Great Snakes! The Adventures of Tintin: The Blue Lotus - An Analytical Reading

Images are constructions in our heads - conglomerations of perceptions, opinions, experiences, and facts that influence the way we interact with the world. Regardless of whether our image of a place, or a nation, or a culture, is in sync with what it is actually like, it is the image that impacts our behavior. Also, our images of other cultures play a large role in defining how we see ourselves. Paradoxically, our sense of identity plays a large role in shaping our image of 'the Other,' while our image of the Other plays a large role in shaping our image of our 'Self' - and we interact with the world based on how we see it, and ourselves.

How do we come by these images in the first place? There is a plethora of contributing factors, most of which stem from surrounding culture. Every person is exposed to the attitudes and discussion of family members and caretakers when he or she is young, and continues to be influenced by peers, co-workers, and the people he or she interacts with everyday throughout his or her everyday life. Images are built upon, layer by layer, with every conversation, discussion, argument, and comment.

The sources that people turn to in order to get their information about the world around them, to learn about what they do not see and interact with in their daily lives, also shape the images that people develop. Today, the media - books, television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet - has a far-reaching impact on many people at once, and exercises a large influence on the viewing public at large. Before technological advances that made such communication devices as television and the Internet possible, print media was what shaped people's images - newspapers, magazines, books, advertisements, pictures, and artwork.

Leisure and entertainment media also play a large role in shaping people's perceptions. One such form of entertainment media is comic books. Comic books have a split reputation - on one hand, they are denounced for discouraging children to read chapter books and other solely-print literature, and on the other they are lauded for encouraging children to read at all. The point is, though, that comics have always been popular with children, and, especially before the time of films and serial shows, were a major occupation and a major influence.

The comic is a very interesting art form, in that it combines both visual and verbal elements in telling a story, allowing for much detail and depth. Comics vary greatly in length, but perhaps those with characters that can be followed from adventure to adventure, characters to identify with, have a particular resonance. One such comic is The Adventures of Tintin.

The Adventures of Tintin is a series of comic books which recount the travels and escapades of a young red-headed Belgian reporter as he travels around the globe, accompanied by his dog, Snowy, foiling criminals and solving mysteries. Tintin the character was first created in 1929 by Belgian writer and artist Georges Remi. Remi, who lived from 1907- 1984, is better known by his pen name, Hergé (which was created from the French pronunciation of R. G., his reversed initials). The Adventures of Tintin was first published in French-speaking countries, then, as its popularity grew, translated into over 20 different languages and published the world over. Today there is still a small Tintin following in the US, a larger one in England, and a huge cult in France, while Tintin remains practically a national icon in Belgium.

Comics, as they are aimed for the most part at children, are generally held to be wholesome, clean, and of a high standard - but as our images of the world change, so do social standards. Two incidents regarding the publishing of Tintin in America exemplify a shift in what are perceived as proper values to instill in American youth. In 1959, before the books were allowed to be published in America, Hergé consented to redraw panels in The Crab with the Golden Claws, changing a Black deckhand into a man of another, light-skinned origin because "the US censors didn't approve of mixing races in children's books" (Owens, 2004). Much more recently, however, a Tintin book was censored for the entirely opposite reason: it was seen as racist! In 1995, Tintin in America was found to "contain bias and stereotypes" and was pulled from school libraries in the Spokane, Washington School District (American Libraries, 1995).

The first four Tintin books, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930), Tintin in the Congo (1931), Tintin in America (1932) and The Pharaoh's Cigars [sic] (1934), certainly did have very slanted views of their locales - Russians were heartless, devious Communists, colonialism and race inequalities in Africa was portrayed without commentary, and Native Americans danced war dances around white kidnapped hostages tied to poles. The images in these books were created indifferently, without analysis or thought to their impact. But that all changed with Hergé's next album.

The Blue Lotus was Tintin's fifth adventure. First published in 1934-1935 in the magazine Le Petit Vingtieme in Brussels, the book is set in China in 1931. In The Blue Lotus, Tintin goes to China to find the operator of an opium-smuggling ring. (The Blue Lotus is the name of a well-known opium den in Shanghai.) While it would be reasonable to expect that The Blue Lotus would reflect the popular sentiment of the time, exemplifying prejudice towards the Chinese people, surprisingly Hergé's portrayal of the Chinese and the visiting Belgian reporter's relationship with them is actually more complex than that kind of simplified 'Othering.' In fact, many examples from the book itself suggest that Hergé did all he could to avoid the 'Othering' of the Chinese by his Western audience.

