History in pictures (includes pigs)

I recently got Understanding China Through Comics which is Liu Jing’s cartoon history of China. The first volume goes to the end of the Han, then the next two will take the story up to 1911, 1911 being apparently the year History Stopped in China. Is it any good? Sort of. Is it an interesting project? Yes. My natural comparison for this book is the first bit of Larry Gonick’s A Cartoon History of the Universe. This is not very fair, since it is possible to not be Jimi Hendrix and still be a pretty good guitarist.

One difference is the Gonick is just a better artist. Compare these two panels on the Fall of Ur and the Fall of Wang Mang.

Gonick obviously draws better, the panel is laid out better, and it is much more dramatic. I particularly like the guy at the bottom who is apparently about to shoot the lamenter. Gonick does action well.

Both of them include little primary source quotations, like the lament for Ur above and this from Confucius’s Great Learning1

I assume that in both cases they are using the quotes to get a more direct connection to the sources and because they are just cool, but they also connect to the purposes of the two projects. Liu’s purpose is to write a book for people like his son, who need to understand Chinese history, which is a 5,000 year quest to create a xiaokang or middle class society.2 Gonick’s purpose is to tell a bunch of interesting and important stories, but if they don’t add up to a coherent narrative that’s o.k. So we have one pretty nationalist book and one more liberal-artsy one. The Great Learning is there because it is important.  The Lament for Ur is there just because it is great.

You can see their different goals in what they choose to talk about. Gonick is quite happy to mix myth with history, since legends and stories fit in fine with what he is trying to do. He can do this by inserting his narrative voice (he likes to talk about his sources)

Or he can do it graphically

Liu skips rapidly from the culture heroes Fu Xi and Nu Wa to the ‘more historical’ Yellow Emperor and keeps pretty tightly to a standard historical development timeline. He has things to get through, and he is going to get through them.

This is quite a nice panel. It would be hard to sum up Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism in this few words any better. Of course one could spend more words on classical philosophy, but Liu is in a hurry to get on to building the empire, so he is not going to follow Zhuangzi around the way Gonick follows Socrates around, although some have done that.

Liu is not going to give us the story of Sima Xiangru or Jing Ke, because whatever they can tell us about Chinese culture they don’t tell us much about the growth of the Chinese state and Chinese power. Gonick has similar problems in the later volumes of his history, where he gets trapped into more of a World-History textbook story of development.3 Both authors try to humanize their subjects, which is easier for Gonick. Since he is more interested in things like technological change he can include more commoners to help him show the march of progress.

Both of them are sort of stuck with the fact that most of the sources for the early period deal with elites, and thus much of what they say about the personal lives of these people centers on sex and violence. Violence is easier for Gonick, who is not writing for kids. Thus we get the death of Joab,which Liu matches with the castration of Sima Qian

They also both use humor. Some of Liu’s humor is, I think, inadvertent and connected to translations problems.It actually does make sense to refer to Cai Lun, the inventor of paper, as having been an “entry-level eunuch” at one point but I find the phrase hilarious. Gonick has more room for humor, since he is free to stuff in anything he wants from word origin stories with cute picturesto pigs

Why use a full page on this? Because seasick pigs are funny, and even if they don’t push the narrative forward they are worth putting in.

Liu gives us this little guy, the perfect toady and informer.

He’s worth a grin all by himself, but he’s only here as part of a full page denouncing the foolishness of trying to get the rich to pay taxes.4

While this may be at attempt to draw historical lessons for use in contemporary society, Liu will also include things that have nothing at all to do with the present. Here he gives us the student protests of 169 A.D.5

And their suppression

In general though, things like student protest that have nothing at all to do with contemporary China get short shrift from Liu. I teach a class the covers much the same period as his book, and I spend a lot more time on the age of philosophers and much less on the rise of state power in the Han, presumably because I am more interested in the development of Chinese culture than in finding the roots of Chinese power. Liu is also much more concerned with comparisons that make China look more advanced than the West

or at least draw parallels.

So while I may not be wildly impressed with Liu, I am looking forward to the next volumes, since a chapter with a title like  “Jesus is my bro: Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace Rebellion” is something you just have to look at.

Maybe the problem is not one of the author’s skills or intentions, but just that the medium of comics is better suited to the “Overview of Classical Civilization” approach than the “Graphical Textbook” approach. Or maybe historians just need to start writing history differently.

Why am I going on about this? It’s not as much a desire to beat up on Liu Jing or praise Larry Gonick as a desire to think more about presenting history graphically. This is something I have been working on for a long time Almost all of my undergraduate courses were just words in the air and on the chalkboard, with maybe one slide lecture a semester. In grad school I ran into a professor who regularly put black and white transparencies up on an overhead, and this was a habit I carried over to my own teaching. So I spent a lot of time looking for pictures that would work in black and white and would actually say something beyond “This is what Liang Qichao’s head looked like.” Powerpoint of course made pictures easier, and now I use a lot of images. Unlike Gonick and Liu, I don’t draw my own, so I am stuck with what I can find.6

I sometimes think about how the availability of ‘found’ images affects my teaching. I have found some nice ones. If you want to imply that Chiang Kai-shek was a neo-fascist dictator this works well

If you want to hint at the insanity of thinking that Chairman Mao Thought could make crops grow in a desert, this one works well

There are lots of horrors of war pictures, but as I only show them to students for a few seconds and I am not going to post them here.7 On the other hand, there are lots of things I would like to say that I have not found good pictures for. Sometimes you can make graphs or whatever, but you end up with parts you can do well visually and parts you can’t. If even Larry Gonick struggles to integrate words and text what hope do the rest of us have?8




  1. did you know that Confucius wrote the Great Learning? Gonick seems to have done better research 

  2. He does not say so, but here he is citing the ancient philosopher Deng Xiaoping 

  3. This is not fair to Gonick, and to continue the musical metaphor from above, it’s like saying that the Violent Femmes never did anything as good as their first album. Even at his weakest, however, I don’t recall Gonick becoming as non-graphical as this, from Liu.  

  4. Liu Jing is a successful businessman in China today  

  5. Gonick is also willing to draw lots of contemporary lessons, which is especially evident in his feminism. 

  6. Also, I don’t do bullet points, just an outline followed by lots of pictures and maybe some quotes. 

  7. These dead people may have been gone for a long time, but I feel dirty if I use their suffering to entertain my students’ baser urges longer than I have to. 

  8. I am leaving out the level of technology and skill in using it, of course. 

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