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Two Texts on “Comics” from China, ca. 1932: “In Defense of ‘Comic Strips'” by Lu Xun and “Comic Strip Novels” by Mao Dun

Translation and Introduction By Sean Macdonald

Introduction and Commentary1

Without sounding preciously contradictory, I would like to preface this discussion of Lu Xun’s (Zhou Shuren, 1881-1936) article, “In Defense of ‘Comic Strips'” (“‘Lianhuantuhua’ bianhu“) by saying that this article is not actually about comic strips. On the other hand, it could be said that Mao Dun’s (Shen Yanbing, 1896-1981) article, “Comic Strip Novels” (Lianhuantuhua xiaoshuo) is about early comic books. The word for comic strips (lianhuantuhua) is placed in quotation marks in Lu Xun’s text, while Mao Dun’s entire title is placed in quotation marks, as if both writers weren’t entirely sure about discussing these examples of mass print culture in 1930s China. Both Lu Xun and Mao Dun are borrowing these terms, relatively new at the time, to discuss types of visual art, more specifically forms of illustrations with accompanying text. Lu Xun cuts a wide generalizing swath with his use of the term to discuss frescoes, murals, paintings, and prints or drawings that may be linked together by the producer, or the viewer, into a sort of series or sequence. Mao Dun’s discussion is limited to what he considers a relatively new type of publication, and which perhaps comes closest to the English term “comic book.”

In a sense Lu Xun’s use of the word I have translated as “comic book” (lianhuantuhua) could be called an appropriation. However, before I discuss the use of the word “comic strips” in Lu Xun and Mao Dun, I would like to discuss the context of Lu Xun’s article especially because it is a response to a writer named Su Wen and some comments he made about comic strips. Su Wen, also known as Du Heng, was a critic and writer in 1930s China.2 Su Wen’s comments on “comic strips” formed part of a critique of the League of Left-wing Writers (Zuoyi zuojia lianmeng).

Formed in 1930, the League of Left-wing Writers was a loose association of left-leaning writers that included members of the Communist Party and writers sympathetic to the cause of political leftism in ’30s China. While the ruling Nationalist Party, the Guomindang, had originally embraced different ideologies, after purges in the 1920s that included assassinations of Communist party members, China’s ruling government was firmly right-wing, with clear fascist tendencies by the early 1930s. Marxist-Leninism was an emergent cultural discourse in this decade. This article by Lu Xun on “comic strips” is part of a response (more like a counter-attack) to Su Wen for a debate within the League partially instigated by Su Wen and another writer, Hu Qiuyuan (1910-2004). The newly formed League was an attempt to create an association of writers on the political left, but the first major debate within the League revealed anything but consensus. An internal critique of the League of Left-wing Writers, Su Wen’s “third type of person” was posited as a response to what he perceived as the politicization of literature by both politically motivated non-party affiliated and party affiliated intellectuals. Su Wen posits the “third type of person” as the society of writers who produce outside of political or economic pressures. Su Wen’s comments about comic strips come within an implicit critique of political alignment in the arts represented by the League of Left-wing Writers.

Lu Xun’s “defense” of “comic strips” is his third attack on Su Wen. Lu Xun had already attacked Su Wen for his term “third type of person” in two articles in which he criticizes Su Wen for his politics (or lack thereof).3 However, in “In Defence of ‘Comic Strips’ ” Lu Xun is taking Su Wen to task from a different perspective. The rationale behind Lu Xun’s criticism in this article is the result of his interests in visual arts, especially woodcuts and engravings, and the language used by Lu Xun is particularly revealing. Not only does he critique his opponent by appropriating the term “comic strip” from Su Wen’s elitist, negative description of a mass art form, Lu Xun’s language can also be read as a response and continuation of certain themes of the “third type of person” debate reworked for the purpose of developing terminology to discuss visual culture.

The language of revolutionary art and literature was in an emergent phase at this time in China. In some ways, Lu Xun’s essay shows his limitations in art historical analysis, but it also evidences an interesting use of vocabulary, and in this regard a debt to the “third type of person” debate in the formation of his art and literary critical terminology. Su Wen was primarily critiquing the idea of political alignment in cultural production. In Su Wen’s view, the writer (or author) should produce art and literature without political influence, especially political censorship. In hindsight, Su Wen was on the mark for what would later occur in PRC, especially during the revolutionary period (1949-1976).4 Nevertheless, the way he articulates his argument against political interference is basically elitist, especially his suggestions about mass art and literature. According to Su Wen, with political alignment ” … literature is no longer literature, and becomes a type of comic strip, and the writer is no longer a writer, and becomes an agitator” (Su 74).

An important aspect of the League’s project was educational.5 The first part of Su Wen’s contention is based on perceptions about mass literature, that it represented a sort of dumbing down of genuine, more traditional forms of literature. Concomitant to this is an implicit critique of literature as a tool for political ideology that turns the author into an agitator, and the work of literature or art into a piece of propaganda.

Su Wen refers to the medium of comic strips or comic books twice in his discussion of apolitical literature and the writer, evidence that he had some idea of the League’s concerns about developing forms of mass art and literature. In his sarcastic commentary on perceptions about mass literature in the League, Su Wen refers to comic strips as a type of mass publication:

“[Leftists] regard the workers as having nothing to read, only seeing old-fashioned comic strips and song books of a feudalistic flavor (that is to say, harmful). Therefore, they want writers to simply write beneficial comic strips and song books to give the workers something to read … Comic strips will certainly never give birth to a Tolstoy or a Flaubert” (Su 67).

