By Sophia Pan
Liu, Jing. Understanding China Through Comics. 4 vols. Stone Bridge Press, 2016-17.
Jing Liu’s Understanding China Through Comics series offers Western readers a crash course in 5,000 years’ worth of Chinese history, tradition, and philosophies through captivating storytelling and ink art. The series currently has four published volumes, with a fifth one set for release sometime in 2022. As each volume covers specific themes and periods, Liu has two main goals in capturing China. The first goal is to answer (or at least attempt to answer) the question: “Who are the Chinese?” The second goal is to make Chinese history accessible in both written and visual forms. Such objectives appear quite ambitious initially, yet Liu accomplishes them. By presenting Chinese history through a richly-illustrated comics series and simplifying its dense framework, Liu makes the subject more approachable to a broader audience of readers – particularly those who might not otherwise know where to begin.
In Volume 1, Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty (2697 BCE – 220 CE), Liu immediately establishes that he will be showing “5,000 years at a glance” (Liu 10) — and doesn’t disappoint. Nearly 3,000 years’ worth of Chinese history is condensed into the first volume alone. Volume 1 sets up an image of early Chinese people, introducing the Confucian and Daoist philosophies. The formative dynasties discussed in this volume include the Shang (c. 1600-1046 BCE), Zhou (c. 1046-256 BCE), Qin (c. 221-206 BCE), and Han (c. 202 BCE-220 CE) dynasties. Subsequent volumes in the series cover roughly 500 years, noticeably smaller periods than the first volume. Volume 2, Division to Unification in Imperial China, covers the Three Kingdoms to the Tang Dynasty (220-907). Volume 3, Barbarians and the Birth of the Chinese Identity, covers The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms to the Yuan Dynasty (907-1368). The most recent volume, The Making of Modern China, explores the Ming Dynasty all the way to the Qing Dynasty (1369-1912).
As Liu is only working with a range between 140-180 pages per volume, he has made significant cuts to what can be included in the Understanding China series. The brevity of the series begs the question: what parts of Chinese history does Liu believe to be the most vital? For starters, Liu writes that “of the 95 dynasties in China’s history, nine were major ones” (Liu 14, vol. 1), listing the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. While Liu’s aim of covering the nine major dynasties concludes by the fourth volume with the depiction of the Qing dynasty, this doesn’t mean that his primary goal of explaining who the Chinese are ends there. In an interview with Sabine Peschel of Deutsche Welle, Liu indicated that Volume 5 will cover 1912 to 1949, particularly addressing China’s role in World War II (Liu). Since Volume 5 will supposedly be the last volume of the series, I’m curious why Liu has chosen to stop in 1949, when topics like Mao Ze Dong’s Cultural Revolution are relevant to who the Chinese people are today.
Nonetheless, condensing 5,000 years of history into four (soon-to-be five) reasonably short volumes is an incredible feat. Despite Liu’s intent to portray China’s history in comic form, Understanding China contains a striking abundance of written text, which might have to do with the series’ educational intent. Liu routinely supplies his pages with paragraphs worth of text and speech-heavy word bubbles throughout each volume to guarantee readers have as much context on each topic as possible. Even with the amount of text Liu includes, he fits centuries-worth of material into each volume. Recounting Chinese history through comics as opposed to prose speeds up the explanation of countless individuals and events through incorporated panel-structure and word bubbles. The comic reads like a visual history textbook in several instances, relying heavily on charts, diagrams, and maps to contextualize themes and concepts.
While reading the series, I was also interested in Liu’s methods for divvying up enough page space for each historical figure or event. In his Deutsche Welle interview, Liu explains that the more significant a historical figure is, the more pages the figure will appear on (Liu). For instance, Confucius, a major philosopher, appears on 12 pages alone in Volume 1 (Liu 68-79), whereas countless emperors are each given a page or less. However, with the thousands of years that must be efficiently covered in a few short volumes, Liu can only afford to spend a limited amount of time discussing each figure and event.
