Animating Space: Towards a Poetics of Chinese Animation, Ph.D. dissertation, by Panpan Yang, University of Chicago, USA, August 2020. 286 pp.

By Yiyang Hou

Panpan Yang’s PhD dissertation, Animating Space: Towards a Poetics of Chinese Animation, fosters a dialogue between cinema studies and the study of visual art. In this study, Yang offers an interdisciplinary and critically-engaged examination of the poetics of Chinese animation from the 1920s to the present. Taking the history of Chinese animation as her reference point, Yang argues that animation, marked by the dynamism of its continuously evolving formal characteristics, could lead to a productive theorization of aesthetic space and time that would otherwise be “unimaginable in live-action cinema” (viii).

Drawing from the rich vocabulary of both cinema studies and art history, at the core of Yang’s theoretical enterprise is the notion of intermediality. In rethinking the history of Chinese animation as a site where varying forms of aesthetic expressions interact, collide, and possibly converge, Yang shrewdly illuminates the ways in which this unique medium of meaning-production, spanning the course of some ninety years of development, can be studied through its encounter with other art forms, among them photography, Chinese painting, and Chinese calligraphy. The goal of Yang’s dissertation, which engages with histories of Chinese cinema and conventional approaches to animation analysis, is two-fold: on the one hand, it seeks to uncover the largely marginalized history of Chinese animation by executing a theoretically-informed survey of key Chinese animated films from the 1920s to the present. On the other hand, it experiments with an innovative mode of animation analysis “built at the intersection of the axes and fusion of space and time, materiality and imagination,” thereby diverging from photography-based theories of cinema that have largely permeated the Western academy (1). This dissertation contains an introduction, a coda, and four chapters. Each chapter is organized around a critical moment in the history of Chinese animation, where the very definition of “animation” is (re)discovered, challenged, and ultimately redefined through a multitude of transnational, transcultural, and transmedial exchanges.

Chapter 1 investigates the emergence of stop-motion tricks in Chinese live-action films of the silent era, offering a multi-layered delineation of the early history of Chinese animation. Drawing from a wide variety of film reviews and news reports that were published during the 1920s and 1930s, Yang takes the now-lost film An Empty Dream (Qing xu meng, 1922) as her point of departure. She introduces this chapter with an examination of the concepts and terminologies associated with what would later become known as animation, tracing their first appearance in early 20th century China.

By exploring the cultural context within which early conceptions of animation were initially developed and their reception by the Chinese public, Yang takes up the crucial task of revisiting Chinese animation’s early history, not just in terms of how specific visual techniques were used in a certain film, but also how the deployment of these special effects was perceived by audiences and discussed in the print media. The rest of this chapter is largely organized around close readings of the following two films: the 1928 martial arts film Kan the Great Knight-Errant (Daxia ganfengchi) and the 1926 drama The Pearl Necklace (Yichuan zhenzhu). Addressing stop-motion tricks as an integral component of trick photography, Chapter 1 thus calls attention to the technological, as well as aesthetic interconnections between animation, photography, and live-action films in the forgotten history of early Chinese (animated) cinema.

While continuing the discussion of the affinities between animation and photography in the context of early Chinese cinema, the focus of Chapter 2 shifts from live-action films’ usage of stop-motion tricks to the making of cel animation, or what is more commonly referred to as animated cartoons. Two key animated cartoons produced by the US and China—Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the Wan Brothers’ Princess Iron Fan (1941)—occupy the focal point of this chapter and are hence discussed from a comparative perspective. By offering an overview of Snow White’s overwhelmingly positive reception in late 1930s Shanghai in the first half of the chapter, Yang goes into great detail to discuss how the image of “Snow White” evoked a variety of Chinese reimaginations not only in terms of cinematic remakes but also in terms of consumerist appropriations.

In the second half of the chapter, Yang moves beyond historical contextualization, performing a detailed examination of the production process (“the cel system”) behind China’s first feature-length animated film, Princess Iron Fan, paying particular attention to the cartoon’s use of the “multiplane camera,” rotoscoping, and other visual techniques. Although Princess Iron Fan manifests a cluster of significant parallels with Snow White in terms of its technology and aesthetics, Yang insightfully unpacks the “technical aspects and materialist underpinnings” of the film, asserting that China’s first animated feature was not at all a cinematic mimicry of its Western counterpart (86), but rather draws inspiration from traditional Chinese aesthetics that “do not merely belong to the West” (22).

