Picture-story books, which were popular with millions of readers in the first three decades of the New China, are re-emerging in the 21st century in both print and digital formats.
A total of 170 newly published illustrated "red classics" are now available in bookstores across the country, said Chang Ruji, president of China Fine Arts Publishing House, a key player in this red classics project.
Coinciding with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the publishing giant has teamed up with 18 other fine-arts presses at municipal and provincial levels to jointly design and publish former favorite picture-story books about modern Chinese revolutionary figures and the history of the CPC.
Among the red classic titles are Comrade Mao Zedong in Northern Shaanxi Province, Comrade Liu Shaoqi in Anyuan, The Red Ribbon of The Earth, The Railway Guerrillas, Chicken Feather Letters, Five Heroes at the Wolf-teeth Mountain and The Good Eighth Company on Nanjing Road.
The red classics fall into nine categories, ranging from revolutionary leaders, battlefield heroes, major warfare, and outstanding 20th-century Party members, to young model workers and Party members of the new century, Chang said.
"The picture-story book has a long history in China. The picture book originated in the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220) and was loved by generations of Chinese readers," said Nie Zhenning, president of China Publishing Group Corp, the parent company of China Fine Arts Publishing House.
However, it was not until in the 1950s that the picture-story book entered its golden era, when Chairman Mao Zedong called on renowned artists and graphic designers to "push forward the book genre and help educate 90 percent of the nation's population of 400 million who are illiterate", Nie said.
The picture-story book quickly became one of the most popular types of publication in China in the 1950s and 1960s.
For a time in the 1950s, the People's Fine Arts Press could churn out a new picture-story book within three days to meet the market demand, and a single title could sell over 1 million copies within three months.
Even in the mid-1980s, when readers had more choices after China's opening up and reform, a single picture-story book title could sell 100 million copies in a year, according to Nie.
By the end of the 1990, China had published at least 2,000 picture-story book titles, mostly about modern Chinese history and the revolution, and the construction of a socialist society in the subsequent decades, he added.
In recent years picture-story book publishing declined, when imported comic books based on heavily marketed TV programs gained the upper hand in the children's book market.
From the very beginning, however, the picture-story book has been sought after by book collectors, said Wu Shulin, deputy minister of the State Administration of Press and Publication.
But the publishing of these books today "is not merely an answer to the demands of the picture-story book collectors", he pointed out.
"It is vital for China's 360 million young children to gain knowledge at an age when their worldview, outlook and social values are taking shape," Wu said.
"I think these little, pocket-sized red classics can play a big role in spreading knowledge about the history of the Party and the New China."
The books attract children and adults alike with their engrossing themes, vivid illustrations, suspenseful and succinct narrations and, of course, reasonable prices, said Zhao Gang, an editor with the People's Fine Arts Press and an avid collector of picture-story books.
Zhao still remembers many of the titles he read as a child.
"I saved every penny I got to buy picture-story books about war heroes, and historical and mythical figures," he recalled. "In a time of poverty and isolation, I found picture-story books a major source of knowledge. ... Reading picture-story books helped shape my worldview," Zhao said.
Shen Yaoyi, a renowned painter and illustrator, says that the development of the picture-story book in China is a miracle, and he believes it can enter a period of revival in the new century.
"This unique book genre once played an important role in promoting mainstream culture. I believe it can gain a foothold in the new era of digital media if we inject new elements into it," he said. Shen is best known as the creator of the award-winning The Red Ribbon of The Earth, an adaptation of a novel by Wei Wei about the Red Army's Long March in the 1930s.
All of the newly published red classic titles have been redesigned and marked with the logo "Celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the Founding of the Communist Party of China", Chang Ruji said.
Chang added that with subsidies from the central government, the publishing house will soon donate these picture-story books to State-run libraries in remote, rural areas so that local farmers and their children can have more food for thought.
IPad users can get digital editions of these picture-story books, most in Chinese and some in English, from the Apps Store, said Wang Lijun, a technician with the China Publishing Group Digital Media Co Ltd.
"Each four titles cost only 0.99 yuan. I think readers will love it."