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San Mao: The Boy Who Lived

San Mao: The Boy Who Lived

Picture of Stephanie Chang
Updated: 11 February 2016
San Mao is one of China’s best beloved cartoon character, yet the pages of his life are filled with suffering, humiliation and degradation. His story traces China’s tumultuous 20th century history. Flipping through the pages of his cartoons is to be faced with a barrage of inhumanity, exploitation, and suffering. The little hero, however, perseveres through with his optimism and kind heart intact.

San Mao is a distinctly Chinese creation and remains one of China’s most beloved cartoon characters. Since his creation in 1935 by Zhang Leping, generations of children have grown up reading about his travails. In contrast to Japan’s robotic cat Doraemon, whose influence has reached far beyond the borders of Japan, San Mao is rooted inextricably to China’s early 20th century memory of struggle and hardship.


Unlike his near-contemporaneous creations, such as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse (1928), Babar (1931), and Curious George (1939), San Mao’s adventures are neither magical nor exotic. Instead, Zhang sought to convey the hardships of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) between China and Japan through the eyes of a young victim of the violence and deprivation which was then engulfing China. In addition, San Mao reflects the disparities and injustices within Chinese society; the very questions that would come to dominate China in the 20th century. Indeed, San Mao bears the physical marks of these inequalities: his name, ‘San Mao’ refers to his three wispy strands of hair, the result of malnourishment and extreme poverty.

Following San Mao through the pages of his cartoons is to be confronted by exploitation, misery, and death, through its pages one can see the brutality with which the strong treat the weak. Whilst he may be compared to Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist–street urchin, orphaned, destitute–no rich saviour appears to save him. Instead, San Mao relies solely on his childish innocence, innate optimism, and dogged perseverance to survive. Unsurprisingly, then, San Mao became a poster child for Communist China, who saw in San Mao’s humanity the necessity of revolution and change.

By Stephanie Chang