By Lena Henningsen
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2021)
“Maple” 枫 is a comic book (连环画) adapted from a eponymous short story by Zheng Yi 郑义 (1947-) that has also been translated into Western languages (Zheng 1983a, 1983b). The short story is one of the key examples of “scar literature” (伤痕文学, aka “wounds literature” or “literature of the wounded”) (Knight 2016), which emerged shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution as a literary investigation into the psychological wounds inflicted on individuals during the preceding decade. Scar literature has been discredited as formulaic in its attribution of all responsibility for the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution to the Gang of Four, as well as with its “bright tail” (光明尾巴) endings optimistically pointing to a prosperous and happy future under the Four Modernizations program, thus affirming the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Nonetheless, the texts fulfilled an important function at the time, acknowledging the suffering of many individuals and, more importantly, valorizing literary representations of individual experiences and desires.
“Maple,” however, differs from other scar short stories. Narrating a tale of extreme violence during the Red Guard factional struggles of the early years of the Cultural Revolution, it provides no optimistic ending or reconciliation: Lu Danfeng and Li Honggang, former lovers now fighting for opposing Red Guard factions, are both dead. In their encounter during the final roof-top battle, Li Honggang is unable to prevent Danfeng’s death. Subsequently, he breaks with his own faction and takes to a restless life, seemingly struggling with the guilt he feels over his earlier actions. Two years later, at the end of the story, he is sentenced to death for killing Danfeng and quickly executed. Likewise, the narrator, their former teacher, is trapped within feelings of remorse and guilt: early in the story, Danfeng spares his life and entrusts him with a letter for Honggang that he—the narrator/teacher—delivers only after the deadly encounter on the rooftop. Might he have saved Danfeng’s life if had he remembered earlier to hand the letter to its addressee? Or would an earlier reading of the letter have caused even more bloodshed among the young and hot-tempered revolutionaries? The text in the comic does not spell this out, yet the images clearly point to the ambivalent emotions the protagonists experience. They leave the reader pondering the moral dilemmas in which those involved in factional struggles were entrapped during the Cultural Revolution.
Because violence is central to the story, most literary magazines declined to publish it. However, it was finally published in in February 1979 in Wenhui bao (文汇报). It received a mixed critical reception, but for general readers it represented an important new stage in literature of the early post-Mao period. The comic book adaptation was published in August of the same year in Lianhuan huabao (连环画报) and intensified the controversy: in addition to depicting violence, it implicitly attributes responsibility for that violence to Mao Zedong, thus entering into yet another “forbidden zone.” As a result, distribution of the journal issue was halted for a few days. The debate continued in reviews by political figures and in readers’ letters to the journal. A 1980 film adaptation by Emei Film Studio in Chengdu prolonged the debate. Both the comic and the film adaptations were criticized for representing Jiang Qing (1914-1991) and Lin Biao (1907-1971) in a neutral or overly positive light (Link 1983: 57-58; Link 2000: 71, 94-95). In the comic, for example, Lin Biao appears on a supersized poster in panel 14 holding a copy of the Little Red Book; Jiang Qing appears in person in panel 2 and on a poster in panel 8. This criticism of the comic’s representation of these two political figures needs to be understood in the context of the immediate post-Cultural Revolutionary rewriting of history: Lin Biao and Jiang Qing, the latter a member of the Gang of Four, were counted among the main evil-doers of the Cultural Revolution. After the arrest of the Gang in 1976 and up to their trial in 1980-1981, a nationwide campaign that included satirical cartoons was launched to frame its members as an organized anti-party clique. As Damian Mandzunowski (2019) puts it, “These cartoons were both visual templates to be copied and an affective means of propaganda that reinforced the campaign in the creation of a hegemonic narrative about the recent past. By creating a visual framework of the Gang of Four as bloody, appalling, and despicable tyrants, [the] manhua aimed to evoke emotions of hostility, hatred, and detestation among the masses.” Therefore, the rather realistic depictions of Lin Biao and Jiang Qing in the comic seemed politically problematic, to say the very least.
Both the short story and the comic adaptation critically examine the ideologically-driven violence of the Cultural Revolution. Right at the beginning, the comic mentions the Central Cultural Revolution Group (CCRG, 中央文革小组), which acted as the de facto highest power in the country during the early years of the Cultural Revolution. Both the original and the comic start with a quote from a September 5, 1967 speech by Jiang Qing, one of the members of the CCRG, that justifies the use of violence (for an English translation of the speech, see Jiang Qing 1967). The quote is part of a larger revolutionary discourse that links words to armed struggle—for example, showing the famous “revolutionary” writer Lu Xun wielding his pen as a weapon. Words—particularly the studying and reciting of the words of Chairman Mao (see Yang 2016)—are crucial to the revolutionary struggle, or, at least to a performance of that struggle. As we see in panel 7, Danfeng proves her revolutionary fervor by reciting by heart the entire Little Red Book (or Quotations of Chairman Mao). As was common practice during the Cultural Revolution, Li Honggang carries his copy with him, even when he is in the heat of battle (panel 27). The Little Red Book, produced by none other than Lin Biao, was crucial in developing the personality cult around Mao (Cook 2014).
The power of words (and their revolutionary and violent intentions) are also represented in the names of the rebel factions. The name “Rebel Headquarters” (造反总司令部, or 造总) speaks for itself and for their claim to represent the core of all rebellion. The Jinggang Mountain Faction (井冈山), which is victorious at the end of the story, chose their auspicious name from the mountainous region in Jiangxi province that is considered the birthplace of the Chinese Red Army and the “cradle of the revolution,” thus underlining their willingness to resort to violence and to die like revolutionary martyrs.
