Dr. Lena Henningsen—Lost in Adaptation? Lu Xun and his Works in Chinese Lianhuanhua 连环画

Lu Xun and his works have been remediated through Chinese comics: lianhuanhua 连环画, literally “linked images”. Many of the literary works of the founding father of modern Chinese literature have been adapted into comic form, often in several versions, and his biography has likewise been told in comics. In this talk, I will analyze a corpus of 30-40 lianhuanhua to sketch the characteristics of these remediations through the lens of reading: First of all, these works represent readings of Lu Xun by other artists. Secondly, as a very popular medium during the Mao years they provided contemporary readers with accessible versions of the texts of the modernist writer, mass-media versions of the literary texts so to speak. Thirdly, in portraying Lu Xun reading, they present the reader with a model of how to become a proper reader for themselves, of how to read and of how to give meaning to reading. In my talk, I will disentangle the propagandistic aspects from the literary, providing answers to the following questions: What versions of Lu Xun and his texts were produced in the lianhuanhua? In how far do these changing versions represent changing discourses about literary values and the roles ascribed to literature? What is the role of mechanisms of mise-en-abyme? Combining close readings of the visual and textual aspects of the comics, I will trace the processes of adaptation. I will argue that on the surface the comics follow discourses propagating Lu Xun as the revolutionary writer as which Mao Zedong wanted to see him. At first glance, many adaptations seem to simplify the stories of Lu Xun, and the ambivalence of the originals is lost in adaptation. Taking the visuals of the medium seriously, however, I will argue that the lianhuanhua rescue the modernist author from propagandistic appropriation.


Lena Henningsen is the PI of the Freiburg-based and European Research Council (ERC)-funded project “The Politics of Reading in the People’s Republic of China,” and is currently a visiting researcher at the China Centre, Oxford. She has worked on Chinese popular literature and culture and published widely, including her most recent book Cultural Revolution Manuscripts: Unofficial Entertainment Fiction from 1970s China (2021) and translations of a number of Chinese lianhuanhua comics. From 2024-29, she will lead another ERC-funded project delving into “Comics Culture in the People’s Republic of China (ChinaComx).”