172-175).

Scars by Li Kunwu similarly presents the Japanese invasion within the framework of national humiliation. It is portrayed as a largely forgotten event and unresolved trauma which haunts individuals, families, and the nation. In the preface, Li announces that his primary intention is to present his family’s experience, but also to make more Chinese people interested in history (Li 2015, p. 1). At its core, Scars is Old Li’s self-reflective story about coming to terms with the memory of war, culminating in the recollection of his father-in-law’s traumatic experiences and Li’s role in helping him overcoming this trauma. Old Li narrates how his father-in-law initially did not want to talk about his injury, wishing to let the matter rest: “The Chinese people suffered, the Japanese people suffered, what is past is past,” he declares. However, in 1998, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Kunming, Li convinces him to finally tell his story, arguing that it is his father-in-law’s duty “to expose and accuse the atrocities of Japanese militarism” and to draw attention to these “historical facts” for later generations, as a matter of lasting peace (Li 2015, pp. 241-245). Old Li recounts his father-in-law’s deep relief after his story appeared in the newspaper. Other victims then came forward, Li explains to his friends, and they sought to sue the Japanese government for compensation. However, since the government of China remitted Japan from any reparation when normalizing diplomatic relations in 1972, there was no chance of success. The concluding scene of the book ends with the profound confusion and anger of Li’s friends at this fact, as well as Li’s own weariness of the many images of war (Li 2015, pp. 246-253).

Essentially, Scars is about facing the past and telling one’s story as part of a self-healing recovery from trauma. However, Li’s father-in-law is not the only one burdened with, and ashamed of, the past. Although he did not directly experience the war himself, Old Li is obsessed with literal images of the Japanese invasion. He is traumatized, in Cathy Caruth’s words, “precisely [because he is] possessed by an image or event” (Caruth 1995, pp. 4-5, see also vii). Images – or to be more precise, Japanese war photographs – are central to Scars and many panels are dedicated to Old Li looking at photos in bewilderment and re-photographing them (Figure 1). According to the editor’s afterword, a large selection of historical photographs was added to the extended second edition and he thus wonders whether Scars is still a graphic novel, or rather a photo book. In any case, the photos are meant to attract a larger Chinese readership, not only to reflect on the Japanese invasion and to denounce war atrocities, but also to counter indifference and forgetfulness among the Chinese people (Li 2015, afterword). Despite the book’s wide success among French audiences, Li Kunwu comments in the preface to the second edition that his Chinese compatriots seem apathetic concerning the Japanese invasion (Li 2015, p. 2). Since so many wounds were unexpectedly opened during his encounter with the Japanese war photographs and other material, he believes that remembrance is the best relief and that letting matters rest would be more harmful (Li 2015, p. 1).

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Apart from an additional preface and photos, as well as an editor’s afterword, the second edition of Scars includes a new, expanded epilogue. The book originally ends with the disappearance of memory: Old Li goes back to the place where he first encountered the Japanese prints and photographs, only to find the flea market and its entire neighborhood gone, steamrollered for a new development. Gone without a trace are the old people who introduced Old Li to the war material at the beginning of the story, as well as the original photos themselves; only mindless young people strolling through shopping malls and the ruins of the old neighborhood are found. In the second edition, however, a more developed epilogue tells of Old Li and his wife visiting the father-in-law’s surviving sister. She not only shows them her personal scar from the war (an ankle damaged during the bombing) but also an official, notarized certificate confirming her story. If anything, such a peculiar document demonstrates how individual experience and memory is converted into official national historiography. But, the new epilogue continues: Li uses reproductions of the war photographs, the officialized testimony of the father-in-law’s sister, the graphic novel itself, and newly created drawings for a comic exhibition on the Second Sino-Japanese War in Yunnan province. The graphic novel thus ends with photographs, this time in color, of interested visitors willing to learn their history—including many people from a younger generation (Figure 2).

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Through drawing, Old Li becomes a facilitator in overcoming not only the pain and trauma of his family members but also the national trauma. His goal is to “make more people know about the war” because “only remembering history heals scars” (Li 2015 afterword, 281). Old Li even uses his own and his wife’s personal savings (which they planned to use to buy an apartment) to make the exhibition possible and actively counter the disinterest and forgetfulness of the next generation. Scars fits neatly into the “humiliation narrative” without directly accusing, or dealing with the guilt of, Japanese soldiers and politicians. Instead, the story concentrates on the shared pain and trauma of the Chinese nation. The answer to the pointed question “what is the value of memory?” raised by a French reviewer of Scars, and cited in the afterword, might be: reconstruct the national myth by facing the centripetal trauma, and endow the rapid present-day modernization and consumption with a deeper meaning.

In the same vein, Li Kunwu’s Railway Above the Clouds treats an episode of the “century of humiliation” and implicitly asks the same question. The protagonist, again Mr. Li as himself, unexpectedly comes upon a graveyard for foreigners in China dating to the beginning of the twentieth century, and subsequently attempts to discover more about them and their project, the construction of a railway from Vietnam to Yunnan. While both Scars and The Railway Above the Clouds are about memory and a neglected part of history, the latter is more a reportage with few dynamics, and contains no personal link to Li’s life. Nevertheless, Li is intrigued by the story of the mostly French engineers in China. He creates drawings of original photographs for the graphic novel and organizes a photo exhibition about the Yunnan Railway with Pierre Marbotte, a descendant of the French engineer who created most of the photographs, as guest of honor. This exhibition–similarly to Scars–also comprises the final panels of the book. A few historical photographs are also reprinted at the end of the book[5], along with photographs of Li with tombstones and ancient railway tracks, as well as a picture with Marbotte.

