China  -  so far and yet so near

Dossier ~ Monday 12th October 2009
The Blue Lotus (1936) - Page 06]

On 21 October, an exhibition entitled Chang  -  Herge : Two Artists' Journeys, opens at the Hergé Museum. In The Blue Lotus, Tintin managed to do away with the clichés and stereotypes so commonly held about China. But what do we really know about the most populated country in the world today?

Do you know about Chinese history?

Don't worry: we're not going to go back hundreds of years! We are only going to look at the twentieth century  -  the century during which Hergé's entire career took place, and during which the author met a Chinese sculptor and painter called Chang Chong-chen.This timescale provides the right context in which to follow the succession of events that resulted in the meeting of Hergé and Chang (for more details see our previous journals entitled: Chang! and The Making of The Blue Lotus). Before it reached its present status as a major economic power, China went through many changes during the twentieth century. She went from being an empire to a republic, and was then occupied by the Japanese before becoming, in 1949, The People's Republic of China, founded by Mao Zedong.

The end of Imperial China

The 1 January 1912 marked the end of the Chinese Empire. The world witnessed the abdication of Puyi, a seven-year-old boy (also famously known as The Last Emperor, the title of the biopic film by Bernardo Bertolucci) who took over from Empress Dowager Cixi to become the twelfth and final member of the Qing dynasty to rule over China. Empress Cixi, by all accounts an "iron lady", inspired the bloody anti-western Boxer Uprising (1900) in Beijing, the town where the English, Germans, French, Russians, Japanese and Americans were arguing over how to carve up the "Middle Kingdom".The arrival of the Republic, directed by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), a doctor by profession, marked the beginning of many dramatic events that would define the twentieth century for China. There was an immediate revolt against the new regime and a warlord by the name of Yuan Shikai managed to seize power for a short time. Sun Yat-sen was succeeded by Chang Kai-shek (1925), who led the Kuomintang, a revolutionary political party opposed to the Communists.

Shanghai, a curious and dangerous place!

While he was walking in Shanghai, the famous journalist Albert Londres (1884-1932) remarked that: "Every step you take, you see banks!" In 1932, Albert Londres visited Shanghai and Manchuria. He was shocked by what he saw on a daily basis: the traffic of arms and human beings, smuggling of all kinds, and drugs  -  specifically opium  -  smoked in "dens" (as portrayed by Hergé in The Blue Lotus).The investigative journalist gathered statements and evidence, while snooping around the casinos all along the illustrious Bund district in Shanghai, which is still a popular area today. But his life was tragically cut short in suspicious circumstances: it appears as if the fire that took hold of the Georges-Philippar, a boat on which he was returning to France, was not an accident. Was it retribution from the Chinese mafia, determined to make the inquisitive journalist disappear in the middle of the Indian Ocean? The case remains a mystery, yet considering how journalists disappear in Russia these days...

The Blue Lotus - P. 26
The Blue Lotus - P. 59
The sign on the pylon says: Boycott Japanese goods!
The Blue Lotus - P. 44

Xujiahui, the European suburb of Shanghai

The tragic fate of Albert Londres made a big impression on Hergé. Perhaps the desire to send Tintin to the Far East stemmed from the stories he read about Albert Londres' escapades? Tintinologists are still debating the subject! Turning back to Chang's story, it was in a suburb of Shanghai, Xujiahui, that the young boy spent his childhood. In the sixteenth century, a priest called Father Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) set up the first Christian community in Xujiahui. There were no fewer than 40,000 converts. From 1842, European Jesuits (notably Belgians) began moving into the area as permanent residents. They developed an education system, social assistance, a printing firm, a publisher's (Tushanwan), an observatory and a university. While it opened itself fully to western influence, Shanghai retained its Chinese identity, a genuine multicultural success! The town became the location of the first Communist Party Congress, directed by a young Mao Zedong on 23 July 1921.

A coveted Shanghai

Shanghai was also the door through which many large western companies tried to gain a foothold in the huge Chinese market. A French concession and an international concession (regions under foreign administration) had been in existence since 1842. Great Britain, Russia, Germany, France and Japan were all keen to turn the industrious nature of the Chinese population to their advantages, and to exploit Chinese wealth. Anything was fair game: the British imposed control over the opium trade! They organised the importation of the drug from another British colony, India. All profit was good profit for the "upstanding" British businessmen. On a more positive note, it was the Belgians that installed the tram system in the French concession.

The ravages of war

Shanghai has been the centre of bloody conflicts, not only between various factions and the Chinese army, but also through the Japanese occupation.The French writer André Malraux paints a horrific picture of events in his novel, Man's Fate (1934). Other portrayals can be found in the books of Pearl Buck and Chinese authors such as Mao Dun, in his classic story, Midnight (1933).The Japanese attached China in July 1937, at a time when they were already occupying Manchuria. Following terrible fighting resulting in thousands of victims, Shanghai was occupied from 3 December. The defeat of the Japanese in 1945 didn't resolve the chaos, and it was the creation of The People's Republic of China in 1949 that would finally silence the cannons.Despite turbulent times, life carried on. In October 1939, Chang Chong-chen married Shen Peiquin. They had several children: following the loss of their first son (Jian Long, in 1941 at the age of 8 months), the family flourished with Yifang (Fanfan) born in 1949, Yifei (Fifi) in 1951, Yixuan in 1953 and Xueren in 1956.

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