Su Wen’s use of the term “feudalistic flavor” is a knock at the historical attitudes of radical thinkers in China who often denounced traditional Chinese culture as “feudalistic” (more on that below). Significantly, Su Wen’s dismissive comments about “comic strips and song books” are indirectly addressed in Mao Dun’s article when he discusses the speedy hegemony of comic strip novels over song books on book stands in Shanghai. Although Su Wen’s remarks are dismissive, he is describing actual forms of print media. Moreover, Su Wen’s attitude is in keeping with modernist attitudes towards culture in which distinction is made between high (privileged by authorial designation) and low (referred to as a particular medium rather than by particular producers or authors) cultural production.6

An outward glance at world literature is evident amongst writers and intellectuals in China from the turn of the nineteenth century. By the time of this debate, Chinese cultural producers and thinkers were used to viewing their own culture within a global perspective. Su Wen’s name dropping is not unusual but the way he is using foreign authors’ names is unique in this instance, since it is an attempt to distinguish supposedly authentic, established, canonical literature from mass forms that were relatively new in 1930s China. Nevertheless, without Su Wen’s articulation of an elitist perspective, Lu Xun would likely not have come to the defense of “comic strips,” and Mao Dun may not have decided to sketch an outline of comic book readership.

Lu Xun shows a consistent concern for visual culture. In a series of autobiographical essays dating from the mid 1920s and collected in the volume Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk (Chao hua xi shi, 1928), Lu Xun is already negotiating aspects of visual culture in popular religion, book illustrations, and very personal responses to photography. By the end of the 1920s, Lu Xun is introducing European woodcuts in journals and books he edits (Tang 2008: 75-88). Therefore, by the time Lu Xun takes up the defense of “comic strips” in response to Su Wen in 1932, he has already begun to discuss visual culture in (as he puts it in the “Defense”) an “offhand way.” Lu Xun was never a systematic theorist. His longest critical work, Outline of Chinese Fiction (Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe, 1923-1925) is a work of literary history and classification, and Lu Xun’s criticism is often a type of taxonomical commentary. In “Defense,” he spends much of his time dropping names and making short lists.

At certain historical junctures, lists are important, and Lu Xun’s argument is significant as an example of an emergent vocabulary about visual culture, specifically woodblock prints, their relationship to language, concepts of the book, and “messages” in visual art.7 So why “comic strips” in quotation marks? When Lu Xun appropriates Su Wen’s term, he is using it to refer to a new type of publication in China. Lianhuantuhua and lianhuanhua, also translated as “serial pictures”, refer to small volumes containing illustrated narratives sometimes based on well-established literary classics of fiction and theater, sometimes on popular fiction, and even contemporary historical events. According to Christopher Reed, the term lianhuanhua shu for comic book was coined in 1925 by World Books, a major Shanghai-based publisher, although World would abandon the form quickly (Reed 2004: 246). The word for comic here comes from a combination of words; lianhuan is literally a chain of rings so that lianhuantuhua and lianhuanhua are series of pictures or illustrations. The various terms were used beginning in the 1920s to connote new types of publications that combined illustrations and accompanying text.

“Defense” first appears in the November issue of Literature Monthly (Wenxue yuebao), an organ of the League of Left-wing Writers. The following month in the same journal after Lu Xun published his article using the term “comic strips,” Mao Dun publishes “Comic Strip Novels” in which Mao Dun describes comic books, their distribution, and readership in Shanghai in the early 1930s.8 Lu Xun refers to the form tangentially, legitimizing one medium by linking it to authorial cultural production. With the addition of xiaoshuo for “novel”, Mao Dun suggests the idea of “comic strip novels,” either in the form of a novel or short fiction (or what is relevant for Mao Dun and popular fiction of the period, serialized fiction).9

Part of Lu Xun’s strategy is to use the term to introduce new forms of art reproduction for revolutionary purposes. A sort of fellow traveler, Lu Xun never became a member of the Communist Party, and aesthetically he had very broad tastes in art, new and old.10 Nevertheless, Lu Xun is viewed as one of the most important promoters of modern woodblock prints in China. As I noted above, “Defense” is also not the first time Lu Xun attempts to historicize woodcuts and engravings. In 1929, in a preface to a collection of modern woodcuts, Lu Xun remarks that many suggest the woodcut originated in China, recalling a type of crude playing card printed from woodblock from the beginning of the fourteenth century. But Lu Xun’s comments seem somewhat ironic here, and the preface spends more time emphasizing in broad strokes the development of the woodcut in Europe with artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Hans Holbein (1497-1543) and Thomas Bewick (1753-1828)11.

In “Defense,” Lu Xun seems more focused, informative (and informed), especially when it comes to Western prints, and once again he spends most of the article introducing European and American works. Lu Xun’s decision to promote woodblock printing as a revolutionary form is based largely on concepts of high art rather than mass reproduction. Indeed, although Lu Xun touches upon earlier forms and genres in China, it seems as if his argument rests on the development of print cycles in Germany from the late nineteenth century until the 1930s. Despite Lu Xun’s emphasis on the propagandistic aspects of print cycles as “comic strips,” the printmaking movement in Germany and Austria was not only a way of propagating ideas; it was also a way of connecting with the art audience by promoting the production of artists and studios (Reisenfeld 1992).