More importantly, as an actor in the book, Li seeks to preserve the memory of the railway’s construction by supporting the maintenance of the graveyard. The key scene of Railway Above the Clouds is a meeting with history professors who discuss the role of the Yunnan Railway as cultural heritage and its use for tourism (Li 2013, p. 183). When it comes to the issue of preserving the graveyard, some of the historians argue that the railway must be preserved as a whole, but others among them view the graveyard as a part of colonial history and not worth remembering. Moreover, since it is located in the center of the city of Kaiyuan, it is in the way of “constructing a modern neighborhood” and “the layout of a civilized city” (Li 2013, p. 192). Li eventually ends the heated discussion by suggesting they wait and find more details about the graveyard, among other things, through archives and Pierre Marbotte’s visit. Again, Li himself acts as a facilitator of national memory and actively dealing with the trauma of colonialism.

To be sure, both Scars and Railway Above the Clouds deal with the centripetal trauma caused by foreign imperialism, but both graphic novels also refer to violence and pain emanating from within. Although it is repeatedly mentioned in Railway Above the Clouds that thousands of Chinese workers died during the construction of the Yunnan Railway, it is Chinese foremen, wearing foreign clothes and becoming collaborators of sorts, who are described as the worst concerning the treatment of their compatriots.[6] Moreover, the real horror is caused not by Europeans but by the Chinese imperial state and society. As proof, Li reproduces Marbotte’s photographs that are meant to demonstrate the brutality and hardships of the time: malnourished convicts wearing the “cangue”, and the severed heads of criminals in cages. Arguably, this image of a “barbaric” imperial China is familiar to both a common French and Chinese audience without much further explanation and recreates the narrative of a pre-modern Chinese society and culture that draws on atrocious practices.[7]

Scars, on the other hand, includes a few pictures of the Chinese politician Wang Jingwei, who established a collaboration government in 1940, serving Japanese interests. Beholding the pictures of Wang and other collaborators such as intellectuals, members of the military, and even barbers triggers strong emotions in Li, who exclaims the term hanjian (“traitor to the Han Chinese”) over and over again (Li 2015, pp. 209-211). While considering collaborators like Wang Jingwei villains is not new to collective memory or official historiography in China, his depiction as traitor to the nation now overshadows his previous role as an allegedly corrupt and opportunistic member of the Nationalist Party and capitalist class (Brook 2005, pp. 10-13). There are no details about Wang Jingwei and his actions in Scars since he is well known to the Chinese readership. His simple graphic depiction, along with the specific term hanjian, serves as a reminder of a severe act of treachery, conspiring and cooperating with the enemy, and thus unfolds the historical trauma narrative of a nation threatened by centrifugal forces.[8]

In both novels, however, Li is barely interested in coping with the centrifugal trauma—Chinese collaboration and, inherently, state violence—which is treated intensely, yet only briefly. By and large, Scars and Railway Above the Clouds deal with collectively coming to terms with a part of China’s traumatic history in the context of imperialism and foreign presence. Although he never accuses any person or group directly, Li’s tone is quite different and much more sympathetic to the European engineers than to Japanese soldiers. While Railway Above the Clouds seems to be geared much more towards Li’s French readership as well, Scars addresses his fellow Chinese nationals quite directly to evoke compatriot feelings. Through photographs, exhibitions, and the graphic novels, Li seeks to promote remembrance and to help overcome the trauma. He acquaints the reader with significant episodes in twentieth century Chinese history – conflating individual “adventures” and collective memory – but the graphic novels presuppose basic knowledge or at least the willingness to acquire more information about Chinese history to fully understand their intention and multiple small references. While graphics such as photographs and a number of exceptional drawings in the graphic novels represent a specific, decipherable historical narrative, the storylines of the novels depict individual experience and memory. However, since they are hardly about the protagonist Old Li, the narrative structure serves mostly as a framework for the possibly stand-alone images as well as backdrop for the traumatic history of the nation.

The Search for Modern China

Scars and Railway Above the Clouds are concerned with the violent consequences of the interaction with foreigners during the “century of humiliation”. To varying degrees, these novels also introduce the other source of trauma in this history, the violence performed by Chinese against other Chinese, which challenges their unity as a nation. Michael Berry locates such centrifugal traumas mainly in the history of China after 1949, which represents the reunification of the long fragmented and wounded nation. After the traumatic experiences brought to China from abroad for a century, the stability and unity of the nation seems to be restored. However, at the same time, its uniformity and homogeneity reaches the climax since the drastic and seemingly arbitrary actions of the Communist state and government question and increasingly deconstruct the cohesiveness of the nation. The history of the PRC includes numerous social, political, and economic experiments conducted by the party-state, which resulted in millions of deaths, imprisonment, and misappropriation, as well as unresolved individual and societal traumas.

