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China’s earliest animators dedicated their careers to finding an artistic language that was distinctly their own – only for imports on an open market to overshadow their success

By Li Jing Updated Dec.1

In the early 1920s, rumors circulated about an attic window on Shanghai’s Sanfengli Alley that often stayed lit all night. Residents did not know why, and they wanted to find out.  

Behind the window was a seven-square-meter space, a small studio where the Wan Brothers were experimenting with a new medium – animation.  

The four brothers – Laiming, Guchan, Chaocheng and Dihuan – spent their days and nights trying to figure out how to animate. They had built all their own equipment except for a stop motion camera, which they bought at a flea market from a foreign vendor. The Wan Brothers were pioneering Chinese animation.  

In 1922, the brothers produced China’s first animated work, Shu Zhendong Chinese Typewriter, a one-minute commercial for a typewriter brand produced by the Commercial Press in Shanghai. 

Wan with the Plan 
Over the next century, the development of Chinese animation was a quest for its own language. In 1941, the Wan Brothers’ first feature, Iron Fan Princess, heralded a golden age of Chinese animation. The Chinese animators astonished the world with the ground-breaking Havoc in Heaven (1961), a world-class masterpiece featuring the fabled Monkey King that influenced a generation of filmmakers and animators. Havoc in Heaven inspired an array of animated features and short films with unique Chinese aesthetics and storytelling, creating the foundation for what animators call the “Chinese School.”  

Starting in the mid-1980s, China experienced a painful transition to a market economy – and a vast influx of foreign animation – where Chinese animators struggled to find their place. In the last decade, however, Chinese animation embraced a new start, and the quest for its unique language continues.  

The Wan Brothers are integral to the beginnings of animation in China. Born and raised in Nanjing to a family with no artistic background, the four brothers had developed an enthusiasm for painting and shadow puppetry since childhood.  

Four years after they produced the first animated commercial, the brothers made the country’s first animated short film – Uproar in the Studio (1926). Combining live footage and animation, it tells the story of an artist working in his studio when a small paper person jumps from the page and stirs up trouble. The film draws influence from the early Out of the Inkwell animated series of the late 1910s by Max Fleischer.  

In the 1930s, like many Chinese artists and writers, left-wing literary and artistic movements influenced the Wan Brothers. Their projects addressed major issues such as the Japanese occupation. Compatriots, Wake Up (1931) is a Wan Brothers short inspired by the Mukden Incident (or 9.18) in 1931, which marked the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China. The work depicts a giant sleeping lion that awakens to fight against the aggression of the Japanese army, as its tail and four limbs transform into an army of Chinese workers, farmers, students, merchants and soldiers, while its body changes into an enormous stone roller.  

In his 1986 memoir, I and Monkey King, Wan Laiming, the oldest of the brothers, said that Chinese animation took a path distinct from Western animation. It was not purely for entertainment, but more of an outlet for social criticism and satire, he wrote.  

In 1937, Disney amazed the world by presenting the first fulllength animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Inspired, the Wan Brothers were determined to create something on par with the American classic. The siblings focused on the 16th century literary classic Journey to the West, which revolves around the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his four disciples, including the Monkey King, who head for India in search of scriptures.  

The project, Princess Iron Fan, focuses on the story’s fierce battle between the Monkey King and the powerful Bull Demon King. However, the piece’s sub-context is glaring, using the Bull Demon King as a metaphor for the Japanese invaders. The Wan Brothers recruited more than 100 artists for the yearlong project, which included more than 20,000 draft sketches.  

In 1941, amid the flames of war, the 80-minute Princess Iron Fan took Shanghai by storm. It was the world’s fourth animated feature after Snow White, Gulliver’s Travels (1939) and Pinocchio (1940). Within six weeks of its premiere, it was screened across Asia, including Japan, where it would inspire a teenage Tezuka Osamu to pioneer Japanese manga and anime with his creations Astro Boy, Kimba, The Phoenix and Black Jack.  

Journey to the West was Wan Laiming’s favorite book. He took a copy everywhere he went. After the success of Princess Iron Fan, he focused on a more ambitious project – Havoc in Heaven, a Journey to the West prequel based on the early legendary adventures of the Monkey King before he travels with Xuanzang to India. However, investors withdrew in the tumult of World War II, halting the project. 

Animators Zhang Guangyu (middle), Wan Laiming (left) and Wan Guchan are pictured in Shanghai in the 1920s

Wan Laiming and Japanese animator Tezuka Osamu meet in Shanghai, 1988

Still from Princess Iron Fan (1941)

The Chinese School 
In 1957, Chinese animation reached a milestone with the official creation of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (SAFS). The government-backed studio gathered leading artists to make quality animated works. As a mission statement, SAFS’s first director Te Wei said the studio should “explore the unique Chinese style of animation.” 

But even prior to its official founding, SAFS focused on this aesthetic with works like The Magic Brush (1955), a 20-minute stop motion film about a young boy whose magic brush can make anything he draws become real. The film was China’s first animated work to win an international award, taking First Prize for Children’s Entertainment Films at the 8th Venice International Children’s Film Festival in 1956. In another impressive short, Baby Tadpoles Look for Their Mother (1960), animators dipped into traditional Chinese ink and wash painting to create something new.  

