Zhang Xinxin and Little People’s Books

We’re very grateful to Zhang Xinxin 张辛欣 for allowing us to use her wonderful image for our header. This scene of children reading little people’s books is from her graphic novel Paihuazi and the Clever Girl 《拍花子和俏女孩》 about her childhood and teenage years in Beijing. While all the other children were scared that Paihuazi might come and steal them away, Zhang Xinxin longed to find him and escape to another life. 

Little people’s books (xiaorenshu 小人书, also known as lianhuanhua 连环画) are small, illustrated books with soft paper covers, that fit comfortably in little hands. [Minjie Chen and Nick Stember have written more about them]

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The format was created almost a hundred years ago, and several generations now have happy memories of these books, the bookstores and street-stalls, and the bookstore owners. Zhang Xinxin describes her local bookstore in a little street in Beijing in the late 1950s/early 1960s in her autobiographical novel Me 《》(2012):

[Next door] was the little people’s bookstore, with a whole wall devoted to little people’s books, arranged in racks, displaying the brightly coloured covers: stories about fairies, immortals, warriors and heroes. The owner lived in the bookstore – we could see his big wooden bed, his little dinner table, chair and cupboard – the doors to his home were folded back, his daily life exposed to all who passed by. There was a door on the back wall that was open all day too, and if you stepped into his home and out of the back door, it was like stepping inside one of the little people’s books, because the back door opened onto a little courtyard, and to the lives of other people. When you stood at the entrance to the little people’s bookstall, you could see into another world.

photo-3Paihuazi and the Clever Girl was Zhang Xinxin’s first graphic novel. Inspired by the little people’s books of her childhood, and by an article in The New York Times, she decided to try her hand. Why not? She already had experience in writing, directing, film, TV, radio, video, multi-media… (see her on Youtube). She threw herself into this new project. It turned out to be a journey of discovery, in which she learnt about American comic books, acrylic paints, digital drawing pads, and, as in all journeys beset with obstacles, about herself. She wrote about her experience in The Adventures of a Graphic Novelist 《小人书画家历险记》 (in Shanghai Literature 上海文学, in 2011) .

Here’s an excerpt:

When it came to graphic novels, my knowledge was zero, I had no idea how speech bubbles and frames worked. Did I have any foundation at all? Well, I’d been copying famous oil paintings – the classics – for a few years, and had done quite a lot of figure sketches, landscapes and still lifes. So I got some acrylics and started copying [Jimmy Liao’s] “Sound of Colors”. I must have used up several metres of paper. But it was looking good! I’d never used acrylics before, so it was a new experience. A professional artist had told me that you can shape oil painting slowly, whereas with acrylics you have to work fast.

I started working on my graphic novel. For the story, I turned to my autobiographical novel “Me”. I’d been working on it for thirteen years, and had written two drafts, but I’d got stuck and had to stop. The beginning of that novel would work nicely as a graphic novel, I thought. It was about me as a little girl and as a teenager, and the acrylics would give a water-colour appearance to my story of growing up in the east. I cut out hundreds of little paper people, and wrinkled my nose at the computer, when it mocked that Photoshop could do all this for me! But I didn’t how to use Photoshop.

Every morning I got up and drew, drafting my graphic novel in pencil on scrap paper from lawyer Steve’s office. I kept a small mirror to hand, and every so often would catch a glimpse of my face lined with concentration, then draw myself on the paper, with a chuckle. I was totally absorbed in my Little People’s Book, even when I wasn’t drawing. I was so caught up in my work that I once found myself talking to a tree by the side of the road: “You know Archimedes said if you gave him a lever he could prise open the earth, well, give me a mathematical proposition and I’ll turn it into a Little People’s Book! I can turn the driest sentence into an image!”

And I painted myself as a child reading Little People’s Books, in the little street of Beijing, just as I’d described them in “Me”. I could see the differences between my Little People’s Books and Steve’s comic books. His had several frames on a page. Mine had one frame per page. Mine had no speech bubbles – the story was printed below the picture. His were in colour. Mine were in black and white, though my world was no more black and white than Steve’s. And I drew my little street in a long scroll format – yes, my little street like the painting “Along the River during the Qing Ming Festival”.

I was drawing my youth intuitively, as though this was the way to tell Steve about that remote world of mine. I drew myths, I drew my Nezha. As I expressed myself through my Little People’s Book, it began to feel like a children’s book. Nezha was the pride of Heaven. The wind, clouds and stars were his robes. But my Nezha had been shattered. Heaven didn’t want him, neither did Earth. The grass wouldn’t play with him, the river wouldn’t take him. The only place that would have him was the stinking mud that never saw the light of day. As I drew, I wept. Could it be that I was weeping for myself? I had written about it in my book. But if I hadn’t thrown myself into the drawing, if I hadn’t done it so intensively, I would never have come this far. You cannot draw something without it going through your mind first. This was My Nezha.

You can read the full version of The Adventures of a Graphic Novelist in English here.

And if you’d like to read more by Zhang Xinxin in English, try these:

Dragonworld is also one of the six short stories in Read Paper Republic’s new “Afterlives” series (October-November 2016) and one of the four short stories selected for the Speed-Book club event at the Free Word Centre, London, on 16 December 2016.

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One thought on “Zhang Xinxin and Little People’s Books

  1. Pingback: A picture’s worth a thousand words… | Chinese books for young readers

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