Li Kunwu dedicates his most important graphic novel to this era, his three-volume autobiography A Chinese Life – From Young Li to Old Li. It covers Li’s experiences from the early years of the PRC almost to the present day, including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Reform and Opening-up.[9] Each of these periods affected hundreds of millions of Chinese lives and Li, from his individual perspective, presents the government’s campaigns, reforms, and measures as painful but necessary for China’s path from a traditional society to a modern nation. Compared to the other graphic novels examined in this essay, the “national center” (party and state) is more clearly the origin of the traumatic experiences in A Chinese Life. However, Li presents violence, pain, and traumas caused from within the nation (“centrifugal traumas”) in a very subtle way as he tells his life story in a mostly positive manner. Moreover, while most of his other works are rather critical of the present for its indifference towards history, its urban deformation, and the consumer culture, A Chinese Life eventually celebrates both the Chinese nation’s progress and future. Nevertheless, closer reading reveals numerous, more or less obvious, unresolved issues haunting both the memory of Li as an individual and society as a whole, and questioning the unambiguity of China as a nation.

Although Li, a former propaganda illustrator and newspaper journalist in Yunnan, and his family must face a number of hardships throughout the book, he is a staunch believer in the Communist Party and its ability to lead the country to a better future. Most of A Chinese Life deals with Li’s childhood and adolescence, covering such topics as political campaigns, education, military service, and propaganda from the 1950s to the 1970s. Young Li’s primary goal is to be accepted into the ubiquitous, but abstract, party which, in a sense, becomes his second (and at times more important) family. Closely related is Li’s struggle for acknowledgement by his father, who himself is a dedicated but moderate communist, as well as a high cadre and official in Yunnan province. He seeks to emulate his strict but beloved father, and everything he does serves the purpose of becoming a “model communist”, whether working as a propaganda artist or joining the army. During the Cultural Revolution, Li becomes more extreme than his father, who condemns the radical Maoist Red Guards. Having an inauspicious class background (he was born into a family of wealthy farmers) and being on the wrong side of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, Li’s father is ultimately separated from his family and sent to re-education camp.

Li’s family history and class background haunt his goal to become a party member, presenting an ideological obstacle and delaying his acceptance. Nonetheless, despite the seemingly unfair treatment his family legacy causes, Li never doubts or questions the party. The link between party, family, and father is even more explicit in the figure of Mao Zedong, who appears as Li’s revered childhood idol and as a symbol for national renewal, similar to the First Emperor in Boxers and Saints (see below). Mao appears as a larger-than-life figure that is never criticized or doubted. He is an important father figure, not only for Li, but also, allegedly, for the entire nation, particularly for the millions of young Red Guards who worshipped him like a god and sought to realize his anti-party-establishment “continuous revolution” in the late 1960s. On several occasions in the book we learn, for instance, that the “love for Mao” was supposed to be “greater than the love for the parents” (Li 2012, p. 55). However, whereas the First Emperor Qin Shi transforms from the national savior against centripetal violence into the origin of centrifugal violence, Mao, despite a similar historical role, retains his position as an aloof leader.[10] Together with a few other historical and political figures, such as Lei Feng, Deng Xiaoping, and Hu Jintao, Mao is always depicted in an overly realistic (or naturalistic) way, often resembling propaganda posters. Although A Chinese Life follows French-style graphic novels, this kind of emphasis on Mao is evocative of Chinese comic books published during the Cultural Revolution. During this period, Mao was presented as an almost transcendent, god-like figure, surrounded by light or the red sun, which, together with Quotations from the Chairman (the “Little Red Book”), came to symbolize him and denote his presence even when he was absent (Mittler 2012, pp. 331-334). In A Chinese Life’s case, the final page of the first volume, entitled Time of the Father, is dedicated to Mao Zedong—the nation’s father dying at the end of an arduous and, in fact, traumatic era for many Chinese. The graphic novel glosses over these traumas but the mere use of Mao’s iconic image evokes a controversial national history and mixed individual experiences regarding the government and its leader. For Li, Mao’s death marks his final transition from Young Li into Old Li.[11]

A Chinese Life repeats the official, politically conformable, historical narrative of China’s more recent, post-1949 history: the drive to reconstruct the country after war and implement a more just, modern, and communist society caused suffering and scarcity. Policies were sometimes shortsighted and a number of mistakes made, but major human catastrophes like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution appear as uncontrollable and unavoidable “natural disasters”, or the crimes of a few black sheep.[12] Apart from quoting official statements, Li depicts the history of the People’s Republic of China from his individual, subjective perspective and thus avoids obvious judgments about political decisions of the past. In the third part of the book, he explicitly uses this as an argument for not depicting the Tian’anmen massacre in 1989. However, Li does occasionally ridicule certain campaigns and past ways of thinking, adding a slightly self-ironic undertone to A Chinese Life, which generally has a serious, and sometimes lofty, pro-party tone. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, when Li is an infant, his father angrily insists that he repeat the phrase “Long live Mao Zedong,” which an even younger girl had previously uttered, according to a (probably fake) newspaper report (Li 2012, pp. 11-12).

Li admits to his individual mistakes, in particular, referring to his extremism as a Red Guard. He shows personal remorse for his actions but, considering the destruction, murder, and torture which took place during the Cultural Revolution, this is far from any attempt at historical appraisal. Li does not seek to make his story one of repentance, apology, or accusation but, in a nuanced way, he hints at both the atrocities of the Mao period and the new, painful challenges of the post-Mao era. A major theme in the book is reconciliation, particularly in volume two: the reconciliation of the family (and by implication, the party family). He shows how, after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, more moderate forces within the Communist Party rose to power, starting economic and social reforms. Li’s father is rehabilitated and joins the reformers around the new leader, Deng Xiaoping. Through powerfully emotional panels depicting the father’s reunion with his wife, the reader comes to understand the pain that years of separation must have caused. Moreover, Li’s father makes his peace with his own parents and family from his native village, which he left before the Second World War to join the Communist movement.