The Blue Lotus was a turning point in Hergé's career. Previously, The Adventures of Tintin had been much more careless and less thoughtful about creating images (both visual and conceptual) of the cultures, places, and peoples they portrayed. Hergé himself said, "I admit that my early books were typical of the Belgian bourgeois mentality of the time." There was little to no attempt at accuracy in these early works, and images and perceptions were based on popular prejudice, not on the actual qualities of the people being portrayed. From all accounts Hergé tried to make The Blue Lotus as accurate a portrayal of China as possible. "From Le Lotus Bleu on (…) Hergé resolved not to be guided only by what he saw and heard around him, but also to refer to reliable documents, to the point where Levi-Strauss could praise the precision and ethnological accuracy of the places and objects presented in these works" (Tisseron & Harshav, 2002).

The inspiration to be more conscientious was Hergé's friendship with a Chinese man, Chang Chong Chen, a draftsman, writer, and poet. Hergé once said, "Chang made me penetrate the reality of China. Thanks to him I understood that I had to gather documentation seriously" (La Libre Belgique, 1975, as quoted in Tintin Historian). By knowing, in person, someone from a culture he was representing and recreating in the minds of his readers, Hergé came to understand his responsibility to present as objective a portrayal as possible. With The Blue Lotus, he certainly wasn't objective - but it is obvious that his perspective included the values of tolerance, respect, and understanding of other peoples. For instance, in The Blue Lotus Westerners (except, of course, for Tintin) are repeatedly presented as ignorantly prejudiced - and therefore humorous. On page 45, Thompson and Thomson, two twin English spies, disguise themselves as 'Chinese,' believing that traditional dress, with brightly colored, elaborately embroidered robes and hat with pigtails will make them inconspicuous, whereas in fact they stick out like sore thumbs! As they walk down the street discussing their cleverness, a crowd of normally-dressed (though not Western-dressed) Chinese follow them in curiosity at their strange appearance.

Very early on in the book there is an example of Hergé's attempt at countering the Western prejudice of his audience, which illustrates well that he did not agree with the 'superior' versus 'inferior' view of the West versus the East. Hergé chose to make his hero (Tintin) a lauder of equality and respect between the two cultures, and unafraid to stand up for what he believes in.

On pages 6-7 of The Blue Lotus, Tintin, upon arriving in Shanghai, has a run-in with another Western character. Tintin is riding a rickshaw (a taxi-cart balanced on two wheels pulled by a person) pulled by a Chinese man when the Westerner, reading a newspaper and not paying attention to where he is walking, begins to cross the street. The rickshaw driver attempts to stop, but they end up crashing into the man, who begins to beat the hapless driver with his cane, exclaiming "Dirty little China-man! … To barge into a white man!" Tintin snaps the man's cane, calls him a "Brute!" and tells him "your conduct is disgraceful, sir!" Hooray for our hero!

After shouting at Tintin for interfering, the Westerner storms into the nearby "Occidental Private Club" where he meets some friends and tells them the story. As he talks, he gets angrier and more indignant at Tintin's impertinence and betrayal of his own 'race.' He launches into a tirade that reveals much about his image of himself, and of the Other: "What's the world coming to? Can't we even teach that yellow rabble to mind their manners now? It's up to us to civilise the savages! We soon won't have any control at all… and look what we've done for them, all the benefits of our superb western civilisation." As he repeats this last phrase, "our superb western civilization," for emphasis, he gestures wildly and knocks the tray out of a passing Chinese waiter's hands. Of course, in his own eyes, the American can do no wrong, so the accident is blamed entirely on the innocent Chinese waiter. The humor of this entire incident is based on Western hypocrisy.

In this context the Westerner represents the whole Western mindset of the time - that the Chinese were lesser to themselves, and therefore were supposed to behave in a subservient fashion towards their 'betters.' What is so interesting is that Hergé is questioning the validity of that claim by having his hero oppose it. The Westerner is presented as a comical, ignorant character who is so very wrong in his beliefs that even though he is an arrogant jerk, the assumption is firstly that the reader will recognize that fact, and secondly that the reader will not be that way himself. By placing that confidence in his audience to share his views in order to see the humor, Hergé is subtly influencing the perspectives the reader holds. If it is a young reader, perhaps shaping the perspectives that will stay with him or her for life.