Some of his twentieth century European examples are well known, such as Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) and the Belgian Frans Masereel (1889-1972). But Lu Xun also cites the (at the time) new arrival Carl Meffert (1903- 1988). Also known under the pseudonym Clément Moreau, Meffert was a remarkable artist, and very political, publishing forceful anti-Nazi print cycles as early as the 1930s.12 William Gropper (1897-1977), a radical American artist, isn’t often discussed nowadays, and certainly not in the context of comic books. However, the last illustrations of the book Lu Xun mentions, Alay-Oop (1930), would stand a comparison to the conclusion to Will Eisner’s “The Street Singer.”13

The non-Western examples he makes are curious for their omissions. For one, Lu Xun cites the Ajanta Cave paintings, a series of Buddhist cave temples in Ajanta, India dating from as early as the second century CE. Lu Xun notes the caves “became shining stars in the art world after the murals were copied and printed by the British.” Was Lu Xun referring obliquely to the relatively recently discovered murals of the Dunhuang Caves in northwest China?14

Lu Xun mentions certain types of popular themes in woodcut prints, and the only artist (or author, a term I will return to) from China he mentions is Chou Ying (?-ca. 1552), a Ming Dynasty painter. “Defense” is the only time Lu Xun ever mentioned this very important painter, whose work was also reproduced in woodblock prints.15 Lu Xun’s focus is on European and American artists’ works, and part of the reason may have been historical proximity. Yet by placing emphasis on avant-garde and other types of mass-produced prints from Europe and North America, Lu Xun is not making unproblematic selections here and Mao Dun’s article is very clearly a response that supplements Lu Xun’s.

1920s and 1930s Shanghai was the economic center of China. A semi-colonial port, Shanghai was carved up into separate parts that included Chinese sections, French and International concessions, as well as areas inhabited by Japanese citizens. The city was in turmoil at this period with demonstrations, strikes, and political and military actions. A significant cultural center, the film industry was centered here and, at least when circumstances permitted, many writers made their residence in Shanghai. Shanghai was also the publishing center for China at this time. Mao Dun, a contemporary of Lu Xun, was a major novelist, critic, and editor. Having worked as an English language editor at one of the most important publishers in China, the Commercial Press, Mao Dun had a very good understanding of modern publishing and printing.16 Mao Dun’s article refocuses Lu Xun’s discussion to another type of publication. Mao Dun’s conclusion, that the indigenous comic strip novel has even more potential than German print series in the production of mass art, is significant here. Yet even the response to Lu Xun’s selection of Western art offered by Mao Dun doesn’t address the medium of reproduction.

Up until the nineteenth century the main technology for printing in China was woodblock printing, or xylography. This would change with the arrival of Western technology, namely the lithographic press, some of it first employed by Western missionaries in the late nineteenth century. Commercial lithographic printing increases the scale of production and profits in China from the 1870s until around 1905, when the hegemony of lithography is superseded by letterpress, or relief printing.17 The emergence of one form of technology did not mean the instant disappearance of another. For example, printers using lithography and xylography were in open competition with each other at the end of the late nineteenth century (Reed 2004: 98-103). Presumably the same sort of situation would have occurred with the gradual hegemony of the letterpress, since smaller comic book publishers may have still been using lithography in the late 1920s and early 1930s.18

The technology of printing has relevance in so far as both Lu Xun and Mao Dun are using examples of types of publications that have implicit relevance not merely as types or genres of literature or art, but as media with links to printing technologies of the time. Lu Xun’s decision to select woodblock prints is a case in point. The implications of Lu Xun’s decision to choose primarily Western examples are twofold. Although he does mention a small number of Chinese examples, Lu Xun’s emphasis is on Western cultural production. At the same time he is implicitly favoring a mode of reproduction, one which by the 1930s would have already been obsolete as a type of modern printing.

However, I don’t believe Lu Xun’s proposal is specifically linked to the mode of reproduction; his main concerns seems to be how the works in question are able to convey a message, art as vehicle of content. Mao Dun is concerned about the readership of comics, and the potential to recuperate the form for pedagogical purposes. Both Lu Xun and Mao Dun share a concern about mass culture linked to concepts of the book, and both Lu Xun and Mao Dun delineate ideas about comics as forms of print culture that includes image and text.

Lu Xun uses the term zuojia, a word usually used to denote the author as writer. Even if Lu Xun historicizes the portfolios he is describing by linking them to the renewed interest in printing in nineteenth century Europe, his use of the word author hints that he may be looking at printmaking as an art form published in journals and books. Although Lu Xun would have viewed woodblock and other types of prints in exhibitions, thus viewing the prints actually produced by the technique of woodblocks, many works were probably printed using the commercial means available at the time, either lithographic or letterpress (or relief) printing in journals or collected in anthologies. In this case, the woodblock print was not only a mode of production of prints for distribution, but also an aesthetic effect for design and content purposes.19 Nevertheless, Lu Xun’s selection of twentieth century artists was meant to be exemplary of revolutionary art at the time.

Mao Dun lists no “authors.” Instead, he describes a very marginal form of mass print culture. Mao Dun places the title, “Comic Strip Novels,” in quotation marks including the word for “book stand” (shutan). It seems as if part of his concern is related to the problem of legitimizing comic strip novels by linking them to the “book” and authentic literature as text, in spite of the practice at the time amongst comic book publishers to use titles and narratives from pre-modern fiction. As I mentioned above, Mao Dun seems to be at least in part answering Su Wen’s comments about “comic strips and song books” as somehow representing the reading material of the worker. Indeed, Mao Dun notes the disappearance in a very short time of one type of publication, song books, as a result of the dominance of comic strip novels. When Mao Dun refers to “notes and commentary” (meipi), he is suggesting that the way 1930s comic books divided text and image can be traced to older types of publications. But Mao Dun is clearly troubled by the tendencies of the comics he describes. For one thing, judging by his description, comic strip novels seem to use literature as a launching board to spin new narratives from the “original.”