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The father’s death at the end of this volume marks the end of the socialist experiments and seesaw-changes of the Maoist period, which Li presents as a, by-and-large, closed episode in the history of the Chinese nation. Li attempts to convince both the reader and himself that things past are past but, repeatedly, he hints at personal mistakes without showing any remorse for them. For instance, he abandons a potential lover for the sake of retaining his chance of party membership (Li 2012, p. 369-377). Other experiences also remain unresolved and continue to exist as latent traumas in Li’s life. As previously mentioned, he regrets joining the Red Guards and causing so much destruction, especially to buildings, such as temples and objects of art. Sitting on a deep-rooted tree stump and holding a shattered porcelain vase in his hands, Old Li looks back and tells us:

Like many others, I try not to look back to often, to let memory tug me down the slope of remorse. But in truth, he who once, with the insouciance of youth, destroyed so many wonders would give so much today to find just a few of those marvellous objects intact, bearers of our history… (Li 2012, p. 131, fig. 4).
Maintaining ruins as memorials, rather than reconstructing the original edifice, plays an important role in the humiliation narrative, serving as palpable reminders of foreign violence (Callahan 2004, 208-209). However, comparably destructive inter-Chinese force disputes the narratives of a peaceful and weak nation. Similarly, at the conclusion of both Scars and Railway Above the Clouds, Li uses ruins left by urban redevelopment and modernization to indicate his skepticism about present-day China. Moreover, although Li’s major theme in his graphic novel is memory and history, and he pretends to be a distant observer, the violence and pain of the Mao era still affect him. Serving as a soldier-farmer at a distant outpost and tending to a cow herd, he has a fevered dream of his cows judging over him, similar to the ad-hoc people’s trials arbitrarily presiding over selected class enemies during the Cultural Revolution. While some of the cows in his dream wear the hats of imperial magistrates, representing the revenge of a traditional China that was scorned during the Cultural Revolution, Li is forced to wear the paper “hat of shame” and confess to whatever crime he is accused of (Li 2012, pp. 378-380). Obviously he did not, at least as a young man, easily put past “catastrophes” behind him.[13] In Scars and Railways Above the Clouds Li promotes the active engagement with the trauma brought to the Chinese nation from outside but in A Chinese Life he refrains from demanding an analogous treatment of the centrifugal trauma.

As mentioned before, the theme of “scar” is mostly reserved for the literature and films that treat the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, particularly the forced relocation of the educated urban youth to the countryside for “re-education”. Michael Berry points out that Yunnan, Li’s home province where most of A Chinese Life takes place, represents a specially remote and rural locale with a harsh terrain and a diverse multi-ethnical population. The large-scale population movement of sending educated youth as work force to develop distant and withdrawn places such as Yunnan exposed them to a “new form of state-engineered violence”: thousands faced rape, exploitation, disease and malnutrition. However, by using the example of Yunnan in his analysis, Berry shows that the Cultural Revolution caused not only powerful (centrifugal) traumas and pain but also “equally powerful feelings of nostalgia and passion”, for instance, through exoticism and the experience of sexual awakening (Berry 2010, pp. 253-260). Although not dislocated as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, Li has his own mixed memory of isolation as a soldier-farmer, including unfulfilled romantic feelings for a married girl that is abused by her husband. Li’s perspective on these and other past events is rather nostalgic than painful but, as Berry suggests, this is a way of creating a post-traumatic narrative which obscures but does not dissolve the encountered violence and its repercussions (Berry 2010, pp. 260, 267-268).

The third and final volume of A Chinese Life is very different from the previous ones. Young Li has become Old Li and more an observer of the changing lives of Chinese people since the Reform and Opening-up period, which started at the end of the 1970s. Once again, the reader encounters the theme of reconciliation. On the one hand, customs once labeled as “feudal” and “traditional” (burial practices, for example) are openly practiced again, also implying the reconstruction of religious sites that were destroyed and “turned into ruins” during the Cultural Revolution.[14] On the other hand, Li depicts people embracing the new possibilities of the post-Mao era without ever looking back. The Cultural Revolution now seems to be a distant and long-forgotten nightmare, but Reform and Opening-up are causing new problems that affect the lives of millions of Chinese. This volume lacks the previous narrow focus on Li’s life and he, now as Old Li, primarily becomes a mere observer of social change, including rural-urban migration, loss of job security, the opportunity to become wealthy, and pressure on children in education, as well as growing ideological or spiritual forlornness. Indirectly, the state is again the very source of pain and trauma. Moreover, while most people seem forced to look ahead, endeavoring to make their own luck, or at least to survive, direct state violence looms darkly in the background and overshadows the new age. Although detached from any personal pain, this is particularly clear in Li’s treatment of the Tian’anmen Square Massacre in 1989. He avoids pictures of protesting students on Beijing’s central square and their bloody removal by the military; instead, the event is presented to us as a dispute between Li and his French co-author Philip Autier (alias Ôtié). While the latter thinks it necessary to include this central event in the PRC’s recent history, Li is very uncomfortable, arguing that he was far away from Beijing and unaware of what was transpiring. Repeating a panel from the first part of the book where he reflects on the Cultural Revolution and his destructive actions as a Red Guard, Li explains his reasoning in an insightful monologue (fig. 5):

