First published in Nickleodeon magazine


Hidden from view for much of the 20th century, China's animation industry has still managed to influence the rest of Asia. However, the political situation in China has often conspired against animators and stifled their potential.

The earliest innovators in Chinese animation were the Wan family, twins Laiming and Guchan with their brothers Chaochen and Dihuan. Inspired by screenings of American cartoons in Shanghai, they began experimenting with animation techniques, initially gaining funding from advertising - their earliest works were used to sell a popular brand of typewriter. Their first "real" cartoon, UPROAR IN AN ART STUDIO (1926) featured a character coming to life on an artist's canvas, in a similar fashion to the Fleischers' OUT OF THE INKWELL series. The Wans continued to dominate early Chinese animation, creating anti-Japanese propaganda in THE PRICE OF BLOOD (1932) and first Chinese cartoon with sound, THE CAMEL'S DANCE (1935). With Shanghai under Japanese occupation, they then began work on their most influential movie, China's first full-length feature PRINCESS IRON FAN (1941).

Taking three years, 237 artists and 350,000 yuan to make, PRINCESS IRON FAN retold part of the popular Chinese folk-tale Journey to the West, specifically the duel between the Monkey King and a vengeful princess, whose fan is desperately needed to quench the flames that surround a peasant village. As only the third feature-length cartoon ever to be made (after Disney's SNOW WHITE and the Fleischers' GULLIVER'S TRAVELS), it was a triumph for Asian animation and swiftly exported to wartime Japan. Its influences were far-reaching, inspiring the 16-year-old Tezuka Osamu to become a comics artist, and prompting the Japanese Navy to commission Japan's first feature-length cartoon, MOMOTARO'S DIVINE SEA WARRIORS (1945).

Fleeing Japan in the closing days of the war, MOMOTARO's producer Tadahito Mochinaga adopted the Chinese name Fang Ming, and was instrumental in the founding of an animation studio in Shanghai. Co-opted into the Communist propaganda machine, animators were encouraged to make cartoons that conveyed party doctrine. Notable among the films of this period is Te Wei's cel-animation THE CONCEITED GENERAL (1956), initially mistrusted as an old-fashioned folk-tale, but soon praised as a Party allegory, reminding audiences that even the highest in rank must be humble in their dealings with others.

Animation flourished as Mao's "Hundred Flowers Campaign" encouraged artistic endeavours in all walks of life. Qian Yunda's RED ARMY BRIDGE (1964) glorified the Red Army while lampooning their Republican enemies, in a tale of a bridge destroyed by fleeing landlords, but repaired by noble Communist soldiers and defended by a peasant collective. The film was also a triumph of the dying art of cut-paper animation, masterfully imparting character and movement with extremely limited resources.

The same period saw the earliest example of "brush animation" in Te Wei's WHERE'S MAMA? (1960). An hommage to the water-colour paintings of Qi Baishi, it featured a group of tadpoles in search of their mother, pestering chicks, crayfish, goldfish, turtles and a catfish before eventually locating her. The unique style, which imitated an artist's brush-work on a page, fast became a distinctly Chinese hallmark, repeated in BUFFALO BOY AND THE FLUTE (1963) by Te Wei and Qian Jajun. The style would reach its creative peak with Te Wei's FEELING FROM MOUNTAINS AND WATER (1988), the simple tale of an aging musician, cared for by the young boatman who has just delivered him to shore. The sentimental story is dwarfed by its scenery - true to the tradition of the "shan sui" (lit. "mountains and water") water-colour paintings it emulates, humans are all but lost amidst striking images of hills, lakes and waterfalls.

The Wan brothers were not inactive during this time. Wan Laiming animated the earliest chapters of the popular novel Journey to the West under the title HAVOC IN HEAVEN (1961 and 1964). Making strong use of Beijing Opera motifs, particularly in music and movement, the brightly-coloured film also received Party approval - at the time, it was regarded as a metaphor for the "havoc" caused in bourgeois China by the dynamic Chairman Mao. Its lead character's distinctive theatrical-simian features have made him the standard-bearer for Chinese animation, and inevitably led to his appearance in several other cartoons.

However, the Communist Party was a fickle patron of the arts, and the onset of the 1965 Cultural Revolution destroyed China's animation business for a decade. The animators were scattered across the countryside and forced to "re-educate" themselves by working on farms. After the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Chinese animation tried to pick up the pieces. The most famous result is A Da's THREE MONKS (1980), a simple tale of three squabbling Buddhists, made as an allegory for the lack of communication between neighbours during the Cultural Revolution. It also contained some marvellous uses of caricature - each monk with his own personality, defined as economically as possible through movement and actions.

