Not many foreigners know about Sanmao, or Three Hairs. Here in China, though, he’s bigger than Disney.
At the film museum, here in Beijing, there’s a life-size statue. A few weeks ago in Shenyang, I passed by the Sanmao Hotel, where his face in the logo was fading, and the paint was appropriately crumbling. There are at least five movies starring him, a TV series as well, a cartoon, and a number of books. I’ve even seen a series of books where this homeless street urchin teaches Chinese kids all about great figures in the history of the arts and sciences.
Sanmao first appeared back in 1935. He was a response to Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, who were the popular stars of the Chinese papers. He was created by a young art student called Zhang Leping, and quickly became a national icon.
In Zhang’s first book, Sanmao—a little kid named for the three hairs on his head—signs up for the army and goes off to fight the Japanese. It’s dark, sometimes sad, and often very funny. In the second book, he becomes a homeless orphan living off the streets of Shanghai. He was inspired by the abandoned children Zhang Leping saw every day, dying on the streets of Shanghai. Again, the book is bittersweet, and so engaging.
We have copies of both of these books for sale over there. They’re in Chinese, but the words are almost an afterthought—they’re written for the masses, many of whom at the time couldn’t read Chinese, either.
Now, tonight’s movie, The Winter of Sanmao, wasn’t actually based on a book. Zhang Leping wrote it at the same time as the movie was written. But the producers found the perfect actor for it, the 8 year old Wang Longjing.
The kid was already a child star, but he was found for the role in the middle of a fistfight. The producer watched, thinking, “Wow—this kid knows how to scrap.” He hired the kid—who has also been abandoned by his own parents—and moved him in with Zhang Leping. The two of them took to the streets, meeting homeless kids, learning from them, probably discovering Sanmao together.
Now, Zhang Leping was a fascinating character—he was unhappy, and was prone to writers block which he’d escape by drinking. It was apparently an ugly scene… I’m not sure how this is possible, but he would drink until he’d cough up blood. His wife was miserable, and he became estranged from his family. He died in the early 1990s.
Along with Zhang’s misery, though, Sanmao became a hero. He became a young pioneer, he learned from Lei Feng, he fought for communist thought and Maoist theory through the pages of the comics.
And the child actor Wang Longjing also followed Sanmao’s path, becoming a good communist citizen. He, too, joined the army, and was later assigned to a job away from the spotlight, working in a factory, manufacturing televisions. As he aged, he moved up the ranks, and eventually became a vice president, organizing trade shows for the factory.
And the character Sanmao keeps going. About once a decade, a movie comes out. In the 1990s, KMT characters could finally be shown sympathetically, and a movie of Sanmao Joins the Army was made. There were also three versions of this film, and another Sanmao film where he’s played by a 50-year-old man. But this first one remains the best.
We’ve got a couple of the books for sale—they’re absolutely wonderful. We’ll also be giving some away after the film in a lucky draw.
We’ve also got our magazine for sale, The World of Chinese, which goes into more depth about Zhang Leping and Sanmao, and everything else you might want to know, that you need to know, about Chinese culture. You can buy copies for just 19 RMB, or subscribe for a year for just 90 RMB.
And make sure to sign up for our newsletter! There’s a sign-up sheet over there. We’ll let you know about future The World of Chinese events.
In two weeks we’ll be showing Street Angel, which we wrote about in the last issue; it’s a gorgeous film, a dark romantic comedy starring Zhou Xuan and Zhao Dan. You don’t want to miss it! Gorgeous songs, sizzling romance, wonderful pre-liberation excitement about the possibilities of a communist China. It’s great.
Speaking of Zhao Dan, keep an eye out for him in the climax of this film… pretty much every grown-up who’s at Sanmao’s “coming-out” party was a major celebrity at the time. It’s kinda cool.
So in two weeks we’ll be showing Street Angel. Sign up for our mailing list. Subscribe to our magazine. Here’s the film.