Xiong Liang¨s Contributions to the Development of Children¨s Literature in China

A Jia, noted illustration commentator and founder of ^Red Clay Reading ̄

Xiong Liang's work is emblematic of writers and illustrators working in children's literature in China today, and Xiong himself is a towering figure in the field. His groundbreaking experimentation has not only produced eye-popping results, but!in his quest to give original illustration in China its own voice!has also yielded up extremely valuable experience.

The largely self-taught Xiong took his first steps into the world of illustration at the turn of the century. As of this writing he has published more than 70 children's books, 50 of which were illustrated. The books he wrote and illustrated himself span at least 17 different categories. Considering the scarcity of illustrated books in the Chinese children's literature market at the beginning of the 21st Century, it's fair to call his output 'prodigious' (indeed, it is unmatched inside China). Even more remarkable is the variety of styles he has boldly taken on from the very beginning, from works of ink wash painting and cut paper dripping with Asian tradition, to modern art bursting with color and individuality. His topics are similarly diverse, ranging from traditional Chinese folk art, nursery rhymes, legends, and Buddhist stories to children's works of pure fantasy. Some of his stories even draw on the everyday lives of today's children (especially those from rural areas). No matter his choice of medium, style, or subject, Xiong drive for artistic perfection has gradually brought into being a flawless, one-of-a-kind fusion of traditional and modern art. His artistic accomplishments and ceaseless illustration output has won him wide public influence. It's because of him that many people know that China has its own illustrated books, and because of him that many artists have made illustration their specialty.

Apart from his work on his own books, Xiong is gracious in sharing his experience with other illustrators. Through joint projects in workshops, leading classes, and any number of other different ways, he has worked to develop young artists. As a result, he's overseen the creation of almost as many books as he's made by himself.  It's no exaggeration to say that Xiong has had a profound influence on an entire generation of Chinese illustrators.

!A Jia    
November 29, 2016



Xiong Liang's Illustrations Belong Not Only to Asia, But to the World

Lilian San, Children's Book Publisher and Childhood Education Expert

In 1980, five year-old Xiong Liang picked up a paintbrush for the first time, and made his first picture. At the time, children's reading materials in China were limited largely to comic strips. In 1991, fifteen year-old Xiong started work on his first collection of illustrations. In 2002, now twenty-seven, Xiong started composing his first illustrated book; the very first shoots of original illustration in China were beginning to bloom. In 2014, with thirty-nine year old Xiong's publication of "The Solar Terms", the rest of the world began to take note of illustration in China.

Xiong's journey is a microcosm of the development of illustration in China, and his journey to creative maturity is likewise reflects the maturation of his field in his home country.

Firstly, Xiong Liang's work uses global, modern, artistic means to express the cultural magnetism of history, tradition, and Asia itself.

Most of Xiong's works choose one thing from China's ancient past on which to focus. This thing could be an image, for instance the little stone monkey from "Little Stone Monkey", or the small clay monkey from "The Toy Rabbit Story" (a local gift of choice to people visiting Beijing); or it could be a supernatural being, like the Kitchen God from the eponymous story "The Kitchen God", who legend has it lives in the homes of the common people, and ascends to heaven each year to report to the Jade Rabbit Emperor on the happenings down below.

Or it could be a calendar system. After millennia of tilling the soil, the people of ancient China subdivided the year into 24 segments, the first day of which was called a 'solar term'. For each solar term, there were certain things a farmer must do to guarantee each year's harvest.

It could also be a particular way of being. In "The Monster of the Monsoon", the monster spends the entire year in the rain, calmly looking forward to the day the sun will burst through the clouds. "I don't complain about things I can't change", it says, expressing a very Asian way of being.

Secondly, Xiong's works hint at some of the most essential elements of a child's psychology. Xiong himself is a kid through and through, and uses the tools of a child to create the books children most want to read.

