The scene is still vivid for many grown-ups born before the 1980s. Class dismissed, you fumble through your pockets for coins and dash to the stall-keeper around the corner. There you will spend about two hours before sunset immersed in the fictitious world of heroes and demons created by lianhuanhua, or pocket-size picture storybooks.
Lianhuanhua literally means "linked pictures," and are also known as xiaorenshu, or children's book. These educational storybooks once dominated many Chinese children's bookshelves. For quite a number of children in small towns and remote rural areas, they were often the only reading material with which they had fun and learned about values and virtues.
But the genre began to wither around 1985, because of a decline in quality as a result of fierce competition, and also losing readers because of large inflows of cartoon books from overseas, TV programs and then Internet content.
"A great number of publishing houses closed and only a few survived the slump," Chen Yuanshan, Director of the Lianhuanhua Editing Department of the Shanghai People's Fine Arts Publishing House (SPFPH), told Beijing Review.
A surge in collecting lianhuanhua since the late 1990s has brought to life memories of a once best-loved friend, and such pocket books have become increasingly visible at all kinds of auctions, book fairs and exhibitions. This has enticed former publishers of lianhuanhua in Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Shandong Province into reprinting a few editions.
Still, young Chinese don't buy them. Having grown up with a proliferation of Internet applications and accustomed to Hollywood and Japanese cartoons, they find these mostly black-and-white, classic literature and traditional value-focused storybooks—didactic rather than entertaining, sometimes—hardly tempting.
In an effort to promote the traditional values and classics of China put across in this form of publication, the SPFPH helped the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV in applying for national recognition of lianhuanhua as an intangible cultural heritage in September.
Lianhuanhua in their modern sense originated in Shanghai in the 1920s. It witnessed two development booms in the 1950s-60s and the 1980s when entrusted by the government to improve the population's literacy in historical and literary classics, and its knowledge of the revolution and the government's achievements.
"They aim to educate and entertain the general public, focusing on the readability of stories instead of the drawing skills of the illustrators," Chen said. "Their scripts broadly cover from the Anti-Japanese War, the Liberation War and China's classic literature, dramas, fairy tales and foreign literature."
During the second boom (1977-85), when scripts were further enriched to include contemporary literature and supplementary reading materials for school children, printing runs increased greatly.
At their peak in 1982, China published more than 860 billion copies, or 2,100 titles, accounting for one third of the year's total publications of all kinds, said Wei Hua, author of A Simple History of Lianhuanhua Art in New China.
For several generations, "in the absence of a TV set in most Chinese families, lianhuanhua functioned like the now popular TV program Lecture Room on CCTV 10 where scholars from universities give lectures on varied topics of China's history and culture—both widely accessible and enjoyable interpretations of China's ancient history and great novels," said Xie Chunyan, painter and fine arts critic.
Taking inspiration from episodes in the classic novel, the 60-piece picture storybook, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, created in the 1950s, remains the masterpiece of all SPFPH publications in this genre. The work involved more than 30 painters and portraits of 115 characters in a story consisting of about 7,000 drawings, spanning eight years.
The series is overwhelmingly impressive, not only because of the characters and grand, awe-inspiring battle scenes it depicts, but also readers' memories of waiting for months and even years to see its latest development, said Tian Yunqing, a Shanghai-based lianyou, or fan and promoter of lianhuanhua.
"Readers had to frequently visit bookstores for years in order to have a complete collection, during which many grew up from school children to breadwinners," said Tian.
China currently boasts about 1 million lianyous nationwide. "It's not something for elite tastes, though. A lianhuanhua collection is an affordable hobby for the working class. It provides a feeling of warmth when they flip through these xiaorenshu," Xie said.
For many of them, the rereading process is like opening a dust-covered chest in the attic of their parents' house, and within that is every part of their childhood treasures and memories of fun, hardships and sorrows.
Fan Lin, a Shanghai taxi driver born in 1966, is not an authentic lianyou. He cannot name most of the eminent painters and their representative works, nor can he say how the pocket books evolved in China.
But lianhuanhua serves as a footnote to his childhood. He recounts how difficult it was to collect all the storybooks of heroism and how he accidentally lost them when moving to a new apartment. His story is mixed with regret and remorse over his earlier years of running wild.
During the past decade, the Shanghai publisher has reprinted nearly 1,000 titles and 100 million copies from its rich backlist of lianhuanhua, and outperformed other publishing houses nationwide in its reprinting fever.
As China's earliest and largest publishing house of lianhuanhua, SPFPH reestablished its Lianhuanhua Editing Department in 1999. Chen, who had been running Cartoon King, a magazine that attempted to incorporate techniques from abroad into the creation of traditional culture-themed cartoons, came back to head the department.
The publishing house had begun to scan all its manuscripts into a database for better protection that year. In addition to reprinting large-volume classic works for collectors, Chen and his team attempted to adapt and introduce popular editions for young readers.
"Compared with traditional lianhuanhua, U.S. and Japanese cartoons are richer, more vivid, dynamic and quick-paced and usually provide a movie-going experience for viewers by capturing a motion series in different pictures in one page," Tian said.
In pursuing such effects, Chen and his team experimented with breaking from the uniform format of all pictures in one storybook. For example, they selected the most expressive parts of a picture, such as the characters' facial expression or gestures, and enlarged them in a new frame in creating a popular multi-picture edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
"What we are doing is making fine editions finer and popular editions much more popular," Chen said.
Xiaorenshu now attract many readers to sit down around the bookstalls of the publisher during the annual Shanghai Book Fair. Still, the publishing house has to tailor new storybooks with modern themes for today's children for continued success.
But not only readers and authors have been lost, but also marketing and distribution networks, Chen said. Facing fierce competition around 1985, the quality of lianhuanhua decreased drastically, and bookstores became unwilling to sell them because of small profit margins.
In addition, drawing illustrations for lianhuanhua is time consuming. "Though living, illustrators of the older generation are too old to complete the energy-consuming work, and already established masters of Chinese traditional painting are uninterested in a soon-to-be extinct genre. Younger painters shun it because it is less rewarding," Chen said.
He Youzhi, one of more than 100 lianhuanhua masters active during the pocket books' peak period, says lianhuanhua illustrators made more money than other painters before the 1980s, and could make about 500 to 800 yuan ($73.2-$117) a month, more than 10 times the then average salary.
Although lianhuanhua painters' remuneration has grown more than 10-fold to 130 to 150 yuan ($19-22) a picture, a second-rate painter can earn about 6,000 yuan ($878) a month nowadays, and that is much lower than active painters in China's rapidly growing art market.
SPFPH Publisher Li Xin says this art genre embodies rich artistic elements and represents the acme of China's portrait painting.
This was because, before its decline in the 1980s, publishing houses or painters relied on revenue from production of lianhuanhua and other popular arts in high demand to support costly but non-profitable pursuits, such as publishing large painting albums, books in foreign languages, ancient scriptures and oil paintings on large canvases.
Another problem with the traditional pattern of creation of lianhuanhua was the lack of effective communication between scriptwriters and illustrators. "Unlike studio or team-based cartoon production overseas, editors in fine arts publishing houses organize the writing of scripts and then hand them to illustrators," Chen said.
Nonetheless, the older generation left behind a rich legacy of lianhuanhua, where various painting techniques such as sketching and drawing and watercolor and oil painting were applied.