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Illustrating a New Nation: Shanghai Lianhuanhua in the Early Maoist Period

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This dissertation centers on the formation of socialist lianhuanhua in China in the 1950s and 1960s. Lianhuanhua is a special genre of comics that was widely welcomed by urban readers in China from the early twentieth century to the mid-1980s. Aiming to reform readers into socialist subjects, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) instrumentalized lianhuanhua for didacticism and propaganda. Following the Stalinist dictum of “socialist realism,” which mandated proletariat art to be “national in form and socialist in content,” lianhuanhua artists selected pictorial elements from European academic painting, folk art, and Chinese classical painting from different regions and periods in history to create an effective visual language that answered both the Party-State’s demand and urban readers’ taste. The dissertation first illustrates the CCP’s tactics for reforming the lianhuanhua industry in Shanghai in terms of production, circulation, and censorship. In the subsequent chapters, I examine three iconic lianhuanhua published by Shanghai People’s Art Press, including Zhao Hongben and Qian Xiaodai’s Sun Wukong Thrice Beats the White-Bone Demon, He Youzhi’s Great Changes in a Mountain Village, and Ding Binzeng and Han Heping’s Railroad Guerrillas, to inquire into the following questions: What innovations and conventions were adopted by artists in the making of lianhuanhua? How have lianhuanhua artists recycled, reinterpreted, and redeployed cultures through time? How do these various reuses reflect their particular political, social, and cultural contexts? By dissecting the visual components in the lianhuanhua, I explore how socialist realism, as an aesthetico-political project, evolved and adjusted to fit the conditions in China after its introduction from the Soviet Union. The research adds to recent studies of Chinese socialist culture that question the common perception of socialist realism as a method imposed by the state and therefore is rigid, monolithic, and monotonous. In this research, I demonstrate lianhuanhua making as a complex process that involves negotiations between high politics, cultural policies, the target readers’ preferences, and artists’ understanding of their task of creating new works for a new nation.

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This item is under embargo until December 20, 2023.