Transborder Fairy Tales: Princess Iron Fan and the Discourse of Children

By Ying Chen

Princess Iron Fanis the first Chinese animated feature film produced by the Wan Brothers at Xinhua studio during the Orphan Island period of Shanghai’s film industry. Adapted from a well-known story in Journey to the West, the film was made as a response to Disney’s first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). In the disclaimer at the beginning of Princess Iron Fan, the filmmakers assert its origin as a fairy tale with the purpose of educating children and disavow its connection to god-spirit novels.

The dominant discourse of animation studies in China up to now firmly insisted that Princess Iron Fanis representative of the national style with a hidden message of resistance. Although the film’s disclaimer disavows its association with god-spirit novels, the guilty filmmakers actually give themselves away by consciously protesting their innocence, which leads to further questions about its claim to only be for children. I will re-examine Princess Iron Fanthrough the lens of “fairy tale” and place this film in the discourse of childrenin Republican China and the global cultural flows of animation.[1]I argue that fairytale animated film was a promiscuous category that negotiated diverse cultural flows, audience types, and film genres in wartime China.  

Inventing an Icon of Chinese Princess

Official Chinese animation history always regards Princess Iron Fanas the masterpiece of the Wan Brothers, who are well known as the fathers of Chinese animation. Wan Laiming’s memoir strongly supported this view, which claims that they produced this film to compete with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) and explored a divergent trajectory of national animation in contrast to the commercial Western tradition.

However, Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming’s twin brother, recalled that Princess Iron Fan was not their own creation, but the product of a cooperation with Xinhua studio under the leadership of Zhang Shankun. It is the artists in the Xinhua studio who decided to produce Princess Iron Fanbeforehand, and they had already completed a script prior to their participation. Zhang was a rising and renowned film tycoon in wartime Shanghai. Thisfilm was part of his ambition to build an Eastern Hollywood. WhenSnow Whiteachieved commercial success worldwide, including in China, Zhang began to pay attention to animation. The film project of Princess Iron Fanwas intentionally designed by Zhang and his Xinhua studio as an attempt to create an indigenous Chinese princess and tell a Chinese fairy tale out of the folklore tradition.   

The transition from folklore to fairy tale requires revisions and imagination in order to not only continue the May Fourth tradition but also express national resistance at that time. The plot of Princess Iron Fanwent through two major revisions. Firstly, the original story ofJourney to the Westportrayed Sun Wukong as the hero who obtained the magic fan and defeated Princess Iron Fan. In the animated film, it is his three disciples and the villagers, rather than Sun himself, who make joint efforts to borrow the magic fan from the princess. Secondly, powerful gods from heaven defeated the Bull Demon King in the original story, while in the film it is the three disciples and the villagers who conquer the Bull Demon King. In this way, Princess Iron Fan was adapted into a nationalist fairy tale and distinguished itself from the category of the god-spirit novel. It looks child-friendly in order to educate the younger generation.

Children as the Intended Audience? 

Although Princess Iron Fan was intended totarget children, as stated in its disclaimer, in practice this was not the case. According to the film censorship policies at that time, films that qualified for “children only” must exclude superstitious, erotic and horrible elements, especially for young children. This is because people believed that “bad films” (buliang de dianying) would easily lead children astray into such things as moral degeneracy and committing crimes.   

Princess Iron Fanwas based on Journey to the West, which had been frequently adapted into martial arts films. Animation had a kinship with martial arts films in China. For instance, animation technology had been frequently used to portray unrealistic magical scenes in many god-spirit martial arts films such as Burning of the Red Lotus Temple.Princess Iron Fanfollowed in the martial arts tradition with the use of many fighting and combat scenes, which is more than what is expected for a children’s film.  

Twelve years later, Huacheng studio in Hong Kong incorporated footage from Princess Iron Fanin a black-and-white Cantonese film titledFather’s Fault(Fuzhiguo, 1953). In that film, the animated scenes were used as a negative example that led children astray: the children go to the forest in order to learn martial arts skills from gods and spirits after they read a martial arts picture book (xiaorenshu), which is represented by a footage of Princess Iron Fan.[2]This Cantonese film thus underscores Princess Iron Fan’s connection with martial arts and suggests that it is not suitable for children because children may be led astray.

Fairytale Animated Film as a Mode of Cinema

Film scholar Kristian Moen argues that fairytale films should not be considered a film genre, but a mode of cinema that corresponds to the experience of modernity with a strong focus on transformation.[3]This perspective is relevant to my analysis of Princess Iron Fanbecause it is a mixture of different film genres in Orphan Island Shanghai.   

As a media product, Princess Iron Fan witnessed the transition of film culture from old costume films (guzhuangpian) to real-life costume films (shizhuangpian) in wartime Shanghai. Besides patriotic resistance elements similar to left-wing films, it was also a combination of love story, comedy, and martial arts god-spirit film. For example, the love triangle between Princess Iron Fan, Fox Spirit, and the Bull Demon King is reminiscent of the melodrama genre popular among women at that time. In addition, the voices for Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie were dubbed by comedians famous at that time such as Han Langen and Yin Xiuqin. Their performances in the film are reminiscent of popular comedies such as the cartoon series about Mr. Wang. Zhu Bajie’s lechery and Sha Wujing’s stutter also added slapstick humor to the film.  

As such, Princess Iron Fanis a useful example for us to approach fairytale animated film as a promiscuous category, crossing the borders of cultural flows, audience types and film genres. The mobility, hybridity and marginality of animation surprisingly grant it a magical power to easily adapt itself to different political, commercial and cultural frameworks, which calls for border-crossing methodologies of research. 

[1]Recent studies onPrincess Iron Fanin English academia have been written by Daisy Yan Du and Weihong Bao. Du questions the dominant nationalist discourse in animation studies and approaches Princess Iron Fanas an ambiguous film through transnational and gender perspectives. Bao analyzes Princess Iron Fan’s animation technologies and draws a translocal network through Shanghai, Chongqing, and Hong Kong during World War II. See Daisy Yan Du, Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation, 1940s-1970s(Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2019), 28-67.Weihong Bao, Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915-1945(University of Minnesota Press, 2015),39-90.      

[2]For more information about this Cantonese film, see Daisy Yan Du, “Suspended Animation: The Wan Brothers and the (In)Animate Mainland-Hong Kong Encounter 1947-1956,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas11.2 (2017): 140-158.

[3]Kristian Moen,Film and Fairy Tales: The Birth of Modern Fantasy(IB Tauris, 2013), XVIII.


Ying Chen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chinese and History at the City University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include the history of children/childhood, media culture and political culture in Republican China. She is currently working on her dissertation on film education for children and the visual images of children in Republican China. Her article on children’seducation films in 1930s China has been published by Contemporary Cinema (Dangdai dianying).

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