Ampton Reads: The Blue Lotus

Tintin stories are frequently praised for their timelessness, and while the art and humour allows the stories to be read and enjoyed by people today, Hergé’s tendency to lampoon specific historical events means that the context of some stories can be lost. Today I’m looking at The Blue Lotus, which arguably suffers from this effect the most. I didn’t understand the implications of the story as a child and am returning now as an adult with my knowledge of history to explain exactly what this Tintin story is actually about.

So, Hergé wanted to take Tintin to China, but the political situation in China was delicate, and the person who put Hergé in touch with Zhang Chongren wanted Hergé to broaden his knowledge of China. Zhang had a huge impact on Hergé, and not just in terms of his understanding of the world; Zhang was an artist and taught Hergé about Chinese art and calligraphy, which expanded his knowledge of perspective, clear line, and typefacing. Seeing as Hergé is famous for his clear lines and excellent use of perspective, we can say that Zhang was essential to his development as an artist.

Previous appearances of the Chinese in Tintin did give people a good reason to worry. They appear briefly in Land of the Soviets as mysterious torturers and they were in the original publication of Tintin in America as people trying to eat Snowy. It was clear that Hergé knew as much about China as he did about the Congo, and that until he spoke to Zhang he had no real intention to educate himself. It was a dangerous time to be so ignorant.

I have no idea what most of these objects are supposed to be.

The Blue Lotus was serialised from 1934 to 1935. In Chinese-Japanese official relations, this fell between the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The first war was fought between China and Japan over influence in Korea, and establishing a pattern of conflicts between the two countries that ran for many decades afterwards. One of the primary driving forces for this continued warfare was the imperialist and expansionist policies of Japan, who saw China as a source of limitless resources and power if it could only be seized.

In 1931, the Japanese blew up their own railway track and accused Chinese rebels of carrying it out. This was used an excuse to invade Manchuria, a region of northeastern China, and continued to use international propaganda to justify their actions even as they committed horrific war crimes against China. China lacked the military power to oppose Japan and turned to the League of Nations, who condemned Japan (and caused Japan to leave their ranks) but otherwise did nothing, leaving China to fend for themselves. Japan targeted the weaknesses of China’s social structure to divide and conquer, and by the year Hergé started writing The Blue Lotus, China had abandoned their northern regions to Japan and were struggling to maintain their political power and independence. That’s a pretty fun and zany backdrop for a children’s story! Hergé was beginning to get a feel for writing for adults instead of just for kids, and he really went from zero to sixty.

The press in Europe were sympathetic towards Japan at the time and the worst of their regime’s actions never even made it into public knowledge in the West. Indeed, although Britain still had a settlement in Shanghai, they weren’t overly interested in doing anything to help the country they had leeched off for generations. China’s image in the West was poor and the nation was thought of as being uncivilised and uncultured, while Japan’s reputation was significantly better. Perhaps people didn’t oppose the war in hope that Japan would tidy up China somewhat. China suffered greatly for this conception of their culture.

Zhang told all of this to Hergé verbatim, and all of a sudden Tintin went from a joyful adventurer to a defender of the weak and influencer in key world events. Hergé inserted most of the above information in The Blue Lotus in one way or another, creating a book that had deep sympathy for China and condemned Japan, which was an unpopular perspective that ran counter to the party line Hergé had been swallowing so far. In the process he and Zhang became close friends, and this friendship has been much mythologised by the Tintinologist community.

Part of the action in The Blue Lotus is set in the Shanghai International Settlement, a somewhat obscure (these days) grouping of European settlers that existed between 1863 and 1941. Like in his previous works, and as he would do plenty more in the future, Hergé is not shy about painting colonisers as the bad guys. The secondary antagonists of The Blue Lotus, Gibbons and Dawson, are American and British, and their actions in The Blue Lotus are an obvious attack on the way they have treated the country they live in.

The Blue Lotus is drawn with Hergé’s increasingly pedantic dedication to accuracy, and he utilised large numbers of references, especially photos, in order to render an accurate picture of the Chinese and their way of life at the time. He utilised Zhang’s help in adding actual Chinese language to the story, which marks the first time he used the native language of the area Tintin was travelling to; previous ‘Arabic’ writing in Cigars of the Pharaoh was actually just nonsense. In fact, Zhang’s artistic contribution was great enough that Hergé wanted to credit him as a co-author, and failing to do that, he instead inserted Zhang into the story as Chang, Tintin’s first real friend in the series.

