HISTORY OF CHINESE ANIMATION
According to RADII: Chinese animation has a long history of providing safe harbor for forms and ideas that could not be as easily expressed in live-action productions, such as the rebellious individuality of long-cherished dramatic figures like the Monkey King and folk deity Nezha. Variety‘s Rebecca Davis said “animation in China has typically been seen as purely for young children, allowing more daring content to slip through the cracks in this genre.” [Source: RADII]
In regard to common descriptions of a “Golden Age of Chinese Animation” and a “Chinese animation crisis.” Sean Macdonald wrote: The animation industry is always in crisis in China. Every so often an article appears bemoaning the state of Chinese animation. The message is generally the same. Once upon a time there was a Golden Age, now things are more dispersed, audiences in China are critical of domestic animation, and the movie isn’t a blockbuster like a film by Disney or Studio Ghibli. The Golden Age is often represented by “Havoc in Heaven” aka “Uproar in Heaven”: “With its stunning visuals and beautiful music inspired by Peking Opera, it received numerous awards, as well as widespread domestic and international recognition.”
“Sure. Once the country opened up and sent the film abroad in the late 1970s and viewers could watch the film abroad and in China, everyone loved Uproar, until they kept playing it on TV over and over and even the kids got sick of it. Uproar was produced in two parts in 1961 & 1964. The first part was well received, the second part not so much. Might have had something to do with the Red Guards appropriating the public domain Monkey King for their own revolutionary activities. Can animators in China learn anything from Uproar, Disney, and Studio Ghibli? Will the most recent animation studio/institution create that ever illusive recipe to become the next global blockbuster? “It’s the story, stupid.
In the introduction to “Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media”, Sean Macdonald describes his approach as an examination of “a quasi-official corpus produced during a key period of PRC film and cultural history, from the 1950s to the 1980s” and conducting “a reading of the historically mainstream animation produced at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (or SAFS)”. Prior to Macdonald’s book, Rolf Giesen’s study Chinese Animation, A History and Filmography, 1922-2012 had provided a chronological overview of China’s animation industry and works. Macdonald deepens our understanding of the national narrative of animation in the People’s Republic of China by shifting focus to the specific processes through which China’s state interventions in animation production can be problematized and historicized. To explicate the contexts for the “official, canonical, national history of China’s animation,” Macdonald begins with the story of SAFS, tracing its connections back to film production in the Sino-Japanese War period. The book re-contextualizes the national history of animation within transnational animation history while simultaneously reflecting on animation itself as “a nation-building industry”. [Source: Book: “Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media” by Sean MacDonald (Routledge 2016). Reviewed by Li Guo, MCLC Resource Center Publication, February, 2019]
See Separate Articles: CHINESE FILM factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE FILM INDUSTRY AND MOVIE BUSINESS factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE FILM STUDIOS AND MAKING CHINESE FILMS factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE-MADE BLOCKBUSTERS AND POPULAR COMMERCIAL MOVIES factsanddetails.com ; ANIMATION IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ;
Websites: Association for Chinese Animation Studies acas.ust.hk Chinese Film Classics chinesefilmclassics.org ; Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com; 100 Films to Understand China radiichina.com. dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema dgeneratefilms.com; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film imdb.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; Love Asia Film loveasianfilm.com; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) china.org.cn ; Directory of Interent Sources newton.uor.edu ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com ; Books: “Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media” by Sean MacDonald (Routledge 2016); “Chinese Animation, A History and Filmography, 1922-2012" by Rolf Giesen; “Puppets, Gods, and Brands: Theorizing the Age of Animation from Taiwan” by “Teri Silvio (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019); “Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation” by “Daisy Yan Du (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019)
Early Animation in China: the Wan Brothers
The earliest animation in China was paper-cut animation made at the pioneering Shanghai Animation Film Studio, Wan Laiming and Wan Guchan, two of the hugely influential Wan brothers, are considered the first Chinese animators.
