Best-seller stays forever young
2017-11-06, XU XIAOMIN in Shanghai

At the memorial gallery of the late Chinese artist Zhang Leping, an entire wall at the exit is covered with messages left by admirers touched by the story of Sanmao, the comic book character that he created.

One message from a mother to her son reads: “Dear Ai Ai, you are now 5 years old. This is the first time your father and I have brought you to this gallery. We trust that in the future you will discover more beautiful things and that the world will treat you gently.”

A teacher wrote: “The story of Sanmao is such a poignant one that it will be remembered for a long time to come.”

When the memorial gallery was inaugurated last year, visitors formed long lines as they waited to enter. Zhang Weijun, the youngest child of the late artist, said the venue still draws large crowds.

Sanmao’s enduring popularity extends to publishing as well.

Wang Yunmei, an editor with Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House in Shanghai, said the Sanmao series, titled The Winter of Three Hairs, first published more than 70 years ago, is still a best-seller.

“With our Shanghai Century Publishing Group, the series is always one of the best-sellers. Sales of the series started to rebound in about 2010, and it has since been among the top five books for the group every year.”

While the children of today live in a world very different from the one that Sanmao inhabited, his story is one that still evokes amusement and admiration, she said.

Shanghai Century Publishing Group put on a special exhibition of Zhang’s comic works at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, held from Oct 11-15. It is the largest event of its kind in the world.

“Excellent Chinese comic works such as Sanmao need to be shared with more readers outside China,” Wang said. “There’s no reason why Sanmao cannot be the next Tintin.”

Wang Longji, the actor who played the role of Sanmao in the movie The Winter of Three Hairs in 1949, said the film featured all of the top actors in Shanghai, a testament to the influence and magnetism of the comic character.

The filming of the movie took place between 1948 and 1949, during which civil war forced production to halt several times.

“All the big names of the time, such as Zhao Dan, Huang Zongying, Wu Yin and Shangguan Yunzhu, were in the movie. These established movie stars played small roles such as a doorman or a lady in a party just to support me, an 8-year-old nobody in the movie industry, simply because Sanmao deeply touched them.

“Because of my role, I got close to Zhang Leping and many actors and artists. I later found out that so many of them did not work for money and fame, but for love for children. It is this great love that crosses boundaries and time.”

In 2015, the French version of the book, San Mao: Le Petit Vagabond, beat 10 other contenders to win the Heritage Award at the 42nd Angouleme International Comics Festival in France.

The event organizer said it had awarded the accolade to the book because of its portrayal of optimism and kindness.

Seeing how the character has touched the lives of so many people, Zhang Weijun now plans to turn Sanmao into an ambassador for charity.

“I hope that Sanmao will soon be able to step out of the comic books to attend more charity events.”

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