Shanghai, as China's most influential industrial and cultural metropolis, has also been China's publishing center throughout the twentieth century. This exhibition, curated by Kuiyi Shen and Julia F. Andrews, with the assistance of the Shanghai People's Art Publishing House, displays original drawings for fourteen lianhuanhua produced in Shanghai between 1950 and 1985, along with examples of illustrated books published in Shanghai between the late nineteenth century and the present decade.
The term lianhuanhua, literally "linked pictures," was coined in Shanghai in the 1920s to describe a form of illustrated story that had been developing in urban China since the introduction of Western printing technology in the late nineteenth century. Lianhuanhua books are usually only about three by five inches in size, with one picture to a page, and serve a market similar to that for cartoons and comics in the West. Although different in format and theme from most Western comic books, lianhuanhua may be described as the Chinese response to new forms of publishing imported from the West. Lianhuanhua books of the Republican period, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, frequently took their stories from popular dramas, traditional fiction, or contemporary film. Those documenting current runs of successful dramatic productions, as well as those based on movies, were generally rushed to press(sometimes drawn and printed the night of the opening performance for sale the following morning)and were generally sold at prices lower than the cost of a theater ticket. Lianhuanhua of this period, like Shen Manyun's Arrest of the Orchid, may have balloons for dialogue, in the Western manner, but the majority rely on captions written in panels above, below, or inside the pictures. The characters are often depicted in opera costume.
With establishment of the People's Republic of China in the fall of 1949, the Communist art authorities, some of whom came from the working class Shanghai families that were lianhuanhua's primary consumers, identified the immensely popular genre of lianhuanhua as both an ideological problem and an educational opportunity. They aimed first to eradicate poorly produced comics that promoted superstition, pornography, or violence, and, second, to replace them with high quality, educationally uplifting but still entertaining new works. The popularity of the beautifully rendered war story, Railroad Guerrillas, of which almost 4 million copies were printed, speaks to a transformation rather than eradication of the market for violence, while the revival of action-filled classical stories such as Monkey Beats the White-boned Demon in the mid-1950s was part of a conscious transformation of the traditional morality underlying China's popular mythology.
The Communist cultural program required a complete reorganization of the Shanghai art world, including bringing all the artists into studios run by major publishing houses. Pre-Communist Shanghai lianhuanhua had been produced in private workshops, each run by a single master who designed the work and handled his firm's commissions and financial affairs. Drawings done partially or even completely by his apprentices were published under his name, and the incomes of master and disciples alike were uncertain. In 1952, the Shanghai publishers were reorganized into two large presses, the state-run East China People's Art Press (renamed Shanghai People's Art Publishing House in 1954) and the New Art Press, which absorbed the artists of many private lianhuanhua publishers. Well-trained art school graduates and talented young artists, such as Ding Bingzeng, Han Heping, and He Youzhi, were assigned to the state press; many older artists, including Zhao Hongben, worked for the quasi-private New Art Press. Artists worked from captions composed by specialized editors rather than writing texts themselves. At the beginning of 1956, nationalization of Shanghai's publishing industry was complete, and New Art Press was merged into Shanghai People's Art Publishing House.
The exhibition is divided into two parts. It begins with historical and mythological subjects, and progresses in the second section to modern subjects. Within the Shanghai studios, artists were divided into antique costume specialists and specialists in realistic rendering. In the first decade after 1949, older artists, including Zhao Hongben and Qian Shaodai, excelled at the antique costume genre, while younger artists gravitated to modern subjects. By the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the old lianhuanhua artists had passed from the scene, and this distinction became less rigid. The realist He Youzhi, for example, ventured into the antique costume mode with his Fifteen Strings of Cash.