Issue #142 Orphan of Shanghai

Orphan of Shanghai

Zhen Zhang

Payne Zhu, Potlatch of Derivatives, 2023. Installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Power Station of Art.

Issue #142
February 2024

Sanmao is a household name in the sinophone world. The cartoon character’s undernourished body supports a large head, on which his eponymous three thin strands of hair eternally grow. Created by Chinese comic artist Zhang Leping (1910–92) in the turbulent 1930s, Sanmao remains a liminal figure. He exists in the borderlands between imported and homegrown cartoons (Monkey King Sun Wu-kong, Mickey Mouse, Tintin), prewar and postwar regimes, city and country, old and new, still and moving images, and live-action and animated cinema. Between 1935 and 1949, this legendary character metamorphosized from middle-class Shanghai boy to war orphan, street urchin, and ultimately model PRC citizen. His evolving iconography is intimately tied to the biopolitical molding of the ideal future citizen during wartime and the “new human” for the socialist state. The most famous expression of Sanmao’s lattermost role is found in the 1949 film Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan (hereafter Wanderings). The Sanmao of Wanderings is an exemplary character through which to consider Chinese cinema’s role in the construction of a new society during the transition era.

Within the context of Shanghai cinema’s twentieth-century transformation, I will focus on how the character of Sanmao allows us to better understand the new “Beginning of Time” (poet Hu Feng’s term) ushered in by the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.


Sanmao was “born” on July 28, 1935. The original comic strip appeared on that date in the Shanghai daily newspaper Shen Bao, and continued until its abrupt end in 1937; after the Second Sino-Japanese War erupted, Zhang Leping left Shanghai and joined the itinerant Cartoon Propaganda Corps. In a 1990s study of Sanmao, scholar Mary Ann Farquhar gives a concise account of the “four texts” in which the character evolved.1 The first is the prewar comic strip simply titled “Sanmao,” a humorous depiction of an ordinary, middle-class Shanghai boy’s everyday life. With Zhang’s postwar return to the city in 1946, a different Sanmao appears in “Sanmao Follows the Army.” Now the same boy is a hungry and homeless orphan who joins the Nationalist army to survive. The third and most famous of the cartoon strips, “Wanderings,” brings Sanmao and his readers up to speed with the grotesque unevenness of postwar Shanghai and the intensifying Civil War. The post-Liberation Sanmao found in “Yesterday and Today” ostensibly contrasts the abject life of the street urchin in the “old society” with that of the wholesome, model socialist student. In other words, the “fourth text” portrays dystopia versus utopia.

Zhang Leping, Sanmao, 1966. Ink and color on paper.

Scholars Lanjun Xu and Laura Pozzi place Sanmao within a broader stream of discourses and representations of children during wartime. In Children and War: National Education and Mass Culture (2015), Xu traces Sanmao’s evolution from the naughty modern child of Shanghai to an “abstract political vehicle” for patriotic propaganda.2 Pozzi shows how the war made Sanmao one of two million Chinese war orphans, including the so-called “refugee children.”

The surge in refugee children presented challenges to war-relief efforts. But it also created an opportunity for the Nationalist state under the KMT (Kuomintang, the ruling party during the Republican Era) to conduct a large-scale social experiment that would endow the orphan with heightened symbolic value. By restructuring existing orphanages and other charitable institutions into one unified system under the name “jiaoyangyuan” (literally “teach-nurture-institution”), the state effectively “adopted” relief children and orphans into the family of the state, preparing them for a yet-to-come sovereign modern nation. Zhang reframed the wartime Sanmao as a refugee child and orphan for the purpose of war-resistance propaganda. But he did not put him in a jiaoyangyuan, which might have prematurely ended Sanmao’s melodramatic career.

After turning him into an orphan and child soldier during the war, and later a street urchin, Zhang frequently threw Sanmao into subhuman living conditions that appeared to desensitize him to suffering and violence. Unsure of his place in humanity, let alone modern civilization, the character laments that his quality of life is worse than that of rich people’s pets. Sanmao is “bare life” in many senses of Giorgio Agamben’s term.

Wanderings of Three Hairs the Orphan 三毛流浪記, Directed by Zhao Ming 趙明 and Yan Gong 嚴恭, 1949.

How did the first screen adaptation add to, or subtract from, Sanmao’s two-dimensional journey from homeless orphan to child of the socialist “state home” under CCP leadership? The first scene of Wanderings shows him being dug out of a trash container, feet bare and barely clothed. Having no stable point of attachment or belonging, the wandering urchin evinces the fundamental failure of the state and society to provide basic nourishment and protection for children lost in the cracks of the nation.

