In preparation for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, the BBC Sport team commissioned Jamie Hewlett and Damon Albarn (the men behind Gorrilaz) to create an animated short which would promote the BBC’s coverage of the games. They were challenged with capturing the image of the games, and China itself, in a two minute sequence.
It would be fair to assume that China has never been well known for its own production of animated works, traditionally or otherwise. This accolade would fall to its neighbour Japan, leaving a shroud over China’s contribution to this medium. As a result, Hewlett and Albarn had little to go on in terms of style in accordance with contemporary Chinese animation. They had to resolve to other aspects of Chinoiserie in order to create a piece that looked typically ‘Chinese’.
The animation they produced is closely based on a famous Chinese novel named ‘Journey to the West’. It was written in the 1590’s during the period of the Ming Dynasty and is considered to be ‘one of the four most important works of fiction in China’s history’. The tale follows a Buddhist monk named Xuanzang on his quest to collect sacred texts, on instruction from Buddha. In addition, this particular monk had disciples which aided him in his journey, fighting and defeating demons as they went.
There is no doubt that Hewlett and Albarn have incorporated this folk religion and mythology into their final outcome. However, the original names of the monk’s disciples – Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha wujing have been changed drastically to Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy in order to appeal to a more western audience. Through portraying areas of this tale as they have, Hewlett and Albarn have not only managed to create an animation that is influenced by Chinese Folklore in itself, but have aided in bringing the latter to a larger audience.
It can be seen that the storyline has been impacted upon significantly by Chinese tradition. Another such area affected by this is the music, which has been used in order to help convey the intentions of the creators. Jonathan Bramley, the BBC Sport Executive Producer, stated ‘we needed something with a good classical Chinese element to it…’ In contrast with its animation background, China has a vast musical history which is steeped in the nation’s rich cultural past. Therefore, a wealth of material was instantly accessible to Hewlett and Albarn. Moreover, Bramley states that the music should also have a ‘…modern feel and be quite energetic.’ There is a large gap between traditional and contemporary Chinese music and this benefitted the pair greatly. Vast arrays of different and typically Chinese musical styles were available to provide inspiration. It is for this reason; Aided by their successful careers in the music business, that Hewlett and Albarn had no trouble in creating a musical score that achieved this goal. Ultimately, the music not only compliments the animation beautifully, but has traditional Chinese elements and a modern edge.
The final aspect of the film to be influenced by chinoiserie is the environment in which the action takes place. Traditional Chinese pieces of art have long been sought after since they first arrived in Europe, courtesy of the Silk Road. Complex and simple artworks depicted everything from landscapes to daily life in China. Although now commercially produced, these examples of ‘traditional’ Chinese art have played an influential part in the creation of the landscapes for the animation. When used in conjunction with photographs of rural china today, Hewlett and Albarn have successfully captured the beauty of the country. This can be plainly seen within the animation.
A scene from the animation showing the environment in which the action takes place.
A photograph of a similar Chinese landscape as we would see it today.
Through looking at both contemporary and traditional pieces of Chinese art and music a style has been produced which represents the Far East spectacularly. I believe this piece of animation is a valuable insight into how the western nations perceive their eastern counterparts through chinoiserie. The animation itself is an example of which.