Battle of the books
 Last month, when I went to interview He Youzhi, a master artist of lianhuanhua (Chinese picture-story) books, in Shanghai, his first reaction was, "You still care about lianhuanhua? They are not an 'in' thing anymore." Lianhuanhua was an extremely popular art form in China in the heady years after 1949 when New China was founded.
  For Chinese adults older than 35, the mere mention of lianhuanhua books, or xiaorenshu (picture books for children), is likely to generate feelings of nostalgia.
  This is because the picture-story books were their major source of stimulation and entertainment when they were children.
  However, interest in lianhuanhua began to wane and interest in the genre reached its nadir in about 1985 and has never regained its former popularity.
  Lianhuanhua books, usually no larger than the palm of an adult's hand, consist of series of pictures with brief captions underneath.
  The genre has strong Chinese characteristics. It first took form in Shanghai in the 1920s, and for decades, especially just after 1949, lianhuanhua artists successfully developed a new, distinctly Chinese, picture-story style.
  They drew on both traditional Chinese paintings and folk arts and Western fine arts to retell traditional Chinese and foreign literary masterpieces through pictures.
  Some signature works by lianhuanhua artists were created employing mainly heavily coloured, finely detailed gongbi techniques, the most famous one being Wang Shuhui's "Stories of the West Chamber."
  Some applied free-style ink and colour painting techniques in their lianhuanhua works, such as Dai Dunbang in his "Emperor Xuanzong and His Concubine Yang Yuhuan," Zhao Hongben and Qian Xiaodai in their "Monkey King Subdue the White Bone Demon Three Times," and Cheng Shifa in his "Tales of Ah Q."
  Most lianhuanhua stories use a mix of skills, techniques and approaches from Western art such as sketching, print-making, oil painting, pastels and watercolours, as well as traditional Chinese painting, folk art and even calligraphic skills. Some typical examples are Hua Sanchuan's best-selling "Gray-haired Girl," He Youzhi's best-selling and prize-winning "Great Changes in a Hillside Town," Zhang Leping's "San Mao the Waif," and Han Heping and Ding Binzeng's "Railway Guerrilla Forces."
  Four stages
  The development of lianhuanhua in New China has been divided by Chinese art researchers into four stages: 1949-66 (Golden Age), 1966-76 ("Cultural Revolution"), 1976-85 (Resurgence), and 1985 to the present (Decline).
  During the first 17 years following the founding of the People's Republic of China, several State-owned lianhuanhua studios were established in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu and Guangzhou, operated under the guidance of the Beijing-based People's Fine Arts Publishing House.
  In the 1960s, State-level awards for lianhuanhua artists and books were established by the Ministry of Culture and the Chinese Artists Association, impelling both the creation and consumption of lianhuanhua books to a new high.
  During the "cultural revolution", there was an increase in the number of lianhuanhua books, which were well-crafted by senior artists, but mainly geared towards political ends, no longer reflecting real pictures of the country's social life.
  During the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a huge demand for knowledge and information among average Chinese who still had fresh, nightmarish memories of the stifling and destructive period of the "cultural revolution" and for whom the new catch phrase was "Revitalizing the Nation through Knowledge."
  During this era of "resurgence," the best-selling picture-story books enjoyed an enormous readership, recalled Duan Xingcheng, a lianhuanhua collector and researcher.
  In 1982, more than 860 million volumes of lianhuanhua books were published in more than 2,100 categories, setting the highest record for publication of books of this kind since 1949.
  In the Lianhuanhua Drawing Competition in 1981, 110 national prizes were awarded, and in a second competition in 1986, 123 awards were presented. The works so honoured included "The White Light," "Scar," "Doctor Norman Bethune in China," "Gray-haired Girl," "Fifteen Strings of Coins," and "Mid-life Crisis."
  But for the most part, the "revival" of lianhuanhua in the 1980s was mostly a wave of reprints of previously popular works.
  For example, the "Railway Guerrilla Forces" created by Han Heping and Ding Binzeng was reprinted and sold about 30,000,000 copies.
  The reprinted series "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," sold at least 100,000,000 sets, according to Meng Lin, a senior collector of vintage lianhuanhua stories.
