Little picture books: nostalgia in palms

By Liu Xin

 

Reading palm-sized picture-story books, or “xiaorenshu” in Chinese, used to be a national activity and pastime in the country, but only hardcore collectors and people hankering for a taste of nostalgia bother to read them much anymore.

Yet, those who do choose to peruse the shelves at an antique market outside of Beijing’s Baoguo Temple can be well rewarded for their efforts, although purchases there can be quite expensive.

It is not unusual for collectors to shell out as much as 400 yuan (about 62 U.S. dollars) for a single picture-story book; the same books used to go for just 0.2 yuan over 30 years ago. The most expensive volumes fetch more than 10,000 yuan apiece.

Lin Rongqiang, a 46-year old businessman in Beijing, has more than 13,000 such books in his private collection.

“In my childhood, I had few hobbies other than reading xiaorenshu,” Lin recalls.

Lin’s most recent purchase was a 700-yuan xiaorenshu that he bought o complete a series within his collection. When he began collecting in 1999, picture-story books could be purchased for just one yuan apiece. Speculators have driven prices up since then.

“It’s a shame that people resell them at a profit,” Lin says. “These books used to be read by almost everyone. They are a vestige of Chinese history and culture.”

Xiaorenshu, which literally means a little picture book of scenario drawings, consists of highly detailed panels accompanied by a text of about 90 Chinese characters. The books were often adaptions from literary classics, such as “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and “Journey to the West”.

Lin has not decided who will inherit his collections after he dies. “But I will absolutely not permit them to enter the market,” he says.

Jiang Weipu, an 85-year-old editor from Beijing, is currently working on a book about the decades that he has spent in the picture-story book publishing industry.

Born in east China’s Shandong Province, Jiang was a war correspondent in his 20s. In 1953, he came to Beijing to work for the People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, where he worked as an editor until retiring.

Jiang noted that xiaorenshu used to play a significant role in mobilizing the masses, shaping public attitudes and opinions, particularly during the 1950s and the 60s.

Between 1925 and 1945, picture-story books dealing with the theme of land reform, as well as China’s battle against the invading Japanese, were published in areas that had been liberated by the Communist Party of China (CPC).

“Xiaorenshu was then a vehicle to carry the government’s policies,” Jiang says.

Xiaorenshu continued to enjoy a “golden age” of sorts, thanks to the late Chairman Mao Zedong who employed it to encourage people to support the CPC’s practices and policies.

For this very reason, over 260 million xiaorenshu were published between 1951 and 1956, Jiang recalls.

Shi Hang, a playwright born in 1971, recalls the good old days he enjoyed when reading xiaorenshu.

“Undoubtedly, xiaorenshu had widened my horizon when I had limited sources to learn about the world during my childhood in my hometown in northeast Jilin Province,” Shi says.

“And foreign stories in xiaorenshu led me into wholly exotic countries. It felt great.”

However, the industry soon took a plunge with the arrival of the Cultural Revolution. Few picture-story books were published between 1966 and 1969.

Fortunately, the books saw a revival under then Premier Zhou Enlai, who believed that they should be printed in greater number in order to encourage younger generations to be more culturally literate.

More than 860 million xiaorenshu were published in 1982, setting a record for the number of the books published in a single year. Many of the books even came with English versions for overseas markets.

The industry took an unpredicted turn around the mid-1980s, when Japanese comic books started becoming popular in China following the country’s reform and opening-up policy.

Youngsters gravitated toward the flashy art and innovative plotlines shown in Japanese comic books, giving the Chinese industry a blow from which it has never quite recovered.

When asked whether children still have any interest in reading Chinese xiaorenshu, Lin denies that they have any attraction.

“Few people read them now,” Lin says. “Even for us, they are just collectors’ items.”

For his part, Jiang tried to use Japanese comics as an impetus for encouraging innovation and renewal in the Chinese xiaorenshu industry. As a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in 1994, he took 30 volumes of Japanese comics to other members to stress their readability.

“Japanese comics had attractive plots, which could have been used in our own publications,” Jiang says.

One factor that has led to the decline of Chinese xiaorenshu is the lack of qualified illustrators. The detailed panels and unusual visual angles present in the books require illustrators to possess a wide variety of skills.

China’s last school dedicated to cultivating talented xiaorenshu illustrators closed in the early 1990s. These days, there are fewer than 100 qualified artists in this area in China.

“Young painters prefer to master a single skill, as it is easier for them to make a living by specializing in one area,” Jiang says. “None of them bother learning the variety of skills necessary to become a qualified illustrator.”

Another attributing factor is the way the books are published. According to Jiang, different publishing houses were required to stick to specific series and topics during the golden age of China’s xiaorenshu.

“Only the Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House was allowed to publish ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms,’ while the Hebei Fine Arts Publishing House published ‘Journey To The West’,” Jiang says.

These requirements are long-gone, and publishing houses are now free to publish their own choice. However, this has led most of them to publish outdated or redundant versions, as this is cheaper than hiring writers and illustrators to turn out new works of art.

“Their quality cannot be guaranteed at all,” Jiang complains.

The 60-volume “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” series currently sells for 999 yuan.

In Jiang’s opinion, popular art should be managed by the country, for it has a large scale of influence and demand.

“When I was the chief editor of the People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, I tried to keep the profit below ten percent,” Jiang says.

Modern forms of entertainment have also served to weaken the influence and spread of xiaorenshu.

“Television shows, movies and video games are the choice of most youngsters these days,” Jiang says.

Jiang says that he has been thinking long and hard about how to resurrect xiaorenshu that can fit into modern society.

Around the end of 2010, he submitted a report to the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee, proposing the republishing of classic-theme works to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the CPC’s founding.

As a result, the books of 100 stories about CPC’s history have been published.

Jiang also writes articles for industry periodicals, encouraging editors, illustrators and other professionals to remain steadfast in their efforts in publishing xiaorenshu.

“I only hope that xiaorenshu could resume its social role, besides collection,” Jiang says.

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