According to Mao Dun, one negative aspect of this tendency to “fabricate” new narratives is that the original tends not to be a text, but the film adaptation of a novel. In other words, a comic strip adaptation is created from a film adaptation, not from the original novel. The problem seems to lie with the remove from a textual original. Such a complaint may sound quaint or conservative in a period such as ours with bundled franchises that include novels, films, comics and computer games. But perhaps for Mao Dun this mixing-up of narratives and characters unlinked from the original text was a tendency in a cultural product connected to “supernatural martial arts old fiction” (shenguai de wuxia de jiu xiaoshuo), a phrase that would have had great resonance in the 1930s. Convinced such literature and media pointed to superstitious belief, the government condemned this type of cultural production. Films with supernatural elements, including many martial arts films, were banned from screens at the time (Xiao 1999). Although the communists opposed many policies of the Guomindang, the party in power in the 1930s, they certainly shared a condemnation of this type of cultural production. For communists like Mao Dun, supernatural literature, film, and comic strip novels were evidence of residual feudal thinking amongst urbanites.20

The writer Li Tuo once suggested that Lu Xun and Mao Dun stood for different streams in modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun representing a modern writer who maintained a connection to classical Chinese, and Mao Dun standing for a writer who wrote a Westernized form of Chinese that would later become mainstream in the PRC.21 On the other hand, according to another writer who has written about visual culture of this period, Qi Fengge, although Mao Dun himself had introduced the works of Kollwitz and Masereel, he felt work by foreign artists should serve only as a reference, and not a model for imitation. For Mao Dun, woodcuts produced for the masses would need to describe the life of the masses, express the sentiments of the masses, and be comprehensible to the masses.22 Works that imitated Western artists would not achieve this.

As I have noted, these pieces are written at a time when Marxist-Leninism is emerging as a type of discourse, not only in politics but also in the arts. Both Lu Xun and Mao Dun regard the media they discuss as forms in need of intervention. Except for reference to premodern examples of woodcuts, Lu Xun’s discussion completely ignores modern woodcut technology in China. Intellectuals like Lu Xun and Mao Dun had difficulty looking at local culture sometimes. Yet there must have still been artisans around who knew how to prepare blocks for printing and illustration, even if the content of their work wasn’t as politically progressive as that produced by Western artists. Indeed, as Qi Fengge notes, the main difference between Chinese and Western woodblock printing was that Western artists retained authorial control throughout the process from drawing to carving to printing, whereas in China this process was divided between different individuals (Qi 2008).

Therefore, on one level Mao Dun is supplementing Lu Xun’s lists of international authors with a description of a local genre by highlighting a marginal form of publication with a large and varied readership from ten years old up, and including adult workers (precisely the audience the League of Left-wing Writers was looking for). Yet one term pops up in both articles, and it seems to have come in from the “third type of person” debate I spoke about before. The great communist theorist Qu Qiubai would criticize Su Wen’s apolitical position by remarking: “Fundamentally [Su Wen’s] position is still that he believes art should have noble sentiments and it shouldn’t serve as a political ‘gramophone.’ Therefore, he believes art is autonomous [duli] … ” (Su 80-81). In Western aesthetics, the concept of autonomy is quite important with implications right up to the present. Here the term in Chinese, duli, is being used in the negative, to negate the possibility of producing an art divorced from politics.

The way Lu Xun and Mao Dun use the term reflects on the way each writer views the relationship between text and image. For Lu Xun the image in sequence could become autonomous (duli) for the reader, while for Mao Dun, the text of comic strip novels were independent of the images and the key element for the reader. In a sense, each writer is putting a subtle emphasis on either the image (Lu Xun) or the text (Mao Dun), while both are concerned with promoting a medium for ideological and pedagogical purposes. Image and text have potential to function independent of each other; comic books as forms of print culture are linked to avant-garde illustration and authentic novelistic prose. Both articles are early examples of emerging concepts of cultural intervention in China.

These pieces show Lu Xun and Mao Dun to be forward-looking intellectuals at this time. Perhaps because of his emphasis of authorial works, except for a brief mention of Chou Ying and an acknowledgement of the medium or genre of nianhua or popular prints (see note 32), Lu Xun’s promotion of woodcuts mostly bypasses the production of woodcuts in China, especially the “folk art” still being produced in the countryside in China at the time. Mao Dun’s piece provides perhaps the first account of a new urban mass print culture, not quite folk art, but certainly a genre for artists to take notice of while learning how to carve woodblocks from foreign artists. Yet some of the first work done under the auspices of the CCP in Yan’an would be a sort of hybrid of urban avant-garde woodblock printing and nianhua (new year’s paintings) from the countryside (Flath 2004: 134-149). The woodcut movement that Lu Xun was so instrumental in promoting would continue to develop to become a state-approved technique for the production of political art, and for the institutional construction of an art of the masses, supposedly made by the masses for the masses. In recent years interest has increased in revolutionary art of the PRC. Despite stereotypes, revolutionary art was varied in style, theme, and medium, if not in “content.23