  This resurgence of reprints brought sales of lianhuanhua to a peak in the mid-1980s.
  In 1985 alone, a total of 800,000,000 copies of lianhuanhua were reportedly sold.
  Declining and dying?
  But the year of 1985 turned out to be a watershed year for lianhuanhua.
  It was in this year that foreign comic strip books elbowed their way into the Chinese market.
  Around about the same time, lianhuanhua books featuring kung fu fights and swordsmen appeared.
  But they were nothing more than pot-boilers with rough drawings, and sales proved to be a disaster.
  From that time on, lianhuanhua stories, have been slowly disappearing from the market.
  After 1985, many publishing houses lost their interest and patience in producing lianhuanhua books, which are usually time-consuming and now bring low economic returns.
  The deteriorating visual and artistic quality of lianhuanhua books of today has given a deadly blow to the genre. Chinese readers have become disillusioned and have simply abandoned the form, said Luo Xixian, art director of the Daketang Lianhuanhua Studio.
  "Many people are too anxious to make profits, so turn away from lianhuanhua work, a phenomenon veteran lianhuanha artists feel sad about," said Luo.
  It is reported that, in the late 1950s, veteran artist He Youzhi spent four years in drawing his best-selling picture story entitled "Great Changes in a Hillside Town," and it took Han Heping seven years to complete the drawings for his best-selling and prize-winning "Railway Guerrilla Forces."
  And a large number of lianhuanhua artists have left the profession and become traditional Chinese ink painters.
  Few are willing to spend years to perfect a high-quality picture-story as the older generations of artists did in the 1950s and 60s.
  The rate of remuneration for lianhuanhua artists has not changed much since the 1960s, while consumer prices have risen sharply, the artists complain.
  "Times are changing. The picture-story book enjoyed a wide market at a time where there was shortage of information and entertainment for most Chinese people," said Ye Xiong, a middle-aged prize-winning picture-story creator.
  "The decline of traditional, frame-by-frame, illustrated picture stories is unavoidable. There are piles of popular Japanese and South Korean cartoon comics flooding the Chinese market. Their books cater much more effectively to the tastes of today's young readers."
  Children now like foreign TV cartoons and related comic books better than old-fashioned Chinese picture-stories. The cartoons from Belgium, France, Japan and the United States with fine drawing and interesting plots are really attractive and the content can be easily understood, said Ye.
  "Actually, TV dramas, newspapers, radio shows, video games, the Internet, oil paintings, Chinese ink paintings, and so on, all vie for audiences, so it is just natural that older pop art forms like lianhuanhua books are going downhill. Anyway, having more choices in life is a good thing for people," said Ye.
  "Lianhuanhua is an aging art form in China and lags behind the times. The comic book, an imported pop art form, has taken over its position and won the hearts of young audiences.
  "Inevitably, it seems, lianhuanhua as an art form is vanishing like a rare language. Yes, some people may still love it, but it is just like a 'living fossil,'" said veteran artist Yu Xiaofu.
  Although a few Chinese picture-story books are still coming out, they do not sell well because of their high price and disappointing quality.
  This scares away the already shrinking readership in an age packed with attractive, thrilling electronic games, colourful, brisk and vivid comic books, heart-throb pop idols from soap operas and Hollywood blockbusters.
  The fast-paced lifestyles, increasing peer pressure and academic burdens upon young readers also make inroads into the readership for lianhuanhua books in China, book market analysts say.
  Future development
  In the late 1990s, collecting lianhuanhua books became a bit of a fad, but only among readers aged between 30 and 50 to whom the little picture books are a reminder of their childhood joys.
  For some other collectors, buying old picture-story books at old book fairs or at lianhuanhua auctions is but another form of investment.
  Speaking of the reasons for the decline of lianhuanhua, veteran lianhuanhua artist He Youzhi said that a considerable number of the prize-winning and best-selling picture-story books in Chinese are adapted from classical or best-selling novels, and that this no doubt is a fatal weakness.
  In contrast, the comic books from Western countries are mostly original hand-drawn works, with no connections to history or literature.
By Zhong Hongming
©Copyright 2002, all rights reserved.