Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The Chinese picture-story book
Today, if you went into a comic store in China, you would not find anything else except
American superhero books and Japanese mangas. But once upon a time, there was a totally
different art style which kept the place that the comics stay in right now, appeared all over streets
and lanes, deeply influenced people’s entertainment life and flavor of art. It is the Chinese
picture-story book.
Different from the comic’s complicated story boards, the Chinese picture-story book tells a
sequential story by showing a single image in per page and combining the related descriptions
below the image. The size of the books are small, most of them are no larger than four by seven
inches. The painting skill comes from the traditional Chinese line drawing, which is using
changing lines to portray characters, things, shading and textures.
As a native art style, the origin of picture-story book can be traced back to the Northern Wei
Dynasty that people had already been used to combine writing and pictures to tell a story. Some
of the picture-story books today are directly re-creations of those ancient art works such like the
murals of Mogao Grottoes. During the Tang Dynasty, based on a background that the Buddhism
was crazy prevailing, the illustrated sutras were widely separated among the common people,
and the picture-texts art style was widely accepted by the same time. Till Song Dynasty, with the
popularization of printing technology, a big plenty of picture books with brilliant contents were
made and popular. They were very similar with the picture-story book today and became the
predecessor of it.
In modern times, the Chinese picture-books experienced rising and falling within one hundred
of years. It was once a big part in people’s life of entertainment, advertisement and education,
and gradually forgotten by people with the changing of the culture environment. It has been
framing, lighting Chinese modern culture, and left the highlight in the history.
The embryonic time
By the end of Qing Dynasty, with the developing of printing
technique, the picture-book was widely popularized. In 1884, the
Shun Pao newspaper office started publishing a pictorial as a
handout to attract readers. In 1899, ShangHai Culture& Arts
Publishing published Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which was
the first series of picture-books that presented the content of classic
literary works. Later during the Republican period, with a higher
interest of people, the picture-story book got a further development,
a large number of new works were published. Until 1930, most of
those books were myth stories or historical war stories. This
condition suddenly changed after Japan invaded in the northeast of
China in 1931, more and more picture-books which talked about
people’s life under the war and related social issues appeared in
eyes. One of the most famous and popular series of picture-story
books Sanmao Roams, which described a war orphan’s struggling
life, were published from 1935.
The good time
During the civil war from 1945 to 1949, the materials were terribly
scarce. As the easiest way to have fun of, the picture-story book
once became the synonym of entertainment, and got the most
numbers of readers ever. After 1949 the war’s ending, the country
started recovering, and the picture-story books met its first excited
golden age. Because of its popularity, the government saw the
picture-story book as an important way to acknowledge people, it
highly enriched people’s life. Based on a huge sales volume, more
and more artist throw themselves into picture-story book, and
resulted a widely enlarged range of topics. Historical stories, legends,
classic novel stories, political propagandas, science, and even
minority language stories. Also, because most of the artist who
working on picture-story books were the top-level painters, the books
during this time were qualitatively the highest ever, and the
resplendence was hard to reappear in later days. The golden age of
picture-book last to 1966, left China numerous treasures behind.
The stasis and the second peak
In 1966, the Cultural Revolution started. Just like all the other art styles, the
picture-story book totally stopped its steps on developing. Within around ten
years, the free creating was basically into a standstill. The topics were limited
by the rules we called “three emphasizing” and “following the red”. So finally
all those characters became highly similar to each other, and the stories were
going in the same model. Later in 1978, the wrong way of the Cultural
Revolution was corrected, and the picture-story book met its second good
time. After ten years blanking period, for catching up with the world, the artists
started absorbing elements from foreign culture. The traditional line work
changed close to western sketches, the size of the book became lager, and
the color in pictures became purer and brighter. Also, a lots of stories that
adapted from foreign novels were published. In 1980, the highest art college,
Central Academy of Fine Art, opened the picture-story book program. But all
of these efforts seems too late, with the quick separating of video media,
comics, and manga, the picture-story book loosing most of readers. Several
years later in 1990, the picture-story books had already been out of common
people’s life.