(Of course, Tintin's good deed comes back to repay him, karmically. On page 27 of The Blue Lotus, the cousin of the rickshaw driver saves Tintin's life in repayment for his previous kindness toward his relative. In the simple moral world of comics, good deeds are rewarded and bad ones punished.) However, it is important to note that while the Westerner's behavior is presented as so irrational and unfair that it is amusing, and Tintin's reaction is praised as right and proper, not much attention is given to the Chinese. They are, consequently, portrayed as helpless - unable to defend themselves. Though the initial confrontation is over the Chinese man, he is not involved at all. This inadvertently makes the Chinese man seem weak and incapable to protecting himself - though this could be attributed either to the man's circumstances (the political situation) or to his racial qualities.

By portraying those with misconceptions about the Chinese as bumbling ineffectuals, Hergé forms a new image of the uninformed, prejudiced idiot in his readers' minds, making cultural superiority a distinctly negative trait. Hergé's approach complicates the idea of a dialectically opposite 'Other,' the 'they' that is everything 'we' are not. This creates a whole new type of 'Other:' one not based on cultural background, but on how one chooses to interact with others. In this stories and these situations, we are meant to identify with Tintin, and Tintin is the opposite of the stupid Westerner, who is now Hergé's 'Other.' We can see ourselves as dialectically opposed and hierarchically superior to this Other, yet the equal, and the ally, of the Chinese.

In The Blue Lotus, Hergé not only depicted an image of the Westerner that most Westerners would not have approved of, but also dared to depict a version of recent 'Eastern' events that conflicted with the approved European version at the time. On page 21 of The Blue Lotus, Tintin witnesses 'the Manchurian Incident' (sometimes known as 'The Mukden Incident"), where the railway line of the South Manchurian Railroad was blown up between Shanghai and Nanking. The event was presented in the news as the fault of the Chinese, and the incident was used as justification by the Japanese to move further into China than they already had. In The Blue Lotus, Tintin sees what eventually came to be known was the truth - that the bomb was set by Japan, which was seeking excuses to invade China. On page 22, we see that the Japanese encouraged, in fact facilitated, escalation of the situation through radio broadcasts that fabricated exaggerated details.

Throughout The Blue Lotus, the Japanese are portrayed as bullying, superior, selfish, and cleverly malicious - the villains taking advantage of the Chinese. Hergé, by constructing a dialectical relationship between the evil, powerful Japan and the innocent, helpless China, again takes us away from the traditional "West-Orient" dialectic. If we wish to remain on the 'good' side of the dialectic, then we must join the Chinese against the Japanese, and we find ourselves less capable of easily 'Othering' when we are joined against a wholly different 'Other.'

The Chinese are further 'de-Othered' in the most unambiguous instance of an obviously stated value system in The Blue Lotus. On page 43, where Tintin rescues a young Chinese boy named Chang Chong-chen (the character was named after Hergé's inspirational friend). The boy is amazed that a European would risk his own life to save another's, especially a Chinese person's. On this page Hergé gives a concise and clear (perhaps oversimplified) synopsis of misperceptions between the two cultures.

Chang exclaims in disbelief, "I thought all white devils were wicked, like those who killed my grandfather and grandmother long ago. During the War of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, my father said." Chang is just like us - so much so, that he has prejudices about us. We are not longer special because we 'Other' - we are, after all, the "other's Other!" Tintin replies, "But Chang, all white men aren't wicked, you see, different peoples don't know enough about each other. Lots of Europeans still believe…" and in a series of panels, Hergé goes on to articulate and illustrate numerous misconceptions of Chinese people, such as "all Chinese are cunning cruel and wear pigtails are always inventing tortures and eating rotten eggs and swallows' nests" and "little Chinese girls suffer agonies with bandages [foot-binding]" and "Chinese rivers are full of unwanted babies," but they are presented as misconceptions. Chang laughs at these ludicrous descriptions and replies, "They must be crazy people in your country!!" By presenting these beliefs, these images, as preposterous and silly, Hergé discredits them and promotes the idea of examining one's assumptions and testing them for truthfulness. Tintin, of course, does not need to reassess his assumptions, because he represents the correct way of viewing the world and other cultures. Chang's image of westerners was incorrect, but Tintin's actions easily disprove this image and Chang readily reverses his perceptions entirely.

