John A. Lent
Fang Cheng (1918-2018). The doyen of Chinese cartooning, Fang Cheng, died the morning of Aug. 22, 2018. He was 100 years and two months old, an achievement that pleased him immensely, and one that he predicted in one of the dozens of interviews/chats Xu Ying and I had with him. In our initial visit with Fang Cheng, he told us he was going to live to 100, and each year, publish two books, continue to write newspaper columns daily, paint many humorous drawings and calligraphies. On a visit, Aug. 2, 2010, I reminded him of that prediction: he said he was down to compiling one book yearly. Up until a few days before his death, even while hospitalized, he continued to draw self-caricatures and, a bit earlier, calligraphy; with the help of his son, Sun Jihong, he gave the works to the Red Cross to be auctioned off, the proceeds used to educate less-fortunate children.
After our first interview with Fang Cheng (June 10, 2001), which lasted from 9:10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (71/2 hours), Ying and I always looked forward to visiting him, mesmerized by retellings of his life and career, his theories on humor (see, IJOCA, 8:2 ; 9:2 ), his philosophies on life, his hopes and dreams, and his singing of songs in English, Russian, and Chinese that he remembered from his childhood. He still sang upon request the last time I visited him in March 2018. More often than not, Fang Cheng, from our first meeting until he was 99, challenged me to arm wrestle; usually the “match” ended in a draw, me holding on for dear life to prevent the embarrassment of this older man with a vise-like grip whipping me.
Knowing of Fang Cheng’s desire to share his knowledge about humor and cartooning to a wider audience inside and outside China, I invited him to speak at conferences and symposia that I was active in at University of Western Ontario in 2000 (invitation cancelled for lack of funding); Singapore and Malaysia, 2004; Communication University of China in Beijing and U.S. in 2005; Guiyang, China, 2007, and Spain, 2009 (which he was advised by family not to attend because of his age). In the U.S., he stayed for a week at my house, during which he spoke at two universities/colleges, practiced his English reading David Copperfield in his room at night, drew a Zhong Kui painting for my house, and told (even retold) his life story in installments at the dinner table for a few days. Asked if he had dietary restrictions, he replied he ate everything except people, anything with legs except tables and chairs. Has he eaten mice? “Yes, three kinds; tastes delicious, like frog.”
During his stay, he requested visits to a comics shop where he was disappointed (“these are not comics, just manga. No humor”), and a toy or novelty store where he wanted to buy something to “make me laugh.”
Fang Cheng said in our 2001 meeting that he stayed healthy through love, humor, and openness and by riding his bicycle and swimming. The secret of a long life (he was 83 then)? “In one word, busy,” he replied, but then added, “not worry.” And busy he was those last 17 years of life -- doing calligraphy, writing his many books and daily newspaper columns, illustrating others’ books, drawing humorous paintings that included his own poetry, arranging the donation of his works to museums in Zhongshan and Shanghai, refining what he considered his unique theories of humor, lecturing in China and abroad, and helping less-privileged people. He even managed to run one leg of the torch carry to the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing before the 2008 Olympics; he was 90 at the time.
On more than one occasion, beginning in 2001, Fang Cheng described how the route of his life was guided by fate. In the Winter 2003 issue of Persimmon, Xu Ying and I wrote about friends Liao Bingxiong and Fang Cheng and their careers and views on cartooning. In that article, Fang Cheng credits fate and heaven and the gods with determining his destiny. I end this remembrance with a section from that article that gives an overview of his career, and fate’s role in it.
Fang’s own cartooning career stretches to the 1930s and was determined, as he says, “by heaven, by the gods.” Fang was born in Beijing, but at the age of four moved to his family’s ancestral home in Zhongshan County, near Macao, in Guangdong Province. When he was nine, his family returned to Beijing, and he attended middle school there. Originally his goal was to become a doctor, but he did not pass entrance exams for Yanching University (on the campus of what is now Beijing University). Instead, he enrolled in the chemistry department at Wuhan University in 1936, but returned home the following year, when the Japanese invasion occurred. In 1939, he resumed his studies at Wuhan, where he also got involved in acting, at the same time learning on his own to draw cartoons. “I was one of the activists there; six of us who were involved in drama started a weekly wall newspaper. I drew cartoons on the wall each week for the two years the newspaper lasted,” Fang said.
After graduation, Fang went to work as a chemist in a laboratory in Sichuan Province when “the gods” intervened again: “I was in love with a girl and wanted to marry her, but she said no. I could not sleep or do anything else, so I left and went to Shanghai.” Fang said he had seen Shanghai periodicals with their many cartoons and decided he wanted to draw professionally. In Shanghai, he had no job and no place to stay, but the American director of an advertising company that represented cosmetics clients employed him as an artist. Not long after that, the chief editor of the Chinese newspaper Observer asked him to draw several cartoons weekly, and he began contributing to other newspapers as well.
In 1948, as the Guomindang realized their days were numbered, they made plans to flee to Taiwan -- hoping to take the most famous artists with them, Fang said. Not wanting to follow Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan, most artists escaped to Hong Kong, which is where Fang went in 1948. Although he wanted to return to Shanghai after Liberation in 1949, fate changed his course. “There was a sunken ship in Shanghai harbor, so [the ship we were on] went farther north and I ended up in Beijing,” Fang said. There, he worked for the Xinman Daily, but recognizing that the People’s Daily had the best opportunities for cartoonists, he joined that newspaper and not only drew cartoons but also wrote humor essays.