While Japanese manga is the major heavyweight in the realm of East Asian comics, it's quickly gaining competition. The Chinese equivalent of manga and Korean manwha, manhua is still on its way up, but the medium's rapid rise is one to watch. Thankfully, this means there's still time for those curious about manhua to get in on the ground floor.
While it's easy to assume all East Asian comics are alike, each medium has its own unique approach and cultural touchstones, and manhua is no different. Here's a look at the history of modern Chinese comics, how they've evolved and where international readers can get a hold of them.
What Is Manhua?
Manhua refers to comics produced in the Greater China region. The term was first used in the early 1900s, with many of those early works being propaganda or relating to then-current events. This began to change in the 1970s, when the popularity of Bruce Lee movies caused a wave of Kung Fu manhua to take center stage.
This brought about the publication of the iconic series Chinese Hero, which not only made manhua more popular in China but also stood out for its much more realistic art style. Unlike manga and manhwa, most manhua read from left to right with the text laid out horizontally, though this can vary from region to region. Another major difference is that most manhua are fully colored, like the typically black-and-white manga. Many current manhua are still inspired by martial arts stories as well as Chinese history and legends.
Others are comic adaptations of recent novels, similar to anime adaptions of light novels. One popular subgenre is Cultivation, where the protagonist attains immortality and legendary status by dedicating themselves to transcendent martial arts practice. Many popular manhua stories fall into the "portal fantasy" (or isekai) genre. The popularity of these series has seen some of them adapted into donghua, the Chinese equivalent of anime.
Due to government censorship in China, publishing manhua, particularly manhua reflecting the author's creative intent, can be tricky. For this reason, web manhua have become increasingly popular, as they allow just about anyone to publish what they want. This is done through sites such as Tencent Weibo and Sina Weibo. Unfortunately, even these sites and images found on them have become heavily scrutinized by the government. This has only increased competition with the growing popularity of South Korean webtoons.
The Best Manhua to Start With
Although the medium is still relatively niche, there are still plenty of fan-favorite manhua worth a read. These beloved books are a good place to start a manhua deep-dive and get a feel for how they're similar and different from what one might expect.
The aforementioned Chinese Hero is considered a classic, both for its art and its similarly grounded storytelling. Created by Ma Wing-Shing, it follows a warrior, whose name literally means "Chinese Hero," as he avenges his family and defends their heirloom Blood Sword. He eventually escapes to America and makes a harsh new life for himself, facing gangs, workplace strife and racial prejudice in the early 20th century. Sadly, only around 10% of the series has been translated into English.
Another more recent classic manhua is 1/2 Prince, which is essentially an early modern isekai series. Originally a series of novels by Yu Wo, the follows a teenage girl named Feng Lan that joins an MMORPG via a male elf avatar named Prince. Together with her team Odd Squads, Prince battles in a tournament against the game's users and eventually wins an entire city to rule.
Yu Wo also wrote the novels and manhua for The Legend of Sun Knight. This fantasy series is set in a medieval world filled with various gods and goddesses, with varying factions warring over their devotion to them. One of these is the Kingdom of Forgotten Sound, where the Twelve Holy Knights defend the Church of the God of Light.
Where to Read Manhua
Unfortunately, given the still relatively niche status of manhua, as well as the strictly Chinese nature of many of the sites they're hosted on, it can be a bit difficult for non-Chinese fans to actually read them. Thankfully, some of the more standout entries are available in printed form for international audiences.
Volumes of Chinese Hero can be purchased through Amazon, as can copies of Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre. Hopefully, as Chinese media becomes more mainstream, the same will happen to both manhua and its many donghua adaptations.