This story was originally drawn in black and white, and Hergé redrew it into his style in 1946. Copies of the original publication do exist but I’m reading the redrawn version today. It was translated into English in 1983 (relatively late) by Methuen and I am reading that translation. The late translation there was because Methuen, who are British, thought the story was dated and didn’t fit into Tintin canon; therefore, they stalled the translation until the year of Hergé’s death. I do wonder how much the anti-British angle of the book affected that.

AMPTON READS:

The Blue Lotus starts where Cigars of the Pharaoh leaves off; with Tintin the guest of the Maharaja of Gaipajama. Tintin has become obsessed with ham radio, as we all must do at some point in our lives. Part of his obsession is because he keeps picking up bizarre coded messages that someone is transmitting, and being an ever-curious boy reporter, he tries to hunt down their origin. He then has his fortune read by a local fakir, who says this:

I know this is supposed to be menacing, but ‘Asian man with glasses’ describes a lot of people. Millions, at least. In fact, a few moments later, this happens:

If you think this is suspicious, your upcoming trip to China is going to be a never-ending nightmare.

This guy has come to talk to Tintin, but is hit with a dart dipped in the juice of madness, Rajaijah. He quickly tells Tintin to watch out for a guy named Mitsuhirato, a Japanese name, then starts singing out of control. He’s gone to the world. Tintin pulls out a gun – I don’t know why I find it so funny he’s always got a pistol – but he’s too late to catch the attacker. The Maharaja immediately runs in to tell Tintin that the fakir from Cigars of the Pharaoh has escaped imprisonment. Tintin packs up to investigate the Shanghai connection and gets going. Mitsuhirato is all he has to go on, aside from his confusing radio messages.

His arrival in Shanghai is noted and he is sent a letter at his hotel from Mitsuhirato arranging a meeting. Lucky him! Tintin heads out in a rickshaw and we are treated to this brilliant panel.

Zhang did the lettering in this panel, so all the Chinese writing is accurate. This is one of the panels that embodies the direction in which Hergé wanted to take his art: aiming for a photo-like accuracy to realism, especially in his backgrounds, while keeping faces simple so that he could exaggerate them for emotion and comedy without it being jarring. He’s very good at this.

The man driving the rickshaw runs into some white guy, who flies off the handle immediately. This turns out to be one of the antagonists, Gibbons, who storms into a private club to talk to another antagonist, Dawson, about how stupid and uncivilised the locals are.

This is obviously a fairly aggressive jab at the European regime in Asia that maintained their own superiority while acting like a bunch of bastards. This can extend to Europe’s relationship to China even as they were being attacked: yes, we’re better than you, yes, we came here to lay claim on your country, yes, even though we’re claiming to control your country we will make no effort to protect you or help you if we don’t feel like it. Hergé is unsubtle, but at the time, it was a rebellious opinion and he was determined to drive it home.

Mitsuhirato turns out to run a tailor’s, and Tintin goes in to talk to him. Mitsuhirato tells him that he sent the Chinese messenger to Gaipajama in order to tell Tintin to protect the Maharaja, and says that Shanghai is not safe for him. He convinces Tintin to head back to India.

A note on the way Mitsuhirato is portrayed. Remember, at the time, the Japanese were thought of as a good and honourable people and the Chinese were viewed as barbaric. Hergé goes to some length to flip this script; he draws the Chinese looking like normal people, but exaggerates Mitsuhirato and other Japanese characters’ appearances to the point of racial caricature. This was intentional on his part, designed to help make his point about the way Westerners saw China and Japan. It really hasn’t aged well, and it’s one of the points on which critics call this book dated. Without the context of the political situation at the time Hergé simply appears to be racist towards the Japanese, and hey, maybe he was, but it wasn’t what he was aiming for here.

Once Tintin leaves, he is saved from assassination attempts in a scary way. A mysterious man tackles Tintin to the ground, just in time to protect him from a drive-by shooting. The same man shoots Tintin’s cup of tea right out of his hand, and Tintin chases him down, thinking that this man is trying to hurt him. He later realises that the tea was poisoned. Tintin is arrested for running around the streets shooting at people in the night. The cops try and beat the shit out of Tintin, but he defeats them and sends them to hospital.  Since Tintin didn’t really do anything, they let him go, and he gets a mysterious letter and a change of clothes from someone else. They want to meet with him, and Tintin’s like:

And he goes along with it, sneaking out in the night to get to this rendezvous point. In order to find his way, Tintin speaks Chinese to a local guard, and I know this is a small thing, but it is important that Hergé has developed more of a respect for language and culture. I’m thinking about Tintin in the Congo here where the culture of the locals barely exists except as a point of mockery, and we never see them speak in their own language.