I know that might seem shocking, especially to Westerners whose primary discourse is fundamentally different. This is isn’t just me taking up some official line on my own. No—it’s a deeply rooted feeling many Chinese share, I think a feeling forged in elementary school where we learned of all the hardships and humiliations our country has had to suffer throughout the 20th century, invasion, plunder, “unequal treaties”, internal divisions, battles among warlords. A feeling that has only grown stronger as, over the years, I lived history myself, the Cultural Revolution, which I remember so clearly … the opposing movements, struggles, drought, famine, electricity shortages, penury … all my fellow countrymen who, year after year, fled their homeland. Those who know or can understand our misfortune must also be able to understand my profound desire for order and stability, in which I await our growth and rebirth.That said, everyone’s entitled to an opinion. Some might for instance, object that human rights come before the need to develop. I’ll leave this debate to the generations to come—those who won’t have known the indescribable torments we suffered for far too long. (Li 2012, p. 489)

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Li, ignoring the fact that, both then and now, the perspective conveyed in schools is strongly informed by the official line, explains the omission of what is probably the most powerful existing centrifugal trauma in the history of the PRC after the Cultural Revolution, with both centripetal violence and the self-made hardships of the past. The history of twentieth-century China is a history of suffering and, although this includes “mistakes” such as the Cultural Revolution, Li never blames the center or party-state. Within the narrative of humiliation and trauma, this would question the Chinese nation as a unit. Callahan observes that “fragmentation constitutes one of the few political crimes left in China; the worst epithet is not capitalist or counterrevolutionary, but splittist” (Callahan 2004, p. 209). As the history of collective suffering, the pain strengthens national identity by subordinating the resolve of individual traumas under the priority of national “order and stability”. While Li does not portray himself as facilitator, as in his other previously examined books, he provides a solution to resolve the collective centrifugal trauma: postponing, which is ironically opposed to his statements about the importance of remembering in Scars.

Consequently, A Chinese Life ends with an outlook to the bright future of the Chinese nation. In 2010, during the Chinese New Year celebration, Li prepares traditional dumplings while watching President Hu Jintao’s speech on television, as well as images of the Chinese nation’s most recent achievements, including the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese flag in space, a military parade, and international basketball star Yao Ming. Li also talks on the phone with his own son, now studying in London. Although the dark past is not entirely forgotten, Li seeks to reconcile past, present, and future, and overcome the centrifugal trauma to recreate the Chinese nation: “I am convinced that above all China needs order and stability to develop. The rest is secondary, in my view” (Li 2012, p. 489). While Li’s resolving for the centripetal trauma of the “century of humiliation” is remembrance, he opts for repressing or at least de-emphasizing the many individual centrifugal traumas of the post-1949 period and seeking reconciliation. Berry argues that centrifugal traumas and the failure of the national enable the creation of “new transnational imagination” (Berry 2010, p. 383). However, taking Li Kunwu’s novels as case in point, it appears that both the powerful humiliation discourse and nostalgia currently overlay this sort of trauma in contemporary China.

Trauma from Within and Without: Boxers and Saints

On the surface, the graphic novel Boxers and Saints similarly utilizes the background of the centripetal trauma caused by foreign violence inflicted upon the Chinese nation at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Gene Luen Yang’s two-volume graphic novel is the story of poor commoners involved in the anti-foreigner uprising of the “Militia United in Righteousness”, or “Boxers”, which took place in 1899-1901 in Northern China, and led to a brief war between the Qing Empire and the foreign Eight-Nation Alliance. The Boxer Movement or Rebellion, has a very prominent place in the Chinese collective memory today and is viewed both as the height of foreign pre-Second World War imperialism in China and as a proto-nationalist/proto-socialist movement (Cohen 1997). The ensuing Boxer Protocol, the official peace agreement between the Qing Empire and the foreign powers, is a major highlight within the “national humiliation” narrative. In China it is seen as an “unequal treaty”, since it included the loss of territories and sovereign rights, as well as large reparations. Boxers and Saints focuses on the centripetal trauma and haunting images caused by colonial violence, which enable the (re-)construction of Chinese cultural nationalism in opposition to a foreign “other”, here embodied by Christianity. In the book, however, it is mostly Chinese (Boxers) who commit violence against other Chinese (Christian converts).

Yang’s colorful fictional story is carefully researched and meant to be educational (Rozema 2013; Rausch 2015).[15] His focus is not on the diplomatic, political, or military dimensions, but is presented from the perspective of the common people and the cultural and social background that influences their motivations and actions. Yang prefers to present the Boxer Movement as an ambivalent event and creates complex characters that are neither solely good nor bad. As a member of an immigrant Chinese Catholic community in California, Yang is sympathetic to the Chinese Catholics affected by the Boxers. On the other hand, he also shows understanding for the current Chinese government, which views these Chinese Catholics as traitors to their country, and which declared their canonization by the Pope in 2000 as “an insulting reminder of colonial imperialism” (New York Times October 2, 2000). Yang’s perspective is two-fold; he shows understanding for the perspective of those who joined the Boxers, but also condemns them as “killers and terrorists“ who slaughtered innocent women and children (Rozema 2013, p. 6).

