By Jifeng Huang
The History of Chinese Animation, edited by Sun Lijun, makes a considerable contribution to English language scholars who are interested in Chinese animation. In the first volume of this book, Chinese animation in the embryo stage (before 1930), the early stage (1931–1948), and the socialist era (1949–1977) are linearly instructed. The second volume chronologically traces the development of Chinese animation in the post-socialist era. Many authors of this book, including Sun Lijun, Li Jianping, and Ma Hua, are both animators and researchers. They have been active in the Chinese animation industry since the 1980s, and have created a number of influential animation artworks. Their experience provides an insightful understanding of Chinese animation, with considerable depth.
After the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, China experienced a profound, complete, and complicated transformation. Chinese animation is believed to have peaked in the “Seventeen Years” period (1949–1966), until the Cultural Revolution. China’s reform and opening-up ushered Chinese animation into a short “second golden era.” However, the deepening of the reform and opening-up finally destroyed the pre-existing animation creation system, which was born in and highly relied on the planned economy. Chinese animation experienced a decade of dark times at the end of the 20th century and suffered from the transformation of the animation industry. In the new century, the Chinese government has implemented a series of policies to cultivate national domestic animation, and the Chinese animation industry has entered a brand-new stage. The second volume is chronologically organized within this framework, and is composed of three parts.
The first part focuses on Chinese animation in the first decade of the post-socialist era (1978–1988). During this period, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (SAFS) was subsidized to make 300 to 400 minutes of animation yearly, with the works guaranteed distribution through the China Film Corporation, and Chinese animators did not need to worry about the budget and incoming. Also, since the Cultural Revolution was over, Chinese animators were liberated from the ideological constraints. Consequently, Chinese animators temporarily enjoyed great freedom in animation creation, and they were determined to reproduce the brilliance of the Seventeen Years period. Generally, Chinese animators continued SAFS’s artistic idea in the Seventeen Years period and kept exploring the road of the Chinese national style (the minzu style). They created animation films as artworks rather than cultural products, and they experimented with various ideas and technologies that integrated traditional themes and art forms into animation production. They also made efforts to employ diversified cinematic languages to shape characters, which was less explored in the socialist era. Chinese animation thereby entered what this book calls “the second creation climax” in the early 1980s. A number of works were released, including Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979), Three Monks (1980), The Legend of Sealed Book (1983), and several ink-painting animated films. SAFS also produced some TV series in the late 1980s, such as The Story of Avanti (1979) and Sheriff Black Cat (1987).
In the 1980s China ended long-term isolation and rapidly promoted opening-up, and Chinese animators began to join the international animation community. SAFS was delegated to attend international animation festivals in 1985, and it became a member of the International Animation Association. The international exchange brought new ideas and styles, and deepened Chinese animators’ understanding of animation. The Zagreb school of animation especially had far-reaching influences on Chinese animators, such as Ada. It also potentially inspired the concept of the “Chinese school of animation,” which appeared in the 1950s but was not theorized until the mid-1980s.
The 1980s is generally depicted by this book as a prosperous decade of Chinese animation in the first part. Yet in the late 1980s, the decline of Chinese animation started, and, as Sun briefly mentions, the creation climax ended, and the once world-renowned “Chinese School” urgently needed new ideas and new blood to revive.
The second part elaborates on Chinese animation between 1989 and 1999, which is less discussed in many publications. The 1990s is seen as the dark age of Chinese animation, which is also called the outsourcing age of Chinese animation. Sun uses “Chinese animation after the reforming and opening-up (II)” as the topic of this section, which indicates the causal connection between the reforming and opening-up and both the revitalization of Chinese animation in the 1980s and the decline in the 1990s. As one of the measures of the reforming, and the transformation of the economic system, the unified purchase and underwriting (tong gou bao xiao) policy was abolished in 1993, and Chinese national animation studios, including SAFS, lost most of its financial support from the state. On the other hand, with the opening-up process, much foreign animation was imported and greatly impacted the domestic animation industry. Sun also elaborates on other factors, including the change in consumer habits as well as the popularization of TV sets in China. Besides, at the ideological level, Western/modern discourse overwhelms the Chinese/traditional in the 1990s. Chinese animators were not prepared for the dramatic changes. As a result, the Chinese animation market in the 1990s was dominated by foreign animation. Chinese animation studios, including the once monopolistic SAFS, had to take outsourced works and imitate foreign animation. Lotus Lantern (1999), for instance, is seen as an imitation of Mulan. However, Sun underlines the positive influences of the so-called “outsourcing age” in this part. As Sun notes, the joint production and outsourced works have brought new ideas, advanced production models, and technologies. Besides, a new generation of skilled young talents has been cultivated. Sun records the measures of market-oriented transformation of Chinese animation in the 1990s, which laid the foundation for its further development in the 21st century.
