Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Many if not most countries have their share of long-running pop culture icons. They might wax and wane in popularity, but they always seem to stick around, often reaching a point where they remain alive, in one form or another, partially because of tradition. Canada has Hockey Night in Canada. The United Kingdom has Doctor Who. The United States has Bugs Bunny, Superman, Batman, Saturday Night Live, a number of others. Europe in general has Eurovision. For much of the Latin world, it's Sabado Gigante. Japan has, among others, Ultraman, Gundam and Lupin III.

China has Sanmao.

Sanmao ("three hairs", as that's all he's got) is an unusual kind of pop culture icon. He spent his formative years as a homeless orphan, barely able to feed himself. But through the power of reader sympathy, Sanmao has lasted as long as anyone, being a part of the Chinese pop culture universe since 1935.

Shanghai-based Zhang Leping in part was drawing what he knew; he grew up poor as well. He got into drawing after being encouraged to go to art school, found he liked making comics, and came up with Sanmao. It wasn't total sympathy that got Sanmao over- humor helped- but what really did it was when Japan invaded China in 1937 in the Second Sino-Japanese War, which would ultimately be rolled into World War 2. (If you need your memory refreshed, the Rape of Nanking also happened in 1937. It wasn't the start of the conflict, but it wasn't long after it.) Zhang was recruited by the government to draw up propaganda posters for the war effort, and he made Sanmao part of some of them.

At the close of the war in 1945, Zhang went back to working on Sanmao, starting by telling the story of Sanmao's war experience in a series called 'Sanmao Joins The Army'. The humor began to fade, though there was still a place for it in the same way there was a place for army humor in Bugs Bunny wartime cartoons. By the end of it, he wasn't just a pop-culture hit, he was a Chinese hero. But at the end of the series, when Sanmao leaves the army, he is faced with a choice: go back to the country where he came from, or move to Shanghai. In both directions, there were graves everywhere.

He chose Shanghai. At this point, things turned dark. According to the linked article from The World of Chinese...

“On one snowy night, Zhang Leping was walking home from the office,” Hong Peiqi, Zhang’s publisher, remembered. “He passed by an alleyway and saw three street children huddled together. For shirts, they wore used grain sacks. For pants they had old, threadbare trousers. They warmed themselves around a fire. The next morning, when Zhang passed the same alley, he found two of these orphans had died overnight.”

This kind of thing was not uncommon. “Was there really such a child as Sanmao?” Zhang reflected later. “Homeless children were in every street and alley you walked along in Shanghai.”

Zhang incorporated it into Sanmao's next series, 'The Wanderings of Sanmao'. Sanmao would survive, of course, but not without immense difficulty and hardship, in a postwar city filled with them. Now Sanmao wasn't just a Chinese hero. Now he was a Chinese hero that needed love and support.

He had plenty of places from which to receive it. Sanmao has been an easy comic to follow, because it doesn't use words if at all possible. The aim with Zhang was always ease of reading by anyone, even an illiterate, which has been an important factor if it was actually to be seen by China's impoverished. As Zhang's son, Zhang Rongrong, explained to China Daily in 2005, upon Sanmao's 70th anniversary, "Sanmao was created for all the people, including the poor and the illiterate... Every time when my father finished a cartoon, he always showed it to us first to see whether we could understand - if we couldn't, he would restart."

Zhang took heat from the Central Daily, a paper run by the ruling Nationalist government, but that was rather the point. Zhang was going after them for corruption and for creating too much of a rich-poor gap in Chinese society. Sanmao wasn't really for them anyway, and besides, Zhang's hometown was attacked by the Nationalists in 1927. Sanmao was for the masses. Sanmao was, it would happen, for the Communists. And when the Communists took power, Sanmao took part in the celebration.

Given his 1935 start, you may have asked, how did Sanmao survive, oh, say, the Cultural Revolution where so much of Chinese culture did not? That's why. Sanmao may have been an impoverished orphan, but he knew the right people to get in with. Sanmao would never be quite such a picture of desperation again, and for his fans, it came as a joyous relief. He'd suffered enough. Today, Sanmao is healthy, well-educated, and most importantly, no longer homeless. But to his fans, he will always be the poor, starving orphan boy.

Zhang died in 1991, but as in so many comics in America, the mantle was passed on, specifically to Zhang Rongrong, who has put his energies into placing Sanmao into other forms of media.

Here's a sample of Sanmao comics. You'll note little numbers in the bottom-right corner of each panel; that's the order they're meant to be read in. Left to right, top to bottom, just like you'd expect.

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