The main characters of Boxers and Saints, Little Bao and Four Girl (or Vibiana), have strong supernatural visions of legendary historical figures and encounter surreal spirits who urge them to take extreme actions. For both protagonists, these spiritual experiences are caused by individual traumas involving their families and the loss, or lack of, a father figure. Their individual traumas grow into representations of larger national and societal traumas which link the past (foreign imperialism and missionary activity), the current political crisis (Boxer Uprising), and a grim future (division of the Chinese nation and the extinction of Chinese culture). Through their visions, both characters experience or remember events and people that they hardly, or never, knew before. Rather, the sense of a threatened Chinese nation exists as “inherent latency within [their] experience[s]” (Caruth 1991, p. 187).

Initially, Bao is a happy village boy with a lively imagination, deeply immersed in the fanciful world of folk opera and theater. However, he is traumatized by the destruction of his village’s earth god totem, the symbol of their religious culture, and the incapacitation of his father, which were both caused by the violence of “foreigners”—Catholic missionaries, Chinese Christian converts, and British soldiers. Bao becomes the leader of a small brotherhood who seek to expel all foreigners from the country; eventually they call themselves the “Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist” (the Yihetuan or “Boxers”). To achieve their goal, the Boxers morph into powerful, supernatural, legendary figures such as Monkey King, Pig, or Guanyu, the god of war. Not only does Bao transfigure into Qin Shi, the historical first emperor of China, he also increasingly encounters him in nightmarish visions and dreams, in which the First Emperor aggressively urges him to rid China of all foreigners and “do all that is necessary to keep her as one” (Yang 2013, Boxers p. 158).

Qin Shi not only embodies Bao’s individual trauma, but also the national trauma–the beginning, or anticipated, political division and the disintegration of Chinese culture and religion. At the same time, Qin Shi stands for both China’s national and Bao’s individual renewal, melding into Bao’s body so that, by the end of Boxers, Bao no longer transforms into Qin Shi, but into “a new god for a new dynasty [of fire]” (Yang 2013, Boxers p. 293). However, as more and more people die (he learns about his father’s death after reaching Beijing) both Bao’s physical condition and the national situation deteriorate. The actions of Bao and the Boxers become acts of self-destruction and increasingly threaten, rather than rescue, the cultural nation. To gain access to the foreign legations in Beijing and kill all foreigners and Chinese converts there, Bao and the Boxers burn the Confucian Hanlin Academy library, an institution close to being a national library. Justifying his action, Bao says that he did it for “China”. Mei-wen, a female Boxer (or “Red Lantern”), who is trying to save the library’s books, retorts, “For China? What is China but a people and their stories? ... And now you’ve burned them both to ash” (Yang 2013, Boxers pp. 312-313). From the perspective of the Boxers, the foreigners and their faith are responsible for the disintegration of China, but their own gory and wreckful actions cause an increasingly growing dot of centrifugal trauma in the spiral of centripetal violence from outside (to return to the above-mentioned image of the yin yang symbol).

Similarly to Bao, Four Girl has dreams and visions of Joan of Arc, a French national heroine and Roman Catholic saint, who represents both national and female empowerment. As in the case of Emperor Qin Shi, there is no historical evidence that Joan played any significant role in the Boxer Uprising. She was only canonized in 1920 (having been beatified in 1909), after the Boxer Uprising, but she became an important symbol for feminism in China in the early twentieth century. Four Girl identifies strongly with Joan, who originally was a peasant girl like herself and who left home to join the fight against English troops invading her country. In her visions, Four Girl witnesses Joan’s success, which ends with the French king’s coronation and Joan’s words: “Our nation is made whole again” (Yang 2013, Saints p. 115). But, unlike Qin Shi in Bao’s case, Joan does not urge Four Girl to fight to reunite China; instead, she vaguely states that her “work” lies somewhere else (Yang 2013, Saints p. 108). In the end, before Bao kills her, Four Girl has one final vision of Joan burning at the stake and dying for her cause. Four Girl wishes to know if she should defer to Bao, renounce the “foreign faith”, and join the Boxers to “make my country whole again” (Yang 2013, Saints p. 153). However, Jesus Christ appears and tells her to be mindful of others. Four Girl finally finds her true Christian faith. She teaches an unwilling Bao the Lord’s Prayer, something which later saves his life.

Both Qin Shi and Joan of Arc represent the wholeness and unification of the nation. Gene Luen Yang, the author of Boxers and Saints, emphasizes that China’s First Emperor particularly represents the unity of China (Rausch 2015), which is a major recurring theme in Chinese historiography. For Bao and the Boxer brothers, Qin Shi symbolizes resistance against the threat and violence of outsiders (both foreigners and Chinese converts), establishing a boundary to the outside and contributing to the epistemological construction of the Chinese nation. However, Qin Shi also stands for a strong, so-called legalist state[16] that seeks to eradicate everything and everyone that does not fit the narrative of a homogenous Chinese nation. The violence committed in the name of Qin Shi and the “raison” (national interest as well as reason of state) he embodies, is supposed to consolidate China as a nation, but, at the same time, the question of who and what is excluded or omitted arises. As in the case of Li Kunwu’s novels, the historical master narrative of the nation and its traumas tends to neglect or even eradicate deviating or undermining experiences of individuals. On the other hand, rather than being an outside threat to China or source of pain and violence the figure of the catholic warrior Joan represents an alternative conceptualization of the nation. Yet, Joan, who defends her nation and later becomes an icon of French nationalism, and Four Girl both die as national traitors. However, unlike the hanjian or collaborators in Scars, their role is not depicted so unequivocal and the reader is sympathetic to them.