In line with this restricted attention, Liu opts for a very minimal, black ink cartoonish art style, which he describes as “kind of a combination of traditional Chinese gongbi hua—highly detailed brushwork that has more than 1,000 years of tradition—and modern comic expressions” (Liu). However, Liu’s effort to ensure that a good majority of his historical figures are drawn with nearly the same rounded eyebrows and dotted eyes makes keeping visual track of who’s who quite difficult. While subtle differences in facial expressions, hairstyle, attire, and the occasional angry-looking eyebrows did help me to distinguish characters of a certain status from another, the quick pacing of the comic made it difficult to remember so many significant people. Admittedly, I often felt I was being introduced to an emperor who looked just like the last emperor but with a pencil mustache instead of a goatee. However, even if I couldn’t retain the influx of information given the first (or second… or even third) time around, Liu conveniently places a well-organized table of contents section and a handy timeline of events at the beginning of each volume. Furthermore, each book includes page numbers indicating the current dynasty being discussed. So, despite the disorientation, the thoughtful inclusion of a Table of Contents and page numbers makes it relatively easier to refer to specific historical moments.
Liu’s attention to his English language-dominant target audience is undeniable. He almost exclusively refers to historical figures by their transliterated names and uses direct English translations when citing historical events and important artifacts. His acknowledgment that “pronouncing Chinese names can be very difficult” for non-native speakers means that all of the Chinese names remain in “pinyin, the standard phonetic method for transcribing Chinese words” (Liu 156, vol. 1). However, I deem Liu’s words a bit ironic; the “pinyin” he presents in these volumes lacks diacritics or tone markers. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, so Western learners often rely on the diacritics of pinyin to help them understand how to pronounce words. Without them, Liu’s pinyin simply becomes plain romanization – which, unfortunately, does not aid readers in learning accurate pronunciation. Regardless, it is worth pointing out the times when he does include Chinese characters instead of transliterations or translations, notably when he discusses important Chinese literature. Some examples of these celebrated writings include ones by philosopher Confucius (Liu 77, vol. 1) and by famous Song dynasty scholar-officials (Liu 42-43, vol. 3).
I find that Liu has interesting intentions when approaching the series. Instead of promoting his series as a perfect encapsulation of China’s 5,000-year history, Liu shares that he wants readers to use his series “to open up further avenues of exploration and inquiry” and that “the power to pursue knowledge rests with you the reader” (Introduction, vol. 1). In a bid to encourage readers to explore more of China’s history, a “Notes and Suggested Readings” section can be found at the end of each book, where Liu informs readers of the Chinese-language resources he relied on while writing the series. Fortunately for non-Chinese speakers, Liu has also provided the names of a few English-language resources. On the one hand, I appreciate the resources, as I think it’s helpful to know where he is sourcing his material. On the other hand, I wonder if the “Notes and Suggested Readings” section potentially deters readers from controlling their own pursuit of knowledge. According to Liu’s intent, perhaps it would make more sense for readers to conduct independent research outside Liu’s information.
Nonetheless, I consider Understanding China Through Comics series a great starting point for Chinese history, especially for readers who don’t know where to start. While the cartoonish art style and straightforward, simple language may certainly help to appeal to a younger audience, I would argue that Understanding China can be an invaluable source for any generation searching for an accessible introduction to China’s rich history. Despite the trend of overlooking comics as a serious literature form, Understanding China Through Comics proves itself a highly educational and thoughtful work as Liu successfully delivers on his promise to introduce Chinese history in an extremely condensed yet meaningful way.
Liu, Jing. “History and Comics: Why Liu Jing Thinks China’s Story ‘Deserves a Larger
Audience’” Interview by Sabine Peschel. Deutsche Welle, 9 Dec. 2018, https://www. dw.com/en/history-and-comics-why-liu-jing-thinks-chinas-story-deserves-a-larger-audience/a-45449897. Accessed 20 November 2021.