The History of Chinese Animation (volume 1), edited by Sun Lijun. Routledge, 2022. 326pp.

By Thomas William Whyke and Joaquin Lopez-Mugica 

Sun Lijun’s edited book The History of Chinese Animation, volume I, is a readable and analytical lengthy study of the artistry, commercial and technical aspects of Chinese animation. It constitutes one of the standout contributions to the English language scholarly field on the subject matter. The long-standing development of aesthetic imagination in the past 50-odd years of Chinese animation is presented in this first volume. Yet, it also includes historical segments, before the mechanical reproduction of fully animated films, to examine where, when, and why a long pre-mechanical visual consciousness appeared, granting new possible approaches both to animation in particular and film in general. By touching upon pre-modern and modern animated forms, Sun Lijun not only deepens animation scholarship but expands the field into other forms of indigenous arts, television, and film studies.

The book is altogether divided into three parts that contain fifteen chapters. The History of Chinese Animation I mostly revolves around classically animated films produced between the 1920s and 1970s in China and expands into Hong Kong and Taiwan with a few examples (1950s-1970s) in final part of the book. The first part highlights the primitive expressions of ‘beauty and movement’ that comprises three phases: embryonic (the painting of interwoven animals, objects, and people running in rocks, to puppetry); emergence (Leather-silhouette play and puppetry); and emergence (In the late Qing Dynasty [1644–1911], when Chinese animation matures from pure consciousness to real production). The author clearly outlines in this first part the modern origins throughout Chinese cinema of the Republican era (1912-1949). The description of the first decades of the adoption of foreign new technologies and the rise of Chinese animation, is very thorough and comprehensive, but the real hook of this part is the author’s understanding of the hybridity of China and the west in the configuration of the animation industry. It started small scale in the alleys of old Shanghai with the invention of zoetrope and was developed further by the cinematography, narrative, and editing techniques brought by new exported types of fixed and moving pictures: the daguerreotype photography and the cinematograph. Many of the tricks and special effects seen by the French illusionist and film director George Melies, together with the film theory of montage brought by the Soviet filmmakers were integrated by the emerging young animators, such as the Wan Brothers, who are the founders of Chinese animation. The complex visual language of animation coming from Fleischer and Disney had great success among what the author considers semi-feudal audiences. Their color and technological innovations inspired the Wan Brothers’ shadow play and paper-cut devices to make some rudimentary advertisements and animated shorts such as Uproar in the Studio (1924), A Letter Sent Back (1927), and Paperman Makes Trouble (1930). Between the 1930s and 1940s, with the consolidation of the film industry and amid the Japanese aggression, the large film production companies were promoting a cinema that included some animated shorts and long cartoon movies such as Blood Money (1934) and Wang Laowu Joins the Army (1939), to stress out their patriotic overtones and anti-Japanese sentiments. As the book suggests, the first sound animation film called The Camel Dance (1935) was also introduced at the time and a few years later the masterpiece Princess Iron Fan (1941) was released.

Aside from these western motion picture techniques, the early Chinese animation’s path of development (1910-1930) was also due to other multifaceted expansions, which remain in close connection with the urban and economic growth of Shanghai. This gave rise to a dynamic film culture, in which some of the major production companies were not just introducing featured movies but also art and animation. The city was also accommodating and exhibiting those audiovisual works in movie theaters across Shanghai with Nanjing Road at its core. The last chapter of the first part of the book describes how such audiovisual works were exhibited in Japan and exerted an enormous impression on wartime Japanese animated feature movies. It also lays special emphasis on the impact that such works had on the career of the Japanese animation master, Tezuka Osamu (1928–1989). This part spends a long stretch on this film with frames hard to find in any other academic proceedings with the used footage of real people and their use of ordinary bodily actions as a reference to recreate. It also illustrates how the guóhuà, or national art, was forging itself through this historical face, in terms of content, aesthetics, and in several facets of production and technology. In this light, it also insinuates the beginning of the nationalization of the animation industry and the search for a national style with the use of a home-grown formalist modus operandi.

