Lianhuanhua (also known as “xiaorenshu”) is a form of illustrated storybook that became prominent in Shanghai in the 1920s during Republican era of China (1912-1949). It was seen as the Chinese reaction to the innovations of western printmaking that emerged in this era. The style of lianhuanhua is a hybrid of both traditionally Chinese styles, utilizing techniques from Chinese folk art, and calligraphy as well as western techniques such as sketching, and oil painting. Although lianhuanhua’s earliest use was by educators to spread Confucian ideals, this style was later utilized for mass entertainment. With the literal translation meaning “linked pictures”, these small, typically hand-sized books depicted classic fables and operas as well as stories from popular culture in the pre-communist era. Some publishing houses were able to distribute retellings of the popular plays and operas of the time the morning after the opening day of production for a much lower cost than a theatre ticket. The low cost of these mass printed booklets made them a less expensive alternative for entertainment, and were hugely popular until their decline in the 1980s.

Following the Communist Revolution and the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, the Communist art authorities saw this genre as both a menace and an opportunity. Their strategy was to replace and eradicate what they deemed to be low quality works that promoted violence, superstition, and pornography with high quality, educational stories. They hoped to promote new ideals through war stories and transform Chinese morality through creative retellings of traditional Chinese mythology. With that aim, artists in Shanghai that previously were hired by small, private workshops were consolidated into two firms; the publically owned Shanghai People’s Art Publishing House and the quasi-private New Art Press (which was later absorbed by Shanghai People’s Art Publishing House in 1956) to produce these high quality works. These institutions housed prominent artists such as Heping Han (1932-), and Zhao Hongben(1915-2000).

In the present day, lianhuanhua has experienced a decline in popularity due to the introduction of other forms of low cost entertainment in the 1980s, following the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The influx of more diverse and economical options of entertainment (for example, the television) contributed to the loss of prevalence of the genre. In the 2000s the genre experienced resurgence due to the interest of collectors and expanding collector’s markets, which view the genre as historically and culturally valuable. New illustrators have attempted to draw inspiration from lianhuanhua by mixing new (digital) techniques with lianhuanhua styles to create a renewed appreciation for the genre.

— Shelly Qiu

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