He finally makes it to his location, and I’m mostly just adding the panels above because the art and lighting in them is nice. Tintin goes in and finds the same man who saved him from assassination earlier. This man has been poisoned by Rajaijah juice and has gone mad. He attacks Tintin with a sword and Tintin is forced to flee. He subdues the man and hands him over to the police, wondering what this meeting might have been about. But, with his plans made, he gets on the boat back to India.

While wandering the decks in the night, Tintin is knocked out with chloroform, put in a box, and sent back to China. Chloroform is used frequently in Tintin comics as an instant knock-out formula. If consumed or inhaled, chloroform is indeed capable of knocking people out or even killing them, but research shows that putting some on a cloth and holding the cloth to the victim’s mouth actually can’t knock someone out. It’s just not concentrated enough.

So despite his attempts to leave, Tintin wakes up in Shanghai again. I wish this happened a few more times to make it seem like Shanghai is, for Tintin, a Silent Hill-type situation where he can never leave until he’s finished his work. This time he’s in a fancy house that also contains the man who saved him from assassination. Said man, still insane, tries to attack him again, until his father, Wang Chen-yee, stops him. The man, named Didi, was supposed to invite Tintin to meet with the Sons of the Dragon, a Chinese group devoted to fighting against the introduction of opium to China. Mitsuhirato is a Japanese secret agent who has joined the opium smuggling trade.

I’ll throw some context in here too. In the 1800s, two Opium Wars were fought between China and Britain. Essentially, at the beginning of the wars, China’s economy was the largest in the world and had been for many centuries. Britain decided to push opium (a highly addictive opiate drug) onto them in order to hamstring them. The war was also around concerns about the sovereignty of China and their rights to trade freely. Flooding the country with opium had a horrifying effect on China, crashing their economy (to this day they haven’t recovered their position at the forefront of world trade) and chipping away at the stability of their government. The Chinese leaders attempted to quash the opium trade time and time again, but did not succeed. Hergé likely learned about how the Opium Wars had affected China from Zhang and added the opium angle to this book in order to point the finger at Britain for what they had done. It also served to link this story to Cigars of the Pharaoh, with its opium smuggling plotline.

Now convinced that his strange radio signals are relevant, Tintin sits down to decode the transmissions and finds out that there is a meeting planned that night at the Blue Lotus opium den in Shanghai. He sets out to infiltrate them. At the opium den, he witnesses a shady business deal, and climbs onto the back of the guy’s car in order to figure out what the deal was about. He witnesses Japanese and British agents blowing up a train line outside Shanghai.

This was clearly inspired by the Manchurian incident mentioned above. In reality, the explosives used to attack the Japanese train line during the incident barely did any damage, but here they destroy the whole line. In the comic, the world listens on the radio as the Japanese declare war on the Chinese people in order to fulfil “her duty as the guardian of law and civilisation in the Far East.” Hergé is pulling no punches here.

Tintin has been captured, and China is falling into the hands of the Japanese. Wang doesn’t know where Tintin has ended up. Tintin is dosed with Rajaijah and set loose on the streets, but it turns out that he’s fine. Wang has had the juice switched out, and has replaced other weapons of Mitsuhirato, too, so when Mitsuhirato tries to hunt Tintin down and kill him, Tintin kicks his ass.

Mitsuhirato goes crying to the cops and suddenly there are wanted posters for Tintin all around town. Fortunately, the local Chinese are sympathetic towards him and help him escape from the city, heading for Wang’s house. The police are very serious about hunting him down and send out armoured cars to try to sniff him out.

Tintin aims to head back into Shanghai so he can get the Rajaijah analysed in hope of finding a cure. Meanwhile, we learn that Dawson is the chief of police in the International Settlement of Shanghai and he’s very sympathetic to the Japanese. Tintin sneaks his way into the city and into the International Settlement. Since the cops are after him, he ducks into the theatre to see the same movie that Rastapopoulos was shooting in Cigars of the Pharaoh, a nice little throwback. Back in the day, it was common to show newsreels at the cinema, and Tintin gets some world news, including a lead on where he should be going to have the poison analysed.