Jiayun Feng wrote in SupChina: “To talk about the beginnings of Chinese animation is to talk about the life stories of the Wan brothers — Chaochen , Dihuan , Guchan , and Laiming . Growing up in a family with no artistic background — their father was a businessman in Nanjing and their mother was a stay-at-home mother — the four brothers were mad about painting and shadow puppetry when they were boys, with American cartoon series like Popeye the Sailor Man and Betty Boop being the backdrop of their childhood. [Source: Jiayun Feng, SupChina, June 2, 2021; Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University, a leading international joint venture university based in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.]
“Although Wan Laiming, the oldest of all, had to drop out of school at the age of 17 due to financial hardship in his family, his three younger brothers attended art school and were determined to work in the field of arts. After several years apart, during which Wan Laiming went down the self-taught route while taking up a teaching job to make ends meet, the four brothers reunited in 1919 and embarked on an eight-year mission trying to figure out the basics of animation.
“Soon, their ambitious yet risky endeavor paid off, and the brothers created — after much trial and error — the first Chinese animated short, a minute-long advertisement for a typewriter called the Shuzhendong Chinese Typewriter . By 1926, the brothers’ work had attracted the attention of the Great Wall Film Company, which invited them to create their next project, Uproar in the Studio .
“Unfortunately, this short has been lost forever to history, but it helped boost the Wan brothers’ reputation at the time. In the years that ensued, the team cemented their status as pioneers of Chinese animation by continuously putting out awe-inspiring work, including Compatriots, Wake Up , a patriotic, anti-imperialist short inspired by the Mukden Incident in 1931, which marked the first chapter in the Japanese invasion of China, and “The Camel’s Dance” , a 1935 short believed to be the first Chinese cartoon with sound.
Princess Iron Fan and Animation in the Japanese Occupation of China
“Princess Iron Fan” (Wan Laiming, Wan Guchan, 1941), the first feature-length animated film produced in mainland China, is based on stories adapted from the epic 16th century novel, “Journey to the West”. Princess Iron Fan fights with Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, using her fan to put out flames that have engulfed a village. Linda C. Zhang, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley said: Proclaimed the “Princess Iron Fan” is a trippy animation that is fun for all to watch. It adapts the chapter “Sun Wukong borrow the Iron Fan Three Times” from Journey to the West. There is much to look out for and to listen to in this movie, such as rotoscoped motion-capture, famous voice actors from the Shanghai scene, and allusions to 20th-century war. [Source: RADII]
Jiayun Feng wrote in SupChina: “In 1939, Wang Laiming and Wan Guchan caught a screening of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, the first feature-length animated film in movie history. Fascinated by its sound design and the details in its depictions of characters, the duo wanted to create something on par with the American game-changer. Working in Shanghai’s French Concession — a territory under French rule until it was relinquished back to the city in 1946 — the siblings set their sights on an episode from the 16th-century Chinese literature classic Journey to the West , naming their project “Princess Iron Fan” . [Source: Jiayun Feng, SupChina, June 2, 2021]
“And despite technical difficulties and an unsteady stream of funds from investors, “Princess Iron Fan” finally arrived in 1941. When the lights went down for the first screenings across war-torn China in 1941, audiences were merely eager to see how the country’s first full-length animated feature had turned out. The film proved to be nothing short of spectacular, instantly charming audiences with its unique drawing style and opera-tinged soundtrack.”Princess Iron Fan” heralding the start of a golden era for Chinese animation and laying the groundwork for what would eventually become “Havoc in Heaven” (also translated as “Uproar in Heaven”), an indisputable classic that has influenced a generation of filmmakers and animators, both in China and overseas.Adding to its commercial success at home, in 1942, the movie later made its way to Japan, where it was recognized as an enormous achievement of wartime filmmaking. It even made an impact on a then-teenage Osamu Tezuka, who later put his own spin on “Journey to the West” and produced the comic “My Monkey King” in 1952.
