A Pedagogy of Animation in China

By Sean Macdonald

With links to literature, art, performance, music, and classical cinema, animation is an incredibly rich medium. As I have noted elsewhere, animation is a reminder that representation is both signifier and signified, that representa­tion, as a system of signs, points to the object it represents and becomes in turn an object-in-itself. In the context of “Chinese animation” (Rey Chow correctly casts doubt on that adjective), animation represents an additional medium to learn about Sinophone culture and language. Here, I merely offer a few suggestions from my own experiences teaching the undergraduate course “Animation in China” at the University of Florida. I have been teaching “Animation in China” for about five years. Offered each fall, average enrollment is around sixteen students.

Teaching is an important aspect of research. As researchers, we are agents of our research, making decisions and planning forward for the development of our specific fields and topics, but our students are integral to our research, they are, in many cases, our first audience. So, pedagogy is an integral aspect of our work as researchers and instructors. My experience with animation is with a pervasive medium that was a part of my own childhood I left with cartoon character inspired cereal boxes. However, a few years ago, at the end of the semester of an introductory film course, I asked students to devote a class to film favorites. Students prepared a couple of minutes each to introduce a favorite film and describe why this film had appealed to them. As it turned out, many of the students chose animated film. Perhaps it was being two hours north of Disney World, students at UF showed a strong engagement with animated films.

Animation in the PRC (People’s Republic of China) begins from a didactic position. Simply put, after the founding of the PRC, animation was one of a series of genres and media to be reformed and brought in line with state aspirations for cultural production. So the concept of pedagogy is not difficult to imagine in the context of Chinese animation from the PRC. Nevertheless, the instructor is caught in a rather problematic position when opening a course on animation. Animation is often considered a medium produced for children. Most students have memories of watching cartoons, either Saturday mornings or after school. Animation is a leisure activity, a form of entertainment, and not something associated with academic studies. Just as importantly, there is what I like to refer to as a “Cartoon Unconscious.” For many spectators, animation media, in an analogous manner as naturally acquired languages, has been consumed, watched, and often internalized, in very different ways even from live-action television and film.

Pierre Bourdieu notes “[t]he education system plays a decisive role in the generalized imposition of the legitimate mode of consumption. One reason for this is that the ideology of ‘re-creation’ and ‘creative reading’ supplies teachers – lectores assigned to produce commentaries on canonical texts – with a legitimate subject with the ambition to act as auctores.” The “metaphor of reading” retains its allure in the academy, along with residual reactionary attitudes towards certain forms of media.[1] A “humanities” class requires primary material, a primary text for discussion, and secondary material, critical texts that can help put the primary material into context. I would like to discuss the problem of secondary material first.

Animation studies in the English language have been growing at least since the 1980s. Chinese animation has been studied in Chinese since the 1950s, but in English, one of the first papers on Chinese animation, Marie-Claire Quiquemelle’s “The Wan Brothers and Sixty Years of Animated Film in China,” appears in 1991 and articulates a narrative of “Chinese animation” around the Wan Brothers, the siblings responsible for the first feature-length animation Princess Iron fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 1941).[2] Appearing in a volume on Chinese film studies, this excellent article is a touchstone for historic work on animation.

An introduction to Chinese animation also deserves an introduction to animation studies as a discipline. One of the best articles I have read on the concept of animation studies is Paul Ward’s “Animation Studies, Disciplinarity, and Discursivity.”[3] Ward explores the problem of animation studies as an interdisciplinary field with links to Art and Design, English, Film Studies, History, and Media Studies. The researcher would be hard-pressed to find a more self-reflective meditation on any of these fields let alone animation studies. Ward considers animation studies not so much as a separate discipline but a “multi-sited field.” His approach is refreshing, and challenging for the researcher and instructor. Ward’s article would be appropriate for a graduate seminar, but as an instructor in an undergraduate program I use Ward’s meditation to lend background to my lectures, but not as material to serve as reading for my students.[4] Quiquemelle’s article on the other hand is a straightforward historic narrative, but difficult to discuss as a piece of critical theory. Even a touchstone article has its limits in the classroom.