Chapter 3 delves into the study of ink animation (shuimo donghua) produced in the People’s Republic of China from the 1950s to the present. Yang begins by delineating the history of the two golden eras of Chinese ink animation, roughly 1954 –1966 and 1976 –1989. For Yang, the ink animation produced by the Shanghai Animation Studio in Maoist China elaborates on, or, to borrow Yang’s own vocabulary, “mediates” the aesthetics of the traditional Chinese landscape painting (shanshui hua). This chapter explores the distinct formal characteristics exhibited in two ink animation works produced during this period: Baby Tadpoles Look for Their Mother (1960) and The Herdboy and the Flute (1963). By uncovering the technology-driven methods with which animation artists incorporated formal elements from seals, woodblock water printing, landscape painting, and photography into their production of ink animation, Yang considers the process of “rendering ink on screen” as a form of mediation, reminding us of its fluidity as a “a bridge, a fruitful site of overlap, or even a collision of different media” (137). In this chapter’s final section, Yang further problematizes this notion by engaging in a dialogue with the “ink” animation films and cultural products developed in China in recent years. Through her inquiry into the design of “digital ink,” Yang argues that Chinese animation artists’ experiments with CGI technologies reinscribes this medium’s unique specificity and offers a glimpse into the continued dynamic interaction and convergence between animation and contemporary Chinese art.

Yang’s final chapter pursues yet another prominent aspect of traditional Chinese art that has played an equally significant role in opening up new aesthetic orientations for Chinese animation: Chinese calligraphy. To shed light on how Chinese calligraphic aesthetics provide a rich source of inspiration for experimental Chinese animation, Yang brings contemporary artist Xu Bing’s 2012 video installation work The Character of Characters (Hanzi de xing’ge) to the analytical foreground. As a calligraphic animation created by one of the world’s most renowned contemporary Chinese artists, The Character of Characters illustrates the intriguing interplay not only between animation and calligraphy, but also image and text—a binary that was first critiqued by Xu in his creative work. Yang further develops this critique with a greater degree of conceptual clarity, offering a penetrating elucidation of the dialogue between image and text. Towards the end of this chapter, Yang proposes the concept of “spatial montage” to understand Xu’s practice of rearranging “various pictorial elements within one image or one shot.” A close reading of a particular scene in Character of Characters, wherein “trees and stones fly into a book,” allows Yang to analyze the film’s pictographic characters, demonstrating how a spatio-temporal approach toward experimental animation enables a reappraisal of the animated screen as an “[aesthetic] space crosshatched with multiple temporal rhythms” (230).

Yang’s coda discusses award-winning Taiwanese auteur Edward Yang’s unfinished animated feature, The Wind (Zhui feng, 2002). Although The Wind is a fragmentary work with only one video demo available on YouTube, Yang argues that an inquiry into its complex production process brings a fitting closure to the dissertation. As Yang herself puts it, an attempt at theorizing The Wind “will function as a thread that weaves together many of the scattered ‘pearls’ in this study,” for it tackles many of the issues previously discussed throughout the dissertation—“the vexed notion of authorship in animation production, the possibility of layer-by-layer analysis, the staging of a singing picture, the remediation of a Chinese painting, the motion form of an animated long take, and animation’s secret affinities with water” (233). Broadly speaking, this dissertation is the first academic study in the English-speaking world that aims to make sense of The Wind, but it also exemplifies a wider innovative methodological approach to the study of animated films that are often categorized as incomplete, or somewhat “orphaned.”

Expansive in its theoretical scope, Yang’s work constructs an alternative model of studying the intermediality of Chinese animation; as such, it can be regarded as the most recent scholarly endeavor to grasp the rapidly changing field of animation studies. This work manifests a new theoretical momentum behind the study of animation, a form of aesthetic expression that has undergone significant transformation, if not distortion, in the wake of the emergence of digital image-making technologies. By combining careful scrutiny of previously unexplored archival materials with an astute analysis of the film form, Yang demonstrates that to narrate a multi-layered history of animation is to cultivate a refreshing way of understanding the dynamic, yet sometimes unlikely, connections between different media.


Yiyang Hou is Research Assistant Professor at the Department of Digital Arts and Creative Industries, Lingnan University. Hou received his PhD from UCLA, and an MA from Columbia University. His research on film and media studies has appeared in Journal of Chinese Cinemas, Global Media and China, Contemporary Animation, amongst others. Currently, he is working on his first book project, a monograph that explores the cultural history of film exhibition and distribution in post-Mao China during the Early Reform Era.

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