Feng Mengbo: Phantom Tales
Launch date: June 14, 2001, Artist Web Projects
Feng Mengbo has created three animations for Phantom Tales: One Silver Dollar, Three Bloody Stones, and The Technology of Slide Shows, each approximately five minues in length. The Beijing-based artist, whose early childhood coincided with the height of the Cultural Revolution, chose to examine two widely popular picture books from his childhood. The third component illustrates technologies espoused by the People's Liberation Army for creating animation effects using slides.
In 2020, this project was reprogrammed in HTML5 because Flash is no longer supported by most browsers. The initial Flash version can be viewed here.
Born in 1966, Beijing-based artist Feng Mengbo came of age during the height of the Cultural Revolution, a time when cultural politics dictated by Chairman Mao promoted an artistic policy based on a social realism infused with heroic romanticism. Spanning a range of media from painting to cd-roms, Mengbo's work addresses subject matter as intensely personal as My Private Album, a cd-rom documenting several generations of his family, as well as work that verges on social/political critiques, exemplified in the cd-rom installation Taking Mount Doom by Strategy, which melded themes of violence, power and heroicism from the popular video game Doom with the revolutionary opera, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Much of Mengbo's work since the early 90s has been variously influenced by the style, content, or cultural implications of video games, which greatly interested him as an adolescent.
For Phantom Tales, his first work based soley on the web, he goes further back in his personal history to stories and modes of entertainment from his childhood. Each of these three animations is based on a book. Stylistically the images in these books are reminiscent of the social realism of German artist Käthe Kollwitz, but whereas her work denounced the atrocities of war and served as a critique of official policy, the illustrations generated during the Cultural Revolution often glorified strife in the name of liberation and were orchestrated very much by those usurping authority.
Mengbo's first two animations are based on picture books published in 1972 and 1969 respectively, widely popular stories full of violent imagery.One Silver Dollar recounts a tragic family tale from the period prior to 1949 of a People's Liberation Army soldier whose family members were killed either by the National Army for refusing to join or by a rapacious landlord for blood money, symbolized by the iconic image of a coin dripping with blood. Using cinematic techniques, such as panning, zooming, and establishing shots, it transforms the static illustrations from a storybook into a dynamic animation. At times Mengbo seems to present the story quite literally the way he sees it, with the same jumps and focuses made by his eyes. While narrative may be difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with this classic story, the images, complemented by the animation, convey emotion even if the narrative is somewhat abstracted. A plaintive 1959 recording entitled "Listening to My Mother's Talking About The Past" underscores the emotive effects.
The Bloody History of The Three Stones documents the terrible condition of workers' lives in Tianjin City in the 1940s. Presented in a style analogous to the manual slide shows of Mengbo's youth, it alternates images of drawings, photos, and exhibits resembling courtroom evidence relentlessly from right to left, left to right. "The International," the anthem of the Communist movement, is conjured from what sounds like a scratchy LP overlaid with the squeeks of a slide tray being pulled back and forth.
The third animation, The Technology of Slide Shows draws from a book of that title published in 1982 which documented methods developed by the People's Liberation Army for creating animation effects with slide projections, which, in the absence of television and films, provided a major source of entertainment during Mengbo's youth. The Technology of Slide Shows offers a strange and compelling combination of animation techniques fusing imagery of flowers, the military, landscapes, illustrations of drawing methods, abstract color shapes, and projection instructions, amongst others, with a soundtrack entitled "Fish and Water." According to Mengbo, this refrain serves as a commonplace analogy of the relationship between Chinese people and the army since the 1940's. Somewhat ironically, in this animation devoid of a narrative, the content overpowers the techniques being illustrated, whereas, by contrast, in his previous two animations the presentation mode overrides the narrative, rendering it secondary: interpretative modes trump didactic goals.
