History and comics: Why Liu Jing thinks China's story 'deserves a larger audience'

With his graphic novels, author Liu Jing aims to introduce China's history and culture to the world. He told DW about challenges he faced condensing 5,000 years of history — and plans for a fifth volume.

After initially publishing the four volumes of Liu Jing's Understanding China through Comics in English, the first two volumes have now been published in a bilingual German-Chinese edition. DW spoke with Liu about his work at Berlin's International Literature Festival.

Read more: War in comics: New graphic novel tells untold side of WWII

DW: What gave you the idea to tell 5,000 years of Chinese history in the form of a graphic novel?

Liu Jing: I had this dream for a long time. But I didn't have the will to act on my dream until 2009 when we had our first son. After he was born I wanted to give him a special gift, as a father to a son. Since the graphic novel has been my long-term hobby, I decided to do a comic book.

What turned you into a historian?

I am mostly self-taught. It took me a long time, nine years, to go through all the material and put it together. I wanted a simple book, not so thick, with pictures — to make it easier to understand. Since I couldn't find such a book on Chinese history I decided to make one myself.

Liu Jing

Liu Jing: 'I hope this book can be very entertaining, and also help readers understand Chinese history'

In which role were you stronger: as an historian, or as an illustrator?

To make a book, the most important thing is to tell the story, right? It doesn't matter if you're a historian or an artist. Both serve the same goal: to make the story understandable for others. A historian can tell the facts, while the artist can visualize the facts to help people understand them better.

History is always interpretation; it's hard to decide on the right way to tell it. How did you decide on your approach, and what were your sources?

Yes, there are many ways to tell the same story, many different sides. In my books I focus more on the driving forces behind history.

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Can you give me an example?

Many history books focus more on events, or dynasties, or dramatic stories. But my books are more focused on the framework, the three driving forces behind the movement of history: culture, economic forces and social forces. All three are conditioned by the historical and geographical circumstances of a certain country. Instead of focusing on one great emperor, I would focus more on the historical background or social economical conditions behind this emperor. In that way, we can understand why a certain person or a generation made certain decisions by understanding what's behind their decisions.

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With regard to your drawings, what was more important to you? Did you want to continue the tradition of the Chinese manhua, the small books that tell a story picture by picture, or did you strive for a style more like the Japanese manga, where the graphics flow into each other? Or did you look for new forms?

I think my style is kind of a combination of traditional Chinese gongbi hua — highly detailed brushwork that has more than 1,000 years of tradition — and modern comic expressions. When I was a child in the 1980s I liked to read manhua books that tell a story picture by picture, and that certainly had an influence on me. However, the modern comic expression makes it more expressive and more dramatic. So my style is a hybrid.

Read more: German comic scene picks up the pace

Who is your intended audience for these four volumes? Chinese or non-Chinese readers? Adults or children?

The history of China deserves a larger audience, because it is rather interesting. Every country has its own unique way of becoming a modern nation. In China, different factors played out together over a long period of time to make China, China. I hope that by reading these books and also understanding the driving forces behind history, readers from other countries can use the same framework to look at their own country.

So you wrote it more for non-Chinese readers?

Yes, originally I wrote it in English. I thought it would be good for the world.

But now it has been published in Chinese as well?

At the end of last year it was published in traditional Chinese characters in Hong Kong, and this year it was published in simplified Chinese in mainland China. All four volumes.

What were the main difficulties in telling China's history as a graphic novel?

One obvious difficulty: it's really long. There is a lot of material to go through. And also, to present it in a meaningful way that can actually help readers understand the complex topic. There are 45,000 words and 1,000 images — the biggest challenge for me was to condense such a history into four volumes, despite the fact that I didn't major in history, drawing or English.

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Which historical figure did you find most fascinating?

For most people, I spent just half a page on their story; two at the most. Only two people were an exception. One was Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher. He definitely had a long-lasting impact on Chinese thinking — he has 12 pages. A modern figure in volume four, an American captain on a Chinese battleship, has 20 pages. He was part of the first Sino-Japanese war at the end of the 19th century, but in the end China lost that war. This is a great example how a generation's struggle to become a modern nation is conditioned by historical circumstances.

And who was the greatest villain?

Before I wrote the books I knew there were many historical villains, bad emperors, rebels. But after I was done, I began understanding they were not villains; they became villains because circumstances pushed them that way. We think we have a lot of options, but we actually don't. We are conditioned by many things around us. History tells us that even leaders are limited by logistical issues.

