Remember the last time we visited that wretched and bruised little street urchin, Sanmao? Oh, what dark laughs we shared.
Well, the other day I found two new Sanmao books. From 1980 and 1985, they were full of strips I’d never seen. I leapt with joy and overpaid for them — they were antiques, the old man insisted. When I flipped them open, though, I discovered something saccharine and horrible.
What? He’s benching 90? He’s a master of calligraphy? He’s… he’s… what about the blood, gore and sick Chinese humor???
Just to remind you, this is where we last left this homeless waif…
Clearly, somewhere between 1950 and 1980, something horrible happened in China.
Here’s the old Sanmao, windswept and miserable in 1950:
And the same kid, an acclaimed scientific orator in 1980:
This is Fonzie on a surfboard, Archie on teen sex, this is just plain wrong. Yes, Sanmao was always sweet. But this is nauseating.
In “Sanmao Learns from Lei Feng” (三毛学雷锋, 1985), he follows the pseudo-fictional James Dean of Chinese kindness and Maoist perfection. “Learn from Lei Feng” was a national mantra, something my Chinese friends all grew up reciting. It meant “Do good deeds for the Communist party.”
Good deeds, yes. Humor? Sorely missing. (The book prob wasn’t released in Guangzhou #Yueyue.)
Meanwhile, to look back, here’s him besting a Japanese soldier, in “Sanmao Joins the Army”:
And here’s a heartbreaking page from “The Journey of Sanmao”…
The black laughs, the wrenching pain.
Meanwhile, here’s a two-page knee-slapper from “Sanmao Loves Scientific Knowledge” (三毛爱科学, 1980):
“Unboiled water isn’t drinkable.” A strange message from the kid that used to drink paint.
But then I came across this two-pager in the Lei Feng book. Something about it shook me.
Watch how Sanmao leads the gang to the scornful beatniks. They bear brooms like a Red Guard lynch mob. Notice the scarred (and scared, but more scarred) look in the man’s eyes. Sanmao crouches, waiting, as if he’s got all the time in the world. And the mob’s stance makes their own shame clear: they feel embarrassed for this couple. And then, below, there’s silence for an entire half page. Think about what they’ve done.
Okay, I take it all back. THose two pages are fantastic. This book is f’ing brilliant.