Tintin's legacy in China

We look at the popularity of the tuft-haired reporter in China

Tin Tin has long been a hero in China, but why? Ahead of The Secrect of the Unicorn's release Nicola Davison talks to Tintinologist Michael Farr about the tuft-haired reporter's legacy

It’s been 75 years since Tintin last came to town, but this month the plucky, bequiffed reporter returns to Shanghai with The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson's 3D motion capture extravaganza. Of course, both the popularity of the Tintin books (over 200 million copies have been sold in 80 languages) and the heavy-hitters behind the film already point towards box office gold. But ‘Dingding’s’ special relationship with China throughout Georges 'Hergé' Rémi's books means that the intrepid reporter has long been in the hearts of the Chinese people.

It was in 1936 that Tintin first ventured onto Shanghai shores in The Blue Lotus. It's considered to be both a pivotal moment in the development of the Tintin books and a magnum opus in its own right – France's Le Monde ranked it 18th in its 100 books of the century list.

Largely set in Shanghai, The Blue Lotus sees Tintin investigating an opium consortium (the title refers to a well-known opium den in Shanghai at the time). Armed with nothing more than a wire-bound notebook, a drunken sea captain and a small white terrier (Baixue to the Chinese), Tintin battles corrupt police officials, Japanese secret agents and an international drug cartel.

‘I think The Blue Lotus is the first masterpiece, and one could see it as the masterpiece,’ says Michael Farr, a leading Tintinologist and author of Tintin: The Complete Companion. ‘It’s the most perfect book, from the very brave narrative – where you have a European daring to criticise the Japanese, which was not done then – to the artwork. Artistically, they’re wonderful drawings, and he’d never done anything as good as that up to this point.’ China is revisited in Tintin in Tibet (1960), the bestselling Tintin adventure in mainland China, and it’s the only country to feature in two books.

Part of the brilliance of The Blue Lotus is its historical accuracy, no mean feat considering Hergé, who died in 1983, never set foot in China. Luckily he had considerable help from his friend Zhang Chongren, who was born in Xujiahui in 1907 (the same year as Hergé) and was studying sculpture in Brussels when they met in 1934.

‘They hit it off immediately,’ says Farr, who knew both men personally. ‘Zhang would go to Hergé’s house every Sunday, have tea with him and take away the latest pages of The Blue Lotus to make sure that everything was correct. He’d write in the Chinese characters, such as the street signs. Some of them are very subtle, with allusions to Japanese imperialism.’ In homage to his friend, Hergé created a character named Chang Chong-Chen, whom Tintin rescues from the whirling Yangtze in The Blue Lotus, and then again from the Abominable Snowman in Tibet.

Tintin’s popularity in China is also thanks to Hergé’s sensitive portrayal of Chinese people (and his vilification of the Japanese), something that Zhang influenced. The Blue Lotus has the look and feel of a Japanese-occupied Shanghai, torn apart by warring invaders and corrupt Western officials in the International Settlement.

‘When this book appeared it was very controversial because Europeans thought the Japanese were the most sophisticated people in Asia,’ says Farr. ‘So here in 1934 Hergé is writing a story that savagely criticises them for aggression in China, which is out of sync with what Europeans are thinking. There was a protest to the Belgium foreign ministry from the Japanese.’ The book did go down well with Madame Chiang Kai-shek, however. She liked it so much she invited Hergé to visit China, though he only ever reached Taiwan.

But would Hergé have approved of Spielberg and Jackson's adaptation? The 135 million USD production, starring Jamie Bell as Tintin and Daniel Craig as baddie Red Rackham, merges three of Hergé’s books and includes Tintin’s first encounter with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). Filmed in motion capture by Spielberg in the States, the footage was shipped to Jackson and his Weta Digital team (of Lord of the Rings fame) in New Zealand where it was translated from live action into digital animation, with Spielberg present via videoconferencing – all very far removed from Hergé and his pen and pencil.

‘When I knew Hergé in the '70s, he was in his seventies but he was very young at heart and mind. He was very with it,' says Farr. ‘When I wrote my biography of him, one of the things I discovered among his papers was a note three months before he died. He’d written that if anybody could bring Tintin to the screen successfully it would be this young American director; he was an admirer of Spielberg as a filmmaker.

‘Besides, Hergé will be even better known as a result of the Spielberg film, and more people will turn to the Tintin books and read them. That can only be a good thing.’

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is released in cinemas on Tuesday 15 November.

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