The incredible adventures of the young Belgian reporter Tintin (and his white fox terier) were one of the most famous comic books’ series of the 20th century. Drawn and written by Belgian artist Hergé (1907–1983) the stories were set in different exotic locations of the world, Soviet Union, Congo, Tibet and many more.
Hergé’s early work was characterised by obvious stereotypes, the most (in)famous example of this is considered to be “Tintin in Congo”, where the native inhabitants are portrayed as ridiculous primitive savages – in contrast to the sophistication of the colonialists, of course.
The turn in this type of narrative occurred in quite interesting circumstances. After the publication of a similarly stereotypic “Cigars of the Pharaoh” Hergé announced that next Tintin’s adventure was to take place in China. In response to that, father Gosset, a chaplain of the Chinese students at the University of Leuven, wrote him a letter, advising him to portray China more realistically. In addition to that, it was through this connection that Hergé was introduced to a Chinese art student in Leuven, Zhang Chongren (张充仁, 1907-1998). Zhang provided Hergé with information about many aspects of Chinese reality of the time: the culture and history, the aesthetics and art, and -perhaps most importantly- about the political situation of China in the thirtees.
The story of The Blue Lotus is thus set in the 30’s Shanghai and is admirably accurate in its portrayal of the city in its “golden age”. The criticism is directed towards the colonial powers (focusing on the caricatures of British and Japanese, but NOT the French). This picture, for example, shows two British policemen, cleverly “disguised” as two anachronic Chinese:
Apart from showing that the representatives of the foreign powers fail to understand Chinese culture and tradition, Tintin’s Chinese friend and helper, Chang Chongchen (a tribute to Zhang Chongren), also warns him against the stereotypes that Europeans have about the Chinese, some of which are still scaringly often heard seventy years later:
- that they are “all cunning and cruel and wear pigtails, are always inventing tortures and eating rotten eggs and swallows’ nests”
- that they “all have tiny feet and even now little Chinese girls suffer agonies with bandages designed to prevent their feet developping normally”
- that “Chinese rivers are full of unwanted babies, thrown in when they are born”
A surprising insight for 1936.