Evelyn Shih wrote: Japanese animation was entangled from the start with American animation, despite the two nations being at war in the 1940s, Chinese animation had complex relations with both sides during the global emergence of the medium.” In her book, “Daisy Yan Du teases out the delicate back and forth between Chinese and Japanese animators during the WWII period; the lasting implications of this dance for postwar Japanese animation, which was entering global prominence; and the untold history of a leftist Japanese animator who remained in China and helped to launch a new era for Socialist animation....The Wan brothers are discussed side by side with Seo Mitsuo and Tezuka Osamu; “Princess Iron Fan” and Sun Wukong as a counterpart to Momotaro and Atomu; and, interestingly, Mochinaga Tadahito as the non-Chinese figure who serves as a missing link to the early phase of Mao-era animation.” This takes place during periods of sharp animosity between China and Japan, and even in the contested territory of Northeast China/Manchukuo during the 1930s and 1940s,[Source: Books: “Puppets, Gods, and Brands: Theorizing the Age of Animation from Taiwan” by “Teri Silvio (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019); “Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation” by “Daisy Yan Du (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019.) Reviewed by Evelyn Shih, University of Colorado, MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2020)]
Maoist Period Animation
According to the Roundtable Forum: Chinese Animation and (Post)Socialism: “Films produced in socialist China (1949-1976) have often been regarded as political propaganda without much artistic creativity. Contrary to this stereotype, however, it was during these decades of “suppression of literature and arts” that Chinese animation reached a zenith of artistic splendor. The state-owned Shanghai Animation Film Studio was the only animation studio that existed during the socialist era. Dynamic and creative, it produced hundreds of high quality animated films and marked a brilliant page in the history of animation not only in China but worldwide. Although the majority of these masterpieces were made by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio during the socialist years, the studio continued its productions in the post-socialist 1980s and witnessed another artistic peak, which we can argue was actually an extension of the socialist era. The Shanghai Animation Film Studio continued to keep its socialist collective mode of production, and its accomplished animators were mainly those who matured and thrived during the socialist era.[Source: Animators’ Roundtable Forum: Chinese Animation and (Post)Socialism, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, April 27-28, 2017]
Evelyn Shih wrote: In her book on Chinese animation, Daisy Yan Du Du deals with China’s internal debates over national and international style (chapter 3) and the ethnic allegory of animated animals (chapter 4), focusing on domestic concerns surrounding animation during the Maoist era. Instead of conceiving of the transnational as the movement of people and objects across national boundaries, she develops a model in which transnational events (such as the Sino-Soviet split) and cultural watersheds (such as the Cultural Revolution) have implications for domestic animation. [Source: Books: “Puppets, Gods, and Brands: Theorizing the Age of Animation from Taiwan” by “Teri Silvio (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019); “Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation” by “Daisy Yan Du (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019.) Reviewed by Evelyn Shih, University of Colorado, MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2020)]
Du’s analysis of The Fishing Boy (1959) rereads the plot to allegorize the “triumph” of the national style and the “exorcism” of the international style, with the titular boy serving as a “figure of animation”. Similarly, Silvio has a reading of a scene in Thunderbolt Fantasy where one character represents a more traditional folk animation position, and the other represents the “magic of the archive” that becomes possible with digital animation and new media techniques . In this fight scene, animation is not at stake within the narrative; but, like Du, Silvio finds the triumph of a certain animation style in the conclusion of the battle.
