“Our Comrade Sun Wukong”: On Fantasy and Exaggeration in Mountain of Flames

By Linda C. Zhang

In 1958, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio released a 35-minute, color, stop-motion puppet animation film, Mountain of Flames (Huoyan shan), directed by Jin Xi. The movie retold a familiar episode from the novel Journey to the West, where Sun Wukong – the Monkey King – must try three successive times to borrow the treasured Iron Fan in order to cross the Mountain of Flames. This popular story was well-known long before the 1958 movie, having already been adapted as abridged illustrated books, comic strips, an opera, and even a 1941 cel-animated film Princess Iron Fan (Tieshan Gongzhu), directed and produced by the Wan Brothers. In this particular retelling of this story, Mountain of Flames used full color film stock as well as stop-motion animation, two technologies that were representative of the frontiers in animation and film in the late 1950s. Stop-motion animation was a particularly compelling form that created new wonder in this familiar tale. In showing a physical model or puppet that changed in size or transformed in shape, the animation and the story worked together in a way that allowed the viewer to experience a particular sense of scopophilia in the magic of the story through watching the physical transformations and substitutions, gesturing towards a medium-specific approach to the story that moved it beyond a folk puppet performance or a cel-animation. Moreover, the 1958 rendition of Journey to the West, with its puppet animation, was particularly suited for emphasizing the idea of inanimate objects becoming animate.

Both Princess Iron Fan and Mountain of Flames retell the chapter of Journey to the West in which the Tripitaka Tang and his party of disciples seek safe passage across the Mountain of Flames. The only way to do so is to put out the fire by borrowing the treasured fan of Princess Iron Fan, whose family Sun Wukong had once offended. As the story goes, Sun Wukong tries three times to borrow the fan and is only successful the final time. In the first try, the Princess angrily refuses and uses the fan to blow him leagues away. In the second try, Sun Wukong transforms himself into a fly in her tea and wreaks havoc in her stomach until she agrees to lend him a fan, albeit a fake one that Sun Wukong discovers makes the fire much worse. The movies represent the third attempt slightly differently, although they both maintain the original concept of stealth by disguise: one of Tripitaka Tang’s disciples (Pigsy in Princess Iron Fan, Sun Wukong in Mountain of Flames) disguises himself into the Princess’ husband, the Bull Demon King, and almost absconds with the fan until the Bull King himself catches on and in turn, disguises himself into the other disciple to get the fan back.

Mountain of Flames continues the legacy of Princess Iron Fan in both its content and also its production. One of the Wan brothers, Wan Chaochen, even served as a special advisor to the 1958 film. Unlike previous versions, however, this specific adaption of Journey to the West was produced at the very beginning of the Great Leap Forward and was part of a great wave of films that were churned out at high speed during the late 1950s. Critic Long Wen interprets the character of Sun Wukong and the film as part of both a cultural project—to represent folk tradition and ethnic forms—and a technological project—to demonstrate some of the cutting edge techniques in stop-motion animation. Interpreting the story from a revolutionary perspective, Long writes that Sun Wukong’s quick-wittedness, bravery, and resourcefulness become especially apparent as he progressively faces greater obstacles in borrowing the Iron Fan, providing a clear model for its audience:

… [Sun Wukong and his actions]… reflect the bravery and desire of the working people in conquering obstacles. A different chapter of the novel, “Uproar in Heaven,” highlights how Sun Wukong expresses his scorn for traditional rites, daring to challenge and wage war against despots. This spectacular figure has become the embodiment of the people’s determination and courage in overcoming hardships. It’s no wonder that in the midst of the Great Leap Forward, that while scorning difficulties, our farmer comrades often call themselves “Sun Wukong.”[1]

Whether or not the phenomenon that Long Wen remarks upon actually happened in history, his words highlight the revolutionary-inflected approach to interpreting Sun Wukong and this version of his story. In fact, both the animated film and Long’s review of it decidedly avoid mentioning the plot point that Sun Wukong himself caused the original fire in the Mountain of Flames. During the events of “Uproar in Heaven” and prior to becoming Tripitaka Tang’s disciple, Sun Wukong brashly toppled a heavenly brazier that fell upon the mountain and subsequently caused a fire that lasted 500 years. The stop-motion version of Sun Wukong presented a rich opportunity to remake the classical figure in the ideological terms of the context he was produced in, disregarding the rest of the original text.  