Neither Bao, Four Girl, the elite, nor any common villager at the time really had a clearly defined and essentialist sense of China as a “nation”. Until 1912, what is today understood as China, with a centuries-old culture, was actually a patchwork of territorially, ethnically, culturally, and politically diverse empires. Even state Confucian high culture, which changed its doctrines substantially over time, established rather soft boundaries against outside “barbarians” and tended to be universal and inclusive.[17] The idea of China as a nation is a concept that emerged only in the late nineteenth century. The Boxers in Boxers and Saints have a vague sense of a shared popular culture that constitutes the core of the Chinese nation and is challenged by a foreign threat. As Yang himself highlights, “pop culture isn’t frivolous; it’s empowering. When people feel powerless, they look for power in the stories that surround them” (Rozema 2013, p. 8). National identity does not derive from some lofty high culture or abstract notion, but from popular culture. The reconstruction of violence in Boxers and Saints becomes part of a historical narrative focusing on and constructing the cultural nation; nevertheless, the atrocities committed by Chinese against Chinese subvert the idea of national unity. Moreover, the brutal and xenophobic nationalism represented by Emperor Qin Shi consumes and traumatizes those who follow him and hardly seems sustainable. Besides the obvious centripetal trauma of the Boxer War, Boxers and Saints in equal measure depicts the pain brought upon Chinese by other Chinese. However, this inter-Chinese violence becomes indistinct, particularly within the humiliation discourse, and might even represent more of an unresolved trauma than the foreign intrusion. Arguably, centrifugal trauma is as much a part of Chinese national identity construction as colonial violence even if the latter is officially highlighted in contemporary China.

Finally, Yang’s own “ambivalence” (Rozema 2013, p. 5) toward the Boxers is mirrored in the novel through the framework of trauma and nationalism. Besides the notion of a humiliated nation that needs salvation, Boxers and Saints offers counter narratives, “a more plural notion of Chineseness” and “alternative nationalisms” (Callahan 2004, p. 213, see also the essay by Gao 2013), which can help to overcome the trauma narrative of national humiliation. Firstly, Christianity serves as major point of reference, defining identity and history for a substantial group of Chinese people (or people of Chinese origin). Secondly and masterfully expressed through parallel panels in Volume 1 (Boxers, p. 282) and Volume 2 (Saints, p. 158), the story points to the similarity between Christianity and Buddhism (fig. 6 and fig. 7). Similarly to Jesus Christ in the West, the Chinese “Goddess of Mercy” Guanyin represents a peaceful “Chinese” culture. Embedded in the story of Boxers and Saints, the panels serve as a countermotion for both the centripetal and centrifugal trauma narratives, showing that the encounter of “inside” and “outside” does not necessarily have to end in pain and violence. Thirdly, albeit not treated in detail here for the reasons of space, Joan and Four Girl are women and therefore represent a marginalized group that is still mostly ignored in the master narrative of nation and national trauma. Fourthly, the Confucian striving for knowledge – represented by the Hanlin Academy library – and benevolence represents another alternative for the Chinese cultural nation that is different from the ferociousness and inter-Chinese self-destruction of Emperor Qin Shi. The passing reference to Confucianism, which is perhaps more obvious to a Chinese readership, as well as the eventual failure of Qin Shi hint to the fact that a Chinese state – even if defined by a national trauma narrative – does not have to be so relentless, rigid, and eventually harmful to its citizens.

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Conclusion: What you leave behind

Scars powerfully illustrates how the traumas of modern Chinese history are inscribed in both the body of an individual and the minds of actual victims and later generations. Along with ruins, maimed bodies represent the most powerful reminder of past colonial violence, and humiliation at the hands of foreigners. The painful experiences of individuals – from Li Kunwu’s father, father-in-law, and nanny, to late Qing railway workers and Boxers – coalesce and, by spreading or “centrifuging“ through the family, produce a larger shared narrative of suffering. Although the actual Chinese audience of either Li Kunwu’s autobiographic, historical graphic novels or Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints is limited, they are influenced by and reproduce the historical master narrative of national humiliation. Thus, they contribute to the construction of the nation and the shaping of popular memory through a history of pain and trauma.

While violence between Chinese people plays a fairly prominent part in the graphic novels discussed in this paper, for the most part the texts emphasize, at least on the surface, centripetal violence from outside China over centrifugal violence by the Chinese center or state. However, they are also highly complex. While Yang’s masterpiece is intentionally ambiguous, Li’s books only reveal the full scope of possibility in memorizing and narrating history when taken together with, and compared to, Boxers and Saints. They do not simply deal with different kinds of trauma but, in the context of the depicted trajectory from tradition to modernity, the traumas presuppose each other—violence from abroad triggers violence from within. Yet, the violent actions of foreigners against Chinese people are not taken as an excuse or externalized explanation for inter-Chinese violence. Rather, the latter is a consequence of constructing both a modern state and a modern national identity through the narrative of national humiliation. Through the juxtaposition of these graphic novels, we are in better position to scrutinize one-dimensional national master narratives – without renouncing the relevance of individual and collective traumas for identity construction.

Interestingly, while both Li and Yang more or less obviously (and probably, more or less consciously) repeat the narratives of the eventual rise of the Chinese nation, they also offer ways to overcome the trauma and humiliation discourse. Despite the fact that certain traumas are suppressed, particularly in A Chinese Life, Li Kunwu advocates both actively dealing with the past, including through visually enhanced revelation and propagation, and looking forward—preferring to live a “more comfortable lifestyle” than dwelling on the past.[18] Nevertheless, perhaps an even more powerful technique to move “beyond the national humiliation/national salvation dynamic” (Callahan 2004, p. 212) is to accept the notion of plural Chinese identities offered in Boxers and Saints.