In one email exchanged early during the formulation of his plans for this project, Mengbo proposed to look at the images from these stories in detail, to think about why, as children, his generation was repeatedly exposed to terrible stories, and to question what the violence meant to them then. Mengbo asserts that he is not interested in political critique, but, because popular culture in China prior to the 80s was always about political life, in examining cultural history political content occurs inevitably by default not design. By transforming the stories into something new and distributing them via a novel medium, with nearly ubiquitous outreach, he provokes a larger audience into pondering such questions, both in relation to China's Cultural Revolution and to our local mythologies of liberation and war. In 1997 Mengbo wrote a statement that seems especially appropriate forPhantom Tales, as this work enters the ever-expanding cultural domain of the world wide web: "Perhaps in the future all of our memories will speak to each other, gradually forming an opaque mass, at once both chaotic and inclusive."
Each animation is based on a book, described below.
One Silver Dollar
Based on the picture book One Silver Dollar, edited by The Political Office of The Unit 1505 of The People's Liberation Army, published by People Arts Publishing House, 1972.
Soundtrack: "Listen to My Mother's Talking About The Past" performed by The Central Broadcasting National Orchestra, vocal by Ji Qinglian, recorded at 1959, published by China Records, 1979.
The Bloody History of The Three Stones
Based on the picture book The Bloody History of The Three Stones, edited by Tianjin Hongqiao District Three Stones History Museum, published by Tianjin People Arts Publishing House, 1969.
Sountrack: "The International", performed by The Central Broadcasting Art Troupe and The Central Opera and Dance Drama Theater, conducted by Yuan Fang, published by China Records, 1969.
The Technology of Slide Shows
Based on the book How to Create and Play Slide Shows, edit by The Political Office of Shenyang Troop of The People's Liberation Army, published by Chinese Film Publishing House, 1982. This is essentially a technical manual that explained various techniques for creating animation effects using the widely-available and affordable technology of slide projections. The images used in the book were provided as samples.
Soundtrack: "Fish and Water" (a popular analogy of the relationship of Chinese people and the army since 1940's.), performed by The Propaganda Crew of The Political Office of The Railway Force of The People's Libration Army, composed by Xia Kang and Yuan Zhigang, lyric by Jiao Naiji, lead vocal by Shen Lijuan, conducted by Xia Kang, published by China Records, 1974.
These partial translations were provided to accompany the project Phantom Tales by Feng Mengbo for Dia Center for the Arts.
One Silver Dollar
Synopsis/partial translation of the picture book One Silver Dollar, edited by The Political Office of The Unit 1505 of The People's Liberation Army, published by People Arts Publishing House, 1972.
The story begins with the narrator, Xiao Liang, as an adult, shown as a member of the People's Liberation Army. He recounts the story of his family and the Bloody Silver Dollar:
Twenty years ago, drought struck and people were hungry. My grandparents all starved. Father sold his land to have money to burying his parent. Left with one dollar, my parents left to try to find a place to live where we could support ourselves. On the way to a new home, the National Army tried to get my father to join but when he refused, they shot and killed him. The dollar carried by my father was bloody and broken by the bullet. When we buried him, my sister Xiao Ling was 7 and I was 5.
We walked until we found three abandoned temples. We were so hungry and tired, when we found a house of a family that was well-off, my mother asked for some food for my family but the man beat my mother. Afterwards a fellow poor person told us Landlord Lee lived there, a very bad man.
We were hungry and exhausted the whole long cold winter. Except for the fact that we poor people shared what little we had with each other, we would have starved to death. When spring came, we were still hungry but my mother didn't want to spend the only dollar we had. We tried to plant some plants.
One day Landlord Lee came to the temple and demanded that we leave, that we were descrecating a holy place. He said we could only stay if we paid him. Mother said we don't have money, just three lives. Landlord Lee ransacked the place and discovered the family's only coin. He wondered how such poor people had that money and accused them of stealing. He took the dollar from my family. My mother called him a thief and he again beat her.
