“Seizing the Battlefield” in the face of “Guerrilla Vending”:
The Struggle over the Dissemination of Lianhuanhua,
1949 to 1956

By Rebecca Scott

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 29, no.1  (Spring 2017), pp. 136-171

The ways in which literary and artistic media were disseminated under Mao is a largely unexplored field, but its study highlights the fundamental limits of Party-State control over the political-cultural sphere. In the 1950s, lianhuanhua (serial-picture stories) constituted a ‘popular political culture’ endorsed by the Party-State and adored by readers. An analysis of the development of the medium provides a unique opportunity to explore the extent to which Party-State organizations were able to monitor dissemination and circulation networks to control what people read.

This essay is based on rarely used archival material and other published sources from 1949 to 1956, by which time the socialization of the lianhuanhua publishing industry had been fulfilled. It analyzes Party-State approaches to lianhuanhua dissemination which ranged from direct control to a more gradual and incentive-based approach. At times the Cultural Bureau and other Party-State agencies adopted a more direct approach by distributing ‘revolutionary’ lianhuanhua through Party-State-authorized channels, such as bookstores, schools and factories to support campaigns, improve literacy and as a form of ideological education. However, this paper demonstrates that other lianhuanhua that were perceived by government departments to be at best ‘un-educational’ and at worst ‘harmful’ continued to circulate in urban areas, contrary to what we might expect to be the case in early socialist China. Many ‘guerrilla vendors’ who daily sold or rented out lianhuanhua in their thousands managed to resist control and thus Party-State agencies were not able to entirely ‘seize the battlefield’.