Havoc of Heaven: The Wan Brothers’ Masterpiece
“Havoc in Heaven” (Wan Laiming, Cheng Tang, 1963) is another epic from the Wan brothers. First conceived as a story in 1941, but delayed because of the war with Japan, the story is again based on chapters of “Journey to the West”, this time revolving around Sun Wukong rebellion against the Jade Emperor. Screenwriter Phoebe Long, said: “The characters are vivid and the painting style is born out of the brush strokes of China. It can be described as a purely Chinese animation from the outside to the inside. In my mind, this cartoon has not yet been surpassed. [Source: RADII]
Jiayun Feng wrote in SupChina: “With the enthusiastic reception of “Princess Iron Fan”, the Wan brothers felt confident enough to further their artistic ambition, and that’s when they started planning what would become their masterpiece, “Havoc in Heaven”. For six months, the siblings worked together on the movie, until higher-ups at Xinhua Film Company, where they were hired, came to the conclusion that selling film equipment was a more profitable business than producing actual films. Devastated by the studio’s decision to suspend the movie’s production, Wan Laiming moved to Hong Kong to pursue his animation career. But due to a lack of funding, he had no choice but to put his love for animation aside and work as a set designer to earn a living. [Source: Jiayun Feng, SupChina, June 2, 2021]
“Things started to look brighter in 1951, when Wan Laiming returned to Shanghai. Around the same time, a group of Chinese animators founded the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Naturally, the Wan brothers came together again and tapped into their years of creativity and experience to produce a series of shorts for the studio. Impressed by their work, the studio granted Wan Laiming permission to revive an old dream of his: “Havoc in Heaven”.
“And the rest is history: Freed from the commercial pressure to compete with foreign imports, and aided by a 1959 governmental directive promoting the nation’s own graphic movie culture, the Wan brothers spent a total of five years designing and supervising the project’s 70,000 color drawings, which in the end came in the form of a two-part feature-length fantasy featuring the mischievous Sun Wukong. With its stunning visuals and beautiful music inspired by Peking Opera, “Havoc in Heaven” received numerous awards, as well as widespread domestic and international recognition.
“There was a list of things that played into the success of “Havoc in Heaven”, including “its own properties of merits, such as amazing visualization and fictionalization of cultural contents,” according to Zhonghao Chen, a lecturer at XJTLU and a prolific artist. However, he added, “The curiosity phenomenon certainly played its part in terms of its positive Western reception. On top of that, the influence behind all the geo- and cultural-political puzzles at its time of viewing certainly aided the scenario.” For Dr. Hui Miao, an assistant professor in film studies in the Department of Media and Communication at XJTLU, “Havoc in Heaven” is her favorite animated film of all time because of its “engaging storytelling” and “craftsmanship.” “Watching the film, especially now, is a process of appreciation of the work and passion of the dedicated team, who also had fun creating this masterpiece when the animation industry was new and fresh,” Dr. Miao said.
Monkey King Sun Wukong in Early Chinese Animation
Michael Berry, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies and Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, UCLA said: “Havoc in Heaven” is basically the “origin story” of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Although the story has been adapted countless times since, “Havoc in Heaven” remains the gold standard in terms of its artistry, playfulness, imagination, and beauty.” The filmmaker Muhe Chen said: Most Chinese animation addresses classical myths and folk tales instead of real-world events. But they still tell [us something about the] ideology and value behind the symbols. The idea behind the character of the Monkey King is about rebellion and individuality, as opposed to most animations, which promote good ethics and collectivism.