This premise that 'different peoples don't know enough about each other' is woven throughout the book. This is the lesson Hergé learnt when he actually had the opportunity to personally get to know someone of another cultural background. What is remarkable is that his new-found respect then blossomed into a desire to share his new knowledge with others, to give his art more integrity and to make a positive impact. Seeing as over the years the Tintin comics have reached thousands of viewers in many different countries, most European, 'Western' countries, these images (those perhaps oversimplified and not without their own biases) are much less detrimental than they could have been, in the established Orientalist tradition.

The portrayal of Chinese people in The Blue Lotus fluctuates over the course of the book, and does not easily integrate into a single perception of the Chinese. Firstly, there is Chang, the primary Chinese character in the story, and so the main representative of his culture. After showing himself willing and able to change his mind about Westerners, Chang further redeems himself by proving to be an indispensable help to Tintin, because of his native knowledge of Chinese language and geography. As these are skills only a native could possess, Chinese knowledge is seen as useful, and shows that sometimes Westerners must rely on the help and superior knowledge of people from another culture, especially when they are in their territory. On page 47 of The Blue Lotus Chang saves Tintin from arrest by switching a pass written in Chinese, which is supposed to give the agents authorization to operate in Chinese territory, with one that says "In case you haven't noticed, we are lunatics and this proves it!"

Secondly, there is Wang Chen-yee. On page 17 of The Blue Lotus, Tintin finds out that Wang has just helped him escape from the Japanese villain Mitsuhirato, is the leader of the Sons of the Dragon, "a secret society dedicated to the fight against opium, the terrible drug causing havoc in our country [China]." Here Hergé may be trying to imply that the Chinese are not entirely helpless- they are organizing to fight back. More than this, they are fighting against laziness and drug dependence, a motive the West should approve of, (though in historical truth, the West was a major proponent of the opium trade, because dependence on opium gave the West great control over Eastern trading). However, in the end, the Chinese secret society requires the help of the young European the thwart the mastermind of the opium smuggling ring.

In addition, as previously noted, in the run-in between the abusive Westerner and Tintin over the rickshaw accident, the Chinese man was not even involved in his own defence, or the ensuing argument. And though the Chinese in the book all seem to speak in flawless English (or Tintin speaks flawless Chinese - unlikely), they use phrases that are awkward because they are (assumedly) directly translated from Chinese, such as the use of flattering titles like 'honourable friend,' and 'venerable master.' Yet, though they are unnatural, their phrases are poetic and eloquent (on the last page, page 62, Change says, 'There is a rainbow in my heart, Venerable Lady… I weep because Tintin is going but the sun shines because I have a new mother and father!). This could be taken as a compliment, but at the same time speech is a factor that differentiates the Chinese them from the Westerners, even when they are speaking the same language. Though Hergé is respectfully trying to maintain, even praise, distinctions between the two cultures, he cannot avoid the possibility of creating a hierarchy between them, making either aspects of Chinese culture or Western culture better than the others.

Though it remains unclear whether Hergé's portrayal of Chinese people is complimentary or not, it is obvious that in The Blue Lotus he takes every opportunity to 'de-Other' the Chinese. He establishes the Japanese as the Other, so that the Chinese and the reader are, by default, on the same side (though there are still elements of the story and character development that could be interpreted as supportive of a dialectic in which the weak Chinese require Western help). Then Hergé has the Chinese character Chang invalidates the idea that Chinese are entirely different from us.

He establishes the Japanese as the Other, so that the Chinese and the reader are, by default, on the same side (though there are still elements of the story and character development that could be interpreted as supportive of a dialectic in which the weak Chinese require Western help). He also "Others" the prejudiced Westerner so that the reader wants to be an unprejudiced Westerner - again, firmly placing the reader with the Chinese, not against them. The reader has more sympathy for the cultural Other (the Chinese) than the ideological other (the intolerance and prejudiced). Though at first Chang was both types of 'Other', he was able to change his views, and then the cultural differences weren't a big deal.

This was Hergé's ultimate message, and what makes him so relevant even today: the need for tolerance and awareness of other cultures. Tintin may be amusing, exciting - a good way to pass the time. After all, the primary function of The Blue Lotus, and the entire Tintin series, is entertainment. They are works of fiction. Yet Hergé understood the impact of images, and wanted to give the reader, along with the impressions, a tool for interpreting them: strive for understanding, and then other differences are of hardly any importance at all.