After dealing extensively with Chinese history for nine years, what did you find at the heart of Chinese culture?

In Western philosophy or religion, people are born with sin — the starting point of a human is not perfect, not good. In Chinese philosophy, people are good at birth. Even though there are many troubles, many sacrifices, even though so many bad things happen, at the end of the day the nature of this world and also the people are still good. That is a very, very fundamental difference between Chinese and Western philosophy. And from that stems a really big difference between the two civilizations.

In your four volumes you tell the history from the Shang dynasty, from about 3000 B.C., until the end of Qing dynasty in 1912. Will you continue until the present?

Yes, I'm working on a fifth volume. At first, I thought I would recount the history from 1912 until today, but then I decided to end in 1949, to focus on World War II. I found there were so many things to include concerning China's role during the war.

It might be difficult to deal with certain historical figures, like Mao Zedong.

Yes, evaluation [of his role in history] is still … ongoing. If I wrote about that, it would not be a history book anymore, it would be a critique.


Going mad

"Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad" - that was the original title of the satirical US magazine "Mad" that debuted in 1952. At first filled with superhero parodies, the magazine soon became an American cult comic. The quarterly, still published today, is filled with parodies on politics, culture and society. Pictured here is Volume 11, 1954.


Surrealism in Slumberland

Who would have thought? The first surrealists of the 20th century were not exhibited in world-famous galleries, but in comic strips. Among them was Winsor McCay. Pictured here is his work "Little Nemo in Slumberland," published in 1907. Artists like him were already experimenting with avant-garde elements early in the 20th century.


Goldberg's entanglements

Rube Goldberg's famous drawings showed that comics could also be done in a totally different way. Goldberg challenged viewers not with individual comic panels, but with portrayals of complex chain reactions. Today, the term "Goldbergian" is still used for something with a "fantastically complicated, improvised appearance."


Strange and absurd

Absurd backgrounds and strange characters - the world of "Krazy Kat," created by dadaist comic artist George Herriman, doesn't obey the usual rules of comic strip art. Here, the moon may be depicted as a slice of melon, or a mountain as a semicircle with a ball. From 1916 onward, Herriman also produced his absurd stories for daily newspapers.


Sketching nuclear trauma

In 1982, the work "Barefoot Gen" by Japanese comic artist Keiji Nakazawa was published in Germany, the very first manga to be published in the country. Nakazawa depicted the 1945 nuclear attack against Hiroshima in 10 volumes consisting of a total of 2,500 pages. The work also contains some autobiographical details. The drawings are now kept at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.


Stories from the street

At first, Robert Crumb printed his comics in a friend's cellar before selling them at a local street festival. Crumb is now seen as one of the first popular representatives of the underground comic scene. Independent of any publishing house, he didn't need to worry about content restrictions. Some of his works abound with violence and sex. Pictured here is "Girl Commandos" of 1969.

In your book, there are many explanations, lots of text. You introduce figures, there are charts — this is quite unusual for a comic book.

Right. Some readers say: 'This is not a graphic novel, this is a textbook.'

Do you object to this notion? Was it your aim to be educational?

No, I don't object — it's kind of true. Some schools in America and in China use my books as a reference for their social studies, to help students understand Chinese history. My books are not really graphic novels; they are a graphic non-fiction. Yes, the books are educational — there are charts, tables and maps. But once you get to volume four, when the book deals with the Chinese–Western conflict, then that becomes the main theme. The conflicts are very dramatic, so the story is quite entertaining.

What other projects do you have planned?

There are several things I want to do. After volume five I might — in the remote future — move on to number six. My family is slowly moving to California — we have been going back and forth for years — and so I want to understand American comics. And I might do something for kids, like children's books, 20 pages instead of 800 pages. I really enjoy drawing more than writing.

Liu Jing was born in 1971 in Beijing. He majored in mechanical engineering and international trade. In 1997, after graduation, he and his wife began a graphic design company in Beijing, Moli Design. The firm counts the BBC, the Ford Foundation and UNICEF among its many clients. Despite his success, he is still considering going back to university to study art. 

English edition (Stone Bridge Press)

Foundations of Chinese Civilization (vol. 1)
Division to Unification in Imperial China (vol. 2)
Barbarians and the Birth of Chinese Identity (vol. 3)
The Making of Modern China (vol. 4)