The last section illuminates Chinese animation in the new century. At the beginning of the 2000s, the Chinese government finally implemented policies to promote the domestic animation industry. Later, in the mid-2010s, animation was seen as a part of President Xi’s cultural confidence. Since the 1990s, Chinese scholars have been reflecting on the radical ideas of “modernity,” and as a result, the discourse of traditional culture and nationalism has recovered its superiority in the new century. The screening of Kung Fu Panda (2008) has dramatically pushed Chinese intellectuals to launch boycotts against the Western cultural invasion, and Sun Lijun’s feature-length film, Legend of a Rabbit (2011), contained a metaphor for defeating the “false Panda.” Against this background, Chinese audiences have been longing for “our animation,” and animated films that contain Chinese themes and art styles have become increasingly popular.
In this part, Sun lists a number of representative feature-length animated films in the 2010s, yet many of them have not won great social attention and market success. On the other hand, some recent influential films, mainly after 2018, such as Nezha: Birth of the Demon Child (2019), White Snake (2019), and Legend of Deification (2020), are not included. In fact, the development of Chinese animation in the two decades after 2000 is not homogeneous and could be subdivided into several stages. In the 2000s, Chinese animation industry entered a gigantic stage, yet the quality of domestic animated films had not been significantly improved. TV series, such as Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf and 3000 Whys of Blue Cat, were criticized by audiences as only being suitable for young children. Chinese adolescents prefer anime and Hollywood animation. In a 2008 survey, 19 of the 20 most popular cartoon characters for Chinese teenagers are from American or Japanese animation (in fact, the only “Chinese character” in this survey, Sun Wukong, may also come from the anime Dragon Ball). Consequently, in the early 2010s, domestic audiences almost lost confidence in domestic animation. The industry shrunk, and many universities revoked animation programs. The turning point was the screening of Monkey King: Hero is Back in 2015. This feature-length film was very well received, which injected confidence in Chinese animators, audiences, and investors, as this film conclusively proved that domestic animation studios are capable of producing high-quality films. Later, Nezha: Birth of the Demon Child (2019) earned box-office revenue of over 5 billion CNY.
This book mainly focuses on the aesthetic features of Chinese animation. Meanwhile, it also covers aspects such as the animation industry, education, and policies in China. It provides rich information about representative works, including synopsis, screenshots, painting drafts, photos of the production process, and records of interviews with animators. It gives in-depth discussions on the features of these animation works’ creation ideas, aesthetic features, and the innovation of technologies. Besides feature-length films, Sun gives instructions on several representative TV series and independent animation, which have been relatively less discussed in English language publications. However, it should be noted that this book reflects a sense of pride and the discourse of nationality/Chineseness, and tends to highlight the positive aspects of Chinese animation.
To conclude this book review, The History of Chinese Animation (Volume II) gives a detailed description of the social-cultural context of animation in different ages of post-socialist China. The historical forces that hide beneath the prosperity and decline of Chinese animation are revealed, and it gives readers who do not have a Chinese cultural background a comprehensive understanding of Chinese animation. This book contributes to studies of Chinese animation history in the international animation academy community.
Dr. Jifeng Huang is a lecturer at College of Humanities and Social Science, Nanjing Forestry University, Nanjing, China. His research has appeared in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Journal of Chinese Cinemas and The IAFOR Journal of Media, Communication & Film.