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Book Review: A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu and P. Otie













This is a memoir of Li Kunwu. He is an artist who used to draw propaganda for the communist party. P. Otie is a French writer who wrote the words and Kunwu provided the illustrations for the novel.

Since reading Maus by Art Spigelman, I’ve been on the hunt for these kinds of graphic novels – I prefer the memoirs, or the more serious ‘stories’ told in this interesting format. My knowledge of China is admittedly little, considering half the contents of my house are probably made there. So for a while I’ve been wanting to read about China, or something from China. This is kind of… French-Chinese.

This book covers Kunwu’s life from a child during the 1950’s up into the present day. He lives through the rise of Mao, the Cultural Revolution that sees his father thrown into a work camp for many years, joining the Red Army and eventually the Communist Party. He lives through famine, through hardship and then suddenly, China embraces capitalism to the full.

One thing I learnt from this book is that the Chinese people are a powerful force. Once they set their minds on something, they all rise up and do it. They move mountains and seem to truly give it their all.

This isn’t a political memoir, it doesn’t cover a lot of the ‘important stuff’ nor is it a reflection on Chinese society. I don’t suppose you will come out with a great understanding of the history of the time, only a slight familiarity.  Kunwu played no important part in history, he is only an ordinary and simple man who loves and is proud of his country and people.

The first half I enjoyed the most as it was  about Kunwu’s youth and a lot more seemed to be happening. The third quarter felt disjointed and kept jumping around between times and scenes so I had no idea what was going on and by the final quarter I had almost lost interest.

I didn’t think it needed the interruptions from the present day to reflect on the past, they were infrequent but served no purpose.

I did like Kunwu’s art throughout the book – often very busy scenes, harsh black and sometimes a little ugly. I enjoyed his use of Chinese letters and writing to create sound. Kunwu was drawing for a foreign, western audience, so the meaning wasn’t important – the shape and style of the letters added sound, movement and atmosphere to each drawing. I liked that.

Overall, this book was okay. It was interesting, but I felt far from truly immersed or connected with the people/characters inside. I do feel I have learnt something about Chinese society. It has not really taught me anything, apart from a basic knowledge I didn’t even have before, but it’s given me enough to be interested.

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