History of Chinese Animation

China played a fundamental role in early forms of animation. The most distinctive Chinese features in animation would have to be the zoetrope, shadow puppets and the Wan brothers.

The zoetrope was invented by Ting Huran around 180 AD. As the zoetrope moves the viewer looks through the holes to see the static images on the inside move and see one of the earliest forms of animation.

Today the zoetrope is still in use but has changed form. In America the subways now have a series of images outside on the tunnel walls and as the train moves past the viewer sees a moving advertisement. The zoetrope was the birth of animation and if it was not invented animation may not be as advanced as it is today.

Another early form of silhouette animation originated from the Han Dynasty, which was called shadow puppets. It is one of the most ancient forms of storytelling in china. The art of puppetry became a profession and the puppeteers travelled all over china spreading the news of the land and stories from afar. Shadow puppets were created after one of Emperor Wu’s wives died. The emperor Wu got his court officials to invent a way so he could feel like she was still there. Shadow puppets were then invented; light would cast the shadow of the puppet and would move when the puppet moved. The Mongols conquered and shadow puppets spread to other countries and to Europe.

Shadow puppets today are on the decline in china but there are still some institutes in china that teach shadow play. In animation it has now been modernised to silhouette animation which is just the outline of an object moving but is very difficult to capture expressions. The Expressions of a character in animation is key to its success. Silhouette animation can be 2d or 3d and tends to be black and white.

The Wan brothers; Wan Laiming, Wan Guchan, Wan chaochen and Wan Dihuan were the pioneers of Chinese animation. The wan brothers were what Walt Disney was for American animation but for China. The wan brothers operated in the 20th century from Nanjing China. They started creating animations after seeing some of the American animations like “out of the inkwell”. Together they created many first in the field of animation for their country. They made the first animated advertisement, film shorts, cartoon shorts, animation with sound and animated film. Their most known works are “Havoc in heaven” and “Princess Iron Fan”

The wan brothers lived through many recent turbulent times in china. One of which is the second Sino-Japanese war where Japan captured Nanjing. Then the Second World War shortly followed.

Furthermore the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966. The Cultural Revolution proved to be a difficult time for the arts. Many pieces of work were destroyed and many artists were no longer allowed to produce work.  This was because the government did not approve of the messages being sent out through art. Any art produced at this time had to be acceptable by the government. Living through these era’s would have impacted the wan brothers work finically, what they were allowed to produce and being able to progress in their field.

Chinese animation today is starting to flourish. The most recent and known Chinese animation would be the Beijing 2008 Olympics, which was shown all over the world. However it is often overshadowed by Japanese animation today.

Overall china has played an important role in animation. They created some of the earliest forms of animation shadow puppets and the Zoetrope. The animation world may not be what it is today if it was not for these inventions. The Wan brothers lead the way into animation for their country but were hindered in what they were able to do and achieve due to the times they lived in. It is only now that Chinese animation is on the rise.


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