Back in 1995, just six years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, in the times when the city still spilled over every day with millions of bicycle commuters, I found myself amidst an anxious knot of friends who were being led at midnight through featureless office blocks in an unknown Beijing neighbourhood.

Our tiny cohort halted by an unexceptionally battered shutter, and some unseen signal passed through the walls. That’s when we entered a packed, double-storied live music venue, filled with hundreds of young Chinese people. The band kicked into an unbelievably banging version of Dick Dale’s Miserlou, and everyone fell to dancing with delirious abandon. It was as though we had fallen into another dimension on an altogether different planet.

That precise sensation of disorientation blurring into hedonistic pleasure came flooding back earlier this week, when I got my hands on a copy of Naked Body: An Anthology of Chinese Comics, edited by Yan Cong, R Orion Martin and Jason Li. This new translation – the original came out in 2014 as the fifth anniversary edition of Yan’s Narrative Addiction magazine– has finally made it to publication after a 2019 successful Kickstarter campaign raised $16,648 (more than twice what was initially sought) from 443 backers in 29 days.

Every bit of that effort was worth it, because the first major anthology of Chinese comics in English is clever, quirky, intermittently gorgeous, and consistently mind-bending. It quickly strips away the prevailing mainstream notions that Indians tend to harbour about the people, culture and society of their giant neighbour just beyond 3488 kilometres of shared borders. Story by story, across just under 100 pages, Naked Body surprises, and then surprises once again. Whatever you thought about China, it doesn’t show up in this book.

Marked by contrariness

Contrariness is inherent to Naked Body’s premise. Independent publishing was (and remains) illegal in China, and most depictions of nudity are prohibited. Yan ignored both precepts, and made an open call for five-page, full-colour comics via his Weibo account – that Twitter-like micro-blogging site was banned by the Indian government in July – with the explicit requirement that the main characters remain naked.

Eighteen made it to the English-language edition, and they are a startling collection that comprises several gems, a couple of masterpieces, and steady laughs. The tone is pitch-perfect from the first story by Inkee Wang, where a character wearing a single painted toenail is admonished, ‘No! You can’t go out today! Unless you are absolutely naked!!”

Naked Body bristles with breasts and penises, and there are several depictions of sex. But there’s nothing particularly titillating in this compilation, which lingers mostly in surreal and absurdist registers. The best story, Xiao Ma’s New Outfit by Zhai Yanjun winningly telescopes Hans Christian Anderson’s 19th century classic The Emperor’s New Clothes into late-20th century Chinese history, after a long-haired designer is hailed for “revolutionizing fashion” by “casting off the vulgar, unrefined habit of physical clothing.”

In his Translator’s Note, R. Orion Martin (his Brooklyn-based Paradise Systems published Naked Body) writes, “Every comics community is shaped by the cultural, political, and economic environment in which the cartoonists publish their work. Those who appear in this book were facing an environment in which it was nearly impossible to make a living as a cartoonist.”

Martin notes, “In the absence of an established alternative comics industry, the cartoonists here looked to diverse sources for stylistic and narrative inspiration, including classical religious art, underground comics from Europe, and the booming contemporary art market in China. The requirement that all the comics contain nudity also gives the anthology a unique feel, an invitation to the cartoonists to make something quite different than their normal work. The comics here address sexuality and societal topics with a directness that is uncommon in other work from the past decade.”

I first heard of Naked Body via Beijing-based Krish Raghav, who is himself an outstanding comics book artist, journalist and self-described “Pan-Asian Music guy”. He has lived in China for the past six years, and is one of my favourite Twitter correspondents. Over the years I have followed his tweets, he has shared an astonishing range of countercultural comics and music that have widely expanded my understanding of what’s going on below the surface in the urban youth cultures of China.

Earlier this week, I wrote to him to marvel about this remarkable eye-opener of an anthology, and Raghav explained, “The comics scene here exists in a strange in-between place. Few, if any, can be found on shelves in formal bookstores or on mainstream media. But go to festivals like Singularity or Unbound and you’ll see so much – although I have to say that longform ‘narrative’ comics are still rare.”

