48. Little Soldier Zhang Ga

As part of the China Changing Festival at the Southbank Centre in London, there will be a performance of Little Soldier Zhang Ga on Saturday 7 October.

Xu Guangyao’s novel  Little Soldier Zhang Ga (徐光耀: 《小兵张嘎》) is one of the classics of Chinese children’s literature. It tells the story of a boy, Zhang Ga, who lives in a village near Baiyangdian (the largest freshwater lake in China, about 2 hours by bullet train from Beijing) during the War of Resistance Against Japan (1931-1945). An injured Eighth Route Army commander stays at the boy’s house, and inspires him with stories about brave soldiers. When the Japanese attack the village, Zhang Ga’s grandmother is killed, and the commander, his only guardian, is taken captive. Determined to fight back, Zhang Ga joins the Eighth Route Army as a scout, and proves to be very brave and resourceful. In one battle, he gets hold of an enemy gun, and hides it in an old nest instead of handing it in. On another occasion, he is captured on the way to a raid on an enemy watchtower. He is pressed for information, but gives nothing away. When the watchtower is attacked from the outside, he attacks from the inside. He rescues the commander, and avenges the death of his grandmother. When the war is over, he fetches the gun from the old nest, ready to hand it in, but is allowed to keep it. Delighted with the real gun, he gives his little wooden pistol to his friend.

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Little Soldier Zhang Ga – in the series “A Hundred Books of the Chinese Children Literary Classics in the 20th Century” (source – a good source of images for this book/film)

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The English translation, by Wu Wenyuan, was published by the Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, in 1964 (2nd edition 1974) (source)

The novel is based on a true story, and Zhang Ga is based on the soldier-hero Yan Xiufeng 燕秀峰, who was born in the Baiyangdian area, and who was known as Gazi. It was first published in 1961, and there have been numerous editions over the years, also two films (1963 and 2004), a TV series in 20 episodes, and an animated film (2005) – including those produced in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Chinese victory in the War of Resistance Against Japan. Minjie Chen has written extensively on the Sino-Japanese War and youth literature, in her book The Sino-Japanese War and Youth Literature: Friends and Foes on the Battlefield (Routledge, 2016. ISBN 9781138859692)

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Little Soldier Zhang Ga – a lianhuanhua [linked-picture book] edition with hand-drawn illustrations by Zhang Pincao 张品操, date unknown – (source – you can see the whole book online)

Little Soldier Zhang Ga – a lianhuanhua [linked-picture book] edition with photographs from the film – (source – you can see the whole book online)

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Little Soldier Zhang Ga – TV series in 20 episodes (2004) (source)

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The Little Soldier Zhangga – animation film, 2005 (source)

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Little Soldier Zhang Ga (Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 2005 – ISBN 978532243860) (source)

The performance at the Southbank Centre is billed as using puppets and physical theatre. Directed by Liu Xiaoyi (the puppetry director of War Horse China), and co-written by Guo Yan (director of Dragon, at the Edinburgh International Festival, 2015), it is presented by Jingying Group with the support of Performance Infinity. It has been shown already at the Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in Beijing (9-10 Sept) and is on tour in September and October: at the Russian Festival of Arts for Children, the Southbank Centre (7 Oct), and the Children and Teenager Theater Festival in Sibiu, Romania.

The following is copied from “Puppet gives the little soldier, Zhang Ga, new life”, by Chen Nan, China Daily, 29 July 2017:

 “When the producer first asked me to make a show based on Zhang Ga in 2015, I was touring with War Horse, and frankly, I wasn’t very interested because the story of little soldier Zhang has been told many times already,” says Liu, who had been working with the Chinese-language version of War Horse, a China-UK theatrical collaboration, since 2013. “However, with the producer constantly asking me to do it, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to re-imagine the classic story with puppets.”

With a small-budget, Liu invited three actors from War Horse to join the project and he created the character of Zhang Ga using Papier-Mache.

“Papier-Mache is a fragile material. I didn’t want Zhang Ga to be like he is in the novel, a fearless hero. Instead, I want to display a real human being, who can be weak sometimes,” Liu says.

Liu felt his idea was justified after talking with the author of the book. Now 92, Xu Guangyao told Liu that he wanted Zhang Ga to be a brave soldier because he was not when he was in the army during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45).

“The writer wanted the character to do things that he couldn’t do. But in our stage version, I wanted to convey the truth of his story,” Liu says.

Acknowledgements – many thanks to Minjie Chen for expert advice with this piece!

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3 thoughts on “48. Little Soldier Zhang Ga

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