Sanmao is one of China’s most popular comic strips. The title has been around for 79 years, longer than most other comics around the world. Published in newspapers, comic book specials, and in other forms of media, Sanmao made an impression on several generations of Chinese readers. Sanmao is endearing, enduring, violent, and political.
Born during the Japanese invasion of China Sanmao was orphaned when Japan attacked China, he wanders the streets of Shanghai as part of an army of skin-and-bones orphans. He is so malnourished, that he cannot grow much hair, thus the name, Sanmao, which means “three hairs.” At the time, street orphans were ubiquitous in China and Sanmao gave them an odd charm. He was kicked around by rich business elites while trying to find bread and a place to sleep.
Zhang Leping created Sanmao. He was eminently familiar with the hardships of his character. Zhang grew up during the Warlord Era and saw firsthand the corruption and disregard for life that existed at the time. The quality of Zhang’s early dark comics stands with the best of the other socially criticizing comics that have appeared since then. The artwork is sparse and uncluttered, with fast, moving lines.
Through the years, Sanmao evolved. He joined the army in order to fight the Japanese. During the war, he watched his fellow soldiers and friends die in bloody pages. Smaller, more cunning and more astute, Sanmao evaded death and survived the war. When the war with the Japanese was over, the little boy joined the Chinese Communist Party to fight against the Kuomintang.
By the time the CCP took over China, Sanmao became a propaganda tool, following his Zhang’s sympathies. Zhang worked for state-run newspapers and periodicals for his entire career. Sanmao would read books by exemplary communist workers and then follow their orders to do the right thing in difficult situations. During the Cultural Revolution, he would gather friends to criticize more sophisticated members of his environment. He would teach children about safe drinking water and sharing food with workers. Later, in less propagandist but equally goody-two-shoes strips, he would throw dirt on drug users, expose petty counterfeiters, and plant trees in public parks.
After the Zhang passed away, his studio was turned into a museum and a typically Western fight for ownership of Sanmao’s copyright occurred and now Sanmao travels in space and appears in less propagandist comics and movies. Since his inception, Sanmao has done well in movies, including cartoons and live action specials.
Sanmao’s life during the war is most remembered. It was a turning point in Chinese history, defining generations of activist citizens. Sanmao showed in an honest fashion just how brutal life was in China at the time, for orphans and soldiers, and later the comic boy represented his generation as an ideal communist flag bearer.