As Mary Farquhar notes, after the founding of the PRC in 1949, comic books publishing would come under the watchful eye of the state, one more aspect of centralized cultural policy during the revolutionary period (1949-1976) (Farquhar 1998: 191-248). Comics were considered to be a form of children’s literature. In the PRC, the idea that comics, also called “little people books” (xiaoren shu) were reserved for children continued up until relatively recently, when the adults who read xiaoren shu as children have turned a collector’s and investor’s eye on the comics they grew up with (Fang 2002). Despite Mao Dun’s annoyance at the “fabrications” of early comic books in Shanghai, cultural production in China has always included the integration of many media. Even during the height of the revolutionary period in the 1960s and 70s, revolutionary operas performed on the stage were also filmed for the screen, captured as tableau for posters, with the narratives turned into xiaoren shu, or comic books. Indeed, reprints of these revolutionary comics are easily available in bookstores nowadays. Like other forms of cultural production, comic books in the PRC changed during the post-revolutionary period (1978+), returning to traditional narratives from classical novels and folk tales, as well as photo novels of popular film and television series, and to the first editions of Japanese manga appearing in the 1980s. And with the more recent influx of Japanese manga, new styles of visual culture have been appearing. The state has not failed to notice this. And neither have new crops of comic book artists.

These early articles by Lu Xun and Mao Dun are excellent examples of emergent political discourse concerning literature, visual culture, mass culture and social classes. Later, discourse and theory in the PRC would become somewhat formalistic and even stale, a kind of bureaucratic culture-speak. These early articulations by Lu Xun and Mao Dun have a kind of dialogic quality within the context of debates and concerns of the time, and between the articles themselves. Lu Xun’s avant-garde aesthetics is balanced by Mao Dun’s quasi-sociological reader response approach. Lu Xun’s embrace of woodcut prints would have enormous impact on the choice of medium in the PRC, while Mao Dun’s piece reveals some of the concerns for a future target readership. Both articles represent a defense or apology of sorts, of new visual culture and mass media. Lu Xun and Mao Dun read the “comic book” as a pedagogical medium and until recently, in much the same way as here in the U.S., comics in the PRC were considered to be for a particular audience, mostly children and young adults. By focusing on this new medium for the first time in Chinese, Lu Xun and Mao Dun are able to theorize the implications of combining text and image, as well as some possible origins of a form with roots in high art, mass media, and continually changing technological modes of printing and reproduction.

In Defense of “Comic Strips”
by Lu Xun

A funny little thing happened to me once. One day at a banquet I made an offhand remark: motion pictures would certainly be better than lectures to teach students, this is the way of the future I’m afraid. Even before I’d finished speaking, my words were drowned out in a roar of laughter.

Naturally, there are many problems with this idea. For example, first of all, what kind of film would be used? If it was one of those American-type get-rich, get-married stories, that wouldn’t do. As for myself, I have certainly listened to microbiology lectures that used slides, and have seen Botany textbooks that relied on photographs with only a few words of explanation.24 Therefore, I firmly believe that not only biology, but history and geography can also be taught this way.

And so the careless laughter of many people is like a stick of white chalk that spreads over my opponent’s nose, making his words resemble the gag of an opera clown.25

A few days ago, I read an article by Mr. Su Wen in Les Contemporains in which, from his neutral standpoint as a theorist of literature and art, he wiped out “comic strips” with one fell stroke. Of course, this statement was made in passing; it was not part of a specialist discussion on illustration. Yet for young art students, this could be a significant problem, so I’d like to say a few more words about this topic.

We are used to looking at histories of painting with illustrations, but without “comic strips.” In exhibitions of famous artists, if it isn’t “Rome at Sunset,” it’s “West Lake in the Cool of the Evening,” while “comic strips” are seen as inferior, unworthy to enter the “Palace of Art.” However, if one enters the Sistine Chapel—never having had the good fortune to be able to travel to Italy, I’ve only entered the Sistine Chapel on paper—when it is one of the great murals, the images retell the Old TestamentThe Life of Jesus,26 and The Lives of the Saints in comic strips. Art historians have taken out sections, printing them in books, with titles like “The Creation of Adam” and “The Last Supper”. The reader certainly doesn’t view such works as inferior, as propagandizing. And yet those original paintings are very clearly propagandistic comic strips.

It is the same in the East. The Ajanta Cave paintings in India became shining stars in the art world after the murals were copied and printed by the British. China’s Miracles of Confucius Illustrated, as long as it is an edition from the Ming Dynasty, was treasured by collectors early on. These two types, one on the life of Buddha, the other on the particulars of Confucius’ life, are very clearly comic strips, and forms of propaganda.

Illustrations within books are intended to adorn the literary work, to increase the interest of readers. But that power, the ability to supplement the limitations of words, also makes book illustrations propagandistic. When there are many of them, the reader will be able to rely completely on the pictures to comprehend the content of the words, and once separated from the words the pictures become autonomous [duli] comic strips. The most salient example of this is France’s Gustave Doré, a well-known woodcut book illustrator, whose most famous works include illustrations for The Divine ComedyParadise LostDon Quixote, and History of the Crusades. There are German reprints of all of them (and Japanese printings of the first two). The reader can have an idea of the gist of the story just by relying on the pictures. And who would say Doré isn’t an artist?

Nowadays it is still possible to find imprints and engravings of the Song Dynasty Tang Airs IllustratedPlowing and Weaving Illustrated. As for The Unofficial Biography of Flying Sparrow Illustrated, The Story of Hui Zhen Illustrated by Qiu Ying, reprints are being sold at Wenming Publishing House. From the time they were printed until now these works have been considered as works of art.

