Drawn Along Cultural Lines

ByFang Aiqing August 6, 2020

After six decades, the animated movie Uproar in Heaven is still considered among the best in Chinese film history.

Adapted from household classic novel Journey to the West in the 1960s, the movie, featuring the Monkey King fighting with the hierarchical Jade Emperor (God of the Heaven) and his bureaucrats, has made the heroic character one of the most widely recognized in Chinese culture.

Seldom known, however, was the late graphic designer of the cartoon, Zhang Guangyu (1900-65), whose work has influenced many well-known artists, including the late Ye Qianyu (1907-95), Huang Yongyu and Han Meilin.

To commemorate the 120th anniversary of Zhang's birth, a collection of his major works, including Minjian Qingge (Folk Love Poems) and Xiyou Manji (Comics on Journey to the West) have been published. There is also a group of memoirs from Zhang's artist friends and oldest son.

Previously, the majority of his works had only been published once.

When designing the cartoon images for Uproar in Heaven, Zhang borrowed styles from traditional Chinese sculpture, painted murals, woodcuts, paper-cuts and shadow puppetry. He also highlighted different personal traits of the characters, such as the Monkey King's innocence, integrity, courage and wisdom and the fatuity of the Jade Emperor, according to Li Keruo, one of the film's screenwriters.

Moreover, Zhang's characters act vividly, showing the impact of posture, movement, costume and atmosphere derived from Peking Opera. The settings in the cartoon, such as the palace, lake, peach garden in heaven and the famous Huaguo Mountain and Shuilian Cave belonging to the monkeys, were inspired by Buddhist and Taoist architecture.

Zhang became interested in watching Peking Opera performers paint their faces backstage in his childhood. The makeup serves as an indicator of the characters' personalities.

He later painted stage settings for the troupe, before providing his skills to art journals and commercial advertisements in the 1920s.

Zhang's comics and illustrations during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) and the following civil war in the late 1940s shone a light on a dark situation and offered encouragement to people at the time.

Xiyou Manji, comprising 60 comics, was completed and put on display in the cities of Chongqing and Chengdu in Southwest China in 1945. Its exhibition was banned in Shanghai the following year, however, as Zhang's work was seen to criticize the economic collapse and oppression toward intellectuals.

On the other hand, Minjian Qingge was one of Zhang's earlier representative works. It's a series of drawings based on ancient folk poems and songs collected by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) writer Feng Menglong.

By using clear, pliable lines, the paintings demonstrate the lively atmosphere of the countryside and small towns around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, where Zhang was born and raised.

"It not only presents Zhang's deep understanding of Chinese folk woodblock printing, but also shows the influence of German painters' precision and the exaggerated style of Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias (1904-57)," Ye Qianyu once commented on the work.

Covarrubias once completed over 30 illustrations for classic Chinese novel Outlaws of the Marsh — one that enjoys equal popularity with Journey to the West, and he had met Zhang in Shanghai in the 1930s.

Zhang, too, had created a group of figures for Outlaws of the Marsh in Hong Kong during the World War II. This work forms the third book of comics in the new collection.

Additionally, his drawings included figures of the classic novel Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), household folklore, legends of ethnic people, Indonesian dancers, and an exclusive series of women.

It's fine to decorate and exaggerate a bit in comics as long as its meaning and sarcasm are not diminished, Zhang wrote in his preface of the first edition of Xiyou Manji in 1958.

Artist Huang Miaozi (1913-2012), quoting Zhang's work as "a symbol of Chinese modern art," donated the 1 million yuan ($144,000) he received for his China Arts Award at the end of 2011, just 21 days before his death, to act as fund for the re-publication of Zhang's work.

To comply with Huang's wish, his son Huang Dagang and son-in-law Tang Wei, a professor at the Academy of Arts and Design of Beijing's Tsinghua University, have looked into Zhang's work and life for years and led the editing of the collection, which was released in February.

"What Zhang created were often things we held in our hearts, but never flowed from our pens," Huang Dagang said during an online discussion held in June, adding that Zhang was good at applying different styles into different works.


(Source: China Daily)


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