‘The world authority on madness’ is one hell of a title and one I hope to hold myself someday. Tintin heads to his house, only to find that the professor is missing. He finds out that the professor has just left a dinner party with Rastapopoulos. Tintin tracks Rastapopoulos down, who says that he dropped the professor off outside his house. He travels to that location and finds Gibbons’ business card lying in the street. For some reason he automatically assumes that this must mean Gibbons was involved in the whole affair, although in my opinion this is very shaky reasoning indeed. A ransom note has been left for the professor.

For the crime of sniffing around, Tintin is arrested and handed over to the Japanese by Gibbons and Dawson. They sentence him to death, and Mitsuhirato offers him his freedom in exchange for giving back the Rajaijah and joining the counter-espionage force. Tintin rudely declines. The next day, he will be beheaded.

Wang rescues him in the night by burrowing under his jail cell, and smuggles Tintin out of the city once again. Tintin gets on a train to Hukow, where the ransom for the professor is supposed to be exchanged. The train follows the course of the Yangtze River, and eventually Tintin is forced to disembark and walk when the river floods and damages the tracks. While walking he hears someone yelling for help from the swollen river and strips off to go rescue them. We are introduced to Chang.

Hergé very intentionally added this scene to the story in order to highlight the misconceptions he had about China when he met Zhang. In exchange, Chang tells Tintin about how the Chinese perceive white people, which is laden heavily with fear and loss. Tintin thinks the world would be improved by people getting to know each other more and breaking down the walls of prejudice. It’s a surprisingly heartfelt message considering how the Tintin series has treated foreigners previously. Chang jokes about Europeans being crazy and laughs, and all of a sudden, I would die for this boy. I think it’s the way Hergé draws him. He’s just so friendly-looking.

Chang has lost his family and Tintin offers to look after him for the time being as they make their way to Hukow. This city is still firmly controlled by the Chinese and Mitsuhirato can’t chase him there, but he can send Dawson after him under the pretence of investigating the disappearance of the professor. Specifically, Dawson can send Thompson and Thomson after him.

Thompson and Thomson begin the meme of dressing how they think the locals dress and getting laughed at. In this case, they dress like exaggerated martial arts movie villains and the normal-looking population of Hukow starts following them around. Note the amount of Chinese text in this panel. The original publication of this panel featured Zhang’s signature; if it’s present in this version I can’t see it.

The detectives are sorry to arrest Tintin, but they drag him into the local authorities and show them their certifications. Chang has replaced said certifications with a note calling them insane and they are kicked out, with Tintin being set free. With this failure, the order is given to murder Tintin outright so he can’t recover the professor. Tintin survives the first assassination attempt and learns from the guy that the professor was never even in Hukow and that he needs to turn around and find Mitsuhirato all over again. Of course. We also learn that Mitsuhirato is so determined to keep the professor locked up because he really doesn’t want anyone curing Rajaijah madness. At this point it’s probably just smarter to murder the professor, but who am I to judge?

Wang and his family are also abducted and Tintin rushes to the Blue Lotus to find them (I’ve actually skipped like eight in-universe days here but that’s fine because nothing happens). Tintin ends up captured and Mitsuhirato plans for Didi to behead Tintin and the Wang family. And here comes the kicker: the big boss arrives to watch the execution, and it is none other than Rastapopoulous himself. The Sons of the Dragon plus Chang jump out of hiding and arrest everyone. The professor is found, Tintin is a hero yet again, and we get this:

Hergé provides a fictionalised version of Japan leaving the League of Nations, a historical event I described above. It’s Hergé’s fantasy that it was accompanied by Japan leaving China alone. In reality, this would not come until 1945, at the end of World War II, and even with that in mind, the Chinese people are frequently looked down upon by the Japanese. This is an issue that absolutely persists to this day.

We get more resolution. Thompson and Thomson apologise to Tintin and the professor cures Rajaijah madness. Mitsuhirato commits suicide. Yes, he actually does commit suicide in this children’s book. The Wang family praises Tintin and adopts Chang, which fills Chang with joy. And on that note, with the opium ring in shreds and China saved, Tintin heads back to Belgium, hopefully to write one hell of an article about his travel this time around.

