China is believed to be one of the biggest animation markets on the planet. It has a population of 1.3 Billion, with 370 million of them being children. A survey carried out by the ‘Quatech Market Research Company’ concluded that citizens from the age of 14 to that of around 30 in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing spent over RMB 1.3 billion Yuan on cartoons every year. However, 80% of this was spent on animation from other countries. It has been said that only 11% of China’s youth prefer animation made locally. The other 89% prefer works predominantly from Japan and also a good deal from America. It is in the opinion of many that Chinese cartoons focus too much on education and not enough of on entertainment. 60% of China’s youngsters prefer Japanese animation which is probably due to the fact that Japanese plots introduce more true to life problems that children have to face, making their characters more relatable to the viewers than compared to characters found in Chinese animations. According to Japanese cartoonist Chiba Tetsuya, “Chinese cartoonists are as good as Japanese ones, if not better…But a good cartoon requires not only good drawings, but also an interesting plot. Chinese cartoonists need to spend more time on creating adventure story lines and on upgrading their story skills.”
Chinese animation has been said to be influenced by other forms of art and historical and cultural events and also obtaining a lot of influence from ancient folklore and Chinese manhua. Manhua are Chinese comic books sharing similarities to Japanese Manga and Korean manhwa. However, unlike manga, modern day manhua usually comes in full colour with some panels created completely in paint for single issue format. Chinese manhua originated in the late 19th century to the early 20th century. It is said that manhua was developed in some way from small picture books called Lianhuanhua and these became popular in Shanghai in the 1920s.
It is undeniable that China, as it presently stands, isn’t exactly renowned for its outstanding animation. However, one cannot say that they didn’t play role in the innovation of the art form at all. Around 180 AD Ting Huan, an inventor created the earliest version of the Zoetrope. This device, made of semi-transparent paper of mica panels, was hung over a lamp. The Zoetrope would spin with the rising air creating the impression that the images that were painted on the zoetrope were moving. Although, China may have lagged behind in the progression of the animation industry over time, it can still be seen that the country was already ahead of its time in regards to the very concept behind animation itself.
The earliest examples of animation to hit China, was the series ‘Out of the Inkwell’ which was released in 1918. That and many other examples from Europe and America influenced the trend in China greatly. The first Chinese animation was created by Wan Laiming in 1922 for the shuzendong Chinese Typewriter. Shortly after, Wan Laiming and his brothers Wan Dihuan, Wan Guchan and Wan Chaochen formed together and worked for the Great Wall Film Company. There, they made many advances in animation. The Wan Brothers, as they became known, wanted to create a style that was distinctly Chinese. It was common place during this period to use the combination of live action footage and traditional 2D animation. The first animation they made was a 10-12 minute long piece called ‘Uproar in the Studio’. In 1935, they went on to create China’s first animation with sound ‘The Camel’s Dance’ and in 1941, created one of the most well renowned Chinese animated feature films, ‘Princess Iron Fan’. The story of this animation was apparently influenced in some way from the Chinese folk tale ‘Journey to the West’. It was the first animated feature film to be presented in Asia. The film was produced by a team of 237 artists under the supervision of the Wan Brothers and it was done using rotoscoping during the Second World War. It cost over 350, 000 Yuan and was over 20,000 frames in total.
The movie was said to have had a great impact on animation in Asia, and in particular, inspired Japan to also develop a feature-length animation ‘Momataro’s Divine Sea Warrior’. In 1956 the Wan Brothers went on to develop ‘Why is the Crow Black-Coated’ which was one of the first coloured Chinese animations and is recognised world-wide. A mere two years later, the brothers went on to create animations using cut paper based on folk art. Examples of this style can be seen in ‘Pigsy Eats Watermelon’. In addition to this, the animator Yu Zheguang established another new method of animating using origami in the film ‘A Clever Duckling’. However, the progress of Chinese animation didn’t stop there. The Wan Brothers were yet to create their most recognised film ‘Havoc in Heaven’. The film broke boundaries in technique, colour and skill and was 2 hours long. The Film took almost 4 years to complete.
After the Cultural Revolution however, it is said that animation took an almost stand-still. Over the 20 years from 1960 to 1989, predominantly American shows were imported to Hong Kong. In regards to Asian animation, Japan had taken the forefront with popular anime shows that were exported to Hong Kong, Europe and the U.S. China had, and still to this day, has strong competition for interest, not only word-wide, but also at home. Nevertheless, The Shanghai Animation Studio, which the Wang Brothers and many other popular artists became part of in the1940s launched a further 219 animated movies in the 1980s. Some of these animations such as ‘Three Monks’ and ‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ went on to become award winners.
Despite this from the 1990s onwards, Chinese animation was ousted from the public eye with the global commercialisation of American and Japanese works. It can be seen today that China are still improving their skills, however it’s almost as though they are losing the feeling of an animation that was distinctly Chinese. It has been claimed that China is adopting western and Japanese styles, even in modern works of manhua, and in turn losing the sense of culture and individuality that they had endeavoured to preserve all those years. Yet, in spite of all this negative opinion, near the end of the millennium, China was introduced to the internet. This has provided China with a new means of getting their animation out to the world, and allowed for more freedom instead of everything being, in the words of Jin Guoping (shanghai Studio Director) ‘ decided by …the government’. China appears to have had its ups and downs in this area, and although it’s never quite held a place at the forefront in the progression of the animation industry globally, after all this time, the country’s still improving to this day. In this time, amidst the remarkable growth of China, one can only wonder if it will ever become a recognised figure in the industry as it has been threatening to do for all these years.