The comic not only depicts the physical violence of the Cultural Revolution, it can also be seen as a representation of its sonic, visual, and ideological violence. The armed struggle, after all, takes place over a broadcasting station. Seizing a local broadcasting station meant control over the words disseminated through loudspeakers and radios (Li 2020). Also, the microphones arranged on a stage from which Danfeng recites Mao’s words alert readers of the fact that words were—and had to be—amplified, contributing to the revolutionary sound- or noisescape (after all, increasing the volume can sometimes result in a cacophony of unintelligible noise). Further contributing to this aural atmosphere are the many machine guns raised into the air, visually suggesting the sound of gunfire—and the terrifying and paralyzing silence when the gunshots subside and the surviving protagonist has to come to terms with Danfeng’s death.
As a visual form, the comic also interrogates the iconography of the Cultural Revolution and the cult of Mao (Leese 2013): buildings have political slogans written on them (panel 23), rooms are decorated with posters of chairman Mao (panels 6, 7 and 8). Images and slogans are everywhere, they are part of the scenery. However, these slogans and posters are not as colorful and bright as they appear in Cultural Revolution-era representations; they show signs of neglect or disrepair, and they are often relegated to the background. In such a background position, Mao seems to be a witness to the violent action unfolding in his name as well as to the unfolding of love between Danfeng and Honggang (panels 6 through 8). At the same time, he is slightly blurred in these images and moved to the background, perhaps a corrective to his god-like omnipresence during the Cultural Revolution.
Some of the images are soaked in red—the color of the revolution, the Party, Chairman Mao, and the nation. Yet, rather than suggesting positive heroism, red in the comic evokes decay, despair, and wasted lives, as well as the futility and absurdity of ideologically-motivated bloodshed. This symbolic correlation is conveyed through the central motif of red maple leaves, which cover the ground in an autumnal scene and point to the natural decay that is part of the cycle of seasons. The female protagonist of the story embodies all this: first, like the leaves that fall from the tree and die, she sacrifices herself for the revolutionary cause; and, second, her name, Danfeng, literally means “Red Maple.” The red maple leaf thus represents what started off as innocent romance between two young people and turns into a bitter struggle over revolutionary truth and over life and death.
As the story progresses, the visual markers of ideology disappear from the illustrations, and the focus shifts to the protagonists, whose faces increasingly express their horror, fears, and hopelessness. The protagonists are carefully positioned in landscapes that are filled with the rubble of armed struggle, which seems to also reflect their inner states of mind. Also, the style of the images differs significantly from what might be considered the visual mainstream of Chinese comic books with their clear-cut drawings, often in black-and-white, used to communicate clear ideological truths to readers. In addition to challenging official assumptions about the nature of the Cultural Revolution and to drawing attention to the violence of the era, this also serves to place the individual and his and her experiences and emotions center stage.
Chen Yimin 陈宜民, Liu Ninglian 刘宇廉 and Li Bin 李斌 (adaptation). 2015. Maple 枫:一部著名连环画的文献 (Maple: A piece of famous lianhuanhua literature). Beijing: Renmin meishu.
Cook, Alexander C., ed. 2014. Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jiang Qing. 1967. “Talk at a Conference of Representatives of Anwhei Who Have Come to Beijing.” In Union Research Institute, ed., CCP Documents of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-1967, Hong Kong: Union Research, 1968, 520-534, quoted from https://www.marxists.org/archive/jiang-qing/1967/september/05.htm, last access July 8, 2021.
Knight, Sabina 2016. “Scar Literature and the Memory of Trauma.” In Kirk A. Denton, ed., The Columbia Companion to Modern Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 293-298.
Leese, Daniel. 2013. Mao Cult: Rhetoric and Ritual in China’s Cultural Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Link, Perry, ed. 1983. Stubborn Weeds: Popular and Controversial Chinese Literature after the Cultural Revolution, London: Blond and Briggs.
Link, Perry. 2000. The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literary System. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Li, Jie. 2020. “Revolutionary Echoes: Radios and Loudspeakers in the Mao Era.” Twentieth-Century China 45, no.1 (Jan.) 25-45.
Mandzunowski, Damian. 2019. “Caricatures Criticizing the Gang of Four: Introduction.” In The Maoist Legacy, https://www.maoistlegacy.de/db/caricatures-criticizing-the-gang-of-four, last access July 9, 2021.
Yang, Guobin. 2016. The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China. New York: Columbia University Press.
Zheng Yi 郑义. 1979. Maple 枫. Wenhui bao 文汇报 (Feb. 11).
Zheng Yi 郑义. 1979. Maple 枫 (adapted by Chen Yimin 陈宜民, Liu Ninglian 刘宇廉 and Li Bin 李斌). Lianhuan huabao 连环画报 (Nov. 1979), quoted after: http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5f5e490c0100lt56.html, last access April 20, 2021.
Zheng, Yi 1983a. “Maple.” Tr. Douglas Spelman. In Perry Link, ed., Stubborn Weeds: Popular and Controversial Chinese Literature after the Cultural Revolution. Longon: Blond and Briggs, 57-73.
Zheng, Yi 1983b. “Roter Ahorn.” Tr. Thomas Harnisch. In Rudolf G. Wagner, ed., Literatur und Politik in der Volksrepublik China. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 32-50.
 For this publication, I acknowledge the support of the ERC-funded project “The Politics of Reading in the People’s Republic of China” (READCHINA, Grant agreement No. 757365/SH5: 2018-2023). I thank Joschua Seiler and Damian Mandzunowski for comments on earlier drafts.