The Nondescript: Hybridization in the Animated Feature Film The Legend of Deification (2020)

By Cui Zhou

“The immortal’s saddle beast had the head of a unicorn, the tail of a wolf, and the body of a dragon.”[1] This passage describes a heavenly creature in ancient China—the nondescript “Four-Unalike” (sibuxiang), recorded in the canonized gods and demons fiction Creation of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi). In this novel, the nondescript is a saddle beast that helps the historical figure, Jiang Ziya, to conquer the Shang dynasty. In 2020, the image of the nondescript—“Four-Unalike”—became popular in social media in China after the premiere of the animated feature film The Legend of Deification (Jiang Ziya).

Postponed for more than a year due to the pandemic, the release of The Legend of Deification became a much-anticipated sensation among domestic audiences in 2021. Grossing RMB 361 million on its first day of release, The Legend of Deification outperformed its successful predecessor Nezha (2019) and set a new single-day record for animation in China.[2] The Legend of Deification rewrites the well-known legend about Jiang Ziya, who helped Kings Wen and Wu to overthrow the Shang dynasty and established the Zhou Dynasty. Rather than being honored as an immortal (as in folkloric representation), Jiang Ziya in this film is banished from Jingxu Hall to Beihai because he disobeyed the order of the reserved master. Jiang undoes the seal of Nine-Tailed (a fox devil that creates catastrophe in the human realm) as he sees an innocent in its clutch, even though the master considers Jiang’s vision as an illusion. What Jiang sees and what the master sees do not align, leaving Jiang confused. In Beihai, Jiang meets Xiaojiu, the very girl he has seen inside the body of Nine-Tailed. Xiaojiu, however, has forgotten her past. In the journey to uncover Xiaojiu’s past, Jiang realizes that the conspiracy between Nine-Tailed and the master ultimately causes chaos among the three realms. Jiang finally ends the turmoil and restores order.

Because of the release of The Legend of Deification, the image of Four-Unalike attracted many audiences’ attention and became fashionable for a while. The online phenomenon, “sharing the four-unalike in your family,” swept across social media, especially Weibo. Netizens, for instance, posted photos of their pets with a Four-Unalike filter. How could such a legendary creature resonate with modern everyday pets? The reason is simple: the Four-Unalike in this film is no longer the tall, strong, and graceful legendary creature with supernatural power in Creation of the Gods. Instead, Four-Unalike is Jiang Ziya’s loyal pet guarding him until death, as highlighted in the official trailer. To emphasize the cuteness of Four-Unalike, animators eliminated animal features of power and threats, such as features of a unicorn, a wolf, and a dragon, and endowed Four-Unalike with the traits of docile pets: the mini horns of a deer, a pair of rabbit-like ears, and habits that mirror those of cats and dogs. Although its image has changed drastically, Four-Unalike in this film still shares the most significant feature of a nondescript, that is, hybridization. I argue that hybridization is the key to interpreting the film narrative. By portraying how Jiang (aided by Four-Unalike) destroys a chaotic world full of hybridized elements to build a utopia without hybrids, this film reveals a hidden fear of hybridization. Yet, the production of this film controversially reveals how hybridization is ultimately unavoidable.  

The Universe of Hybridization

Four-Unalike is a prototype representing the primary principle of animation in this film. Shen Gongbao possesses both a human body form and a leopard shape. This duality is an example of how various half-animal and half-man creatures live in Beihai. Such creatures can walk and speak like humans but have animal body shapes. In Jingxu Hall, the revered master fits somewhere between a huge tree and a human. Stretching out from the body, the huge tree branches and tendrils intertwine with white hairs, transforming the master into an ancient tree, decorated with blessing belts. The face of the master, however, distinguishes him from the tree. As the virtual camera navigates in different angles, the human face marking his male identity may dis/appear accordingly (Fig 1). It is through this virtual camera dynamic that the in-betweenness of the master stands out. Animators thus reveal the consequences of animation as hybridization: blurred boundaries and plural identities.

  Fig 1: The plural identity of the master

In an interview, director Wang Xin mentions how the image of Jiang Ziya looks like Medivh, a hero in the popular video game Dark Portal, especially their chins, mustaches, and cloaks.[3] In the final fight, the image of Jiang Ziya also reminds some audiences of the figure of Jesus Christ. A relevant comment posted on Douban mentions: “Who can imagine Jiang Ziya is transformed into Jesus. From here, there are no immortals in the world. But China has the God.” The comment received 4,230 likes.[4] The animation and reception of Jiang Ziya hybridizes an ancient historical figure from China, an icon from a Western religious tradition, and a hero from a video game.