It was a hard summer and we didn't know what would happen when winter came again. Sister was ill. One day, while waiting for Mother to come back, we went out to find her. Finally she came back, but a piece of bread but with tearful eyes. Inside the temple, Mother took the bread and gave it to my sister. Sister tried to give the bread to me and my mother to eat. I was so hungry, all I wanted to do was eat but my mother told me to give it to the sister because she was sick and so hungry, but she wouldn't eat. My mother felt so sorry and began crying as she braided her daughter's hair. Sister asked why she was so sad, it was making her scared. Mother said my daughter, your mother can't support you, go find a way to stay alive by living with another family. My sister cried and said I don't want to go, I don't care if I die, don't sell me to another family. Mother's heart was broken. Mother said, it's not that I don't love you, I want you to survive.
When I heard my mother wanted to send away my sister, I cried and said "don't send away sister!" Sister cried and said, my dear brother, I will not go away. My mother said to the sister, when you arrive at your new family, you don't need to miss us because we'll come visit you. Mother took off her coat to give to my sister, but she didn't want to leave my mother with just a shirt. Mother said, daughter, I'm ok, but you're sick, you must keep yourself warm. It was a severe winter. Suddenly the door opened and three ominous people entered, led by Landlord Lee, who said, "I am here to take my girl." We were so afraid. When my mother realized it was the landlord whose family had agreed to take her daughter, she said, "we'll all die before I would let you go to Landlord Lee's family." Landlord said it will be paradise for the girl. He threw a coin to the ground and forcibly took my sister away.
When my mother awoke she fell down at the sight of the dollar, the same one that belonged to my family originally. My mother was sick after my sister was gone. I missed my sister and worried about mother. One day my mother and I were trying to find food when we saw many people gathered and heard that Landlord Lee's mother was dead. They we saw two people sitting like guards on white lotuses, a boy and a girl, I saw my sister sitting there in green pants and a red coat, holding a lamp in her hand. I said "sister!" but she said nothing. Suddnley my mother said "my daughter!" and fell down. I said, mother, what's wrong? When I saw my sister I was shocked. Landlord Lee, because he wanted to decorate his mother's funeral, killed a poor girl and boy by feeding them mercury.
Mother tried to wake my sister. She said "I miss you every day. Look, the landlord killed you with this dollar." Landlord Lee came and said "get away." My mother was so full of rage she tried to bludgeon the landlord with the dollar. But it fell into the hands of the landlord's accomplice. My mother said, "you are a wolf, give me back my daughter." The landlord then beat my mother.
Soon afterwards my mother opened her eyes and told me she was going to die. She said, "Son, you must remember how your father and sister died. You must get revenge." My mother's eyes closed and I cried and cried but she never answered. I was a small boy all alone. The poor people helped me bury my mother.
I am so young but I my life was so hard. I didn't understand why things were this way and I hoped one day for revenge. The poor people took care of me, one man raised me, though we were hungry almost every day.
Then, the sun was rising from the east [a common way of saying Chairman Mao was coming]. The communist party and the liberation army won; my hometown was freed and the peoples' government killed the landlord with a shot. We got revenge. The man who raised me and I found the bloody silver dollar in one of the landlord's many barrels of silver dollars. Since then, we poor people stand up, we are the masters now. I am 18 in a year and I will go to the army. When I go, I will take the dollar with me. The neighbors remind me to never forget. I said, "Comrade, this dollar is an proof of our history. In dark times, there were millions of poor children who lost their families. All money is blood money."
The Bloody History of The Three Stones
Synopsis/partial translation of the picture book The Bloody History of The Three Stones, edited by Tianjin Hongqiao District Three Stones History Museum, published by Tianjin People Arts Publishing House, 1969.
The book contains photographs and drawings which document true stories of real people who worked under dreadful conditions in Tianjin City prior to 1949 .
The book begins with a quote from Chairman Mao: "The class struggle, some win, some disappear: this is history. This is the history of a thousand years."
A Map of the factory, which was near a river. It was name after the street "Three Stones".
