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!


Two Days in Xi’an

From Beijing we took an overnight train down to the old capital of China: Xi’an.

Here’s what the terminal at the train station looked like:


The train we took was a twelve-hour overnight trip. We paid about $150 AUD for a first class cabin, which means you get a tiny bathroom (no shower), you don’t have to share with strangers, and the bunks are marginally wider.

Xi’an was smothered in smog. Coming from modern Beijing, Xi’an seemed rambling and old, painted in shades of dirt and camouflage. Buses and cars charged down cramped streets, ignoring traffic lights and pedestrians, burping clouds of carbon monoxide. Crowds of urban schoolkids scampered along the sidewalk, pausing to gawk over magazine stalls and food shops. And overlooking the heart of the city, the stony face of the City Wall.

We stayed at the 7 Sages International Youth Hostel, an easy ten-minute walk from the main train station. Again, this is a pretty popular hostel that has got good reviews on TripAdvisor and other sites. The rooms are single-storey stone buildings arranged around miniature courtyards: traditional architecture on the outside, modern wood panelling and glass accents on the inside with blown up movie posters over the bed.


We didn’t get to enjoy the courtyards much during our time there given that the average outdoor temperature was around minus two degrees Celcius, but I’d imagine they’d create a nice atmosphere in the summertime. The staff speak English and are very helpful. There’s wifi in the restaurant/lounge area, which is super comfy and tastefully decorated. The in house food is a bit on the pricey side compared to local fare but there’s a large range.


They had a dumpling making night at the hostel. Free dumplings for meee! I stuffed myself.


Wintry gardens on the walk to the Terracotta Warriors

We visited the terracotta warriors (one hour bus ride from the main train station) which I enjoyed despite the freezing temperatures. The whole museum complex has been recently renovated and you can get some great views strolling along the well-placed walkways. I would advise bringing your own food/lunch because we were starving by 2pm and despite following the signs pointing towards a “restaurant,” we found that said restaurant proved illusory and were forced to make a measly meal out of a packet of Ritz crackers. Also, the coffees cost like $5. No thanks.


A magnificent description of a piece of history at the Terracotta Warriors Museum

We trekked the several kilometres from the terracotta warriors to the Mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang only to discover later that there was a free shuttle bus. So yes–take advantage of the free shuttle bus!

We also discovered that you can’t actually go inside the Mausoleum. The Emperor’s grave is under a big hill which has not been opened because it would be bad fengshui (says the BF’s dad, anyway).

The next day we climbed up onto the City Wall and walked from the North to the South Gate. I was surprised by how peaceful and amazing it was up there. I’d imagined it to be crowded and full of people shouting, but the top of the wall was almost completely empty, apart from a few cyclists (tandem bikes are funny), and transported me back several hundred years in time.


I’d also recommend wandering through the Muslim District of Xi’an, where you can try different foods including the famous rou jia mo, which is minced and marinaded lamb, beef or pork pressed between two pieces of pan-fried flatbread. Other foods to try in Xi’an include Biang Biang Mian and Yang Rou Pao Mo, which is a shredded bread and mutton stew. Oh, and if you’re sick of the Chinese fare…grab a banana pie from Maccas :D

Yang Rou Pao Mo on the far side of the photo

Yang Rou Pao Mo on the far side of the photo


Biang biang mian. We wandered into a dirty looking local stall. Cost me about $2 AUD.