Not many foreigners know about Sanmao. Here in China, though, he’s bigger than Disney.
He’s as prone to mischief as Bart Simpson. As endlessly honest as Richie Rich. And as dark as Charlie Brown. Darker. Even though Sanmao comics are as much for kids as they are adults, they’re filled with death, bloodshed, and misery. Sanmao is one seriously weird comic book. (Many more pages, plus clip from the movie, below)
He was created back in 1935 by Zhang Leping, an unhappy man taken with the homeless children outside his home. He’d pass them every day — starving street urchins, sometimes freezing to death before his very eyes. He was also a (lower case) nationalist — fiercely proud of his country, and frustrated by the endless shenanigans of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in the pages of the Shanghai papers.
So he created a homeless street urchin character, constantly the brunt of jokes and beatings. The child was named Sanmao — 三毛 — for the three hairs on his head.
In the first book, Sanmao Joins the Army (三毛从军记), the short boy signs up to join the battle against the Japanese invasion. Bullets fly and grenades explode. The pages are stained with blood, littered with disembodied corpses, and populated by short, sickly, yellow-skinned, Hitler-mustached Japanese. Sanmao is mocked for his size, but also takes advantage of it… he hides in bushes so he can shoot the enemy, and easily dodges bullets that puncture the skulls of his regular-sized pals.
Zhang was as dark as his books. He suffered a debilitating writers block, which he’d escape by drinking furiously. I’m not sure how this is possible, but it’s been written that he would drink until he started coughing up blood. His life was miserable, and so was his wife. So she left. Ultimately Zhang became estranged from his entire family, and died in the early 1990s.
But his little urchin character took the heart of the nation. There are five Sanmao movies, a TV series, a claymation cartoon, and any number of books. I own a pack of Sanmao playing cards, and recently passed the Sanmao Hotel. Frequently I’ll stumble across a Sanmao statue here and there…. he’s part of China.
In the second book, “The Wanderings of Sanmao” (三毛流浪记), Zhang made his communist leanings more clear. Sanmao, alone on the streets of Shanghai, is walked on, beaten, mocked, and starved. While he’s freezing on the wintry streets, trees are wrapped in bamboo reeds, and dogs are clad in miniature fur coats. The book is an overt criticism of the KMT Nationalist Party, and they criticized right back.
While he worked on this second book, he also wrote the first Sanmao movie. The same scenes and jokes would appear in both.
The producers, while hunting for the right actor to play the urchin, came across eight-year-old Wang Longjing in the middle of a fistfight. He gave his punches hard, and took them just as rough. The producer watched, thinking, “This kid knows how to scrap.” And he hired the kid — an abandoned orphan, like Sanmao — on the spot, moving him in with Zhang Leping.
The writer and the child, an unlikely couple, took to the streets together. They wandered Shanghai, searching for homeless kids, learning from them, and probably discovering who Sanmao really was. Here’s a short clip from the incredibly dark film, which is so very reminiscent of Hal Roach’s original Little Rascals shorts.
The KMT government did their best to block the film from being released, but in the end, they fled to Taiwan, and the film became the very first movie to be released in liberated China. (In America, it’s called “The Winter of Three Hairs.”) And over the years, Sanmao became a national communist hero. He became a Young Pioneer (a communist Boy Scout), he “learned from Lei Feng” (hard to explain here, but kinda like a Maoist James Dean), he fought for communist thought and Maoist theory through the pages of the comics.
The child actor followed a similar path, becoming a good communist citizen. He, too, joined the army, and was later assigned a job far from the spotlight, working in a factory, manufacturing televisions. Surely this is a good thing — actors suffered the worst under the cultural revolution. As he aged, he moved up the ranks, and eventually became a vice president, organizing trade shows for the factory.
Check out the comic book pages — they’re absolutely gorgeous. They’re in Chinese, but the words are almost an afterthought—they’re written for the masses, many of whom at the time couldn’t read Chinese, either.
76 years on, Sanmao keeps going. About once a decade, a new movie comes out. In the 1990s, when sympathetic portrayals of kuomintang army officers could be shown, a movie of “Sanmao Joins the Army” was produced. There were also three versions of “The Wanderings of Sanmao,” and a strange 60s Sanmao film where he’s played by a 50-year-old man. Such a character. I can’t recommend the books enough… you can pick them up anywhere in China.