In a review of the book “Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media” by Sean MacDonald, Li Guo wrote: “It All Started with a Monkey” (Chapter 1), “begins with discussion of the pioneering animator Wan Laiming and the animation figure Sun Wukong. Macdonald first examines Wan’s important autobiography Sun Wukong and I , which connects “film, art, and animation in one historic narrative of modern China” and depicts the rise of animation in Republican China and the PRC. Macdonald offers insightful discussions of Wan’s early background in pictorials and political cartoons as well as of the cross-genre references to opera found in Wan’s animated “Uproar in Heaven” . The chapter teases out the nuances and inconsistencies in the animator’s reflections and argues that the animated Sun Wukong is a powerful figure who comes to represent a period of historical transition; Wan’s Uproar erases the mythological legacy of Sun Wukong and recasts him as one “of historical actuality set against a negative, historical past represented by the novel” . To rehistoricize the Maoist reading of Sun Wukong as a figure of the masses, Macdonald draws from archival materials to suggests the possibility that Mao Zedong himself identified with Sun Wukong.[Source: Book: “Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media” by Sean MacDonald (Routledge 2016). Reviewed by Li Guo, MCLC Resource Center Publication, February, 2019]
Evelyn Shih wrote: The monkey Sun Wukong from The Journey to the West appears in various animations in both China and Japan. Sun Wukong is not a religious figure like Mazu or the City God, as Teri Silvio discusses in “The Cutification of the Gods”; but like them, he can be animated an infinite number of times, and his fans can imagine him both as a specific, singular manifestation or the sum total of all manifestations. (Perhaps fans of the Monkey King are accustomed to doing so already, given his penchant for self-duplication.) Multiple identities can be projected on the iconic character of Sun, which is capacious enough to hold all of these fleeting shadows. [Source: Books: “Puppets, Gods, and Brands: Theorizing the Age of Animation from Taiwan” by “Teri Silvio (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019); “Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation” by “Daisy Yan Du (University of Hawai’i Press, 2019.) Reviewed by Evelyn Shih, University of Colorado, MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2020)]
Even if we consider the practice of rotoscoping, in which animators draw over footage of a human or animal actor’s movements to create smoother, more lifelike animation, Sun Wukong is never limited by his human embodiment. Comedic performer Han Lan’gen , whose performance was the basis for the rotoscoped Sun Wukong in “Princess Iron Fan” (1942), was a Chinese actor; but this did not prevent a young Tezuka Osamu from becoming attached to this version of Sun Wukong; decades later, at the end of his career, he would transform himself into the Monkey in "I Am Sun Wukong".
Chinese Animation in the 1950s and 60s
Shanghai animation saw its heyday in the 1960s, before the anti-intellectual frenzy of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when artists and teachers were persecuted and a generation of urban teens was sent to work in the countryside. Jiayun Feng wrote in SupChina: “For Chinese animators in the 1960s and 1970s, the success of “Havoc in Heaven” opened a new world of possibilities, including, above all, the possibility of securing funds for animated movies that took years to make. Meanwhile, Chinese animation ballooned further into the mainstream thanks to a steady stream of critically acclaimed shorts and features — namely, 1960’s Where Is Mama? and 1988’s Feeling From Mountain and Water , an ink-wash animated film crafted by Te Wei. [Source: Jiayun Feng, SupChina, June 2, 2021]
Feeling From Mountain and Water “It is a representational assemblage of many essential cultural elements and their expanded applications,” said Chen. “The continuous exploration of ink medium is wonderfully contemplated. It serves not only as illustrative methodologies of narrative, but also the acknowledgement of its own materiality and culturality. For example, highly abstracted landscape painting applied as a moving image in the animation is such a genius idea, which carries not only strong aesthetics but also an abundance of philosophical search.”