[1]The foreword was written in French by Victor Battaggion. All translations are my own. I would like to thank the students of my course on history comics in China for many great ideas and discussions concerning the graphic novels treated in this paper. I also thank the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

[2]On the history of comic books in China, including the genre of history comics, see Farquhar (1999), Spakowski (2000), and Seifert (2008). The graphic novels discussed in this paper are among the first comic books, by authors with a Chinese origin, that deal with twentieth-century Chinese history without a purely socialist, propagandist perspective. Unlike previous comics, they do not have the simple purpose of entertainment, propaganda, or moral education, but tell complex stories of complex characters. There are a few recent Chinese-authored history “graphic novels” dealing with the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, The Battle of Shanghai by Lü Bo, lacks both a plot and characters, and merely documents the first stage of Japanese troops landing in Eastern China and the conquering of Shanghai. See also Nankin by Nicolas Meylaender and Kai Zong, as well as Nanjing–The Burning City by Ethan Young, who has an American Chinese background.

[3]It is far beyond the scope of this paper to give a full-scale overview over Chinese literary history after the Cultural Revolution, which not only includes “scar literature” (after the 1978 short story “Scar” by Lu Xinhua) but also related genres such as “educated youth literature”, “reform literature” and “search-for roots” literature. See Berry 2011, p. 255-256.

[4]The period post-1949 is termed “contemporary modern history” or xiandai lishi. On Chinese historical theory, see Zhang (2015).

[5]As source of the photographs, Pierre Marbotte’s book “Un chemin de fer au Yunnan” is cited.

[6]Li first learns of the ill treatment of Chinese railway workers by foreigners from a descendant of a worker (Li 2013, p. 65).

[7]Although perceived as barbaric, oriental, and backward, Europeans in China often adopted and more frivolously used the official Qing ways of punishment because they felt that Chinese people deserved nothing else. See Brook et al. (2008). The depiction of late imperial state and society as violent is also strong in another graphic novel by Li Kunwu on foot-binding (Les pieds bandés or Chunxiu, 2013b). Growing up in the last days of the Qing Empire, the main character Chunxiu is one of the last girls to have her feet bound. At the instigation of her mother, in a painful and gradual process, Chunxiu’s feet are broken and laced up, to look tiny and delicate. Bound feet were covered by beautifully embroidered shoes and, together with the particular gait that bound feet caused, were considered “beautiful”, “erotic”, and supposedly increased the chances finding a well-off husband. Although officially forbidden, the practice was tolerated by the state. At the end of the imperial system in 1911, foot-binding came under attack more than ever before, as a sign of feudal backwardness and barbaric traditions. Chunxiu does not find a husband and, after a life of hardship and suffering, she becomes Li Kunwu’s nanny.

[8]The official Chinese Nationalist government already introduced and applied the term during the war. See Xia (2013).

[9]While the original French version appeared between 2009 and 2011, the Chinese version was only released in 2013. Even before the book was published in Chinese it was translated to Spanish, German, and Dutch. The English version was published in 2012.

[10]Both negative- and positive-connoted comparisons between Mao Zedong and Emperor Qin Shi are not uncommon in and outside China, see Sullivan (1993); Buchert (2008).

[11]Li’s biological father only dies at the end of the second volume, entitled The Time of the Party.

[12]See for instance Li (2013) p. 166 and p. 260, where the new Party leadership blames the infamous Gang of Four, including Mao’s wife Jiang Qing but not Mao himself, for everything that happened during the Cultural Revolution.

[13]Li also omits his participation in the China-Vietnam border war in 1979, which is only briefly mentioned in Railway Above the Clouds (Li 2013, p. 47). However, this has rather more to do with an officially unresolved history than with his personal bad experience. The war was a total failure for the Chinese side and would have tarnished the Reform and Opening-up, and reconciliation narrative. For other literary and cinematic recollections of the Cultural Revolution in Yunnan, see also Berry (2011), chapter 4.

[14]In the first volume of the book, the traditional past is embodied by Li’s childhood nanny, whose stories and bound feet mark her as a product of an inhumane and obsolete society full of myth, romance, and superstition. Li’s father strongly reprimands her for telling “feudalist stories” of moon goddesses at a time when the Soviet socialist brothers launch satellites and scientific socialist modernity is about to commence. (Li 2012, p. 47).

[15]Visually, the first volume Boxers was influenced by American superhero comics, epic Chinese war movies, and Chinese opera, which also influenced the first Chinese comic books in the 1920s and 1930s. The second volume Saints is supposed to be much “humbler”, according to Yang (Rausch 2015, at 13:10 minutes). Boxers and Saints has not yet been published in Chinese and Gene Luen Yang, a Chinese American, rather aims at educating Americans about Chinese history.

[16]Legalisms is an early Chinese school of thought that emphasizes strict discipline, order, and stability in government and society, and that mostly ignores the moral and ritual questions prominent in Confucianism. Its essential ideas still have an influence on contemporary politics, administration, and the legal system in China.

[17]On the themes of nation, central-state, and identity, see Duara (1995); Spakowski (1999); and Matten (2012).

[18]The quote is attributed to the former PRC president Jiang Zemin, see Callahan (2004), p. 215.

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