"Cartoons speak in a language that not only expresses satire and humor, but also reflects human love and natural beauty. They can describe everything. I am particularly fond of ancient Chinese philosophies, so I make cartoons out of them."
----Cai Zhizhong in an interview with New Business in 2005
The first to create cartoons of the ancient Chinese classics
Born in 1948, Cai Zhizhong, a popular cartoonist from Taiwan, was the first to use cartoons to illustrate the seemingly recondite ancient Chinese classics in such an amusing way. China has a wealth of spiritual heritage, including philosophical thoughts, poems from the Tang dynasty (618-907), the Book of Changes and Zen Buddhism. According to Cai, this wealth of spiritual heritage may not be easily understood, prompting his attempts to express these complex ideas with simple and interesting cartoons.
Starting from the 1980s, Cai created a series of Chinese comic books on ancient Chinese classics, like Zhuangzi Speaks: The Music of Nature, Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness, Confucius Speaks: Words to Live by, Sunzi Speaks: The Art of War, and The Tao Speaks: Lao Tzu's Whispers of Wisdom. Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zhuangzi, and Sunzi are widely credited as sages whose thoughts have played an important role in China's development. Cai put his unique understanding and feelings of ancient thoughts into his cartoons, and added a modern interpretation of them, making boring ancient philosophies quite amusing as well as understandable. His works won a large number of adult readers for comic books, a market predominantly children-targeted. This series of comic books has hoarded great applause from readers both in Taiwan and Chinese mainland, with 4 million copies sold in Taiwan.
Among all of his works, Zhuangzi Speaks: The Music of Nature, published in the 1986, was the most successful. Remaining on the top of the bestselling literature in Taiwan for ten months, this book had quite an influence of the Chinese mainland boom of literature from Taiwan in the late 1980s.
Cai Zhizhong's cartoons about the sayings of Confucius, Laozi, Sunzi, Zhuangzi, and Mencius were later made into three-dimensional cartoons.
A borderless language
Cai's works have provided him much popularity, and have been translated into dozens of languages. Currently, readers in 40 different countries have access to Cai's works and up to 40 million copies have been sold. More than 15 printing machines are said to print his works each day.
Cai's latest work is the cartoon-illustrated Traditional Chinese Culture Series. Published by Beijing-based Modern Press in June 2005, this version differs from the previous version in that the text was written in English while the original ancient Chinese characters were kept in the margin. Ten titles about the theories of Tao, Confucius, and Zen Buddhism are included in this series. The translation was done by Brian Bruya, a Ph. D. in philosophy at Hawaii University. According to Cai, Brian's translation made his works more understandable, further promoting his works by making them more readable.
100 thousand copies were printed in the initial release, among which 10 thousand were made public to readers in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, North America and Europe.
Cai hopes foreign visitors will purchase parts of his comic series on traditional Chinese culture as souvenirs while in China. Some worry that foreigners may not appreciate the Chinese sense of humor in his book, but Cai thinks that cartoons are an international language like music and dance, bearing no borders.
In addition to traditional Chinese classics, Cai published comic books on Calculus, Algebra, and Physics in 2005. Cai was extremely proud of himself, believing that his works would be able to arouse students' interest in learning by making these subjects more enjoyable.
A degage cartoonist
Cai lives a rather laid-back lifestyle, indulging himself in whatever he likes and always feeling happy and free. He has always emphasized doing things that he loves like cartoons and the fine arts. He feels that the best choice in his life was selecting "interest" as a lifelong career. He draws cartoons simply for the intrinsic rewards it provides him, not for money or a good reputation. He relates his job to his basic needs, and feels that drawing cartoons is just like drinking coffee or tea when he's thirsty.
Cai began to draw cartoons as early as middle school, and various presses often accepted his works. At 15, he was invited by a press in Taipei to work as a professional cartoonist. It had been his dream for years. Cai decided to quit school for work, and when he discussed this plan with his father, his father simply agreed with silence. This was rather rare among Chinese parents, who are famous for their paternalistic manner in deciding the future for their children.
Cai has a wide range of interests, from drawing cartoons to collecting figures of Buddha, as well as playing bridge, gardening and interior decoration. Having so many hobbies never had any negative affects his career as a cartoonist. On the contrary, his various other hobbies often provide inspiration. For instance, his collection of Buddha figurines provides additional insight for his Zen cartoons, and playing bridge is a great way to relieve the stress associated with a lot of difficult work.
Differing from most Chinese parents, Cai has a unique way of bringing up his daughter, stressing independence and self-reliance. His daughter even traveled to Japan by herself at the age of 12.With the influence of her father, his daughter has also become fond of cartoons. Her creativity and originality is comparable to that of her father, and many of her cartoons have been published as well. Cai once made a comparison between human beings and wolves, stating that a parent wolf never teaches its children the necessary skills of survival, leaving the child with the challenge of acquired these skills on their own.
(chinaculture June 22, 2006)