Sunday, May 27, 2012

Feng Zikai Manhua: Original Chinese Cartoons

Cartoons offer a child's eye view of China

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Feng Zikai was China's pioneer in children's cartoons. He taught art and music in Shanghai in the first half of the 20th century and was also known for his essay collections on art and music, as well as his translations of Russian and Japanese texts into Chinese.
Feng was a keen observer of nature and children, and this was reflected in his art, with many of his paintings created in the style of childhood reminiscences. The style of his cartoon drawings, known as Zikai manhua, were influenced by the changing social and political climate in China between the two world wars, his Buddhist beliefs and his years living in Japan.

While Feng had many admirers, he knew others could not accept his style, and once made this comment about them:

"Some people take one look at my paintings and cry out in alarm: 'But this person has no eyes or nose, only a mouth!' or, 'The four fingers on this person's hand are all stuck together!' ... Such remarks aren't worth responding to, so I ignore them." (From Geremie Randall Barme's biography An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai [1898-1975])

I first came across Feng's name when I bought a complete set of 2009 winners and runners-up of his namesake award-winning books. The Feng Zikai Chinese Children's Picture Book Award was established in 2008 to encourage the creation of original Chinese-language children's picture books by recognising the best writers and illustrators of such books. Since then, I have joined the board of the Feng Zikai Award and witnessed first-hand the diligence and devotion with which the organisation has promoted its good cause. It's a delight to discover and read aloud Chinese picture books that aren't merely translations of English-language books.

Original Chinese-language children's books are important to learn about contemporary Chinese family life, and perhaps to observe the Chinese sense of humour.

Among the Feng Zikai Award books is one that comes with a leaflet with English translation as well as a CD with readings in Putonghua and English.

Ander Y.'s Me and My Bike is a poignant story about a boy who wishes for a new bicycle. His mother promises it to him if he gets good grades. Told in the first person, the little boy admits that he is not a very good student, but he studies very hard for the sake of his promised new bicycle. When he gets a top grade on his test, he can barely contain himself and runs home to show his mother. However, through his mother's tone and excuses, he realises the family cannot afford a new bicycle. In the end, the little boy "chooses" to buy crayons as the reward for his good grade. His old bicycle gets a new coat of paint and he rides off with a wide grin.

This story is a wonderful example of the style of myriad Chinese children's book authors who depict the hardships of modern life through a child's eyes. I hope publishers will translate more books into English to share with a wider audience of readers.

  • The Hong Kong Museum of Art's new show, Imperishable Affection: The Art of Feng Zikai, features more than 200 of his paintings. 
  • RTHK will be airing a one-hour programme Compassion for All - The Cartoons of Feng Zikai at 7.30pm, Saturday, June 9

    Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong ( a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy

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