On the Move: The Trans/national Animated film in 1940s-1970s China, Ph.D. dissertation, by Daisy Yan Du, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, May 2012. 227 pp.

By Shasha Liu

Daisy Yan Du’s PhD dissertation examines the transnational, national, and regional cultural undercurrents in the construction of national identity in Chinese animated films between the 1940s and 1970s. Du argues against a monolithic and timeless notion of Chinese identity and seeks to showcase the interconnections among national identity, politics and the arts by foregrounding the movements of films, people, artistic styles and ideologies across spatial and temporal borders.

The dissertation includes an introduction and four chapters. The introduction begins by critiquing the nationalist arguments of Chinese animation and the interpretation of the rigid connection between politics and arts in the Mao era. Highlighting “movement” as a representation of the media-specificity of animation, Du lays the theoretical background to explore the multi-directional cultural flows in Chinese animation from a socio-historical perspective. Firstly, acknowledging the cultural pursuit of national identity in the production of Chinese animated films, existing scholarship in this field has been preoccupied with the examination of the “National Style.” Du, however, points out the necessity of looking beyond this approach by focusing on transnational dimensions. Secondly, in studies of literature and arts of the Mao era, it is often argued that aesthetic productions are subordinate to the isolationist political framework of this period. Du proposes to look at the rupture between politics and aesthetics by examining the artistic variety of Chinese animation.

Chapter 1 discusses the transnational journey of the first animated feature film in China and Asia, Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan gongzhu, 1941), in Japan and examines its influence on the formation of early Japanese animation. Du firstly locates the travel of the animated film in the context of similar wartime journeys of two Chinese live-action films, Mulan Joins the Army (Mulan congjun, 1939) and Camille (Chahuanü, 1938), in which the identities of the female protagonists and actresses become ambiguous after the journeys. With this as a backdrop, Du further examines the ambiguous status of the animated Princess Iron Fan, who is an in-between figure situated on the edges of two warring parties, Bull Demon King and Tripitaka’s team, which may allude to wartime Japan and China. However, according to Du, with the animated film’s journey to Japan, the Chineseness and the anti-Japanese sentiments of Princess Iron Fan were watered down, and it became more associated with pan-Asian discourse by being coopted into the sphere of East Asian animation. Lastly, Du discusses the reception of this animated film in Japan, with a focus on its influence on the rise of Japanese animated feature films, such as Momtarō’s Sea Eagles (1943) and Momtarō’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945), and on its connection with Tezuka Osamu’s creation of manga and anime featuring Monkey King and Astro Boy.

Chapter 2 reviews the Japanese connection to postwar Chinese animated filmmaking by focusing on Mochinaga Tadahito, a wartime Japanese animator who became one of the most important animators in early socialist China. By detailing Mochinaga’s presence in China (1945-1953), Du recounts the industrial transitions from the Manchukuo Film Association (Man’ei) to the Northeast Film Studio and finally to the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, accompanied by an aesthetic change from political propaganda to fantasy and fairytale. With an analysis on the travelling images in Mochinaga’s animated films, such as the belted animals and the revolving objects in Thank You Kitty (Xiexie xiaohuamao, 1950) and Momtarō’s Sea Eagles (1943), Du further explores the hidden visual connections between Japanese and Chinese animation through the career of Mochinaga. According to Du, in Who Mewed? (Miaowu shi shei jiao de, 1979), the last puppet animated film that Mochinaga produced for China, the long period of absence of the “mew” uttered by kitty actually indicates Mochinaga’s return to the animation industry of socialist China. This chapter ends with an examination of Mochinaga’s involvement in the production of Japanese puppet animation and concludes with an analysis of To Shoot without Shooting (Bu she zhi she , 1988), made by Mochinaga’s student Kawamoto Kihachiro, that shows the complicated political and aesthetic relationship between Japan and China.

Chapter 3 examines the emergence of ink-painting animation in a socio-historical context and argues that the development of the National Style and Chinese national identity are ever-changing and historically contingent. Du begins by theorizing what she calls the “aesthetic of absence” in Chinese ink-painting animation. According to her, the absence of subject matter or erasure of dialogue and speech are common in ink-painting animation. She then demonstrates that the rise of ink-painting animation must be understood in relation to the Sino-Soviet relationship in the 1950s. Du goes on to explain how traditional artistic forms are appropriated and modernized in ink-painting animation. In the end, Du points out that, with the gradual shift in emphasis onto contemporary heroic subject matter in the mid-1960s, ink-painting animation disappeared from the screen.

Chapter 4 revolves around the dis/appearance of animals in Chinese animation during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and explores the regional cultural flows that redefine Chinese national identity. Du proposes the concept of the “double disappearance” of animals in nature and cinema by focusing on an animated film entitled Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland (Caoyuan yingxiong xiao jiemei, December 1965) and its adaptions into other media. Based on Du’s discussions, the animals do not disappear completely but return in the forms of animalized ethnic minorities and villains. Du continues to explore the revenge of animals in several representative animated films produced towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, such as the fantastic golden wild goose in The Golden Wild Goose (Jinse de dayan, 1976) and the reversal of roles between the fox and the hunter in The Fox Hunts the Hunter (Huli da lieren, 1978). Hence, this chapter examines the Cultural Revolution as a decade of dis/appearance of animals through the perspective of animation.

Daisy Yan Du’s dissertation offers a systematic and nuanced study of Chinese animation between the 1940s and 1970s, and makes significant contributions to Chinese animation studies and transnational film studies.


Shasha Liu is a PhD student in the department of East Asian Studies, University of Toronto, Canada. She received her B.A. (2008) and M.A. (2011) in Art History from Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts. She also holds a Master degree in Art History from the University of Toronto (2011). She is currently working on her PhD dissertation on the mediation of Dunhuang in the 20th century through the perspectives of four visual media: photography, painting, animation, and film. She has received an Ontario Graduate Scholarship Award in support of her work at the University of Toronto and has interned at the Royal Ontario Museum (Far Eastern Department) from 2011 to 2017.

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