Fans of the Adventures of Tintin comics by Hergé will remember the opening scene in Tintin in Tibet. Tintin has dozed off during a game of chess with Captain Haddock in a crowded café. He suddenly yells, “CHANG!!” so loudly that everyone in the restaurant jumps! 

Tintin has had a disturbing dream about his friend Chang who, it turns out, has gone down with an ill-fated plane in the Himalayas. The dream, however, has convinced Tintin that Chang is still alive and needs rescuing. The rest of the story revolves around that rescue.

Tintin in Tibet is perhaps the most personal and deeply autobiographical of Hergé’s stories. The character of Chang was based on a real person by the same name who Hergé not only considered his best friend, but his mentor and guide as well. 

Hergé met Chang Chong-Ren for the first time in Brussels in 1934 at the urging of one Abbé Gosset. Gosset, the chaplain to a group of Chinese Catholic students at Louvain University, had been concerned about the racist stereotypes in Hergé’s first two hugely popular Tintin books, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, and urged him to ‘do a little research’ before embarking on his next book, The Blue Lotus, set in China. 

Gosset encouraged Hergé to meet Chang, a Chinese student and sculptor, at the Brussels Palace of Fine Arts. It was a meeting that would change Hergé’s life forever.

Chang taught Hergé Chinese calligraphy, painting techniques, and most of all, the importance of authenticity, so that for the first time with The Blue Lotus, every location was accurate and every fact, verifiable. Subsequent Tintin comics, in fact, became famous for their geographical and historical accuracy. In effect, Chang taught Hergé a whole new way of looking at the world.

Chang also educated Hergé about the facts of the Japanese invasion of China that were little known in the West at the time, how the Japanese had staged a false flag event by blowing up the Peking-Mukden railway line while blaming it on Chinese bandits. Hergé also learned about Japanese atrocities in China that were being glossed over by the Western press, and how the authorities at the International Settlement in Shanghai chose to look the other way.

Hergé included all of this in The Blue Lotus.

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The new Tintin adventure was an instant hit with his readers, but the Japanese were not impressed. So angry were they at Hergé and his comic that the Japanese ambassador threatened to take the Belgian government to the International Court of Justice at The Hague! 

But the beleaguered Chinese were happy as they had suddenly found an unexpected ally in the form of a comic book! Grateful for this unexpected bit of solidarity, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek formally invited Hergé to China, (a visit that never materialised till much later when Hergé finally visited her in exile in Taiwan).

Hergé’s friendship with Chang had brought about a deep shift in Hergé’s worldview. Before he had met Chang, Tintin was, in Hergé’s own words, ‘a bit of a joke’, but Tintin would henceforth forever be cast in the role of ‘international social crusader, chronicler of major world events, and champion of the underdog’.

Looking back at their friendship many decades later, Chang said:

“We were like two brothers. I suggested to him that to use real events as the inspiration for his adventures would be a better idea … Thus The Blue Lotus was born. At that time, I visited Hergé once a week. We spoke of history, anecdote, costumes, poetry, art, the countryside and so on. As soon as the drawings were inked in, I drew the Chinese characters in different handwriting.”

A deeply grateful Hergé made Chang a character in The Blue Lotus, and later, in Tintin in Tibet.

Developments in China and the onset of war, however, forced Chang to return to Shanghai, and the two lost touch. Hergé continued to comment on world events through his art and spoke out against Nazism and fascism in King Ottokar’s Scepter, The Black Island and The Land of Black Gold. But the war years, a punishing work schedule, and an unhappy marriage had taken a toll on him. He began to have terrible nightmares – predominantly having to do with the colour white and snow! 

A psychoanalyst in Zurich advised him, “In your place, I would just stop working now.”

Hergé was tempted to take his advice, burnt-out as he was, but instead decided to work (or rather, draw) through his troubles. He finished Tintin In Tibet in 1960 (in which the predominant colour is white), and in so doing not only succeeded in exorcising his demons, but also gave beautiful expression to his search for his long-lost friend.

Interestingly, Hergé portrayed the Yeti (the ‘abominable snowman’) in the book as a gentle and kindly beast. Far from being abominable, the Yeti helps Chang (the comic character) survive the punishing snows of the Himalayas. As Hergé biographer Harry Thompson points out, if The Blue Lotus had atoned for his earlier prejudices in Tintin in the Soviet Union, then Tintin in Tibet had also atoned for his cruelty to animals in Tintin in the Congo.

Through a series of serendipitous events, Hergé finally managed to locate his old friend in China. Their reunion in 1981 at Brussels airport was a moving one and was covered extensively by the French and Belgian press. The two friends appeared together in TV interviews and talked about their friendship and art.

Hergé, who had been suffering from a rare form of anaemia, passed away shortly thereafter in 1983.

With more than two hundred million books sold to date, the Adventures of Tintin remain one of the most widely read comic books ever. Much of that success will always be owed to the quiet influence of a meticulous artist, sculptor and friend – Chang.

Rohit Kumar is an educator. He can be reached at letsempathize@gmail.com

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