Sanmao is not the archetypal national icon. He wasn’t a brawny warrior; he never had any political or ideological vision. He’s a thin, starved orphan who struggled just to keep himself fed. But something about this waif resonated with audiences, and still does today.
When Zhang Leping first drew a simple line-drawn cartoon of a young orphan, he had no idea he was creating a Chinese hero. Zhang was 25, fresh out of art school and living in Shanghai; it was 1935.
What he drew was an early version of Sanmao. Sanmao is a common child’s name in Shanghai which literally means “three hairs”—appropriately, Sanmao only grows three hairs on his head. Sanmao couldn’t grow hair, Zhang would later explain, because he never had enough food.
Zhang knew about poverty. He was born to a poor family in Zhejiang Province in 1910. Zhang had a tough childhood and when he was 14 left school. Three years later, in 1927, his hometown was attacked by the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party).
Zhang had always been a creative child and when he turned 18 his relatives encouraged him go to art school inShanghai. That’s when Zhang realized how much he liked comics.
In 1935, Zhang’s drawings of Sanmao made their first appearance in the Shanghai paper Xiaochenbao. Then, Sanmao was a simple comic character, a clown, and he was a hit with readers. But Zhang left Shanghai soon after that, and so did Sanmao, when war broke out.
Tensions between the Japanese and Chinese had been rising since 1931, and in 1937 the Japanese invaded. Anti-Japanese propaganda campaigns were mounted by what was then called the Republic of China, and illustrators were in high demand. Zhang put his artistic skills to use.
Zhang was specially recruited to travel the country—to Wuhan, Changsha, Nanjing and Guilin—and draw propaganda posters, some of which even featured Sanmao.
Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, Zhang returned to Shanghai where he started publishing again in the Shanghai newspaper Shenbao. This series was called “Sanmao Follows the Army,” and allowed Zhang to reflect on—and satirize—his own wartime experience.
The Sanmao character had begun to change—he was no longer just a clown—Zhang was using the comic strip to tell a more serious story, to illustrate a changing China.
Sanmao joins the Kuomintang army where he is regularly harassed by his senior officers. But through a series of mishaps, Sanmao leads the KMT into a battle with the Japanese and serendipitously wins.
The series closes with the Japanese surrender. Sanmao finds himself at a crossroads—he can return to the countryside, or move to the city. Either way he goes, graves stretch far into the distance. The final image is bleak and provocative. That’s what makes it so compelling.
But Sanmao’s defining moment came in 1947, when Zhang wrote “The Wanderings of Sanmao,” also known as “An Orphan in the Streets.” Zhang was finding his voice as an author and Sanmao was growing, developing and gaining depth as a character.
“On one snowy night, Zhang Leping was walking home from the office,” Hong Peiqi, Zhang’s publisher, remembered. “He passed by an alleyway and saw three street children huddled together. For shirts, they wore used grain sacks. For pants they had old, threadbare trousers. They warmed themselves around a fire. The next morning, when Zhang passed the same alley, he found two of these orphans had died overnight.”
This kind of thing was not uncommon. “Was there really such a child as Sanmao?” Zhang reflected later. “Homeless children were in every street and alley you walked along in Shanghai.”
After leaving the army, Sanmao finds his way to Shanghai, a city ravaged by war and overrun with hungry, poor orphans. It’s a desolate picture, seen through the eyes of a naive young boy, just trying to keep himself clothed and fed.
The readers fell in love; their hearts went out to Sanmao. He was so popular that Zhang received boxes of fan-mail; some readers sent used clothing, which they hoped would find its way to the orphan. Zhang received this letter from an eight-year-old fan:
Dear Mr. Zhang,
I have not seen Sanmao for three days and I am really worried about him. Where has he gone? Has he starved or frozen to death after all? Or has he gone to school? Please tell me the truth.
Zhang received some threatening mail, too. The Kuomintang newspaper, The Central Daily, criticized the cartoon, calling it “cruel”; they accused Zhang of ignoring the positive aspects of the Kuomintang government and only showing the poverty.
In Shanghai of the 1930s and 1940s, there were stark disparities between the haves and the have-nots. This became a central theme in Zhang’s work. In “Sanmao Follows the Army,” the Japanese were the antagonists, but in “The Wanderings of Sanmao,” the bourgeoisie emerged as the true villains.
Sanmao might not have been popular with the KMT, but after Liberation, in 1949, “The Wanderings of Sanmao” was collected, reprinted and spread throughout the country. It was seen as an important work for New China.
There is little text in Sanmao. It isn’t hard to follow. You didn’t have to be highly educated to appreciate it; it doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of ancient Chinese literature. You didn’t even have to be able to read at all to be a fan.
The same year as Liberation, “The Wanderings of Sanmao” was adapted into a film, “The Winter of Three Hairs.” Most of the scenes and characters were pulled directly from the pages of the comic strip.
Like the comic, it’s dark but has moments of humor; unlike the original “Wanderings of Sanmao,” the film ends with a Communist parade through the streets. “Didn’t you hear, Sanmao?” one homeless boy shouts. “We’re free!” Sanmao runs excitedly to the parading forces and joins in. The dark times have ended.
Sanmao’s narrative continued after Liberation; his story followed China’s. Encouraged by the Party, Zhang published a number of propaganda pieces in quick succession: “Sanmao Greets Liberation,” “Sanmao’s Past and Present,” “Sanmao’s Diary,” “Sanmao Learns from Lei Feng,” and “Sanmao Loves Science.”
When Zhang Leping passed away in 1991, his son Zhang Rongrong further developed Sanmao’s story—developing a television series, a feature-length film and even a computer game.
Still, the centerpiece of Sanmao’s story remains his pre-Liberation wanderings. They’re desolate, poignant, windows into a different time.
“For many people, Sanmao reminds them of the tribulations of the old society,” Zhang Rongrong said. China has changed, dramatically, rapidly.