It would be difficult to figure out whether the popularity of comics during the Cultural Revolution matches that of earlier and later times: because they are exchanged among friends and lent out quite frequently, comics usually have a much larger market than what the publishing statistics based on actual sales suggest. Indeed, according to Seifert, in the 1930s, the larger part of all comics produced was given to lending libraries and not sold. This practice seems to have continued into the years after 1949 (Seifert 2008, 49). In 1952, for example, in Shanghai alone, 350,000 small bookstalls are said to have rented out comics to between 200,000 and 400,000 people each day (Farquhar 1999, 202). Such figures are unreliable as well as few and far between, however. Memories of reading comics at such stalls, which often held several hundred titles on average (Seifert 2008, 85), however, can be found frequently among those who lived through the early decades of the PRC (and have been added in memory blogs as well):
"We went to this rental stall that had the comic books. My relative had rented some space out to the owner of the stall and so he was really nice to me. I could simply read all those comic books [xiaorenshu] for free. So I read the Romance of Three Kingdoms and the Journey to the West. Many of these comic books were very well painted. I really liked them, and now, I still have some of them, reprints from the 1980s when they came out again." (Journalist, 1946–)
Illustrations that show these bookstalls renting out comics can be found throughout the twentieth century. In one 1976 depiction, a little girl, her arms full of comic books, stands in front of a pushcart stall and next to a set of chairs, shouting out loud to attract an audience. Behind her, a boy is already starting to flip through some of the comics displayed on the pushcart (ill. 6.43a). Images like these suggest an unabated fascination with the comic form, and this fascination probably did not stop during the Cultural Revolution.
In a 1940s depiction, a group of women, men, and children sit on a bench in front of the stall’s shelves or browse the shelves, most of them with their backs toward the viewer and immersed in their reading activity. All of them are guarded by an old man with large hat and beard, seated on a large chest (ill. 6.43b).
Thirty years later, the 1974 propaganda poster entitled Fascinating [引人入胜] appears as almost a mirror copy of this earlier image: it shows a group of boys and girls sitting not on a bench but on small chairs at such a stall, the shelves behind them filled with typical comic readings from the Cultural Revolution: comics from the model works, the story of Mao’s good student Jiao Yulu, the story of Norman Bethune, one of the Three Constantly Read Articles. Not unlike in the earlier image, the children are depicted reading intently and quite obviously enjoying themselves, laughing together or pointing to details in the books, although here they are all facing the viewer, so that their enjoyment can be perceived all the more easily (ill. 6.43c).
While libraries and private homes may have been ransacked in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, and their comic collections taken away, street stalls for comic books remained intact and in use throughout the Cultural Revolution (Seifert 2008, 112). A recently published, undated photograph shows yet another similar scene, most probably from the 1980s, the heyday of comic production, according to Seifert (2008, 124). Again, the image shows boys and girls sitting on small benches, now with their backs to the audience again, but reading just as intently as in the other images (ill. 6.43d).