The second volume of Understanding China Through Comics is out.1 I ‘reviewed‘ the first volume and concluded that Jing Liu is no Larry Gonick, but it’s not bad. My short review of the new volume is that he is still no Larry Gonick, but this volume is even better than the first one, and you should certainly buy it.
The art has many of the same problems as the first volume, but is better in general. There are still too many places where what is going on in the story is not represented graphically. So, the struggle between Shu, Wu and Wei is represented, in part, by three guys getting ready to fight on a map.
Obviously a lot of history is hard to represent well in pictures, but that’s the whole point of being a cartoonist, that you are better at this then we are. Although there are some clunkers in here there are also some quite serviceable bits, like this one on corruption.
A better one on the Three Kingdoms, showing backstabbing and armies being destroyed
And even some quite good ones, like this on street fighting in Chang-an, which looks like it might have been inspired by a WWII movie but at least gives you a nice feeling of tension.
This volume deals with the period from the end of the Han to the end of the Tang, so basically the Age of Disunion and the Glory of Tang. This is a tricky period to deal with in Western books on China. What happened in the Age of Disunion (other than the introduction of Buddhism) that you want your students to know about? What can you say about the Tang other than it was glorious? Obviously there are things you –can- say, but it’s hard to make a good narrative. The modern period is easy to organize: imperialism and revolution. Up to the Han is easy too. Creating Chinese culture by adding stuff (ancestor worship, Confucianism, an emperor) until we get to what we already know China is. In both of those periods you already have some people Western readers will know (Mao Zedong, Confucius, that guy with the Terra-cotta warriors) and some themes they should be familiar with (nation-building, schools of philosophy). Making something Americans will understand out of the middle bit is harder and sometimes slips into “If it’s Tuesday this must be the Yuan.”
Liu has it easier since he is writing for a Chinese audience who have heard of more things in this period and will have more things they want explained to them. Thus he can link the eccentric scholars of the early age of disunion to modern China’s culture of alcohol and also to the long Chinese tradition of free thinking and rejecting government service, all things that a Chinese audience would know about (and want to know the historical origins of) but you would have to spend a lot of time explaining to foreigners.
Liu is a bit more interested in linking history to the present than I am. Thus one of the main takeaways from Zen is that it inspired Steve Jobs.2
He also however includes some things that have nothing at all to do with the Chinese present, such as this panel on nepotism.
Or this one, on the dangers of invading foreign lands.
Of course he can play up Chinese pride more than most outside authors would. The might of Tang gets no less than three full pages.
The section on the Three Kingdoms best represents how good this book is. This is something a western book might skip over pretty quickly. Yes, the struggle between the three was a great drama and has inspired lots of stories, but other than some administrative reforms by Cao Cao how does it matter in the long-term development of Chinese civilization? For a Chinese audience of course it matters a lot. How can a History of China not have Zhuge Liang? Liu gives us a clear view of the importance of the story in Chinese culture.
While there is lots of stuff on loyalty, betrayal, and infighting among elites here he does not ignore the social costs of all this warfare on ordinary people or the militarization of Chinese society that resulted.
It’s not that easy to balance a mythical history and a factual history and do them both well, but this section does it. All it all it is a pretty good book, and you should certainly buy it.