One of the key problems with opening a course on animation in China is being able to find critical material that works with animation as a medium in the context of Chinese animation. Much discussion of animation in China approaches the topic from the point of view of historic narrative, but not as a medium as such. Chinese animation has a particular history, as any industry, but as a result of certain claims, especially “national style” (which I return to below), in some of the literature Chinese animation appears isolated, although this was hardly the case.

But limitations can also be positive. Internationally, animation studies has developed into a rich field, and I have found discussions of the medium, as a technological form and industry, to be invaluable for students. In the final analysis, animation implies a global history, and contributions to the production process occurred in different countries and periods. Comparative approaches always yield insights.  

Animation in China offers a number of opportunities to open up discussion of problems specific to the medium as such in China. Early animators in the PRC were concerned with constructing a “national style,” a form of self-identity for the animators who deliberately infused details into the concept and visual style of their productions to create a national style effect for spectators.[5] National style was a programmic moment for cultural production in the PRC from the mid-1950s until the early 1960s. However, a discussion of national style in Chinese animation, far from limiting such a concept to one historical period or the productions of one country, is actually an opportunity to compare the way visual style can represent ethnicity and social difference in character design.

Chinese animators remain conscious of this problem, but it is no less a significant aspect of the identification of animated productions around the world. Early Disney animation, for example, consistently referenced national styles to lend atmosphere and authenticity to particular narratives and characters.[6] And the concept of national style can lead into discussion of the house style, the look that develops in a studio, and of course the style of individual animators. Thus, the concerns for “national style” can be linked to a series of analytical points for discussing animation.

The primary texts for animation in Chinese are twofold in my opinion. The importance of literary adaptation in animation is well known, and in China certain literary texts have continually served as source narratives for animation production.[7] The sixteenth century vernacular novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji) is a primary example of a text that has been adapted many times in animated film (as well as live-action film), from the first cel-animation feature in 1941, Princess Iron Fan, until the recent computer generated Monkey King: Hero is Back (Xiyou ji zhi Dasheng guilai, 2015). Although the most recent film extrapolates from the original novel, some have adapted a particularly well-known episode, so it is possible to assign a portion of the novel as a text for classroom discussion.

Of course, beyond the critical and narrative literature, the animated film corpus is essential to the course. I designed my course (please see the sample syllabus) to function as a historical survey that focuses on the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (Shanghai meishu dianying zhipian chang, SASF). My rationale was to construct a historic context for Sinophone animated film that could serve as a possible teleological narrative of style and ideology, a way of creating a story about animation as a medium and an industry. Many of the classics are available on DVD, and many have been uploaded online, but the most difficult problem is continuing to alternate suitably sub-titled versions for an audience that may or may not have sufficient knowledge of Chinese.[8] I have subtitled and provided simultaneous translation for a small number of films for my course, but there are many films that remain to be subtitled.       

Nevertheless, SASF films serve as an incredibly rich catalogue for study. I tend to focus on the early animation at SASF for the most of the course, but as more productions appear, including online productions, the entire concept of “animation in China” is transforming. Certainly, the concept of story and pacing has radically changed. I recall student responses to the classic SASF film Uproar in Heaven (Danao tiangong, 1961, 1964), the two part adaptation of a very important episode and opera of Journey to the West. With its allusive characters, long scenes of movement, and slow transitions, Uproar in Heaven is a difficult film to watch for American students used to the fast pacing of American or Japanese animation. The recent Monkey King: Hero is Back takes up where Uproar leaves off, but the action, pacing, narrative, and especially the movement, show similarity to recent American 3D animation, revealing the way Chinese animation has become a transnational form.  

Near the end of the course I have consistently tried to add at least one Hong Kong production. This year we worked with My Life as McDull (Maidou gushi, 2001). A film like My Life as McDull represents an alternative style to both American, Japanese, and to a certain extent mainland animation. The naive narrator is a child, but the story can be appreciated by adults, and most importantly the animation is innovative and gives students an opportunity to discover several styles of animation, two and three-dimensional, in one feature. The intermedial references to the printed page, websites, video games, and even live-action film, is a very effective way of opening up discussions of several levels of interpretation. 

