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China and Inner Asia
In Session: The Afterlives of Maxim Gorky in China
3: Visualizing Gorky in Socialist China
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Pennsylvania State University, United States
Maxim Gorky was arguably the best-known and most-widely read Soviet writer in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After the revolution of 1949, the young PRC embarked on a decade-long effort to “learn from the Soviet Union.” Gorky occupied a special place in flood of translations reaching Chinese readers, as both a popular and acclaimed writer, and as a role model of socialist realism, the prescriptive literary style that came to dominate Chinese literature of the 1950s. Much less known, however, are adaptations of Gorki’s literary works into other genres, including film, theater, and especially graphic novels (lianhuanhua). This paper investigates Chinese graphic novels based on some of Gorky’s most popular works, arguing that the intersection of the transcultural and the transgenre played a key role in popularizing Gorky in China. While graphic novels were all but unknown in Soviet Russia, the quintessentially Chinese genre of lianhuanhua was booming in the late 1940s and the 1950s. The emergence of graphic novel versions of a major Soviet author hence represents the marriage of foreign literary styles and themes with a familiar domestic genre and format. Adaptation processes of this kind, however, are inherently uneven and contain moments of selection, interpretation, and intervention. It is precisely the double-translation—between languages and between genres—that, the paper shows, afforded the Chinese producers of these graphic novels agency, allowing them to reshape these Soviet imports in decisive and sometimes unpredictable directions.