Life Is… (Li Kunwu)

Like any big meal, it takes some time to digest what you’ve consumed and let the food settle before you can fully appreciate what you just went through.

The wait for a table, the anticipation growing with every waft of food that lingers by on outstretched fingertips as the waitress hustles order number 56 off to table twelve. The decision making process of what to order itself is an experience, and then the final push comes as you promise yourself to limit the dinner roll indulgences as you sit there some more as the food is prepared.

Finally, the food arrives.

You take it all in, and consider the journey you are about to take. It’s never what you pictured in your mind, but any good chef is capable of surprising you, and hopefully she has laid a good foundation for your senses to adapt to dinner.

 

Or maybe this is all just a metaphor for a book I read last month, and finally got around to writing about in early April.

Tracing A Remarkable Journey

The author of about thirty books, Li Kunwu has been a central figure in The Daily in Yunnan for decades now. He is has made painting, drawn comic strips, and published his own works, one of which I personally read recently as part of my monthly book exercise.

Can you guess what theme he fits into?

It’s actually two categories – LIFE and LOVE.

A Chinese Life is an autobiography presented in a graphic novel format, and it chronicles the journey of Li Kunwu throughout his life in China. He was born in the 1950s, so we get to experience the development of the People’s Republic of China through his youthful eyes. A member of the People’s Liberation Army, Li manages to recapture his own memories in a way that is both intimate and large enough in scale to be understood by an average historical student. There are parts filled with humour and with drama, but it never feels too heavy in one camp or the other.

It takes a few sessions of concentrated reading to get through, coming in at about 700 pages worth of content, and to be clear, the combination of text and image is at almost equivalent distribution.

Read Army

 

What I found most interesting in reading this story was not how little I really knew about The People’s Republic, nor how little I knew about Li himself. What I found most interesting was how well his story translated to english and how despite all of the seemingly incredible adversity he faced over his lifetime, that a lot of his struggles were universal.

From learning how to relate to his father, to finding love, to discovering his purpose in life, to simply living and experiencing a host of different things, A Chinese Life is an excellent demonstration of a life lived full. And Li does follow his purpose, all the while choosing to believe in what he has believed in from a young age.

It’s incredibly rewarding to see him make art to serve the purposes of a party member hairdresser, and how he finds ways throughout his youth all the way into adulthood which make him into a better artist, and which often tie in directly with his political climate. Illustrating for propaganda posters and newspaper cartoons alike.

Even when Yunnan has it’s first life model class.

And eventually we reach a point well into Li’s adult life, after his father has died, he has been through a divorce, and is taking care of his child as a single parent, that he meets a French writer and diplomat at a comic book convention. This is the point when the story begins to wrap up, and we have a moment to reflect on what we’ve been witness to.

The Modern Age

This is a story all at once encompassing and yet missing details.

Much like any good story, things have been embellished, while other pieces have been glossed over and left out. For instance, as much as I enjoyed the journey from youth, to adulthood, the final 100 pages or so seem sparse and cover a great period of time. This is intention of course, otherwise we’d be left with a 1400 page graphic novel, and I’m not sure that many people would have picked it up.

It is fascinating to see the world through the eyes of someone on the other side of it, and especially of one who holds a different political viewpoint then we are used to, but then again, life is… complex.

At least that’s my theory.

Tim!

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