As part of the Great Leap’s fervor to reach higher production levels and greater technological advancements, the film’s creators were also interested in presenting the latest technological feats in animation film, particularly that of stop-motion animation and color film technology. Accordingly, the publicity surrounding the film focused on trumpeting its contributions to both techniques. As one of the earlier full color animations of the mid to late 1950s, as well a stop motion animation film, Mountain of Flames was a technological achievement that repackaged a familiar story in cheerful, comical tones, especially when compared to the darker, more cynical world of Princess Iron Fan.[2] If Princess Iron Fan was predominated by imagery of war through its references to misshapen bodies, flying demons likened to planes, infidelity in marriage, and a violent battle scene at the end, then Mountain of Flames is predominated by a desire to present the magic of puppet animation with primarily light and positive content. I argue that Mountain of Flames adapts the story from Journey to the West as a way to create scopophilic pleasure in seeing the puppet models transforming, creating a sensation of “upgrading” from a live puppet performance to a technological magic show.      

Beyond the historical context, Mountain of Flames is also quite unlike Princess Iron Fan in its animation, in that it produces not so much a sense of “plasmatic” change limited to the fantasy of the screen, but more a sense of change enacted through physical models.[3] Through puppet models and stop motion technology, Mountain of Flames achieves an aesthetic of substitution and a sensation of creating life out of lifelessness. In particular, the puppet animation manipulates and creates illusions through changes in scale, disguised forms, and movement balanced with stillness. The many transformations and disguises depicted throughout the story (e.g. Sun Wukong disguised as the Bull Demon King, or the Bull Demon King disguised as Pigsy) are shown through quick, humorous substitutions, with Sun Wukong’s head popping up onto the Bull Demon King’s body within one frame, revealing himself to be in disguise (Fig 1 and 2). The form of puppet animation is also used humorously to highlight the contrast between movement and stillness. For instance, when Sun Wukong is underwater and kidnapping the Bull King’s steed to complete his disguise, he inadvertently runs into some underwater palace maids, upon whom he places a freezing spell to prevent them from alerting the Bull Demon King. Mid-run, the maids are frozen in step, ironically highlighting their original form as motionless puppets.

Fig 1: Sun Wukong disguised as Bull Demon King in Mountain of Flames

Unlike Princess Iron Fan, where transformations inspire a plasmatic wonder at the capabilities of the animation technology itself, Mountain of Flames inspires a very different sort of wonder— specifically, wonder at the capability of an inanimate, lifeless object to take on life and literally grow. The original chapters in Journey to the West include objects changing their size and scale, and the scaling up and down of those objects has become a regular component of many media adaptation of the story. It is in Mountain of Flames, however, where the use of puppet models foregrounds the literal physicality of those objects, and the impact that their changes in size have on their surroundings. Plot details such as the fan or Sun Wukong’s Golden Cudgel growing or shrinking in size, or the size of Sun Wokong and the Bull Demon King changing depending on which guises they wear, are all emphasized in Mountain of Flames by use of set backgrounds as well as the relative sizes of the puppets to each other. For instance, the precious Iron Fan and the Golden Cudgel have the same ability to shrink or grow on command. In fact, the ability to control that growth becomes an important plot point. Sun Wukong, in disguise as the Bull Demon King, is unable to unfurl the fan without tricking the Princess into teaching him a specific incantation. The Bull Demon King, later disguised as the fellow disciple Pigsy, reveals his true identity when he is able to shrink the fan back to its original, marble-size for safekeeping.[4]    

Fig 2: Sun Wukong reveals his true face in Mountain of Flames

The finale of Mountain of Flames features an ultimate battle of transformations in both form and size. Sun Wukong and the Bull Demon King both metamorphose to different animals to outdo and prey upon the other, almost as if performing a visual lesson on the natural order of prey and predator. They change, in turn, from a sparrow and hawk, to a snake and crane, to a fox and tiger.[5] Finally, the animal transformation contest turns into a contest based on scale: the Bull Demon King transforms into his true form as a giant ox as big as the surrounding mountains, and Sun Wukong scales up into a gigantic version of himself to match him. This scene emphasizes the giant scale of these two battling characters by including a small, unchanged Pigsy on the right, his presence completing the visual trick of scale. Together, Sun Wukong and Pigsy subdue the Bull Demon King into surrendering.

The transformations in this battle come across as quick substitutions due to the stop motion animation effect. Each transformation produces a scopophilic gratification in witnessing the physical changes in the form, shape, and size of the puppets. At the same time, the transformations also serve as a visual realization of new techniques being used in puppet animation during this period of the late 1950s. For instance, the film was promoted as one of the most advanced puppet animation films in terms of its ability to bring new life to the familiar story. In an article based on a 1957 interview with Jin Xi, the director of Mountain of Flames, the writer Jiang Yu reports that the film’s team used new stop-motion animation techniques and special effects to bring life to settings such as the fiery mountain and valley, the underwater palace, and to scenes such as Sun Wukong using the fan to blow out the fire. Lu Fang, one of the members of the film’s crew, reported in 1959 that some of the special techniques used in Mountain of Flames included a combination of moving lights and nylon screens to create the look of the fiery mountain, and a similar method to create the rippling light of the underwater palace. Lu also stated that one of the major techniques they employed was combining cel-animation and puppet animation in the transformation scenes:

In the case of the 72 transformations or whenever an animal character transformed into a person, we mostly used cel-animation techniques to illustrate the transformation process. For instance, the scene where the crab [Sun Wukong in disguise] changes back into Sun Wukong’s shape took 16 frames between the crab preparing to transform and Sun Wukong in the same posture. Within those 16 frames, we edited a series of animation cels where we drew the process of the crab gradually changing into Sun Wukong, filmed them, and sequenced them (Fig 3, 4). This saved a lot of labor by not doing it with stop motion puppets and the results are the same; it looked just as if he really did change shape.[6]     

Fig 3: The Crab (Sun Wukong in disguise) in Mountain of  Flames

Although Mountain of Flames pushed what was considered the frontiers of puppet animation in its time, Lu Fang reports that it was really an experiment in both live-action feature film techniques as well as a combination of cel- and puppet animation. Special lighting effects used to create volcanic or underwater settings were, in essence, a smaller scale version of special effects in live-action films. Likewise, the flashiest transformation scenes in Mountain of Flames were created by a mix of animation techniques. Ultimately, the differences between cel- and puppet animation, and even live-action film, were not so clearly demarcated in the film.   

Fig 4: Sun Wukong transforming back from a crab in Mountain of Flames

Despite this mélange of animation and live action filming techniques, Mountain of Flames was considered not only a key work in the new wave of puppet animation films, but also a hallmark of the medium of puppet animation itself as distinct from cel-animation, particularly in comparison to its predecessor, Princess Iron Fan. The question of what made puppet animation unique and separate was one that both animators such as Jin Xi and film critics entertained regularly. Ma Ke, for instance, in an article called “We Should Fully Develop the Special Characteristics of Puppet Animation: My Reflection Upon Watching Mountain of Flames,” praised the film for convincingly depicting the setting of the fiery mountain at the beginning of the film, but also criticized if for not being able to find a unique niche for puppet animation.[7] Because puppet animation could not be as realistic as live action film or live actors, Ma argued, it needed to find its own rich expression and approach towards characters in their performances and actions. Pointing towards Czech puppet animation, Ma argued that Chinese puppet animators should adopt an approach of “exaggeration” (kuazhang), which would have allowed Mountain of Flames to bring new life to the world of the story.

But Ma did not clearly elucidate what sort of expressions or scenes would demonstrate this quality of “exaggeration,” beyond a general description of it as an approach that allowed a certain amount of flexibility from the confines of realism. Instead, for both Ma and other animators and critics writing about puppet animation, “exaggeration” itself became more of a way to start a debate and discussion about the specificities of the puppet animation medium. For instance, Jin Xi looked towards Eastern European animators as examples for how to employ exaggeration for comedic effect and as a way to develop the puppet arts. At the same time, in his own writing, exaggeration allowed him to discuss the abstraction of movement in puppets to create a middle ground where unrealistic, fantastic elements could take on new life. In two of his essays, “On the Special Characteristics of Puppet Films” (Tan mu’oupian de texing, 1957) and “The Artistic Construction of Animated Film” (Meishupian de yishu xugou, 1962), Jin Xi proposed a broad argument for the trait, claiming that it was exaggeration and the lack of realism in bodily movement that distinguished stop motion animation from feature or narrative film, specifically live-action film (gushi pian):[8]  

…Of course, puppetry’s movement must also be exaggerated in addition to grasping the main traits of the character. Without exaggeration, there is nothing distinct about the movements of puppets. However, what’s unique about puppetry’s movement definitely does not stop at exaggeration because any art needs different degrees of artistic exaggeration, and the exaggeration of puppetry’s movement in fact must be established in accordance with the foundations of the “aesthetic of puppetry.” Without giving attention to the aesthetic of puppetry, regardless of how exaggeration was used to project the character’s personality, it would still not be in accord with the traits of puppetry’s movements.[9]

Here, Jin Xi uses exaggeration as a way to discuss the essential aesthetic of puppetry itself, and in turn, the essence of puppet stop motion animated film. The exaggerated movement of puppetry must work within a larger aesthetic of puppetry in order to successfully project the personalities of the characters. This is how Jin Xi defines the alignment between fantastical uses of the puppets’ bodies (in scenes of flight, substitution, transformation, elongation, cartoon physics, etc.) and the overall aesthetic of puppet animation, which also maintains an element of the fantastic. As Ma Ke wrote, even if Mountain of Flames failed to achieve the level of exaggeration necessary to make the film to stand out as a unique form and a medium-specific retelling of Journey to the West, it is clear that the film put in a great level of effort to increase animation production, advance animation technology, as well as pin down the essence of a medium.