A pedagogy of animation in China is best served by regarding Chinese animation as a particular form of animation, as well as an example of animation as a medium per se. I mean simply that an effective pedagogy will invite students to understand the history of animation in China, but also place Chinese animation within the context of a global medium in itself. There are aspects of animation that can be directly linked to a national style, but does the production process also constitute a “national style”? Certainly this was an aspect of national style claims in the 1950s and 1960s. If anything, the contemporary national style for animation in the PRC is largely a state incorporated form of hyper-production of quantity for domestic consumption.[9] In my opinion, some of the best animation is being produced online by smaller studios. Selection is key for the instructor and student. Online animation also includes some of the most accessible recent animation from China, since the pop cultural references are easily understood. One Hundred Thousand Bad Jokes (Shiwange lengxiaohua, 2015), the animated feature film, is available online and has Chinese and English subtitles.[10] This parodic film situates itself within a transnational subcultural reference system, and the narrative is sufficiently layered to allow for repeated viewings. With subtitles provided, the challenge is not so much linguistic but visual. The visual style of One Hundred Thousand Bad Jokes is truly a bricolage of Chinese, Japanese, and American animation.

In the US, Chinese film studies has been growing in the academy since the 1980s. Nevertheless, attitudes towards some media are still affected by the Bourdieu’s lectore and auctore, figures of power and authority for the humanities instructor. Opening up a new course to study Chinese animation, a form of filmmaking that is as old as cinema itself, should be an opportunity to work with theoretical frames that speak to students not only in the academy, but also outside the academy in their everyday lives. Henri Lefebvre’s project to focus the critical gaze on the cultural material of everyday life is now more relevant than ever in our media drenched era. I have found that working with Sinophone animation has offered my students another way to view culture outside of mainstream media presentations, and beyond assumptions and expectations they may have cultivated unconsciously about Chinese culture. Chinese studies also has historic assumptions about where culture is supposed to be found. Literary, symbolic, imagistic, and a source of new ways of seeing, animation can be an unexpected site for the discovery of signs of cultural significance. 

Sean Macdonald teaches in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at University of Florida. He has published on modernism, aesthetics, animation, and translation. He is the author of Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media (Routledge, 2016).

[1] Recall that the term media can include print and electronic media. For Marshall McLuhan, the light bulb was a medium with its own conceptual resonance. For the quote see, Pierre Bourdieu, “The Field of Cultural Production, or, The Economic World Reversed,” in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Policy Press, 1993), 37.

[2] See Marie-Claire Quiquemelle, “The Wan Brothers and Sixty Years of Animated Film in China,” in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, ed. Chris Berry (London: British Film Institute, 1991), 175-186.  

[3] See, Paul Ward, “Animation Studies, Disciplinarity, and Discursivity,”’ in Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 3: 2 (Spring 2003), online at <http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/032/ward.htm> accessed January 19, 2017.

[4] As of January 17, 2017, the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at University of Florida does not have a graduate program.

[5] For a well-developed statement on national style in film see Xu Changlin, “Xiang chuantong wenyi tansheng qiubao – dianying minzu xingshi wenti xuexi biji” (Exploring Traditional Literature and Art for Exemplary Works – notes on the problem of national cinematic form), Dianying yishu, Nos. 1; 2; 4 and 5 (1962): 11–25; 36–48; 28–40; 28–42.

[6] For a discussion of “German feeling” in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, see Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 2002), 128-157.   

[7] Paul Wells gives a good survey of animated Western literary adaptation in “Classic literature and animation: all adaptations are equal, but some are more equal than others,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, eds. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 199-211.     

[8] There are a number of streaming channels in China, and including youtube in the US, with some well-known and not so well-known animations.

[9] See the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China (SAPPRFT) and the reports for 2013 and 2015 at <http://www.sarft.gov.cn/>.

[10] I should clarify here that the feature One Hundred Thousand Bad Jokes, based on the online series of the same name by u17.com, was released in theaters domestically in the PRC.

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