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Culture News | People&Life | Education | Arts & Artists| GD Special
Sanmao, China's favorite son turns 70
Latest Updated by 2005-07-28 16:36:07

Three generations of Chinese children have grown up reading about the adventures of the country's most popular comic book hero. Michelle Zhang looks back over the life of Sanmao on the 70th anniversary of his "birth" today.


Sanmao has long been considered one of the best and most popular cartoon images among the Chinese cartoon fans. [baidu]

Just like Tintin with young Western fans of comic strip heroes, Sanmao - a happy-go-lucky resourceful boy with only three locks of hair - has been entertaining youthful Chinese readers from the day he was "born" 70 years ago today.

"Sanmao is perhaps the oldest Chinese cartoon character still alive today," says Zhang Rongrong, son of the famous late painter Zhang Leping (1910-92) who created Sanmao.

"Many of Sanmao's contemporaries, such as 'Mr Wang' and 'Miss Bee,' are no longer remembered by people. However, Sanmao still remains many people's favorite."

Sanmao, which means "three locks of hair" in Chinese, is traditionally a popular nickname for children, especially around the Yangtze Delta.

His cartoon image is known to all Chinese both at home and abroad. Sanmao is a resilient, innocent boy who always insists on having a child's perspective when dealing with the adult world.


Late Taiwan well read writer Chen Ping also chose Sanmao as her pen name out of her deep love and sympathy for the happy-go-lucky, homeless boy in old Shanghai. [baidu]

"It is not an exaggeration to say that three generations of Chinese - from the elderly to children in kindergartens - have grown up with Sanmao," he says.

The cartoon strips have also been translated into many foreign languages and introduced to other regions and countries.

The boy's bittersweet stories have moved thousands of readers around the world. Renowned late Taiwanese writer Chen Ping 1943-91) even chose "San Mao" as her pen name out of her deep fondness and sympathy for the lonely, homeless boy.

Today, the whole nation is celebrating Sanmao's 70th birthday and in his birth place of Shanghai, a launching ceremony for two books on Sanmao and his "father" Zhang Leping will be held today at the Shanghai Library.

Earlier this month, a newly adapted multimedia children's drama "Sanmao Joins the Army" was staged in Beijing and attracted audiences of thousands of young people.

Meanwhile, a 104-episode cartoon sitcom about Sanmao is now being made by China Central Television, together with an online game designed by a Chengdu-based company.

In the game, a modern version of Sanmao will guide players in an exploration of the planets of the solar system.

"If my father were still alive, he would be very glad to see the children of today enjoying a peaceful and happy childhood through Sanmao's stories," Zhang says.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for Sanmao being so widely loved is that he never fails to keep up with the times.

Mr Zhang Leping, the father of Sanmao, passed away in 1992. Zhang created the old Shanghai poor boy image in order to help many real life Sanmaos then. [baidu]

The 1930s, or the early period of Sanmao's life, is considered to be a period of great advancement in the development of China's modern cartoon industry.

In Shanghai alone back then, there were more than 20 cartoon magazines and cartoon comics could be found in most of the newspapers.

In 1936, the first nationwide exhibition on cartoon works was organized and an association bringing together all the best-known cartoonists was formed, marking 1936 "The Year of Cartoon."

"However, almost all the cartoon images created by Chinese artists at that time were of adults instead of children, " Zhang recalls. "The emergence of Sanmao filled a blank space - young readers had finally found their own equivalent of Mickey Mouse or Popeye."

Sanmao's "father" Zhang Leping also broke a rule by not adding words to his comic strips at a time when cartoon works had dialogue.

"Sanmao was created for all the people, including the poor and the illiterate," explains the junior Zhang. "Every time when my father finished a cartoon, he always showed it to us first to see whether we could understand - if we couldn't, he would restart."

In two years from 1935 to 1937, Zhang Leping had created more than 200 works about Sanmao who was just like any naughty boys in the neighborhood.

However, China's War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) broke out and forced the cartoonist to stop working on Sanmao for almost 10 years.

He resumed his work in 1946 and decided to draw images reflecting his thoughts and experiences of the war years.

Using Sanmao's resilient innocence, the author dramatized the confusion brought about by the war and expressed his concern for its young victims.

After the war ended, the lost boy came back to Shanghai, then an economically depressed industrial city, and continued his "new" roaming life on the streets.

This led to the stories for "Sanmao's Orphan Tramp," the best-known and most successful of the Sanmao series.

Featuring a total of 261 cartoon strips, the Sanmao series tells of the miserable life led by the homeless boy. Through Sanmao's eyes, people see the joys and hardships of life in old Shanghai.

"My father created the orphan Sanmao in tears especially when he saw the young orphans frozen to death on the streets," Zhang recalls. "With his pen, he wanted to help those real life Sanmaos.

"Many of the incidents that happened to Sanmao were actually my father's own personal experiences," he says. "For example, through Sanmao, he told about the experience of being an apprentice when he was a little child."

As soon as the cartoon serial appeared in the paper, it evoked such reverberations that Zhang Leping often received letters, money, or even packages of clothes from the readers who asked him to give them to Sanmao.

In 1948, Kunlun Film Studio firstly brought the stories onto the silver screen. The movie "An Orphan on the Streets" is considered as one of the best Chinese children's movies even till today and has won major awards at some foreign film festivals.

Sanmao's stories entered a new stage after the Liberation in 1949. The great changes of the country have provided Zhang Leping with infinite inspirations. In the following years, he had created various significant Sanmao works in succession, such as "Sanmao Greets Liberation," "Sanmao's Past and Present," "Sanmao Loves Sports" and "Sanmao Loves Science."

The master cartoonist had never stopped drawing Sanmao until his last days. After he passed away, his family set up a company to collect his previous works as well as to popularize the image of Sanmao all over the world.

"For many people, Sanmao is still the poor orphan wandering on the streets, whose image reminds them of the tribulations of the old society," Zhang Rongrong says. "Although always staying the same small physical size, Sanmao is growing up with the times. He is no longer a hungry, homeless boy but a healthy, smart student in the 21st century.

"Sanmao has similar dreams to those of today's children. For example, he is looking forward to exploring outer space so we helped him realize the dream in a play," he smiles. "There are many, many more plans for Sanmao - people will have to wait and see."

Editor: Yan

By: Source:Shanghai Daily web edition
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