Although his involvement in the Tintin series was peripheral and his fame strictly second-hand, Chang's influence on the work of its author Herge (the pen name of George Remi) was fundamental: not only did he teach Herge the pioneering "clear line" drawing style that was to revolutionise the European comic strip, he also politicised him, converting the Tintin stories from clumsy right-wing rambles into carefully plotted radical satires.
Herge first encountered Chang in 1934, as one of a group of Chinese Catholic students at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts. When Chang's chaplain, the Abbe Gosset, heard that Herge intended to set the next Tintin adventure in China, he became anxious to avoid the racial stereotyping that had characterised the four previous stories, and effected an introduction.
The result was The Blue Lotus (1936), a fierce attack on the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, a story that until then had barely surfaced in the West. Japanese atrocities against the Chinese were pictured with careful realism, the complicit British officials of the Shanghai International Settlement were caricatured as greasy Imperialist bigots, while Chang's anti-Japanese slogans (in Chinese) were daubed across every wall of the Shanghai street setting. Tintin's co-hero was Chang himself, wishfully converted from art student to urban guerrilla.
The Japanese government was livid. Its ambassador protested vehemently to the Belgian authorities, threatening to take them to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, and demanding that the story be banned. Japanese-Belgian relations tottered. The Belgian military became involved, protesting that the subject was not fit for Belgian children. Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the Chinese president, formally invited Herge to China. Chang, meanwhile, returned to Shanghai to carry on the struggle in person, and promptly vanished.
For a quarter of a century, Herge never quite recovered from Chang's disappearance. His friendship with the young Chinese became a nostalgic emblem of pre-war happiness, in a period of misery which encompassed the German occupation, a harshly ill-deserved jail term for alleged collaboration, and an oppressive publishing contract signed in desperate straits following the war.
Chang, meanwhile, had fallen foul of the Cultural Revolution, and was having an equally miserable time: a sculptor and a Catholic, he was reduced to working as a roadsweeper. It was not until the mid-Seventies that he was rehabilitated as director of the Fine Arts Academy of Shanghai.
The fictional Chang reappeared in 1958 in Tintin in Tibet, a highly symbolic work in which he apparently dies in an aircrash in the Himalayas. Convinced by dreams that Chang is not dead, Tintin divests himself of his companions and sets off on a rescue mission into the blinding white mountains, which culminates in a lachrymose reunion.
The real-life reunion did not take place until 1981. Herge had forlornly taken to buttonholing Chinese people all over the world, but it was in his own home suburb of Brussels that he finally struck lucky, when a randomly questioned Mrs Wei recognised Chang Chong-Ren as her husband's godfather. Chang, it turned out, still lived at the same Shanghai address as he had in 1934 - the one place Herge had never thought to check.
Herge had long invested their prospective reunion with a significance out of all proportion to their original relationship, and one senses that their second spell of friendship was profoundly disappointing. For Chang, however, the reunion brought belated fame, and the adulation of Tintinophiles: later in 1981, after Chang had returned to Brussels with his son, the French Culture Minister Jack Lang invited him to take up residence in Paris. In 1988, five years after Herge's death, Chang was commissioned to sculpt the official bust of President Francois Mitterrand.
Chang Chong-Ren, sculptor: born Shanghai, China 1905; died Nogent-sur- Marne, France 8 October 1998.Reuse content