From the second half of the nineteenth century there was a revival in woodcut printmaking and a tendency amongst authors to print a number of pictures to form a “sequence” (Blattfolge). These sequences do not necessarily relate a single incident. For the young student artists amongst you, I want to write about a number of authors, who already have a name in printmaking, and their sequential works below:

First I should start with Mrs. Käthe Kollwitz from Germany. Besides etching six illustrations for Hauptmann’s The Weavers (Die Weber), she has three other works, with titles but no captions27

  1. The Peasants’ War (Bauernkrieg), seven etchings;
  2. War (Der Kreig), seven woodcuts;
  3. Proletariat (Proletariat), three woodcuts.

What China knows about Carl Meffert is the result of his woodcut prints for the German translation of Cement. An up and coming young author, he engraved five woodcuts for the German translation of Vera Figner’s The Hunt for the Russian Czar (Die Jagd Nach Dem Zaren). He also has two sequential works:

  1. Your Sister (Deine Schwester), seven woodcuts, one epigraph;
  2. The Conserving Disciples (original title unknown), thirteen woodcuts;28

In Belgium, there is a Frans Masereel. During the Great War in Europe he fled his own country because, like Romain Rolland, he is a pacifist. He has produced the most works, and all are books. We only have the book titles, not even the subtitles. A German publisher has published popular editions of his work (München: Kurt Wolff). Each book costs three and a half marks and easy to get a hold of. I’ve been able to have a look at these:

  1. The Idea (Die Idee), Eighty three woodcuts;
  2. Passionate Journey (Mein Stundenbuch),29 165 woodcuts;
  3. Story Without Words (Geschichte one Worte), sixty woodcuts;
  4. The Sun (Die Sonne), sixty three woodcuts;
  5. Work (Das Werk), woodcuts, number lost;
  6. The Sufferings of One Man (Die Passion eines Menschen), twenty-five woodcuts.30

Of American authors, I have seen William Siegel’s The Paris Commune, A Story in Pictures, published by the John Reed Club of New York. There is also a volume of lithographs by William Gropper. According to Professor Zhao Jingshen, it’s “A Story about the Circus.” Alternately translated, I am afraid it would be “accurate but not smooth.”31 The only thing to do is to copy the original title below&mdash

Alay-Oop: Life and Love amongst the Acrobats.

I’m not very familiar with British Authors, because their books tend to be pricey. But I once had a small book, there were only fifteen woodcuts and not quite two hundred words of text, the author was the famous Robert Gibbings. Limited to five hundred copies, were the English gentleman hanged he wouldn’t allow more prints to be made. By now the prints have been discontinued, and each copy would go for around 10 yuan. That book is—

The 7th Man.

With regard to what I’ve discussed above, what I want to do is cite examples, to bring forth evidence to show that not only can comic strips be considered works of art, but they already reside within the “Palace of Art.” It goes without saying that this and other types of art all need good content and technique.

I’m certainly not advising young art students to disdainfully cast aside large-scale oil paintings or watercolors. But I hope they will, in a similar way, value and direct efforts towards comic strips and book and newspaper illustrations. Naturally, they should research works by well-known European authors, but even more importantly they should take note of portraits and illustrated volumes from old books in China, as well as new stand-alone popular prints.32 Of course, these researches and the creations that will emerge from them haven’t as yet received the usual admiration from certain people for so-called well-known authors. Nevertheless, I firmly believe the masses have a desire to see works like these, and the masses will be inspired!

October 25

“Comic Strip Novels”
by Mao Dun

Every street corner and alley’s end is densely covered by book stands like countless sentries. Although I use the word book stand, they are really just two planks of wood designated for the purpose of leaning against the wall, densely packed with every possible kind and title all in the single format of a little book. This “book stand,” if we can call it a book stand, also has a small wooden bench beside it. Whoever has paid his two coppers is permitted to sit on that bench and rent a read of twenty or thirty little books from that stand. If you’re a “regular,” you might get to read forty or fifty of them, but nothing is fixed.

These little books are what are referred to as “comic strip novels.” These book stands have imperceptibly become most popular mobile libraries for the masses of Shanghai; moreover, they are also the most powerful and most prevalent instruments of “mass education”!

First let’s have a look at the content of these little books.

The vast majority are based on stories from old novels (such as Outlaws of the MarshThe Investiture of the Gods) and adapted into short books. We can, without hesitation, call the text part an “elucidation” (shuoming), usually printed on the top of the page, in a similar manner as the “notes and commentary” (meipi) in older books. Besides this, usually occupying two thirds of the page, is the “illustration” (tuhua). We can, without hesitation, call this the “comic strip” (lianhuantuhua) section. The illustrations are in the style of the caricatures from the “Forest of Happiness” from Xinwen bao.33 Beside ten or so words to indicate the action of the characters, there are two lines coming out of their mouths with words written within the lines to show which person is speaking.34 Approximately one chapter of an old novel will be turned into twenty or thirty consecutive illustrations, collected into one short book. For example, seventy chapters from Outlaws is made into seventy “comic strip” books—each book is approximately three cun square,35 all together containing 1400 or 2100 consecutive illustrations.

As to the “elucidation” itself, it is a condensed version of the old novel, the words simply a vernacular version of the old novel. Readers with a limited vocabulary who can’t read this “elucidation” can simply look at the comic strips. The pictures contain an even briefer textual elucidation anyways. Therefore, for this type of “comic strip novel” the most important is the pictures, and the text section is only supplementary (fuzhu), for the satisfaction of those readers who have a larger vocabulary.