In prefaces to his books and in interviews, Zhang often mentioned how his inspiration came from the homeless children he met. One oft-cited story: Zhang saw three street urchins at the entrance of an alley near his home one snowy January morning. They huddled together and warmed themselves around a bonfire. Pained by the sight and frustrated by his inability to help them, Zhang worried about them all night. The next morning, when he passed by again, two of them had died.3

He resolved to revive Sanmao as the face of all homeless children, one that might stir widespread sympathy and lead to social interventions to end their misery. The new series transformed the character from a mischievous child soldier to a homeless child whose abject living conditions awakened a sense of social justice. Zhang went to Chengjiaqiao shantytown, where street urchins congregated, not just to do “field work” but to make friends with the many Sanmaos there.4 This explains why the series was published in the “social news” section of the major daily newspaper Dagong Bao. The series ends on a sad note on Children’s Day 1948 when Sanmao, barefoot and in tattered clothes, is not allowed into the celebration fairground.

The crossover to cinema complicated the character’s iconography. Wanderings adds a happy ending to Sanmao’s peregrinations: the film’s finale communicates the concept of “Liberation” through the mise-en-scène of “turning over the body,” which is expressed in energetic traditional yangge (rice-sprout song) dancing. Both in its diegesis and production process, the film straddles the old and the new. Its conclusion restores Sanmao as a legitimate child citizen of Shanghai and paves the way for the emergence of the new human subject as a composite “people” in the nascent socialist state.


Wanderings’ status as a foundational classic of the PRC demands a closer look at its “genre” and its spectatorial address in the context of China’s—and the Shanghai film industry’s—momentous midcentury transformation. The 1949 film’s mixture of live action and animation reasserts the primacy of “movement and light” as the foundation of cinematic realism. With this view, we might also rescue realism from the presumption of indexicality and examine the intricate relationship between formally experimental filmmaking—including animation—and historical change.

The film’s appeal as a synthetic live-action orphan drama with animation elements also harkens back to earlier hybrid live action–animation experiments in Chinese cinema. These include the family melodrama A Pearl Necklace (1926), the martial arts film Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928–31), the docudramatic backstage biopic Scene of Romance (1931), and the city symphony qua romantic melodrama City Scenes (1935). These animated segments form an integral expression of early Shanghai cinema as an assemblage or “processor” of media and cultural forms (such as xiyangjing, shadow play, amusement halls, illustrated newspapers, serialized comics, and comic books). They are vivid articulations of what I have termed “yangjingbang modeng,” or “vernacular modernism.”5

By animating proto-cinematic serial comic strips, Wanderings renders a melodrama of Liberation as a kind of magical “metamorphosis” set in motion, eliciting emotional responses through the “braiding” of what film scholar Tom Gunning has termed “animation1” and “animation2.”6 Gunning first clears away the longstanding misconception that index is the principal foundation of cinematic realism. This belief has relegated “movement and light” to secondary status and has contributed to the “marginalization of animation” in film history and classical film theory. Gunning writes: “Movement by animation, freed from photographic reference … can extend beyond familiarity to fantasy and imagination, creating impossible bodies that throng the works of animation from the early cartoons of Emile Cohl to the digital manipulation of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.”7

This observation helps us appreciate Sanmao’s “impossible body” across nature and culture, and across media, from two-dimensional representation to becoming human through cinematic motion and projection. Animation’s magic “transformation of time” and the orphan drama’s powerful myth of self-invention are perfectly suited for, in Hu Feng’s poetic rhetoric, a “newborn” nation and an experiment in the political cosmology of a transition-era cinema.

Wanderings arrived during a “twilight zone between heaven and earth” when China, torn by the Civil War, was at a critical turning point.8 In the summer of 1948 Yang Hansheng, the veteran left-wing filmmaker and critic,9 was charged with the task of writing the script for Wanderings when the Sanmao cartoons were still being serialized in Dagong Bao. Yang reportedly intended for the film to go beyond the scope of the cartoons by showing, for example, the direction Sanmao would take after Liberation by placing him amongst the workers in a factory and having him join the Communist Youth League.10 The final script, coauthored by several writers at different points on the eve of the “new society,” significantly transformed Zhang Leping’s original narrative by inserting three major scenes foregrounding class struggle. As Xu points out, these additions stretched Zhang’s humor into something more like “boisterous drama.”

Cathay Theater, Shanghai, 1931. License: Public Domain.

