Last year, on a trip to Beijing, I stumbled upon a collection of The Adventures of Tintin comic books. The format was completely different from the European ones, so they caught my eye. They were in a small bookshop that sold second-hand books, in a black garbage bag, on the floor.
I went to China mainly to research book piracy for The Piracy Project, so I was on the lookout for interesting pirated books I could bring home.
I checked them closely, and on the back in what looked like the colophon (I don’t read or speak Chinese, so it was just a guess) it said 1984. My mind kept trying to concentrate before the seller came. China’s economic reform happened in the very late ‘70s, but I assume it wasn’t really open to the west until much later — ‘84 seemed quite early for foreign comics to be circulating. Format is also quite an important thing in comics, and as I was familiar with the large panels Tintin’s publisher Herge sometimes used, the small format felt weird. They were also in black and white. I knew that only a few of the first Tintin books were not in colour and that the colour ones had been in circulation since the forties, so it wouldn’t have made sense to re-print the original ones in black and white. I also saw other older books that looked like Chinese pulp fiction (though this might have been an inaccurate reading) that had the same format as the Tintin books. After careful consideration, I bought the whole lot (The seller wouldn’t separate the collection, although this may have been the result of my lack of haggling skills).
When I arrived at my studio I checked online and was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of websites that mentioned the pirated Tintin books . China’s publishing industry is quite chaotic; not only were the pirated Tintin books quite popular, but they were also printed by many different publishers and widely distributed. Tintin was apparently the most popular western character in China during the ‘80s, even though the original was only recently officially introduced.
My partner Jackson Lam and I started comparing the Tintin books I bought with the originals. All of them have colour covers and black-and-white internal pages. The format is quite small (12.5cm x 9cm), with two booklets per story and 190 pages per booklet. Since they are black and white, we compared them with the first Tintin books Herge published (which were originally in black and white, facsimiles of them are still available), but the books were clearly copied from the later full-colour versions. The drawings were similar to those in the first books, but not exact. The characters were sometimes relocated to the centre of the frame, and the landscape would often be extended due to the bigger frame size on the Chinese copies. When comparing the drawings, it is clear that the images were re-drawn by hand. In some stories, like “The Crab with the Golden Claws,” the order of the frames was altered. Instead of a linear narrative, there are two parallel tales from different time points in the narrative. Some frames — which may have beeen considered irrelevant to the narrative — are simply erased. Frames with text or lots of action seem to be preferred. Jackson, who speaks Chinese, even found a “drawing” credit for an unknown Chinese artist in the colophon of one of the books.
For Please Translate we decided to focus on two examples of Tintin comic books. We were particularly interested in the ones set in China: The Blue Lotus, which is set in Shanghai, and Tintin in Tibet (for which the Hergé Foundation received a Light of Truth Award, from the International Campaign for Tibet, from the Dalai Lama in 2006 ). It was quite a surprise to find an adventure that happens in Tibet circulating as a comic book in China. In the first authorized Chinese edition, the book was renamed Tintin in China’s Tibet. Our pirated edition of the same title is named Tintin and the Mysterious Snowman.
The last day of my visit to China I passed by the same second-hand bookshop and what did I see, but the seller holding another garbage bag full of Tintin books. So are there that many pirated Tintin books circulating in China or have my pirated Tintin books been pirated?