I would say the strongest part of this story is the political intrigue. Rather than just dropping Tintin in the Belgian Congo or Soviet Russia and letting him wander around and punch people, Tintin is dragged into a tense political situation that he must navigate carefully to avoid incident. This is also the aspect that the story is most famous for these days, because Hergé was saying something deeply controversial and because when Japan heard about The Blue Lotus they got real mad, to use a political term.

Japan’s ambassadors to Belgium made an official complaint and tried to take it to the Permanent Court of International Justice, who didn’t do much with it. It caused a blip in Belgian-Japanese relationships, which is not something most comics can claim. Some members of the Belgian army condemned the book. Hergé himself was warned of his transgression by the president of the Sino-Belgian Friendship Association (which absolutely sounds like a fake name) and Zhang was delighted to hear of the controversy, believing that it would lead to the story becoming more famous and bringing the issues China was facing into the minds of the average person. And yet, despite all this, The Blue Lotus was received well by readers, and another homecoming parade was held with an actor dressed as Tintin. Hergé himself was invited to China by the wife of the president, although he could not take her up on this offer at the time.

Japan would later launch itself into World War II in 1941 by attacking the USA at Pearl Harbour and so dragging the USA into the war with them. They didn’t just do this out of nowhere – the USA had stopped giving them oil and refused to return supply until Japan withdrew from China. By this point their war with China had reached what was essentially a stalemate, with neither side able to claim victory over the other, and Japan had no desire to surrender what they’d already seized. Japan lashed out at the USA to try and end the embargo and, after four bitter years of war, paid the ultimate price of having nuclear weaponry used against them.

Zhang would leave Herge’s life and not return for many years due to the Second Sino-Japanese War and the turmoil that accompanied it, but Hergé always missed him, and it was this longing for his friend that drove him to write Tintin in Tibet many years later. Hergé kept up his interest in Eastern religious practices and delved deeper into spiritualism later in his life. But Zhang’s impact on the Tintin books would be felt for the rest of the series. Aside from the art improvement, Hergé had reached a greater level of political awareness than before, and for the next several books in the series he would pursue various political leads, even when it put him in trouble.

The Blue Lotus is pretty often thought of as Hergé’s first great work, and is also held up as one of his best. Critics love it and many fans regard it as a favourite. I think there’s still some room for improvement, like how the plot meanders somewhat and struggles to follow on from Cigars of the Pharaoh, but it really does feel like a Tintin adventure, and a fun and provocative one at that. It leads well into later adventures thanks to the cast of characters it set up.  Hergé would attempt to do something similar to this story in The Broken Ear, with mixed success, as I’ll discuss next time. It’s also unique in that the bad guys actually die on-screen in the comic, so we’ll have to unpack that too. Looking forward to that.

This is a line from the original publication of The Blue Lotus. Note the effective use of contrast and silhouette as compared to earlier Tintin stories.

The main criticism I see levelled against The Blue Lotus is that it is dated. This is a fair criticism, in my opinion; due to the politically charged era it was written in, the story is not necessarily one for the ages. The International Settlement of Shanghai is no more and even when it did exist it wasn’t exactly famous. Hergé’s attempts at criticising the Japanese by drawing them in an exaggerated fashion appears racist as all hell by our standards. People in the West don’t necessarily know much about the Manchurian Incident and other events that lead into the Second Sino-Japanese War. Other Tintin books are usually less specific about which events they refer to and so aren’t specifically stuck in one time.

I would argue that the fact that the story is now dated is a reason we should remember it. Hergé was taking a bold move, criticising Japan as well as portraying Westerners in China as rude, racist, and colonialist. He dragged the Manchurian Incident into the public thought and I think we should keep it in mind as Japan once again is a cultural power with a low opinion of China. Where I live in New Zealand, there are a large number of Chinese immigrants and they are frequently treated like second-class citizens. Hergé’s message of racial tolerance may sound trite or dated but the fact of the matter is that we haven’t actually absorbed it yet. For that reason, I think that The Blue Lotus is perhaps not as dated as we want to think it is.

And hey, this might not have been the best Tintin review ever written, but at least I’m not this guy (ripped from Wikipedia):

Oh yeah, I bet Hergé was thinking about castration while writing this kid’s book. He invented Didi and then he thought, “Thank god I have this Oedipal character whose tendency for beheading represents castration. That was a good move.”

See you next time for The Broken Ear,

– Aмртоп

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