In 2018, Chen Uen (鄭問, 1958-2017) became the first graphic novelist to have his work exhibited at the National Palace Museum, but “The Legacy of Chen Uen: Art, Life & Philosophy” sparked controversy over whether it was too low-brow. Novelist Wu Ming-yi wrote an article on Facebook in its defence entitled “The King of Festering Millstones and Mirrors: Chen Uen and His Works” where he stated: “For my generation, I’m afraid that comic books became the main source of our idols and dreams, as well as our understanding of science, our artistic enlightenment and our very nature. I pretend that I was educated by textbooks, but in reality that was not the case.”
At a time when information products weren’t popular yet and streets were full of bookstores that rented books rather than sold them, most children’s literary awakenings came from wuxia (martial arts) novels, such as those by Jin Yong, Gu Long, Wong Yee and Qiao Jingfu. Readers would memorize each protagonist’s personality and which martial arts sect they belonged to, what moves they used, the times luck was on their side and the weapons the characters had. All this alongside the stories’ strong sense of gratitude and retribution left a deep mark on readers’ hearts.
After Chen Uen passed away, his comic book Abi-Sword wasn’t continued until the original scriptwriter Ma Li published the Abi-Sword Prequel: A Seal Reopens in novel form. When reading the prequel it might be good to also read the original comic book as it’ll give you a deeper understanding of the book’s worldview. In the comic book, Chen Uen made the most of ink painting as a format and used dry brushes to draw texture in muscles, limbs and clothing. He also used fine brushes to capture facial features and emotions. The most shocking of these appears right at the end when Wu-Sheng passes the large cauldron and stone tablet engraved with the misery of all beings, which together look like an imposing pair of eyes with an unfathomably deep expression.
Abi-Sword is set during war-torn chaos of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, starting with Wu-Sheng’s birth and his tragic childhood experiences, wracked with hatred towards the enemy who killed his father. In the fires of the underworld, he encounters the ninth Abi envoy and experiences the three layers of hell: greed, hatred, and ignorance, before finding the Abi-Sword and fighting the eighteen evils. Just as he’s recalling the ceaseless pain of previous generations, the memories suddenly grind to a halt and the origin of hell, the ninth envoy and the Abi-Sword are all left unresolved due to Chen Uen’s death. 30 years after the comic book first started, Ma Li has now shared the answers with readers in novel form.