Xiong's works offer stories from legend that don't require much background to understand, or much knowledge of ancient Chinese culture. What they offer, instead, is a kind of understanding, an understanding of the world seen through the eyes of one innocent to its ways!in other words, through the eyes of a child, exploring a new, unknown world.

Take "The Solar Terms" as an example. Open up any Chinese person's smartphone and call up the calendar app, and you'll see that!apart from normal holidays like New Year's and National Day holiday!it will have dates on it that make it what we call a 'new calendar'. The calendar will have the dates of the Spring and Autumn festivals, two traditional holidays that Chinese people love even today. It will also have Christmas, Easter, and Halloween, holidays with a fresh, 'foreign' feel to them inside China, which young mothers love to take part in along with their kids. The calendar will also mark the dates of events like the Spring Equinox and Grain Rain, the fourth and sixth 'solar terms' of the year, important dates for farmers in ancient China that, if missed, could ruin the whole year's harvest. Chinese urban dwellers love to think on these holidays, and the wealth of unusable knowledge and experience they represent.

Xiong believes that illustrated books for children are the best way to pass on culture. They're made for the innocence of childhood, and can thus be easily understood across cultures and age groups. There's a kind of equality to illustration that makes it the most grounded, natural form of narrative.

Thirdly, Xiong's works have a uniquely natural beauty to them, a pure and harmonious beauty. It is an eastern kind of beauty, and a human one also.

Xiong lives a life anchored in tradition. He is a vegetarian and uses a phone that's wildly out of date. He almost never reads the paper or watches the news. He studies martial arts, and can easily scamper up a tall tree.

All of Xiong's works are illustrated with Chinese brush techniques, and drawn on paper made of rice or silk. He draws on classic recipes for his coloration, made from pigments with names like 'cinnibar', 'malachite', 'muddy gold', 'ocher', 'garcinia', and 'rouge'. He both idolizes and studies in minute detail the work of famous 5th Century Chinese painter Zhang Sengyou and 17th Century painter Xiao Yuncong. These ancient masters taught him how to use Chinese calligraphic techniques to control the lines of his creations, how to render faces in a style both 'spare and vivid', and to create landscapes in the lofty, refined style appreciated by the intellectuals of ancient China.

But children reading his books don't need to know any of this to enjoy them!they're able to feel the warmth of their culture, and to understand that Chinese painting isn't something far removed from their lives, but rather something they can find in a storybook. For children outside China, his books leave a refreshing, unique impression, helping them to gradually develop their impressions of Asian art forms, and begin to enjoy forms of culture that are distinctly Chinese.

Fourthly, Xiong's works draw on plays, movies, novels, and even installation artwork. His books draw the reader into a sumptuous artistic journey through a mastery of various artistic forms that more often than not are fused into structures that lend the works a rich structural beauty.

Xiong loves the stage, a passion which has seen him create works like "Peking Opera Cats", and incorporate aspects of live performances into his illustrations. His illustrations have a distinct visual language reminiscent of the stage, or the view through a camera lens. He sometimes divides a thought into cross-sections that jump and change from page to page, driving deeper inside the thoughts layers, its transformation depicted with changes in colors, size, and perspective.

This is the structure of the stage inherent to his works, such that no matter their content, they all have an enchanting rhythmic and structural beauty. His regimentation of structure ensures that his work is of a consistently high level, instead of just occasionally brilliant.

Xiong is also an educator. In this role he's organized countless workshops for young artists, teaching them to create illustrations that children can appreciate, with their own structural beauty. In this way he is able to pass on his experience, and develop a new generation of talented Chinese illustrators. 

Xiong's works connect the people of today's China with the wisdom of their forefathers, children with the wisdom of adults, and make it possible for the West to appreciate the wisdom of the East.

The hand with which Xiong creates his illustrations is not only his own, but that of his era, and the illustrations created belong not only to the East, but to the entire world.

!Lillian San

December 13, 2016

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