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Whether in crowded urban streets or in villages, a common sight throughout the 20th century was that of Chinese children in groups, reading palm-sized picture books. Each picture came with a description advancing the plot, usually adapted from a famous classical novel like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Outlaws of the Marsh. The immersive combination of gripping stories with vivid and dynamic illustration, known as lianhuanhua or “linked pictures,” was a well-loved staple amog Chinese youth.


The Origins of Lianhuanhua

Though mostly a product of modern printing and mass literacy, the origins of lianhuanhua can be traced back to ancient China. Stone engravings used in memorial services during the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) and Dunhuang murals of the Northern Wei dynasty (386 – 534) used linked pictures to depict the stories or biographies of certain people. On lacquered coffins at Mawangdui near Changsha in Hunan province, containing the tombs of three people from the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD), are serial pictures that illustrate stories about “a man devouring a snake” and “the goat that rode a crane in flight.” Most of the Dunhuang murals recount stories about the previous incarnations of the Buddha, when he experienced life as both humans and animals. Murals at the Mogao Caves drawn in the Northern Wei Dynasty depict Buddhist stories such as the “Deer of Nine Hues” or “King Shipi Offers His Flesh to Save a Pigeon.” Handscroll paintings in the Six Dynasties period (AD 222 – 589) also display features of serial pictures. These include paintings by Gu Kaizhi (344 – 406), “Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies” and “Nymph of the Luo River.” The repeated presence of figures on the handscrolls to illustrate the plot and simple captions placed beside the paintings are similar to the format found in lianhuanhua.

The spread of Buddhism during the Sui (581 – 618) and Tang (618 – 907) dynasties was aided by the appearance of silk streamers decorated with paintings and captions promoting the religion. They would often be placed upright at the sites where Buddhist monks practiced cultivation or conducted rituals. This was accompanied by a popular literary style called bianwen, or transformation texts, that grew out of the Buddhist teachings. Oral stories were written down and each paragraph illustrated using a painting of a Buddhist story or legend.

Frontispiece of the Chinese Diamond Sūtra, 868 AD

Proto-lianhuanhua was greatly aided by the introduction of advanced printing techniques in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). Woodblock printing, a method of printing on cloth and paper that was invented in the Sui and Tang dynasties and reached its maturity in the Song dynasty, made it easier to print pictures and add captions to them. The re-publication of the Biographies of Exemplary Women in 1063, originally compiled by Han Dynasty scholar Liu Xing, was the earliest book with linked pictures, and can be considered the earliest lianhuanhua.

Linked pictures were commonly used in the publication of novels and plays in the Ming (1368 –1644) and Qing (1644 – 1912) dynasties. Some of them featured dozens or even over one-hundred illustrations at the beginning of the text. These popular media laid the foundations for modern lianhuanhua.

Modern Lianhuanhua

Before the end of the Qing Dynasty, most literature was produced using woodblock printing. Words and pictures were carved out on wood to make a printing plate, and ink was then spread across the block to print the text. Ceramic movable type, the earliest movable type known, was invented during the Northern Song Dynasty (960 – 1127). Movable type printing is a system of printing that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document (usually individual letters or punctuation) by making up single tablets in lines. The tablets can be separated after use and rearranged for another printing. Moveable type was costly and was limited to specialized use. But in the 19th century, lithographic printing introduced to China from the West surmounted many of these difficulties. Lithography used images drawn in wax or other oily substances applied to stone as a medium to transfer ink to the sheet. This facilitated the creation and dissemination of popular media, including lianhuanhua.

In 1884, China’s first modern newspaper, the Shen Bao or Shanghai News, published its Dianshizhai Pictorial (點石齋畫報), a supplement that focused on political reporting. Owing to the limited availability of photography, the pictorials recorded current events, street scenes, traditional activities, and advances in industrial machinery. Between 1884 and 1898, Dianshizhai Pictorial published over 4,000 illustrations.

In 1899, the Wenyi Book Company in Shanghai published its lithograph, Complete Illustrations of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It was the first pictorial book to depict a fully literary classic. Lianhuanhua came into its own in the 1920s and 1930s. The Shanghai World Book Company, which between 1925 and 1929 published adaptations of classic works like the Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, Investiture of the Gods, and the Story of Yue Fei, coined the term “lianhuan tuhua.” By the 1950s, the term was condensed to “lianhuanhua.” Besides classical novels and legends, lianhuanhua also depicted works of theater and opera, with the background illustrations inspired by the stage sets. The most famous works among them were Mr. Wang by Ye Qianyu, and Zhang Leping’s Wanderings of Sanmao.

Lianhuanhua in Decline

Lianhuanhua helped promote historical epics and the moral values of benevolence, justice, loyalty, and honesty. It was credited with popularizing and passing down traditional culture. After 1949, when the communists seized power in China, lianhuanhua became a powerful instrument of propaganda that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used to promote destructive and deadly political campaigns like the Land Reform campaign and the Great Leap Forward. It was also used during the Korean War to demonize the United States.

The 1950s and 1960s marked the last great boom of lianhuanhua. Most prestigious in the field were artists Shen Manyun, Zhao Hongben, Qian Xiaodai, and Chen Guangyi, “the four great cartoonists.” While Zhao Sandao, Bi Ruhua, Yan Meihua, and Xu Hongda were known as, “the four lesser cartoonists.” A common industry saying, “Gu in the south, Liu in the north,” referred to lianhuanhua artists Gu Bingxin from Shanghai and Liu Jiyou of Tianjin.

Covers from Lianhuanhua Communist propaganda

Though often stained by the demands of communist propaganda, the lianhuanhua works centered around traditional themes, like Zhao Hongben’s and Qian Xiaodai’s depiction of “Monkey King Thrice Defeats the White Bone Demon,” and Wang Shuhui’s rendition of the Yuan Dynasty romance, The Story of the Western Wing. In 1957, the Shanghai People’s Art Publishing House produced the longest of the lianhuanhua — a 60-volume adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (the original novel contained 120 chapters) featuring over 7,000 illustrations.

The Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) all but devastated the art of lianhuanhua, which was completely subordinated to the communist fanaticism of the movement. Making a complete break with the literary classics and traditional tales, “Cultural Revolution lianhuanhua” instead adapted the contents of the revolutionary Eight Model Operas approved by Jiang Qing, the domineering wife of communist leader Mao Zedong.

Following the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution, the popularization of TV dramas and other forms of communication supplanted traditional media. Lianhuanhua in particular, having sunk to its lowest point during the Cultural Revolution, was unable to make a comeback as China imported Western and Japanese cartoons and comics. Today, lianhuanhua is something of a rarity, and is seen mostly in museums.

Even the American film ‘Star Wars’ has been made into Lianhuahua!

Forms of Lianhuanhua

Lianhuanhua artists excelled at fusing a variety of techniques into their creations, giving their art great diversity and expressive potential. Most lianhuanhua were rendered in line drawings, sketches, and paintings.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, popular novels often included portraits of the main characters at the beginning of the novels and sometimes at the start of each chapter. Learning from traditional fine-lined pen portraits, lianhuanhua used line drawing technique to portray figures, scenes and objects. This was the most common form of lianhuanhua. Writing brushes were employed in line drawing of early lianhuanhua, such as those rendering, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, “Pangu Separates Heaven and Earth,” and “Legends of the Heroes on Mount Liang.”

Other lianhuanhua were composed using fine brushwork. Representative works include the Story of the Western Wing by Wang Shuhui, as well as “Wu Song Fights the Tiger,” and “The Monkey King,” by Liu Jiyou.