Hybridized features also extend to other visual designs. In the scene where Jiang Ziya escorts Xiaojiu to be reborn, the peculiar design of the cross-section of the hallway to enter the Ruins of Return makes an impression. The design initially looks like a stone-made Burr puzzle. But as the golden light shines upon the design, it resembles the image of a modern circuit board. The cross-section thus becomes a four-unalike: it is neither stone-made nor material-made, neither ancient nor modern (Fig 2). A similar visual effect also appears in props. In Jingxu Hall, for instance, Jiang Ziya is ordered to kill Nine-Tailed. As he waves the sword, the circuit board-like decorative pattern stands out, creating confusion over whether the prop belongs to the ancient or modern world. These cross-bordered nondescripts construct a universe full of hybridizations. Why, then, does hybridization matter?

Fig 2: The cross-section of the hallway in the Ruins of Return and a circuit board

The Lock of Destiny: Restriction and Chaos

Also important is the most significant prop: the lock of destiny, which propels the narrative forward. The lock of destiny serves as a tool to produce hybrids by linking two types of species. In that sense, the prop can be seen as a symbol of hybridization. A typical product of the lock is the hybrid of Xiaojiu and Nine-Tailed. In the scene where Jiang Ziya receives the order to kill Nine-Tailed, audiences first see the human-devil hybrid: the human girl is trapped inside the body of Nine-Tailed and loses consciousness. Even though Xiaojiu has been rescued and separated from the body of Nine-Tailed, her body with fox ears is still a hybridized form.

This hybridized form, in some cases, means freedom since the subject can take on different identities. When Shen Gongbao fights with fox devils, for instance, he switches to his animal shape, releasing himself from the confines of the human body for empowerment. However, hybridization in the case of Xiaojiu means the opposite: restriction rather than empowerment. In Xiaojiu’s first appearance, the tails of the fox devil are like ropes, tying up Xiaojiu. In the following sequence, Nine-Tailed captures Xiaojiu, wrapping her and covering her mouth with fox tails. This visual image indicates that Xiaojiu is deprived of both physical freedom and freedom of speech. The same is true for Nine-Tailed. On the surface, Nine-Tailed controls Xiaojiu’s body as well as her consciousness, and thus manipulates Xiaoiu’s human identity to sabotage the human realm. However, hybridization also locks Nine-Tailed: she cannot let Xiaojiu go because their separation will result in the loss of Nine-Tailed’s supernatural power. This restriction dynamic manifests in other areas as well. The lock of destiny also confines the fox clan. Even after death, the fox clan is still confined by the lock and transformed into ghosts filled with hatred. The fox devils, just like the humans, are victims of the lock—a symbol of hybridization. They are imprisoned, which triggers Nine-Tailed’s revenge. Ten years ago, the lock resulted in the fall of the Shang dynasty. Ten years later, hybridization still reproduces chaos and pain.

Besides restriction, the lock of destiny as a symbol of hybridization is also tied to identity crises. It is plural identity that causes trouble for Xiaojiu. Upon awaking, Xiaojiu realizes that she has lost all of her memories. Xiaojiu does not know her identity or why she has fox ears. She is always identified by others as a fox devil and thus faces the risks of being hunted. Xiaojiu’s hybridized appearance results in her identity confusion. Rather than enjoying the freedom of being able to switch between multiple identities, Xiaojiu fits neither the human identity nor the fox devil identity. To recover her real identity, Xiaojiu must travel from Beihai to Mountain Youdu to look for her father. Through the suffering of Xiaojiu and the fox clan, the film reveals the confusion, incompatibility, and conflict of multiple identities. Hybridization created by the lock becomes a source of pain in this film; all the fear, chaos, and confusion are rooted in hybridizations.

The Absence of the Present and the Fear of Hybridization

At the beginning of the film, the narrator introduces the context of the story: the great war put an end to the turmoil of the Shang Dynasty. A new regime, the Zhou dynasty, has been established. In that sense, the setting of the story should be the Zhou Dynasty – a peaceful and energetic new world. This present, however, is absent in the narrative. Nothing about the Zhou Dynasty is present. Instead, the past haunts the diegesis. This past is shown by the imprisonment in Beihai of the criminals of the Shang Dynasty. Outside of Beihai, the main sites that the leading roles pass through, such as the ruins of the ancient battlefield, are closely tied to the past. The destination of the journey, Youdu, is dominated by the past as well. Youdu is a place that stores Xiaojiu’s lost memory and personal history. The fox devils—the symbol of the past wars—take refuge there. Moreover, this area is ruled by the king of a past dynasty—King Zhou of the Shang. The diegesis is sealed in the past. What are the obstacles that prevent the arrival of the present?

