Cartoon Shows Political Shift

An updated child hero now battles 'evils of the time' in China.

Sanmao, one of the most famous fictional characters in China today.

A politically correct Chinese cartoon which once depicted the struggles of a young boy in pre-1949 Shanghai has been reinvented as an icon for China's newly rich children: a plane-flying environmental warrior.

Sanmao, once drawn by comic artist Zhang Leping as a ragged street child who picked up cigarette butts to eke out a meager living in "old China," has been reinvented as a fantasy hero.

Zhang, who died in 1992, is crediting with playing a key role in the development of modern comic books in China, but Sanmao is his best-known character, on a level with Herge's Tintin in the West.

In the third series of the cartoon aired by the state-run broadcaster CCTV, Sanmao and his friends travel to a fantasy world, where they must battle demons to prevent them from turning the earth into a desert.

At some point in the tale, the tufty-headed Sanmao, whose name means "three hairs" or "30 cents," has learned how to fly a plane.

"The original 'Travels of Sanmao' comic was an attempt to show the travails of the lowest levels of society," said Chinese author Zheng Yi.

"It portrayed them as down and out, utterly down on their luck, in a heartless society where people could freeze to death outside the gates of the rich, who were eating wonderful food and drinking wine."

Childhood experience

In his comic, Zhang, who was born in 1910, drew on his own childhood experience, which was blighted by extreme poverty and war.

"If Zhang Leping were alive today, then he would probably produce something even stronger, even better," said a former editor in China's state-run media, surnamed Liang.

"Because everyone knows that this is also the reality today ... if he depicted some of the stories we hear today, they would be even more extreme than those of Sanmao," he said.

Analysts say the move is also an attempt to make sure the cartoon continues past the centenary of Zhang's birth in 1910, which is being celebrated in China this year.

Chinese author Zheng Yi said Sanmao is evolving to address new concerns in Chinese society.

"Environmental awareness is constantly on the rise among Chinese people," Zheng said. "Obviously to highlight this topic is good for kids."

"The change in character is in keeping with the change in the spirit of the times ... The response has been extremely positive."

'Evils of the time'

Liang agreed. "By updating, Sanmao can continue to exist, but he can also address some of the evils of the time," he said.

"The cartoon contains many of Zhang Leping's own experiences, and they had a huge propaganda use at the time," he said.

"It was about the manifold evils of the old society ... that the people had no way of making a living."

"Nowadays, everything is about money, and CCTV cares about money, too," Liang added.

"Sanmao has had a huge influence on several generations now, partly because of the quality of the drawings, but also because the dialogue is so realistic."

Zhang began his career as part of the anti-Japanese comic propaganda team, creating Sanmao in the 1930s as an enduring image of the hardships of the time.

According to Zheng: "Zhang Leping doesn't tell us about how hard life was for those children. He shows it to us through the three strands of hair growing on Sanmao's head."

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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