The second part of the book elaborates upon Shanghai’s industrial development of the sector and central government support policies, which allowed the incorporation of the Northeast Film Studio (NFS) to become a highly prominent strategy for a dynamic, yet evolving local animation industry, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Communist China (1949–1976) saw the benefits of revitalizing the animation industry so that NFS merged with Shanghai Film Studio (SFS), officially founded in 1957, which managed to attract the founders of Chinese animation creation such as Tè Wěi, (1915-2010), and spark the return of the Wan Brothers who had fled to Hong Kong. The second part of the book also outlines how the government granted time for education, creation, and exploration of other national styles on top of experimentation with their own indigenous paper-cut or ink-wash skills and methods under a relative atmosphere of freedom, started by the 100 flowers campaign. This did not last for long, resulting in subtle criticism against the central government in many of the works of the period.

Moreover, this did not impede the government’s support of the development of a national style, via the newly generated ‘Chinese School’ in the mid-1950s, which has blossomed into an industry that had made important steps into the global arena with many award-winning productions in International Festivals such as Why the Crow Is Black Coated (1955) in Venice, and Where is Mamma? (1960) which won the Silver Sail Awards for short films at the 14th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland in 1961. There is also an emphasis on how the SFS increased the creation of long and short films with the latest technology related to celluloid, line-brush, and brush-drawn methods, and so on. Japanese popular art for creativity influences is also reflected in this part when analyzing The Smart Duckling’s (1960), a slow-motion and paper-cut animation, considered the first origami film. The book also discernibly presents the Chinese school’s pursuit of national identity in the obsession to recreate Chinese mythological themes, classical texts, and fables while attempting to educate the audiences with moral messages through the heroes’ deeds.

Sun Lijun also points out that there was a general desire to find a national style, within the parameters of socialist realism, which can be epitomized in The Conceited General (1956) with clear references to realistic painting and the resilient colors of the murals with the Soviet Union’s unusual traits embedded within the educational fairy tale. Section two also illustrates the social realism style derived from the admiration of the times of the soviet animation films, in the exploration of Heroic Little Sisters of the Grassland (1964). Another example can be the anthropomorphic ecosystem found in the gentle sentiments and non-exaggerated animals, with Disney’s overtones, of the soviet animated short, Little Grey-Necked Duck (1956) as an attempt to educate the younger generation. One entire chapter is dedicated to the full-color extravaganza of the sixties, Havoc in Heaven (1963), inspired by the novel Journey to the West, which also reproduces the nationalist twist of the period and the need to summon an idealized Chinese past. Like many other animated movies, this film was well received in Eastern Europe and received an award at the 13th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia in 1962. In the last chapter of the second part, there is also a summary of the ‘national style’ period with its most important features. Finally, the third part deals with the well-experienced animators from mainland China, who also facilitated an indigenous identity in the development of Hong Kong and Taiwan animation as described in the two last chapters. Chapters 14 and 15, showcase the historical, aesthetic, and artistic continuity in style and content related to Chinese folk stories and forms of experimentation not just in animated films but also in TV cartoons.  

One of the main traits of this book is that there is not just a synopsis accompanied by details such as filmmaker’s names and movie production companies and a few screenshots of scenes and pictures. The book also highlights the movements and facial gestures of the main characters and their personality development. There is also room for social commentary and critical reviews by film critics as well as narrative, film style, editing, audio and cinematography analysis. The book also contains past background designs and present modeling, and even pictures of directors and other creative workers, in addition to impressions on how the audiences reacted when watching the films, which adds unmeasurable value to the author’s efforts.

Sun Lijun’s exhilarating reflections on the first decades of Chinese Animation History I, which now spans seven decades, can appeal to students and scholars in the fields of Chinese film and animation studies in addition to media studies. This archival book about the development of Chinese animation and animation historiography will unquestionably endow this field with the still much under-represented global academic platform that it deserves.


Dr. Thomas William Whyke (first and corresponding author) is a Lecturer in Cultural Studies in the School of International Communications, University of Nottingham Ningbo China. His research has appeared in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Sexuality and Culture, Journal of Homosexuality, Society & Animals, Asian Studies, Journal of Chinese Sociology, Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Journal of Chinese Humanities, Global Media and China, and Feminist Media Studies. His monograph is currently under contract with Palgrave Macmillan and is due to be published in 2023.

Dr. Joaquin Lopez-Mugica is presently a lecturer in liberal arts at the University of Wenzhou-Kean in China. His teaching and research focus mainly on modern languages, comparative literature, cultural and media studies within the contexts of China, Spain and Latin America. He is an external member (Research fellow) in the Centre for Contemporary East Asian Cultural Studies (CEACS) at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research has appeared in the following journals: Asian Studies, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Sexuality and Culture, Society & Animals, Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and Global Media and China

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