« | Home | »

Tintin in China

Tags: | |

What does the poster say?

In his recent piece on Hergé in the LRB, Christopher Tayler notes the influence on Tintin’s creator of a Chinese artist, Zhang Chongren, whom he met in 1934, as he was starting work on The Blue Lotus. In the story, Tintin saves a Chinese boy called Chang Chong-Chen from a flood and the two become inseparable allies. Set in and around Shanghai in the early 1930s, the plot is loosely based on the Mukden Incident and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. As well as scheming Japanese officers, the villains include an American businessman and a venal British police chief.

The book is sympathetic to the Chinese and, as Tayler says, ‘consciously satirical towards European notions of cultural superiority’. Zhang is generally credited with bringing about this change in Hergé’s attitudes, as well as with helping him develop a sense of pictorial composition that owes something to Chinese aesthetics. But Zhang also made a more direct contribution to The Blue Lotus.

When I first read the story, I was interested by the profusion of Chinese writing in signs, wall-hangings, posters, graffiti, and occasionally speech bubbles. What did they say? Or were they merely random characters included for atmospheric effect? I later learned some Chinese, and found that they were intelligible. Some characters in the larger banners may have been copied by Hergé or a studio assistant, but the smaller texts are written with such assurance that the hand must be Zhang’s. In three places his personal name 充仁 (Chongren) appears as a cryptic signature, partly obscured, on signs in the background, once next to the character 張, Zhang, his family name.

One prevalent poster is an advertisement for Siemens (西門子, ‘Xi-men-zi’), which had run factories in China since 1899. Indoors there are proverbs and shanshui poems. Political slogans are daubed on outside walls. Some are incomplete but all would have been instantly understood by a Chinese reader. A truncated line of graffiti refers to 三民主義, the ‘Three Principles of the People’ adopted by the Chinese Republic under Sun Yat-sen (national self-determination, democracy and the welfare of the people). A torn poster reads: 取消不平等… (‘Abrogate the unequal…’). Any Chinese reader would know that the final missing characters were 條約, ‘treaties’. The ‘agreements’ imposed by force after the Opium Wars, which established Western and Japanese commercial dominance in the treaty ports, with extraterritorial rights giving foreigners immunity from Chinese law, were deeply resented.

In a pivotal scene, Tintin goes to the aid of a rickshaw puller who is being beaten and abused as a ‘dirty little Chinaman’ by the villainous American businessman. A prominent poster spanning the frame carries the slogan 打倒帝國主義: ‘Smash imperialism.’

When The Blue Lotus was first published, Japan complained formally to the Belgian government. Chiang Kai-shek liked it so much, he invited Hergé to visit China. A redrawn edition was published after the war but then suppressed by the Communists. In 1984 the Beijing authorities permitted a new edition, but only after some further changes were made – not to the story, but to the Chinese background detail. Deng Xiaoping’s plans for China’s development depended on encouraging Japanese and other foreign investment. A poster that had originally said 抵制日貨 (‘Boycott Japanese goods’) became a street sign: 大吉路 (‘Great Auspiciousness Street’).

Tintin’s friend Chang reappears in Tintin in Tibet (1958), but Hergé lost touch with Zhang Chongren in the late 1930s. They finally met again in 1981. Zhang, who had become a menial labourer during the Cultural Revolution, regained his reputation as an artist in China, but spent his last years in France, where he died in 1998.

Comments on “Tintin in China”

  1. jock123 says:

    A thoughtful article.

    Whilst learning Chinese to decipher the inscriptions in the book is truly admirable, for those without the time or the inclination, there is a complete guide to the Chinese text on our Tintinologist.org web-site:


Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.

  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • name on Who is the enemy?: Simply stating it is correct doesn't make it so, I just wish you would apply the same epistemic vigilance to "Muslim crimes" as you do to their Hebrew...
    • Glen Newey on Unwinnable War: The legal issue admits of far less clarity than the simple terms in which you – I imagine quite sincerely – frame them. For the benefit of readers...
    • Geoff Roberts on The New Normal: The causes go back a long way into the colonial past, but the more immediate causes stem from the activities of the US forces in the name of freedom a...
    • sol_adelman on The New Normal: There's also the fact that the French state denied the mass drownings of '61 even happened for forty-odd years. No episode in post-war W European hist...
    • funky gibbon on At Wembley: If England get France in the quarter finals of Euro 16 I expect that a good deal of the fraternity will go out the window

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Stephen W. Smith:
    The French Intervention in Mali
    7 February 2013

    ‘Depending on what counts as military intervention, France changed the course of history by force in sub-Saharan Africa about thirty times between 1945 and 1990.’

    Bruce Whitehouse:
    What went wrong in Mali?
    30 August 2012

    ‘The Republic of Mali has long been seen as the exception to the dictatorships or civil wars that have seemed the rule in West Africa since the end of the Cold War.’

    Jeremy Harding: Algeria’s Camus
    4 December 2014

    ‘Camus liked to hector the settlers, whose behaviour reflected the structural injustices of colonialism. All the same, he felt that certain misconceptions in metropolitan France needed straightening out.’

    Hugh Roberts: The Hijackers
    16 July 2015

    ‘American intelligence saw Islamic State coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it.’

Advertisement Advertisement