Pigsy Eats Watermelon (Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming, 1958) is another early Chinese animation based a episodes from “Journey to the West”, this time centering around Pigsy. It also employs an innovative style of paper-cutting animation. Linda C. Zhang: Perhaps one of the most beloved of the “paper-cutting style” animation from Shanghai Animation Film Studio, it has some great songs sung by the character of Pigsy as he shirks his responsibilities and tries to sneak some watermelon while pretending to be working hard. [Source: RADII]
“The Peacock Princess” (Jin Xi, 1963) is based on a story of the the narrative poem “Zhao Shutun” from the Dai minority from southwestern Yunnan province. A prince comes across a group of women who can change themselves into peacocks, and falls in love with one of them. Threatened by death and war, the couple find ways to overcome obstacles and treachery. Linda C. Zhang wrote: One of the rare major-length animation films, the film follows the story of the prince Zhao Shutun falling in love with a heavenly princess who can take the shape of a peacock, and the subsequent trials they go through to be together. It is a masterpiece of puppet animation, full of beautifully detailed sets, and exquisite expressions by the puppets. [Source: RADII]
Chinese Animation in the 1970s, 80s and 90s
“Nezha Conquers the Dragon King” (Yan Dingxian, Wang Shuchen, Xu Jingda, 1979) is based around series of 16th century stories — from the popular novel, “Investiture of the Gods, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King” — and was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and later on BBC Two. The author Xueting Christine Ni said: “Nezha Conquers the Dragon King” stylistically takes a lot of inspiration from traditional art and one of the most accessible stories of that era. Considering how well the new animation has done in China and around the world, it’s well worth seeing the original, which holds up very well and is a good reminder of the time that China was a leader and pioneer in Asian animation production. [Source: RADII]
Three Monks (Xu Jingda, 1980) was produced by Shanghai Animation Film Studio and the Best Animated Film prize at the inaugural Golden Rooster Awards in 1981, plus four international awards including a Silver Bear for Short Film at the 32nd Berlinale in 1982. Writer and producer Emma Xiaoming Sun wrote: Though the title and story derive from a Chinese saying, this is a silent film with no dialogue. The full saying translates to “one monk carries two buckets of water; two monks share the burden; if there are three monks, no one fetches the water.” This is an exceptional visual comedy that sparks old wisdom. The art direction is extremely simple, but unquestionably has its own unique style. With traditional instrumentation providing both the score and sound effects, this film presents an audio-visual aesthetic that stems from Beijing opera but lands in the beyond.
Lotus Lantern (Wang Dawei, 1999) took four years to make and employs an impressive vast list of A-list Chinese voice actors and pop singers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan for its soundtrack. Lotus Lantern marked a turning point for Chinese animation and was a domestic box office hit. Emma Xiaoming Sun wrote in: Lotus Lantern holds an epoch-making significance as the first major commercial Chinese animated film. Such a film was inevitable: Disney’s Lion King earned massive box office success in China in 1994, becoming the highest-grossing Western film at the time. Why couldn’t China make its own? The vaguely romantic soundtrack was so popular across an all-ages audience that it could turn a rowdy elementary school campus into a quasi-religious sing-along, and could regularly be heard in the back seat of a late-night cab ride. The film hasn’t exactly aged well — traces of Disney’s influence are far too obvious, often leading to confusing and embarrassing results. It was a desperate attempt to succeed in the market by Shanghai Animation Studio, and unfortunately, it also serves as the storied company’s last hurrah, as nothing memorable came out of the studio afterwards.
Globalization of Chinese Animation
Jiayun Feng wrote in SupChina:“As China’s economic reform reached its height, the 1990s and early 2000s gave way to a relatively open television and film market, where Japanese and American animation powerhouses found a receptive audience among Chinese moviegoers. And as government-backed funding dried up and investors flocked to more profitable businesses, animation outsourcing started to take off in China, where cartoon factories sprung up, churning out frames for TV series and movies owned by foreign clients from Japan and the U.S. [Source: Jiayun Feng, SupChina, June 2, 2021]
“Over the years, despite its financial gains, Chinese animators’ embrace of commissioned orders has attracted its fair share of criticism, with prominent detractors arguing that the business model has taken its toll on the Chinese animation industry, making domestic companies less motivated to pursue original content and ideas.
“However, according to Dr. Marco Pellitteri, a media sociologist and an associate professor in the Department of Media and Communication at XJTLU, the phenomenon is not wholly negative. “Outsourcing has had a deep impact on Chinese animators and animation producers, and I believe it is a generally good impact, in terms of consolidating technical skills, organic and orderly production pipelines, and the ability to plan, produce, and launch serial products as well as feature movies, together with a ‘media mix’ strategy that has proven to be highly profitable, although mainly or only in the domestic context,” he said.