Wanderings is neither simply a slapstick comedy nor a children’s film. Its transmedial constitution and intragenerational address generated a watershed moment in Chinese cinema history. Sanmao’s decade-long journey is metamorphosed into a cinematic road trip toward the big screen that moves through brutal poverty, arrested development, and a peripatetic, non-teleological time, with Liberation as an event of cosmic proportions ushering in a teleological futurity, “the Beginning of Time.” By blending documentary with the magical, the film succeeds in creating a vivid portrayal of vacillations between despair and hope, precarity and becoming. Its hybrid form served as a potent medium for Liberation as both an affective experience and political discourse, with Sanmao’s over-signified body as the (re)setting of History.

The lack of accountability for homeless children ultimately paves the way for the arrival of a new, symbolic adult figure, in the form of the People’s Liberation Army and the new sociopolitical order. Thus, a line is drawn between the old and the new, the oppressed and the liberated. A revolutionary temporality is fabricated through these contrasts, whereby the ending of the film coincides with a new beginning of Time, as if fictional storytelling bleeds into documentary.


Realist representations of homeless children and street urchins largely disappeared from Chinese cinema after the new regime found its feet. Yet, intriguingly, two Sanmao films were released in 1958, as the PRC geared up for its tenth-anniversary celebration.

The puppet film adaptation of Sanmao was produced by the Shanghai Fine Arts Animation Studio, newly established in 1957. It prominently credits Zhang Leping as co-scriptwriter with director Zhang Chaoqun. At a running time of less than forty minutes, it was one of the first full-fledged Chinese animation films released after 1949. In contrast, veteran theater and film director Huang Zuoling’s Sanmao the Apprentice is a live-action comedy based on the existing huju (Shanghai-dialect drama) play.

Shanghai Fine Arts Animation Studio in 1978.

Both appear anachronistic at the outset, as their plots are entirely set in the “old society” without any reference to Liberation and the “new society.” The puppet film, as with nearly all of Shanghai Fine Arts Animation Studio’s output, is essentially a children’s film, which explains the more childish look of Sanmao. Huang’s adaptation for the local stage, on the other hand, features a teenaged Sanmao coming to the city for an apprenticeship. Despite their divergent forms and spectatorial address (to children and Shanghai urban dwellers, respectively), they share a focus on the “old society” as an object of both critique and fascination. The “looking back” reveals the abominable imperialist presence and unjust social structure. Yet the absent representation of Liberation and post-Liberation life also creates a hermetically sealed representational space that does not necessarily translate into direct homage to the present.

A liberated orphan would, after all, have presented a narrative as well as a political conundrum. Where will Sanmao live if he is no longer homeless? Is he adopted, and if so, by whom? Does he live in a new socialist “teacher and nurture” institution? Adapting Sanmao’s story for puppets also solved the problem of where to shoot the film, as the capitalist old Shanghai along with its kaleidoscopic mass culture was all but gone just a decade after the “Beginning of Time.” The past had become a foreign country.


Mary Farquhar, “Sanmao: Classic Cartoons and Chinese Popular Culture,” in Asian Popular Culture, ed. John Lent (Westview Press, 1995).


Xu Lanjun, 许兰君.《战争与儿童:国族,教育和大众文化》(Beijing University Press, 2015), 129.


Zhang Leping, “永做畫壇孺子牛”《文匯報》1981/6-6. Cited in Xu, 《战争与儿童》135.


Zhang and his wife had six children, but they still opened their house to many orphans for meals and shelter from time to time. Xu Xiaomin, “San Mao, the Hero with a Heart,” China Daily, October 13, 2017 .


See the first two chapters in my book An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema 1896–1937 (University of Chicago Press, 2005);《银幕艳史–都市文化与上海电影》(上海书店出版社 2012; 增订版2019).


Tom Gunning, “Animating the Instant: The Secret Symmetry between Animation and Photography,” in Animating Film Theory, ed. Karen Beckman (Duke University Press, 2014), 40–41. The metaphor of “braiding” is from this quote: “Cinema has never been one thing. It has always been a point of intersection, a braiding together of diverse strands,” in Gunning, “Moving Away from the Index: Cinema and the Impression of Reality,” Difference 18, no. 1 (2007): 36.


Gunning, “Animating the Instant,” 46.


Shen Congwen cited by Qian Liqun, 《1948:天地玄黄》(中华书局 2008).


Yang Hansheng had just directed Myriad Lights (1948), a family melodrama about unemployment, housing problems, and other pressing social issues that Shanghai urban dwellers faced in the postwar years.


Xu, 《战争与儿童》142–43.

Film, Communism
China, Animation & Cartoons
Return to Issue #142

Zhen Zhang is a Professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University.


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