History of Chinese Animation

Ever since the boom in animation following the huge success of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, animation from all over the world has enjoyed commercial success, most notably the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and France. China is sadly not a country that has known much commercial success with it’s animation, and so not many people know many, if any Chinese animations at all.

The first well recognised animation in China was the 10 minute short “Uproar in the Studio” created by the four Wan brothers; Wan Chaochen, Wan Dihuan, Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming in 1926. Sadly the film has been since lost, but it helped the Wan brothers become recognised as pioneers in the animation industry in China. In 1935 they created their first animated film with sound “The Camel’s Dance”, again seems to have been also lost to history.

In 1941 the Wan brothers released China’s first animated feature film “Princess Iron Fan”. After seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they sought to create an animated feature film of the same quality. The film was adapted from a popular Chinese folk tale “Journey to the West”. It took them 3 years, 237 artists and 350,000 yuan (roughly £35,133). A high amount of rotoscoping was done to save on costs, often the eyes of the live action actors were left visible on the faces of the characters. “Princess Iron fan” was the first Animated feature to be made in Asia, in 1942 it reached the shores of Japan and went onto inspire Tezuka Osamu, a highly influential Japanese comic artist.

You can watch the full film on YouTube!

While subtle, Chinese animation, particularly “Princess Iron Fan”, had a highly important role in the boom of animation in another region of the world – Osamu Tezuka is highly regarded as the “Walt Disney of Japan”, and of course, Japan is a huge part of animation, the largest in Asia by far. Perhaps without the influence of Chinese animated film Princess Iron Fan, Japan wouldn’t be as successful and as influential in the animation industry as it is today.

In the late 1940’s Chinese Animation was heavy in political content, with films such as Emperor’s Dream which was animated with puppets, trying to expose the Kuomintang Chinese nationalist party. From the 1950’s onwards, the predecessor of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was formed, all of the big name artist came together within this studio, including the Wan Brothers. In 1956 the Wan brothers created their first coloured animated film “Why is the Crow Black-Coated”, which also was the first animated Chinese film to be recognised internationally, at the 1956 Venice Film Festival.

The very early 1960’s gave way to the Wan Brothers most recognised film “Havoc in Heaven” or “Uproar in Heaven”. Planning for the film originally began in 1941, but due to the War, it was delayed over 10 years. They began production in 1954 and by 1964 the whole film was completed. Based on the story “Journey to the West”, it is about a Monkey King who rebels again the Emperor of heaven. As previously mentioned, it was a highly recognised film, and one of the most influential films of all time to come out of Asia. The film runs for almost 2 hours long,  pushing the limits of the current animation technology, and had incredibly vivid colours at the time on screen.

1966 saw the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao, and the animation industry was essentially put to a halt during this time. Many animators were not allowed to draw during this time, and were forced to do labor work. This continued until the Cultural Revolution was over in 1976. The animators left were heavily influenced by Mao’s campaign, for example one animation made “Little 8th Route Army” which was the story of a boy taking revenge against the Japanese Army.

The Cultural Revolution had done an extensive amount of damage to the Chinese Animation industry, the majority of animation shown in Hong Kong was from the United States, mostly being a Disney animation. Japan had also risen as the dominant country providing animation from Asia, creating extremely popular mascots and animated shows. China had a very hard time coming back and competing again in the animation market. The 1980’s saw them begin to pick back up, but then again by the 1990’s they were once again pushed back by the ever growing Japanese Animation industry with the likes of Pokemon which was a hugely massive success all over the world, earning $15 billion in sales.
Currently, with the massive rise of the internet, many independent animators are embracing things such as flash animation, while not commercially successful as feature films, it is a step in the right direction. In 2005 they also completed their first 3D feature film “DragonBlade”, a huge step for the industry. It is a huge shame that the Cultural Revolution halted Chinese Animation for so long, and of course that Japan overshadows all of Asia in terms of animation, however hopefully China will pick up once more stronger and better than ever, and it will produce some beautiful animated films, such as the wonderful “Havoc in Heaven”, as it once did.

Has Chinese animation been influential on a global scale?

Since the advent of traditional animation over a century ago many notable figures and companies within the field have left their mark on the world. Disney, Warner Bros., Pixar, and DreamWorks, to name a few, have all made enormous contributions throughout the years to the field of animation and have gone on to achieve massive international success. This success is not limited to Hollywood or even the Western world. Japan’s Studio Ghibli has also gone on to captivate viewers across the globe, proving that animation is something that can be enjoyed universally and that the Eastern world is also more than capable of creating animated masterpieces.

Since the 1920’s China’s animation companies have produced and released many animated films domestically, all to varying degrees of success. However, China’s animation industry is practically unknown overseas. Perhaps this is due to the stories translating badly when released internationally. Or perhaps this is due to Chinese heritage taking over the focus of the film rather than the story itself. Whatever the reason, China’s animation history is still noteworthy and fascinating.

The earliest innovators in Chinese animation were the Wan family, twins Laiming and Guchan with their brothers Chaochen and Dihuan. Drawing inspiration from American and Western cartoons, The Wan family produced The Camel’s Dance in 1935, the first Chinese cartoon with sound. The Wan brothers later went on to create China’s very first animated feature length film, Princess Iron Fan.

Princess Iron Fan; a film about a princess whose fan is urgently needed to extinguish the flames surrounding a mountain village, was released on January 1, 1941 and took three years, 237 artists and 350,000 yuan to make. Historically significant, yet somewhat flawed, Princess Iron Fan never achieved the same global impact or success as say Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Over the years there have been many animated films released in China, including Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979), Monkeys Fish For the Moon (1981), or Feeling From Mountains and Water (1988).

And while these films were all fairly successful within China and some other parts of Asia, they did not go on to receive the same success internationally. I feel the reason for this is because of the sheer scale and dominance of Japan and America’s global animation success which has sadly overshadowed traditional Chinese animations.

The work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in particular is worth mentioning as these films are quintessentially Japanese in their style and feel, yet these cultural influences never overpower the story, but rather compliment it, thus allowing Western audiences to enjoy the film while experiencing Asian culture. Spirited Away was the first foreign language animated film to win an Academy Award, proving Japan’s talent with regards to creating a harmonious balance between national heritage and the art of story-telling.

Happy Lamb and Grey Wolf or Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf is a Chinese animated television series created by Huang Weiming, Lin Yuting and Luo Yinggeng, The show revolves around the story of a group of joyful goats and an inept wolf who wishes to devour them. The show is not only aired across China, but is also aired in Taiwan, India and Singapore. The show has also gone on to spawn a fairly successful movie franchise too, however neither the Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf television show or the movie franchise have seen an international release outside of Asia. The reasons for this are unclear.

After all, it’s not as if there isn’t a thirst for Eastern flavoured cartoons in the West. Foreign animations such as Pokemon have already seen worldwide success, generating enormous financial figures.

The worldwide animation industry is dominated by American and Japanese films and cartoons, meaning that China faces more competition now than ever. It is a shame that Chinese animation has been considerably overshadowed as there are some truly beautiful pieces of animation that not only highlights the dedication and hard work that goes into making these cartoons, but it also highlights China’s grand yet mysterious heritage that I feel would fascinate and entertain Western audiences of all ages.