Polluted gray skies open Knite, a web comic by Chinese-American graphic novelist Yuumei. They are, she says, her most consistent memory of the place where she was born.
“China is a constant presence in the topics and themes of my work,” she says.
In her introduction to Knite, about a group of Chinese teens who fly strings of lights at night to replace the stars in the sky, she dedicates the story to “the land of my birth.”
Born Yan Wenqing, she chose the pen name Yuumei when she joined the online community at DeviantArt, where she commands a following of over 300,000 fans, mostly teens, with another 600,000-plus followers on Instagram.
In Japanese, Yuumei means “light and dark” or “strange and deep.” The name signifies the shades of gray between right and wrong, she says, and it was inspired by the moral ambiguity she encountered in Japanese anime.
Yan cites titles such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Fullmetal Alchemist as her source of inspiration. But the most profound was Death Note, whose meditation on human nature, power, and corruption informed her current thematic preoccupations.
The main conflict among the characters of Knite is between those who are wary of China’s economic development and those who have blindly accepted its consequences.
“I wanted to tell similar stories that were intricate and complicated,” Yan says, “and expressed with an art style that was not too traditional anime-looking to create that same feeling of semi-realism.”
Knite, which she first published in 2010 and has since added to the story, explores the themes of broken families, class conflict, and government corruption in the context of China, where she lived until she was 9 years old.
The story centers on a high school student named Sen, who flies strings of lights at night to replace the stars in the sky, which have been covered by pollution.
The antagonist is Kai, the son of a corrupt politician, who tries to finance Sen on behalf of his often-hospitalized little sister, Min-min, who watches the kites from her window.
“It was a sad and romantic thought, that people might be doing this to put stars back into the sky.”
“I’ve put a little bit of myself in each of my characters, though none of them are supposed to be me,” she said. “My stepmom tried to kill me like Sen’s did. My father’s side of the family only cared about money and participated in bribing politicians so they could pollute more. That served as the inspiration for Kai and his family.”
(Read more: Why I love—and hate—mainland China)
The idea for the story’s recurring motif came during one of her biennial visits to her hometown in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province.
“I saw what I thought were stars in the distance,” Yan says. But they were actually retirees flying kites with Christmas lights.
“It was a sad and romantic thought,” she says, “that people might be doing this to put stars back into the sky.”
The story’s environmental message reveals itself in the opening lines of Knite, where Sen sings a verse from a song that most Chinese children are familiar with: “Little swallow, wearing a flower coat, flies here every spring…”
But Kai, the story’s moral adversary, swoops in with a second verse that exists but is seldom taught: “Little swallow, I’ll tell you, this year, this place is even more beautiful. We’ve built a big factory, installed new machinery to welcome you so you can settle down for good.”
It’s a subtle critique of China’s industrialization and sets up the main conflict among the characters of Knite—between those who are wary of China’s economic development and those who have blindly accepted its consequences.
“Be it ignorance or denial, ignoring the polluting factories in the song doesn’t mean they don’t exist in reality,” Yan wrote in the author’s note. “Sen has acknowledged this, but is he still just a dreamer?”
Yan is now a graduate student studying environmentalism and activism at the University of California at Berkeley. She also runs Axent Wear, a start-up that sells cat-ear headphones which she designed.
She remains committed to environmental causes, last year donating the profit from sales of her headphones and prints of her art to 12 charities, including the Rainforest Trust and Wildlife Conservation Network. Many of her standalone paintings highlight the issues of climate change and plastic in the ocean.
She is often invited to speak at events such as the Berkeley China Forum and San Diego Comic Con. Over the years, much of her interaction with fans has come from Comic Con.
“I’ve kept in touch with some who I have met when they were 12, and they’ve grown up with their own hopes and dreams,” she says. “Some have gone into environmental science with a similar goal of helping the world.”
Yan no longer visits China as much as she used to—her last visit was in spring of 2018—but her heart remains in the place.
The China of her childhood in Knite is different from the China of today, with its tall high-rises and middle-class comforts.
She recalls how her school had no grass or tracks to run on when she was a kid. “The field was literally just pieces of coal spread over an area,” she says. “If you fell, the pieces of coal would get stuck in your wound.”
Last year, when she visited her old school, there was a grassy field.
“So things have changed a lot,” she says cautiously, “but I don't know how much beyond the physical appearance.”