Legal restrictions

Censorship doesn’t quit affect them that much because their scale is far too small – but broader content laws mean you’ll likely never see them appear on more formal channels or in chain bookstores. As a result, many artists look abroad for a chance to find a larger audience or push the horizons of their work. Also, since the inaccessibility of mainstream channels is a given, many comic artists tend to be much more edgy – there’s lots of nudity, sexuality, fetishism, queer expression in Chinese comics and that in turn draws a larger audience towards them.”

That is an apt description of an unusual dichotomy: China clamps hard on the mainstream, but an astonishingly diverse free-for-all flourishes on its fringes. Meanwhile, many other countries – and this includes India – possess more liberal establishments, but their cultural output is lifelessly anodyne in comparison. It would appear that constantly pushing up and against the stubbornly persistent censorship regime powers contemporary Chinese artists with a degree of vitality that’s otherwise increasingly rare in our 21st century.

The exemplar of this phenomenon, of course, is the truly great Ai Weiwei, whose most recent audacious master stroke is the Covid-in-Wuhan-lockdown documentary Coronation, which – just like Naked Body - was made entirely illegally.

In his superb Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (it won the 2014 National Book Award for non-fiction), New Yorker magazine staff writer Evan Osnos wrote extensively about China’s internal cultural wars. He reports that in 2012, then-president Hu Jintao “vowed to shore up what he called China’s cultural security. He warned that ‘international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China’. The president called on his countrymen to ‘sound the alarm and remain vigilant’. The Party was awakening to urgent questions: Who was going to define the boundaries of Chinese art, ideas, and entertainment? Who was the public going to trust: the government, the dissidents, the tycoons, the muckrakers?”

Osnos writes, “The Party decided to take the recipe that had worked for the economy – planning, investment, and rule-making – and apply it to the world of culture.” It went further and tried to control the entire online universe, via the ironically dubbed but deadly serious “Great Firewall of China.”

But there was no way to do it, because “the subversive dynamics of the Internet age – the rebirth of irony, the search for community, the courage to complain – had stirred a hunger for a new kind of critical voice”. Enter Ai Weiwei, who “combined ironclad Red credentials with a populist flair: he spoke in a vernacular that mixed irony, imagination and rage”. Enter Yan Cong. Ergo Naked Body.

Rich counterculture

Over the past couple of years, I have enjoyed Sowmiya Ashok’s perceptive, adventuresome China reportage in Indian Express. After I read Naked Body, I emailed the journalist – she returned to India at the end of 2019, and now lives in Chennai – to tell her about this brilliant comics anthology, which revealed so much about the country where it had been created.

“I may have been surprised if I had never visited China but my experience living there combined with my continued interest in the country just makes me amused when I read about this,” she replied.

Ashok elaborated, “I came across several instances of a rich counterculture. Once, I was invited to meet a friend at a housing society in Beijing’s Wudaokou neighbourhood where he was giving a talk to young men and women about democratising the Chinese internet. The house I walked into was a share house, a sort of co-op residency on the seventh floor where several artists, writers, and techies lived together, cooked together and routinely invited people who led subversive lives to come interact with them.”

She also described visiting an unlicensed nightclub identical to the one I stumbled into 25 years ago.

I asked Ashok what young Indians don’t know about their Chinese counterparts, but should definitely learn. “We are more similar than we think when it comes to education, work, family, love and marriage,” she said. “Young Chinese are political, and have strong political opinions too, and they find interesting ways to reveal that even if it is not taking to the streets to protest. Chinese people are interested in knowing about Indians, but language barriers and jingoism on both sides hinder any meaningful connection. When they do have strong friendships with Indians they reveal how deeply they care, and get distraught by hostilities between the two countries. This has happened to me, with friends across the border sending me the most beautiful messages filled with affection.”

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.