Nowadays supernatural martial arts old novels, good or bad, almost all have been adapted into “comic strip” books. Secondly, like The Burning of Red Lotus Temple type of movie (the comic strip novel volume of The Burning of Red Lotus Temple is based on the movie The Burning of Red Lotus Temple and not on the novel The Tale of the Wandering Knight).36 Both these works have two or three separate adaptations as comic strip books. And then there are current affairs, for example The Northern Expedition of Chiang Kai-shekThe Great Flood of 16 ProvincesThe Epic of Ma Zhanshan,37 etc. However, there aren’t many of this type of comic strip books, and most little book stands don’t carry this type, the reason being that since there aren’t any supernatural martial arts elements the readers aren’t interested.

These “comic strip novel” readers, the majority are around ten years old, and that group includes sons and daughters of small businessmen, but there are also the school children of manual laborers, the sons and daughters of car-owning capitalists. But the ones who pay two coppers to rent a read and sit on the bench beside the book stand, however, are mostly made up of fifteen or sixteen year old apprentices, and once in awhile adult workers.

These readers have decided the content of “comic strip novels” must be supernatural and martial arts. Because ten to fifteen-sixteen year-olds, no matter which class, all enjoy looking at supernatural, martial arts, adventurous “romances,”38 at least in our society that’s how it is. The book store bosses39 who produce “comic strip novels” borrow considerably from old Chinese supernatural and martial arts novels and “comic strip-ize” them; moreover, they also fabricate many new ones. For example, the Little Outlaws of the Marsh replaces each of the 108 heroes of Outlaws of the Marsh with a son, and instead of giving them different names there’s li’l Song Jiang, li’l Wu Yong and on and on. And then there are titles like Flying Knights and ThievesKnights Roam at Night, the plagiarized Three Heroes and Five Gallants, and even Seven Swords and Thirteen Heroes, produced by making superficial changes and re-stitching the stories together. They even do the same with foreign films like The Thief of Bagdad and The Mark of Zorro reworked as “comic strip novels.” Whether it’s this sort of fabricated material, or foreign material, from what I’ve seen, there are more than thirty or forty types!

I think it was around five or six years ago, these same street corner and alley end small book stands of Shanghai mostly stocked Contemporary Suzhou Opera and Contemporary Wugeng Style type songbooks. “Comic strip novels” were exceedingly rare. Nowadays, the song book that once dominated has retreated to one corner, and on some stands song books have all but disappeared. This change shows that the reading ability of the average person in Shanghai has increased dramatically within the past five or six years. Song books aren’t enough to satisfy them, they want “essays”! At the same time, since there are actually so many primary school students who enjoy reading “comic strip novels,” this also shows too much of a deficiency in reading material available for children.

Needless to say, the content of “comic strip novels” is harmful. Nevertheless, the influence of “comic strip novels” on the masses as well as children should be duly noted. In addition, we cannot deny that the form of these “comic strip novels”—two thirds of which are occupied by illustrations with simple explanations, and one third occupied by the text that accompanies the sequential illustrations, and which could stand on its own (duli de) as a condensed short book—have great potential. Because not only can that comic strip section attract readers who possess a limited vocabulary; furthermore, this section can act as a “self-study” tool to enable the same reader with a limited vocabulary to slowly but surely learn to understand the text section.

This form, if used with ingenuity, will undoubtedly become the most powerful works of mass literature and art. No matter whether it is the illustrations, or the elucidating text (remember! this elucidation section is simply an autonomous novel), they can all evolve to become “art products”! Furthermore, I can say without hesitation they will be even better than German print sequences.

December 9, 1932


[1] I would like to thank the editors and the anonymous reviewers of ImageTexT for their very helpful comments and criticisms. I would also like to thank my colleague Professor Richard Wang for his insights into the history of woodblock printing in China. Any mistakes or misreadings are, of course, my own.

[2] Su Wen and Du Heng were both pseudonyms of Dai Kechong (1907-1964).

[3] See, “Lun ‘disanzhongren’” (“On the ‘Third Type of Person”) and “Youlun ‘disanzhongren’” (“More on the ‘Third Type of Person'”) in Lu Xun (“Complete” 4: 438-444, 531-536).

[4] Wang-Chi Wong gives an excellent history of the League and a reading of the “third type of person debate” (Wong 120-151). Also see Macdonald, “Modernism in Modern Chinese Literature” for a reading of this debate within the context of autonomy in avant-garde and modernist literature and art.

[5] According to Wang-Chi Wong, at the inaugural meeting, the League planned for the formation of four study groups, and one of them was an Association for the Study of Cartoons (Manhua yanjiuhui) (Wong 63).

[6] For one of the classic statements on this topic, see Greenberg.

[7] A partial list of Western artists discussed by Lu Xun is provided in the bibliography.

[8] Literature Monthly was first published in June 1932, and the journal folded after six issues. For Lu Xun’s “In Defense of ‘Comic Strips'” see, Lu Xun (“Complete” 4: 445-450); for Mao Dun’s “Comic Strip Novels” see Mao Dun (1: 343-345). Mary Farquhar’s important study of children’s literature in the PRC includes a chapter devoted to comic books where both Lu Xun and Mao Dun are discussed (191-248). I have also consulted the first English translation of Lu Xun’s article by Xianyi and Gladys Yang as “A Defence of ‘Picture Books'” in Lu Xun (“Selected” 3: 165-168).