“Dr. Pellitteri pointed out that China isn’t the only country that plays a part in this “international dynamic.” South Korea, for example, was also a destination for outsourced assignments from Japan back in the 1970s, and the trend helped local animators hone their skills and create acclaimed domestic feature-length films in the years to come. “Coming back to China, what Chinese animation as a system has not been able to apply properly yet is in the creation of internationally fashionable, appealing narratives. The responsibilities, however, do not just lie upon the shoulders of animation studios,” Dr. Pellitteri added. “The reasons are more faceted than that.”
Chinese Animation in the 2010s
“Big Fish & Begonia” (Zhang Chun, Liang Xuan, 2016) is about a teenage girl who travels the world as a dolphin. Based on ancient Chinese myths, it “technically and beautifully executed in a completely fresh, contemporary fashion.” [Source: RADII] Xueting Christine Ni wrote: China has a long tradition of taking inspiration from its Shen Hua (mythology) for the creation its Dong Hua (animation), from classics such as the 1964 “Uproar in Heaven” and Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979), to The Calabash Brothers (1986) and recent renditions of Investiture of the Gods. Certain deities, such as ones that have evolved with urban entertainment, tended to be focused on. [Source: RADII]
Big Fish & Begonia takes a fresh angle on the subject. The story is set in the Undersea, the world of Chun, heroine of the story. Based on the concept Gui Xu from the 4th to 5th century BCE Daoist text Lie Zi, Undersea is the final resting of souls and has existed for millennia, its inhabitants keeping the order of Nature, the natural course along which all things run in the human world, also known as the Dao. Daoism is one of China’s oldest indigenous belief systems. And most of the creatures represented in [Big Fish & Begonia] are China’s oldest deities that existed centuries before the Monkey King sprung from the minds of storytellers and Buddhism introduced Nezha’s prototype into China. [read more]
“Have a Nice Day” (Liu Jian, 2018) was praised by famed Chinese director Jia Zhangke as a landmark in Chinese animation. Winner of a Golden Horse for Best Animated Feature, it is a dark comedy that drew attention for its alternative story and style. The artist and writer Krish Raghav wrote: A rare full-length, unashamedly “alternative” dark comedy, warts and all, that somehow secured a theater release on the mainland. “Have a Nice Day” is funny, blunt, vulgar, and features a great soundtrack by Shanghai Restoration Project. Linda C. Zhang, PhD candidate, UC Berkeley, said: Liu Jian’s hand-drawn animations show what is possible with mixing genres and forms, and share a sense of dark humor about contemporary life in China. Watch for some absurd situations (usually surrounding the plot device of a container of cash) that usually end up in stand-offs and violent conclusions.
Ne Zha Heralds a New Age of Chinese Animation
Jiayun Feng wrote in SupChina: “The year 2018 was a turning point for Chinese animation. After five years in the making, “Ne Zha” , an epic animated fantasy film based on a well-known ancient folk legend, smashed box office records in the summer, raking in over $742 million to date and becoming the second-highest-grossing film in the history of Chinese cinema. Outside of movie theaters, Chinese audiences’ enthusiasm for domestic animated series also went through the roof following the launch on major video-streaming platforms of several popular shows such as Mo Dao Zu Shi . [Source: Jiayun Feng, SupChina, June 2, 2021]
“To break into the global market, Dr. Pellitteri suggests that Chinese animators should improve in both technical and storytelling aspects. He also noted that Chinese scriptwriters and producers seem inclined to “fill a certain animated product with a pre-set list of things” that appeal to Chinese moviegoers — such as “Confucian values, rich visual decorations, and elements of history and folklore” — but they are likely to be given the cold shoulder by international audiences. “It has been widely studied how the cultural influence of anime and manga has produced, to a degree, some amount of ‘soft power’ for Japan as a country. Therefore, if Chinese animation production companies think that their films and series should have a function to boost the sympathies for the country among foreign viewers, I would suggest that producers and stakeholders look at Japan’s case history,” Dr. Pellitteri said. “The Japanese government’s attempt to commodify soft power through the fictional characters and stories of anime has basically failed, and it has also met with the vigorous objections of animation producers and creators, who want to remain free to decide what goes into a story and what characters should do, say, and think in that story, without the need to underline Japan’s grandeur.”
