Katong, Meishupian, and Donghua: On Terms of Chinese Animation

By Daisy Yan Du

American animated films, such as the Out of the Inkwell series (1918-1929), were first introduced to Shanghai around the late 1910s and early 1920s, at a time when warlords had plunged China into wars and chaos. Usually screened before a live-action film, animated films were often called moving shadow plays (huodong yingxi), moving humorous films (huodong huaji yingpian), humorous picture films (huaji huapian), moving ink pictures (huodong moshuihua), moving pen-and-ink drawing films (huodong gangbihua yingpian), and other terms. From the late 1920s onwards, people began to call animated films katong or katong pian, a transliteration of the English word “cartoon.” At that time, the English word “cartoon” referred to both animated films (animated cartoon) and still drawings (printed cartoon). The “printed cartoon” was translated into manhua in Chinese, so the word “cartoon” was used exclusively to refer to animated film only in Republican China.[i]                       

After the end of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party began the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949). In 1949, the Communist Party seized political power and forced the Nationalist Party and its government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, to relocate to Taiwan. Unlike the Nationalist Party, which was more open to U.S. influence, the Communist Party criticized the U.S. for supporting the Nationalist Party during the Civil War and gradually sought to erase American traces in China after the eruption of the Korean War (1950-1953). The Communist Party was radical in transforming the existing society and culture into new socialist ones, including changing the Americanized terms related to Chinese animation. Right before 1949, Chinese animators gave a brand-new name to this artistic form to replace the English word “cartoon,” in order to welcome the new political regime. It is widely believed that Te Wei (1915-2010) and his colleagues coined a generic term—“fine arts film” (meishu dianying or meishu pian)—to refer to all kinds of cel-animated films and other animation techniques such as ink-painting, paper cutting, paper folding, and puppetry. In order to differentiate between conventional hand-drawn cel animation and other stop-motion animations, such as puppet animation, Te Wei and his colleagues proposed the term “moving pictures” (donghua) for referring to cel animation only.[ii]    

However, the term meishu dianying may have been used earlier, and it is difficult to verify who was the first person to invent it. In January 1947, Yuan Muzhi, then president of the Northeast Film Studio, the first film studio of socialist China, proposed the concept of “making seven kinds of films” (qipian shengchan), which included art film (yishu pian), news and documentary film (xinwen jilu pian), science and education film (kejiao pian), fine arts film/animated film (meishu pian), translated film (fanyi pian), slides film (huandeng pian), and news photo film (xinwen zhao pian).[iii] He emphasized animation and the other six kinds of film because the studio at that time did not have the resources to produce live-action feature films. At that time, Te Wei was still in Hong Kong and did not go to the Northeast Film Studio until July 1949.[iv] It is very likely that the terms meishu dianying and meishu pian could have been coined by Yuan Muzhi and his colleagues in January 1947. 

Although these terms were claimed to be new socialist terms distanced from past influences, in actuality they had Japanese connections. The term meishu (fine arts) is derived from the Japanese word bijutsu, which was first used by the Japanese at the Vienna International Exposition of 1873 to differentiate Western categories of fine arts such as painting and sculpture from other artistic forms. It was introduced to China and began to be widely used by Chinese artists and intellectuals around the May Fourth Movement in 1919.[v] In a similar vein, the term donghua originated from the Japanese term dōga, which was first used by Kenzō Masaoka (1898-1988) for the Nippon Dōga Kenkyūjo (Japanese Animation Institute) in 1937. However, it was only after 1965 that the term dōga, together with the new term animēshon (from the English word animation), became widely used in Japan.[vi] According to a Japanese record, it was Mochinaga Tadahito (1919-1999) who first introduced this Japanese term to China when he worked closely with Te Wei and other Chinese animators at the Northeast Film Studio in the late 1940s.[vii]       

Alternatively, a different record in China shows that the term donghua may have had nothing to do with Japan. Rather, this record claims that it was coined by Qian Jiajun (1916-2011), a pioneering Chinese animator who directed the anti-Japanese animated short The Happiness of a Village (Nongjia le) in wartime capital Chongqing in 1940. Qian established the China Animation Association (Zhongguo donghua xuehui), the first animation association in China, and proposed the term donghua to replace katong in Chongqing in July 1945. In December 1946, he published an essay, “On Animation and Its Learning Methods (Guanyü donghua jiqi xuexi fangfa),” in Arts Waves (Yilang), the college journal of the Suzhou Fine Arts Academy. Luo Yiwei, one of Qian’s students, later established the South China Animation Academy (Nanguo donghua yishu xueyuan) in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the winter of 1946.[viii] One of the teachers there published an article in the school journal to explain the meanings of donghua, translated by him as “animated cartoon.” He especially distinguished two kinds of donghua: shuben shi donghua (animated cartoon books, which referred to the illustrations of sequential movements printed in books) and yingpian shi donghua (animated cartoon movies, which referred to animated films).[ix] It is highly plausible that the development of the term donghua in Japan and China happened concurrently, rather than sequentially.                      

The term donghua was mainly used to refer to cel animation only during the socialist era (1949-1976), under the leadership of Chairman Mao. During the postsocialist period after Deng Xiaoping became the leader of China in 1978, the meaning of the term donghua was gradually expanded, and today it is the standard term for all types of animation. The popularity of this term is evident in the name of the China Animation Association (Zhongguo donghua xuehui), which was founded in Shanghai in 1985.[x] The terms meishu dianying or meishu pian gradually lost their appeal because their association with fine arts seemed to downplay commercial value, in the postsocialist era when economic value was emphasized over the politics characteristic of the Mao era.                                                                      

Although the term donghua is now the standard term for animation, this does not mean that the terms meishu dianying or meishu pian, which are associated with the Mao era, are no longer in use in contemporary China. The Shanghai Animation Film Studio (Shanghai meishu dianying zhipianchang), which was officially founded in 1957 as the only (state-owned) animation studio in socialist China, still uses the term meishu dianying in its name and to refer to the animated films it produces. In so doing, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio marks its own territory by drawing attention to its long history in competition with other local, national, international, and collaborative animation studios that have multiplied in China since the 1980s. In addition to this institutional assertion of heritage, many fans, intellectuals, scholars, and filmmakers also insist on using the term meishu dianying for various aesthetic, cultural, political, or emotional reasons and purposes. 