[9] Xiaoshuo is more accurately translated as “fiction.” However, I have used “novel” to give the connotation of the physical object of a book, both as the early comic books related to other types of publications like paperback novels in the 1920s and 30s and, as Mao Dun points out, these early publications were also ‘adaptations’ of classical novels like Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

[10] Leo Lee notes “the range of Lu Xun’s tastes in Western art is quite broad and avant-gardish” (Lee 206, note 14). Lee also notes how Lu Xun would denounce the artist and novelist Ye Lingfeng for his borrowings from Aubrey Beardsley, only to write a preface to a collection of Beardsley drawings.

[11] See Lu Xun (“Complete” 7: 319-321) and Tang (82). Judging from the afterword to the same volume, Lu Xun’s selections were mostly from late nineteenth century and early twentieth century book and magazine illustrations (7: 322-324).

[12] Nacht Über Deutschland is a series of 107 linotint prints that explicitly depict the abduction, torture, and suicide of a man while in custody by the Gestapo (Moreau 1976).

[13] While Eisner was on the other end of the spectrum politically, both he and Gropper had connections to Jewish communities in New York.

[14] Was Lu Xun’s comment about the British a suggestion that foreigners were the ones to bring such works of art to the world? He certainly knew of Sir Marc Aurel Stein’s acquisition of “antiques” from the Dunhuang area; see Lu Xun, “Kaotian chifan” (“At the Mercy of Nature”) (6: 367-369).

[15] Indeed, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) is considered the “Golden Age” for woodcuts in China. For an essay on this topic, see Zheng Zhenduo.

[16] See Drège (40-48) and Reed (220-223), et passim.

[17] Reed discusses lithography (88-127) and the three largest publishers in modern Shanghai (203-256) in his important study of print capitalism, Gutenberg in Shanghai.

[18] See Farquhar (195). Also see Yi Ke (10).

[19] Morover, Lu Xun’s comments on the price of certain portfolios suggest he was well aware of the prohibitive aspect of purchasing artwork produced by woodblock or other means. Such comments reveal how Lu Xun the collector and connoisseur went hand in hand with the revolutionary at this period of woodcut promotion.

[20] See, Mao Dun “Fengjian de xiaoshimin wenyi” (“Feudal urbanite literature and art”) (1: 359-362). Despite their popularity, only stills remain of many early martial arts genre films in China, since most were destroyed.

[21] See Li Tuo, “Haiwai zhongguo zuojia taolun hui jiyao” (“Talk at the Seminar of Overseas Chinese Writers”), cited in Zhang (114-115).

[22] See Mao Dun “Muke lianhuanhua gushi” (“Woodcut comic strip narrative”), cited in Qi Fengge 2008.

[23]Graphic Art by Workers in Shanghai, Yangchuan and Luta contains examples of traditional watercolors, oil painting, woodblock prints (black and white and color) and comic books.

[24] “A few words of explanation” is ji ju shuomingShuoming is literally an explanation or clarification. The word appears twice in Lu Xun and once in Mao Dun to indicate types of text that clarify an image in some way (see note 27).

[25]The clown in opera in China is a despicable, immoral character recognized by the white paint that extends over the bridge of his nose and over both cheeks. This seems to be a snide remark against those who laughed at the author in his opening anecdote about using film to teach.

[26] Lu Xun could be referring to the New Testament, however, I’ve translated the title he gives Yesu zhuan, literally the “Biography of Jesus.”

[27] Caption is a translation of shuoming, which can of course be a title, but Lu Xun here seems to mean a textual elucidation or accompaniment to a print.

[28] Some of the works mentioned by Lu Xun, including the illustrations for Cement by Fëdor V. Gladkov and deine Schwester, can be found in Moreau’s Early Works. It would be difficult to say what Lu Xun’s title is here; mine is an attempt to translate the Chinese title: Yanghu de mentu.

[29] My Book of Hours, published as The Passionate Journey in English.

[30] Masereel’s Die Passion eines Menschen is available as “The Passion of a Man” in Walker (33-60).

[31] A sarcastic shot at another writer, Zhao Jingshen, on the topic of translation; see Zheng.

[32] A recent online article (“Zhongguo shuhuabao” 2011) reads Lu Xun’s phrase “New stand-alone popular prints” (xin de danzhang de huazhi) as “New Year’s stand-alone popular prints” (xinnian de danzhang de huazhi). Huazhi, literally “flowery paper,” seems to have been the term for popular woodblock prints (often referred to as nianhua or New Year’s prints) of varying quality. In a letter to Chen Yanxiong (1911-1970) in 1934, Lu Xun suggested countryside people purchased such prints more from intuition and habit of what looked good than from an actual understanding of the prints. See Lu Xun (12: 364-365).

[33] Mao Dun is referring to a caricatures published in a supplement of a Shanghai newspaper called Xinwen bao from 1893-1949.

[34] Mao Dun is apparently describing a speech balloon.

[35] One cun is just over three centimeters, or just over one inch.

[36] Mao Dun is referring to a multi-volume martial arts novel by Pingjiang Bu Xiaosheng (1889-1957).

[37] A military expedition led by President Chiang-kai Shek from 1926-1928 to wrest power from the local Warlords who governed China at this time. Ma Zhanshan (1885 – 1950) was a general famous for resisting the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

[38] Mao Dun uses a phonetic equivalent, luomansi, for the word “romance.”

[39] “Book store bosses” is a literal translation of “shudian laoban.” At this time a “bookstore” could also imply a publisher.


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