On the Future of Cartoons (Eileen Chang, 1937)

By Eileen Chang; translated by Panpan Yang

The word “cartoon” has a history of less than ten years in China. However, probably all moviegoers know Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. “Cartoon” originally referred to all single-panel satirical comics, newsreel comics, life comics, serial comics and so on, but the kind of cartoon I want to talk about here refers specifically to animated pictures/films on the silver screen.

The enterprise of the cartoon can be said to be bright and splendid now. Besides the arrival of sound cartoon, gorgeous colors are added now to the otherwise black and white drawings; images of Mickey Mouse become the best decorations in stores at Christmas; many audiences go to the movie theater just to see Mickey Mouse. However, if we try to ask the majority of audiences what position cartoons occupy in their mind, listen to their answers! “In movie theaters, a cartoon is what comes after the newsreel, but before the feature film, an entertainment that occupies a period of time, especially for children. Its goal is to please children, so it must be amusing, funny, and full of imagination. We don’t want it to be too long since it can be dizzy to see many drawn figures. We really appreciate Mr Disney, who adapts many world-famous ancient fairy tales for the screen because children prefer moving pictures, rather than dull illustrations in books.”

Hollywood cartoonists try their best to meet the expectations of audiences and to enhance the appeal of their works. Therefore, they line up to search for interesting fairy tales and myths. Entertaining tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, are all valuable materials. Yet, recently there has been a gradual decline in finding new materials; cartoonists are suffering from anxiety and depression, not knowing where to go. We can also see that, in some recent cartoons, the filmmakers have to rely on the support of wonderful music to emphasize the action of the image and to remedy the emptiness of the image. As a result, the positions of sound and image becomes inverted: image comes to be secondary to the music. Even if we have enough old myths, even if audiences never get tired of Mickey Mouse, should we just be content with seeing the amazing new invention of the twentieth century—the cartoon—only as a replacement for the illustrations in children’s stories?  

No. Cartoon has its new future. There is a vast and fertile new field waiting for cartoonists to explore. In the future, cartoons will not be merely thoughtless entertainment to please children. They will be able to reflect real life, transmit ingenious thoughts, spread news of great adventure, and instill interesting knowledge. For example, history can offer numerous great and beautiful stories for cartoons. These poetic stories, piled up in dark libraries for years, are gradually forgotten, only briefly waking for short moments in the fantasy of history students. Why do cartoons have greater value than classic masterpieces on display in exhibitions at museums? Because they belong to the enthusiastic masses. In front of mass audiences, cartoons can bring those dead great stories back to life. A good historical cartoon must be totally understandable for both those who have studied history and those who have not, and stimulate their interest. In the future, when cartoons have reached their artistic peak, the funny, fictional cartoons of today will not disappear, but will occupy only a small corner in the whole world of cartoons. 

I am really glad when I think of the future when even Big World Theater and Tianyu Theater will screen beautiful crystallizations of art—science cartoons, history cartoons, and literature cartoons…

Maybe some will doubt this. But see the example of live-action film: when live-action film was first invented, wasn’t it regarded as something to amuse children? But now some films have so serious an attitude that they can supplement school textbooks. It is now widely accepted that the artistic value of some films is enough to be immortal. The value of cartoons is by no means lower than that of film. If film is a little sister of literature, then cartoon is another pure and lovely little sister that the goddess of the twentieth century has bestowed to literature and art. We should do our best to cultivate her and add another splendid page to the history of art development.

Eileen Chang, “On the Future of Cartoons” (Lun katonghua zhi qiantu), The Phoenix (Feng zao), Issue 17 (1937): 4-6.  


Panpan Yang is a PhD student in the joint program in Cinema and Media Studies and East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, USA. She is particularly interested in how animation reanimates film theories and has published articles on Chinese animation. She holds a MA degree in Cinema Studies from New York University, USA. 

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