To answer this question requires a detour to examine when this sealed-off universe is unsealed to join the present. The present unfolds until no hybrids remain. In the final fight, to save Xiaojiu and other creatures from their hybridized situation, Jiang Ziya breaks the lock of destiny, the symbol of hybridization. Breaking the lock thus represents destroying hybridization. The ghosts struggling in hatred are also finally released from their hybridized situation. But Jiang Ziya does not stop there. He breaks the heavenly stairway—the way to cross the boundary between humans and gods. Destroying the stairway, like breaking the lock of destiny, means preventing hybridization between different realms. As a result, the ideal colorful land of idyllic beauty emerges. In this utopia, no hybrid exists, and Shen Gongbao becomes a human. Audiences can still hear the voiceover of half-animal and half-man creatures, but their hybridized visual images have disappeared. Xaiojiu reincarnates into a pure human girl with a father who loves her abundantly. In this new world, our hero, Four-Unalike, is no longer a hybrid pet with cat, dog, deer, and rabbit features, but has become a real dog. The spaces haunted by the past, like Beihai, are embraced by the present. These visual designs where no hybrids exist indicate the arrival of the present.

Hybridization, tied with chaos, confusion, and death, threatens peace in the new utopia and therefore must be destroyed. Notably, innocent hybrid characters, such as Shen Gongbao and Four-Unalike, cannot be tolerated in the new world. Only when their hybridized identities become singular can they join the present utopia. To build a new world without anxiety, both innocent and evil hybrids must be destroyed. In that sense, The Legend of Deification reveals the hidden fear of hybridization and the obsession with a pure and singular identity.

Inescapable Hybridization

Is hybridization actually avoidable as the diegesis suggests? Not really. Even though the film ends in a world without hybrids, the animation of it per se is premised on hybridization: a hybridization between video game and animation, and between traditional Chinese folklore and Western popular culture. In an interview, director Wang Xin explains how his experience at the famous American video game developer, Blizzard Entertainment, Inc., influenced his animation style.[5] Instead of following the conventions in animation, Wang Xin adopted the principles of video game in shaping the world of The Legend of Deification. Co-director Cheng Teng reflects: “The starting point of a film is a role or an element. It then gradually expands to the relatives of this role, [including] friends, lovers, parents, and family. However, Wang Xin first imagined a world: what does the lighting look like in this world? How about the stones? And who are the people living in this world?”[6] In an article titled “The ‘Fit or Not’ of the Movie-Game Convergence,” Zhang Minghao and Chen Xuguang also notice the difference between The Legend of Deification and other animated films. They pinpoint that difference in the following way: “Unlike previous animated films, The Legend of Deification first constructs a worldview and then centers on this worldview to construct a narrative.”[7] According to Zhang and Chen, the film-game convergence shown in this film represents a new animation trend.[8] The principles of video game production provide the film a hybridized feature: hybridizing animation and video game principles. This cross-media characteristic even later becomes the selling point of the film. An advertainment of The Legend of Deification, titled “Jiang Ziya, Let’s Run the Map Together,” was published on Bilibili, an important new media platform in China with many animation and game fans.[9] Loyal video game players must be familiar with this advertainment title, since “running the map” is a routine in most current video games. Even though hybridized elements in the diegesis are destroyed, the extra-diegesis creates hybridization.

Some scholars in China highly praise the national character (minzuhua) of this film and appreciate its contribution to reviving national culture. However, the national character of this film is actually questionable. While the film undoubtedly appropriates a lot of cultural elements, such as roles and prototypes rooted in Chinese classics, the Chinese national character is not a singular identity in the animation. In that regard, the film’s hybridization with Western culture cannot be ignored. To a certain extent, the success of the film lies in its hybridized feature.

[1] Xu Zhonglin, Creation of the Gods, trans. Gu Zhezhong, (Beijing: New World Press, 2000), 743.

[2] See <>, accessed October 24, 2021.

[3] “I Do Not Want to Be the Person Stopping the Spring: Interviewing the Core Crew of The Legend of Deification, Director Cheng Teng and Wang Xin,” <>, accessed October 20, 2021.

[4] See <>, accessed October 24, 2021.

[5] “I Do Not Want to Be the Person stopping the Spring,” <>, accessed October 20, 2021.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Zhang Minghao and Chen Xuguang, “The ‘Fit or Not’ of the ‘Movie-Game Convergence’: The Influence of Games in Legend of Deification,” Contemporary Animation, No. 2 (2021): 107.

[8] Ibid., 108.

[9] See <>, accessed October 20, 2021.


Cui Zhou is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in modern Chinese literature and culture in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests include Chinese film history, Sinophone cinema, and the relationship between politics and cinema. She is currently working on her dissertation, which examines ethnic minorities in Chinese popular culture.

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