Another parallel can be seen in China's first-ever widescreen animation, NEZHA CONQUERS THE DRAGON KING (1979), directed by Yan Dingxian, Wan Shuchen and A Da. Retelling the Chinese myth of the child super-hero Nezha's war against four evil dragons, the movie's subtext wasn't hard to spot - the real-world enemies of Chinese animation were not dragons, but The Gang of Four themselves, the instigators of the Cultural Revolution. Similar ridicule awaited the Mao era in SUPER SOAP (1987), in which a canny businessman bleeds the town, and the film, of all colour, before playing his trump card and playing on the people's desire for fashions and fads. Similarly, in Zhou Keqin's MONKEYS FISH FOR THE MOON (1981) a group of apes embark on a tough mission to obtain the unobtainable, bound to end in disappointment.

A sense of loss permeates many post-Cultural Revolution anime. Sometimes, as in NEZHA and SUPER SOAP, it comes out as a sardonic satire. Sometimes, it is more bitter, such as the desolate parade of death and injustice in A Da's WANDERINGS OF SANMAO (1984). The titular Zhang Leping comic character was a popular icon in A Da's youth, and also lent his name to Cantonese actor Hung Kam-bo, better known as "Sammo" Hung. Starting as a light-hearted comedy, the sepia-toned cartoon soon slumps into tragedy, with A Da's frustration at the Party projected onto more acceptable enemies - invading Japanese soldiers.

Political and economic changes in the 1990s brought fresh opportunities into the Chinese animation business. The gradual thawing of relations with Taiwan allowed for greater collaboration among Asian nations, particularly between the many smaller studios like Taiwan's Wang Films and Shenzhen's Jade Animation, which had formerly worked as subcontractors for American and Japanese animation companies. The acquisition of Hong Kong also made the People's Republic an overnight heir to decades of independent Cantonese animation. Released in the year of the fateful handover, Andrew Chan's CHINESE GHOST STORY: THE ANIMATION (1997) was a remake of Tsui Hark's famous kung-fu movie, but with an animation director poached from Japan. Its production exploited the links between Hong Kong and the PRC just over its borders, and was released in both Cantonese and Mandarin editions.

Despite being made in the People's Republic and loaded with references to Chinese myth, Chang Guangxi's LOTUS LANTERN (1999) owed its greatest debt to the staunchly capitalist Disney corporation. Featuring power ballads, a love-story between a demigod and a chieftess, a central cast inspired by ALADDIN and shots lifted straight from THE LION KING, the movie seemed reverse-engineered to import a little American magic to China. Better critical success was enjoyed by Lee Chooman and Wang Shaudi's Taiwanese-Korean coproduction GRANDMA AND HER GHOSTS (1998). Drawing for inspiration on Miyazaki Hayao's MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1990) and KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989), the film is a crash-course in Chinese folk mythology, concealing several parables for children that both encourage kindness in this life, and affirm a strong belief in the next. In its portrayal of three very different generations of a single Chinese family (peasant grandmother, yuppie mother, and slacker child) GRANDMA AND HER GHOSTS manages to maintain its ethnic identity while speaking to audiences across the Asian region - a recipe for success that its successors would be advised to emulate.

As with animation industries all over the world, the future of Chinese cartoons is inevitably bound to the development of computer technology. In this arena, the People's Republic lags far behind, but the new "Autonomous Region" of Hong Kong has led the way ever since the all-CG animation CYBER WEAPON Z (1995). Computer graphics have played increasingly large roles in recent Chinese films, most notably the special-effects extravaganza STORM RIDERS (1998), and mixed live-animated films such as OLD MASTER CUTE (2001). Nowhere is the influence of CG more apparent than in Toe Yuen's MY LIFE AS McDULL (2001), a feature-length spin-off from the Hong Kong comic and TV cartoon McMUG (1991). A series of vignettes about a Hong Kong piglet, McDULL boasts a dizzying array of animation techniques, including 2D cel animation, pencil-work, paper-cuts, fully-rendered CG, and even unadulterated live-action. Though McDULL was hailed by some critics as a uniquely Cantonese production, it still bears the hallmarks of an "international" animation culture - originally inspired by writer Brian Tse's encounter with the works of Raymond Briggs, the style veers between Sanrio's super-simple HELLO KITTY and Takahata Isao's MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS (1999).

The next few years in Chinese animation are liable to build on the success of McDULL, as the technologically-advanced Hong Kong region brings funding to the waiting animators of the Shenzhen and Shanghai economic zones. The cartoons produced by this marriage of complementary talents can now flourish in the world's biggest sales arena. With a potential audience of over one billion, Chinese animation has the opportunity to financially outperform many of its foreign rivals before it has even left the domestic market - a sobering thought for both the Disney kingdom and the emperors of anime to bear in mind.

Jonathan Clements is the co-author of the Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917.