“Looking forward, Ke said that he could “only see great things to come for Chinese animation.” But he was also keenly aware of the pressures placed on Chinese animators to create blockbusters, which he said would “make it harder for them to try something different.”
Ne Zha (directed by Yu Yang) was the top-grossing Chinese film in 2019, earning $710 million. Loosely based on the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel “Fengshen Yanyi” “(The Investiture of the Gods”), this animated film is about mythological figure Ne Zha who fights against fate.It generated great excitement in the animation community and became the second-highest-grossing film in Chinese box office history at that time, spurring interest in animated movies and Chinese anime across Chinese but not generating so much interest outside China. Emma Xiaoming Sun wrote: Invested and distributed by entertainment giant Enlight Pictures, Ne Zha took five years to complete, with a crew of 1,600 animators. Those efforts paid off spectacularly. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and the film was dubbed “the glorious light of domestic anime” [guoman zhiguang] by netizens and media alike — though this is a term that emerges every time a domestic anime production hits screens, reflecting how the market is usually dominated by animations from the US or Japan. [Source: RADII]
Jiayun Feng wrote in SupChina: Mo Dao Zu Shi “”Ne Zha” has a strong story, comedy, and great visuals in terms of kinetic movements and bold colors,” said Kelvin Ke, a filmmaker and an assistant professor in communication studies at the Department of Media and Communication at XJTLU. “But more importantly, it has a strong central character, which I find appealing in a movie. Specifically, I think the movie is a great example of a movie that focuses on the importance of growth, maturity, and self-determination.”
“The movie’s unusual characterization of “Ne Zha”, a well-known fictional character in Chinese literature, is also what captivated Hui Miao the most when she watched it. “Instead of aligning his personality with the tradition, the film characterized him as a social outcast. He was not a mainstream character and constantly, in his own ways, tried to find out where he fit in in this world,” Dr. Miao commented. “This resonates with the modern and globalized living condition, seemingly sufficient with everything we want, but everything comes with overwhelming loneliness and alienation.”
Chinese Animation After Ne Zha
“This glimmer of hope, however, was short-lived. Building on the world of blockbuster “Ne Zha”, “Jiang Ziya”, a Chinese computer-animated fantasy adventure film released in 2020, was met with an outpouring of disappointment from critics and average moviegoers, who took particular issue with its awkward action sequences and confusing character development. Meanwhile, Kung Fu Mulan, a Chinese-produced animated Mulan movie, was hit with a wave of brutal reviews when it came out in October last year. The reception was so negative that it got pulled from theaters just three days after its release.
“Asked about his thoughts on recent blockbusters like “Ne Zha”, Dr. Pellitteri stressed that they racked up monster figures and rave reviews almost exclusively in China. Reading reviews from foreign critics, Dr. Pellitteri said that he got the feeling that “they were kind and polite out of respect for the great effort of the Chinese production.” However, “the rhetorics of their wording” left him with “a sense of an implicit technical and critical disappointment.” “While “Ne Zha” is, technically and narratively, certainly not a perfect movie, the problem is, rather, in the current overall perception about Chinese animation around the globe: Since the performance and quality of Chinese animations in the last decades are considered of mild or unsatisfactory level if compared with Japanese or American productions, “Ne Zha”, unfortunately, was received with prejudice and a certain superficiality worldwide, and was also penalized by the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, which generated, alas, a discriminatory attitude about it,” Dr. Pellitteri added.
Image Sources: Black Cat, Asia Obscura; YouTube;
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated December 2021