Go to any bookstore in China into the graphic novel section and, without a doubt, you’ll see a certain face on the cover of many books. Even if you’re no more than a passing Sinophile, you would recognize that scrappy, friendly young boy, rendered in expressive line drawings and embarking on darkly comic adventures, as San Mao, or “three hairs.” Outside of China, he’s virtually unknown, but that could change with some recent international recognition.
According to China Daily, the comic artist who created San Mao, Zhang Leping, has received a posthumous special honor in the 2018 Silent Book Contest, which awards wordless, image-based books from around the globe. This is the first such honor for a Chinese artist, and because Leping passed away more than 20 years ago, his son took home the award for his father.
San Mao is a hero from a different time when China struggled with a Japanese occupation, civil strife and crushing poverty. Because of this, the tone of a San Mao comic can be stunningly black. For example, one eight paneled comic has San Mao taking care of and loving an army horse, only to be sent away, then return to see the troop eating horse soup. Another has him in his kindness giving his thin shirt to a freezing child, only to be run off the sidewalk by a couple in voluminous fur coats. The tone fits neatly into a framework of the proletariat versus the wealthy.
Politics aside, San Mao receiving international praise is a long time coming. In China, San Mao has gone through countless media incarnations as inoffensive CCTV cartoons, new comic strips, names of many businesses, and even an odd, old film starring an actor over fifty in the title role. But San Mao’s humble, friendly demeanor, and humor in the face of constant adversity, is what makes this a classic of contemporary Chinese culture.