Book Review: A Chinese Life – Li Kunwu, Philippe Otie


I found this book in my local library last week and the blurb convinced me to take it home:

An autobiography in graphic-novel form, A Chinese Life traces a remarkable personal journey through modern history, from the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the present day…this stylish masterpiece of design chronicles the rise and legacy of Chairman Mao Zedong and his sweeping, often cataclysmic vision for the most populous country on the planet. Li Kunwu witnessed this extraordinary period at first hand, and here intertwines the experiences of his family and neighbours, his friends and rivals, his colleagues and compatriots, in a visionary account of “interesting times”.

Although I am of Chinese ethnicity, I actually know shamefully little about Chinese culture and history. The closest person of my extended family to be born in China was my maternal grandfather, who passed away when I was a child. My great-grandparents lived in China, but I never met them.

I think, therefore, this book was quite perfect for me. The target audience seems to be Western, or non-Chinese, readers. It is the personal memoir of Li Kunwu, a Chinese artist who was born just following the Communist Revolution and during the height of Mao Zedong’s influence. His experience of the Great Leap Forward, the tragic effects of the severe famine on his family and hometown, the fervour of the Cultural Revolution, and ultimately the opening up of China to foreign interchange and subsequent power, are particularly memorable because we see it through the eyes of a Chinese man.

The first half of the book is definitely more engaging than the second half. The relationship with his father is especially poignant to observe. Li depicts events and reactions with little commentary, leaving conclusion and opinion up to the reader. Only towards the end does he share his opinion of the events of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Overall, this graphic novel certainly gave me a compelling insight into the mind of a man growing up in twentieth century China. It was also a great introduction for me into China’s recent history. Although it’s a hefty-looking book at 700 pages, it didn’t take me too long to finish. The pacing was commendable. The black and white artwork is lively and generally easy to follow, except for a few jumps here and there and difficulty telling characters apart. Worth its while if you’re looking for a unique form of autobiography and are keen to learn a bit about Chinese history from an insider’s point of view!


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