Photograph: A picture of three stones: the street, now called "Three Stones" used to be a dirt road, but during the Qing dynasty. a ruler lost a family member. For the funeral procession, he forced working people to make a road with three lined stones. This is how the street got its name.
Drawing: Year later, a street scene.
Poster: Breakdown of classes of workers and owners of factories: of workers, 66 were farmers, 4 were freelance; of owners, 13 from businesses, 28 landlords, 2 officers
Photograph: a worker writing a critique of Chairman Liu Shao Qi with a bus of Chairman Mao behind him
The next several pages tell the stories of how boys came to the factory: Drawing: Always the same story, a poor boy being beaten by a landlord.
Drawing: Dogs are sent out when small boys asked for food.
Drawing: A mother contemplating suicide on railroad track beacuse she can't care for family. Her children try to push her off the tracks.
Drawing: Dishonest people lure boys from country side to city, promising a better life.
Drawing: The contract says you can study, but if you stop it you must pay the factory back for food. If something happens, if you get injured or killed, it is not the liability of the factory.
Chart: Working hours:
after liberation - 8 hours; before liberation - 16-20 per day
Photograph: Photo of two clocks which measure time in a strange way intended to illustrate the long working hours
Photograph: A box in the museum collection that a worker hid in to sleep because he was so exhausted.
Drawing: A man in a cauldron, so exhausted he slept for hours in water.
Drawing: Working at midnight, long after owner is asleep, workers are asked to be security guards and at the same time, to gather coal dust from the snowy ground to create coal lumps to heat the owner's building.
Drawing: One factory owner created a special room in the center of the factory to be able to watch workers at all times.
Drawing: Because the poor workers had such a hard life, they monitor the factory worker in turn, and when he left, they had a rest.
Next several pages tell one boy's story
Drawing: There were seven people in a family - society killed five of them, a five year old boy and his older brother had to serve the owner. (The younger boy is pictured being beaten by the factory owner)
Drawing: his older brother was hurt by a machine - they didn't take him to hospital, instead they threw him in the river to drown.
Photograph of a sculpture: The owner made the five year old boy do his older brother's job, he needed to stand on a platform just to reach the machine
Drawing: the owner checks the boy's work, something is wrong and he hits the boy's elbow with a hammer.
Drawing: a mob scene: workers confront owner and make him release the boy
Drawing: finally he is alive and will be taken care of by another worker.
Photograph: the grown boy shows scars from where the factory owner hit him as a child.
Another man's story
Drawings: Another worker was lied to and sent to Three Stones when he was 16. Winter was so cold, every drop of water was like ice. His hands were too cold to work. The owner said he was lazy and threw cold water on him. The young man couldn't take it and tried to explain he wasn't lazy, but was injured, and then the owner broke his left arm.
Drawing: One day the young guy made a fire and the owner started to beat him again, so the young man took an ax and threw it at the owner's head, but missed. The owner's men held him down while the owner killed him with an ax.
Photograph: A skull shows worker's skull where it was fractured from the ax.
Photograph: Tools used by owners to beat workers.
Drawing: Shows bunk bed that workers slept in.
Poster: The money each worker received after buying food per month was enough to buy one shoe.
Photograph: A worn shirt: a worker worked an entire year and still didn't have enough money for a winter coat - the owner threw him a coat. At the end of the next year when the worker asked for his money the owner claimed the coat was payment in advance.
Drawing: One day a worker was killed by a machine. The owner didn't want to deal with it so he called the police and claimed the man was murdered by another worker so the police would deal with the death. That worker was arrested.
Drawing: A worker who can't take it any more runs back to his home town. One day the owner finds him and blows coal dust in his eyes. The owner hit the worker, but the police took the worker to the prison.
Drawing: A worker died in a factory - the owner took his clothes and sold them, including the man's 28 dollars, so the workers confront the owner.
Drawing: anther worker is hurt by a machine - the owner wouldn't get him medical attention and he died just from pain.
Feng Mengbo was born in Beijing in 1966, where he currently lives and works.