Exaggeration and its elements of fantasy are, after all, a useful way to conceive of the ethos behind the film and its characters. Just as Long Wen wrote that Sun Wukong served as “the embodiment of the people’s determination and courage for overcoming hardships” during the Great Leap Forward, Mountain of Flames also served as a visual embodiment of the fantasy of what changes individuals could effect on their environment.[10] In three waves of the Iron Fan, Sun Wukong was able to put out the fire, bring cooling winds, and cause a torrential rainfall and thunderstorm. And as quickly as Sun Wukong was able to transform into one of his 72 forms, the mountainous terrain also transforms: verdant growth quickly overtakes the scorched mountain, new buds and leaves appear from barren trees, and a rich carpet of vines cover the pavilion from where the itinerant party watches the transformation of the valley. Ultimately, this visual example of how one individual can transform barren, scorched earth into fertile ground in one day did not seem that far off from the Great Leap Forward’s goals of China’s economic and agricultural project that started in 1958.      

[1] All translations by author Linda Zhang unless otherwise indicated. Long Wen, “A Brief Discussion of Mountain of Flames (Jiantan Huoyanshan),” Popular Cinema (Dazhong dianying), 1959, No. 7,  p 14.

[2] For example, Princess Iron Fan includes the Bull Demon King’s mistress, a Fox Spirit, as a key part of the story, whereas Mountain of Flames takes her out completely. 

[3] The flexibility of form often exhibited in animation is part of what Sergei Eisenstein was so excited about when praising the “plasmatic” in early Disney. Eisenstein associated plasmaticness with a rejection of allotted form and contour, a freedom from ossification, and the ability to dynamically assume any form. Regarding the animated style of Princess Iron Fan, Weihong Bao have examined the particular playfulness that the film approaches the characters bodies, particularly during transformations and battle scenes. Bao argues that the animation demonstrates certain Eisensteinian plasticity, enabled through the use of the multilane camera to create additional perspectival depth, versatile camera movement, and also through playful devices such as the anthropomorphization of the fire and the ease with which Sun Wukong or Pigsy’s bodies change. Bao claims that Princess Iron Fan served as a “multiplanar animatic machine” itself, thinking “through animation’s technological constraints and possibilities…the crisis of perception and identity in the context of war, enacted in the vacillation between depth and surface, form and formlessness, figure and ground.”  Eisenstein, Sergei, Leyda Ja trans. Sergei Eisenstein on Disney, 21. Bao, Weihong. Fiery Cinema, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, 366.

[4] The story of how Sun Wukong acquires his Golden Cudgel from the underwater kingdom similarly features how he learns to master shrinking the cudgel from the size of a pillar to that of a needle, which he keeps behind his ear for safekeeping.

[5] This battle was originally described in Journey to the West. Uproar in Heaven, the 1964 animated feature film, also includes a similar battle of transformations between Sun Wukong and his adversary.

[6] Lu Fang, “How We Filmed Mountain of Flames (Women zeyang pai Huoyanshan),” Popular Cinema (Dazhong dianying), 1959, Vol. 7, p 15.  

[7] Ma Ke, “We Should Fully Develop the Special Characteristics of Puppet Animation: My Reflection upon Watching Mountain of Flames (Yinggai chongfen fahui muoupian de texing),” Popular Cinema (Dazhong dianying), 1959, Vol. 7, p 15.

[8] Sean Macdonald reads Jin Xi’s approach to exaggeration as a connection to comedy, but also as part of the potential for obliqueness in the medium of puppet animation through the concept of xieyin, a trope of comparison including puns and parable-like characters and situations, as well as techniques of exaggeration and substitution (such as animals playing human roles), as a commentary on reality. Macdonald also suggests that such techniques also provide room for critique. Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, Media (New York: Routledge, 2016), 133. “Jin Xi: Master of Puppet Animation,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 11:2 (2017): 164-165.  

[9] Jin Xi, “Tan mu’ou pian de texing.” Zhongguo Dianying, 1957, 32. 

[10] Long Wen, “A Brief Discussion,” p 14.


Linda C. Zhang is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley with designated emphasis in Film and Media. She has previously received degrees from the University of Michigan (2015, MA) and Duke University (2011, BS). Her research pursues questions of medium, space, and technology related to experimental cinema, documentary, and animated film. She has recently published an article titled “The Animated Worlds of Piercing I, iMirror, and RMB City: Decoding Postsocialist Reality through Virtual Spaces.” Her dissertation project, tentatively titled “Technological Futures: Animation and Science Education in Socialist China,” examines how animation, science literature, and science education film simultaneously mediate both anxieties and fantasies about the future, as focused through the figure of the socialist child.   

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