While both donghua and meishu dianying have connections to Japanese words and refer to animated film, they also have different connotations. To begin with, while the term meishu dianying is associated with the Mao era and thus evokes nostalgia and a sense of the local, the term donghua, used more frequently now, seems to have international dimensions more appealing to the younger generations. Unlike the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, many animation studios that have begun flourishing since the 1980s often use the word donghua to name their companies and animated products. While the term meishu dianying emphasizes its kinship with traditional Chinese arts, the term donghua focuses on the moving image and is more associated with the kinds of modern cinematography that utilize cel, digital, and computer technology in animated filmmaking. Due to its asserted kinship with traditional art, meishu dianying celebrates the elite literati ideal of pure art and implies a subject position that is distanced from commercialism and capitalism. This is understandable because most senior animators before the 1980s were actually artists, rather than filmmakers, in origin. It is not difficult to imagine that meishu dianying faced unprecedented crises when it had to adapt to the free market economy since the 1980s. In contrast, donghua dianying welcomes the possibilities and opportunities of being commercialized and has successfully gone through the process of cinematic commercialization in postsocialist China.   

[i] It is widely believed that the term manhua was introduced from Japan to China by Feng Zikai with the publication of his book Zikai Manhua in 1925, but the usage of the term manhua can be traced back even earlier in 1904. Chen Yan, “On the Misunderstood Term Dongman (Wudu de dongman),” Fine Arts Observations (Meishu guancha) 2 (2015), 29. For a detailed study of Feng Zikai, see Geremie R. Barmé, An Artistic Exile: A Life of Feng Zikai 1898-1975 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002). 

[ii] Ono Kōsei, Animation of China (Chūgoku no animēshon) (Tōkyō: Heibonsha, 1987), 83.   

[iii] Cinema in Changchun: Northeast (Changchun yingshi: Dongbei juan), eds., Chen Mo and Qizhi (Beijing: Minzu chubanshe, 2011), 276.     

[iv] Te Wei stayed in Hong Kong between 1947 and March 1949. See Zhang Songlin and Gong Jianying, Who Created Little Tadpoles Look for Mama? Te Wei and Chinese Animation (Shei chuangzao le Xiao kedou zhao mama Te Wei he Zhongguo donghua) (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2010), 192-193.                      

[v] Aida Yuen Wong, Parting the Mists: Discovering Japan and the Rise of National-Style Painting in Modern China (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘I Press, 2006), 35, 136. For more details of the term bijutsu, see Satō Dōshin, The Meiji State and Modern Arts: The Politics of Aesthetics (Meiji kokka to kindai bijutsu—Bi no seijigaku) (Tokyo: Yoshikawa kōbunkan, 1999).        

[vi] Japanese animation was born in 1916. People used many terms to refer to this new artistic form. The most commonly used terms were senga eiga and the borrowed English phrase “cartoon comedy.” Later, the term manga eiga became more and more popular (the term manga first appeared in Japan in 1899) until 1965. Kuri Yōji introduced the English term animēshon to Japan in 1965. It gradually replaced manga eiga and became widely used (together with the term dōga) in Japan since the mid-1960s. Both animēshon and dōga are generic terms that include all kinds of animations such as cel, puppet, and silhouette animations. Yamaguchi Katsunori and Watanabe Yasushi, History of Japanese Animation (Nihon animēshon eigashi) (Ōsaka-shi: Yūbunsha, 1977), 13. Tezuka Osamu, “Animated Film after Talkies (Tōkī igo no manga eiga),” Authors in the World: Lectures on Animation (Sekai no sakka-tachi kōza animēshon), edited by Noborikawa Naoki (Tōkyō: Bijutsu shuppansha, 1987): 106-131, here 107.                 

[vii] Ono Kōsei, Animation of China, 83.                                                 

[viii] Qian Shanzhu, The Footprints of an Animator (Yige donghua zhe de zuji) (Hong Kong: Long donghua, 2014), 348-349. The branches of the China Animation Association were established in Nanjing in late 1946 and in Guangzhou in 1947. Bao Jigui, History of Chinese Animation (Zhongguo donghua dianying tongshi) (Beijing: Lianhuanhua chubanshe, 2010), 4.       

[ix] Lü Hui, “On the term donghua (Donghua renshi qianshuo),” South China Arts News (Nanguo yixun), no. 23, September 1, 1947. Nanguo yixun was founded by Luo Yiwei in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in January 1947. It was the earliest animation journal in China. It kept running for two years and had around 50 issues until Luo Yiwei suddenly disappeared in 1949. Bao Jigui, History of Chinese Animation, 53.

[x] Another related term, dongman, is a generic term that refers to both animation and manga. It first appeared in Taiwan in 1993 and then was introduced to Mainland China. See Chen Yan, “On the Misunderstood Term Dongman,” 29.   


Daisy Yan Du is Associate Professor in the Division of Humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Clear Water Bay, Hong Kong. She has published articles on animation, film, gender, and popular culture in refereed journals, such as Positions: Asia CritiqueModern Chinese Literature and CultureJournal of Chinese CinemasGender & History, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her first book, entitled Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation 1940s-1970s, was published by the University of Hawai‘i Press in February 2019. 

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