Wan Laiming’s lifelong ambition – Havoc in Heaven – had its chance when Te Wei invited him to join SAFS. They ultimately released Havoc in Heaven in two parts, in 1961 and 1963. Its background designs combine the rich colors of Tibetan art and the style of Mexican murals. The characters’ motion was based on movements from Peking Opera. The film’s depiction of a mischievous and freedom-seeking Monkey King directly influenced later adaptations of the character, including the 1986 television series Journey to the West.  

An artistic achievement, the film received numerous accolades, from the 1978 International London Film Festival and the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia. In 1983, more than 100,000 saw the film during its monthlong run in Paris.  

In 1979, SAFS produced the country’s first widescreen color animation film, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, based on the 16th-century collection of myths Investiture of the Gods. Four years later, the studio presented The Legend of Sealed Book (1983) adapted from another 16th-century work, The Suppression of the Demons by Feng Menglong. These two films, along with Havoc in Heaven, are considered the three greatest classics of Chinese animation.  

The works combine style elements from Peking opera, traditional Chinese landscape painting, ancient architecture and garden landscaping. Moreover, the ideas and values they embody run deeper than most casual viewers would catch.  

Compared with the 2019 animated blockbuster Nezha, the themes of Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979) are much darker and more complex. Its exploration of human nature and the cruelty of fate are exceptional. For example, the protagonist Nezha is bold enough to fight against the tyranny of the Dragon King, but his disobedience and rebellious character, which are at odds with patriarchal social conventions, lead to his tragic fate – he finally slits his throat with a sword. Nezha’s shocking suicide scene is an iconic moment in the history of Chinese animation – very few animated works would explicitly depict a protagonist’s suicide. The 2019 film Nezha avoids it completely.  

Chen Liaoyu, associate professor of the Department of Animation at the Beijing Film Academy, summarized the evolution of Chinese animation by evaluating four of its most celebrated animated films.  

Princess Iron Fan is a work that “adopts the language of others to tell our own story,” with many influences from American animation; Havoc in Heaven, however, is much more innovative and signifies a maturing of Chinese aesthetics, techniques and visual language. In Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, Chinese animation aesthetics, deeply rooted in the traditional Chinese art and culture, reached their peak, while The Legend of Sealed Book is “just one step away” from the modern-day animated blockbuster, Chen said.  

“It’s a long journey where Chinese animators learned to use our own language to tell our own stories. We have fully absorbed what we have learned and borrowed from other cultures and developed our own way of expression,” Chen told NewsChina.  

Other animated shorts of note include Snow Child (1980), Three Monks (1980), Fishing the Moon from the Pool (1981) and The Story of Mr. Nanguo (1981). The international arts community eventually took notice and dubbed the collective style the “Chinese School.” 

The crew of Havoc in Heaven sit outside Shanghai Animation Film Studio

A sketch by Yan Dingxian, key animator for Havoc in Heaven, and Tezuka Osamu, the father of Japanese animation, of their respective animated characters, Monkey King and Astro Boy, drawn after they met in April 1981 in Tokyo, Japan

Still from The Magic Brush (1955)

Still from Baby Tadpoles Look for Their Mother (1960)

Poster for Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979)

Assembly Lines 
Since reform and opening-up in the 1980s, SAFS, like all Statebacked film studios, underwent a rocky transition. As government funding gradually dried up, film studios had to face the market and take full responsibility for their losses.  

Su Da, the current director of SAFS, told NewsChina the entire Chinese film industry had taken a downturn. “In the past, whatever we made, the government would buy the copyright at a price above cost. Therefore, most creators at SAFS were artists devoted to making quality works with high artistic value. But when the industry was suddenly pushed into the market, to be honest, many creators had difficulty adjusting,” Su said.  

The past glory of SAFS resulted from “State intervention,” Su said. “The State gathered leading artists and provided them with funding to make projects. Surely it wouldn’t be difficult to produce quality works,” Su added.  

As China’s market reforms deepened, American and Japanese animation powerhouses hit the Chinese market. Tezuka Osamu, who began his animation career inspired by Princess Iron Fan, returned the favor with Astro Boy. A body of American and Japanese animated series followed, such as Popeye (1960), Smurfs (1981), Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (1986), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987), Ikkyu the Little Monk (1975), Doraemon (1979) and Slam Dunk (1993). Foreign animation quickly dominated the market, and local studios struggled to compete.  

In 1990, Chen Liaoyu was among the eight students admitted to the Beijing Film Academy (BFA) department of animation. Only BFA offered an animation course, and its department conducted admissions once every six years. He told NewsChina that the only option for many young artists was attending college. However, since colleges rarely opened enrolment, most worked for animation outsourcing companies after high school.  

The deluge of foreign animation begat a wave of outsourcing studios, mostly in the southeastern coastal cities of Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province. They recruited many Chinese animators for relatively low-skilled works such as inking, coloring and background design for clients in Japan and the US.  

Chinese animators worked hard and learned fast, earning them spots as key animators. Companies began to poach more experienced and talented Chinese animators with higher salaries.  

Su Da said that during the 1990s, animators at SAFS only earned a few hundred yuan a month, and outsourcing companies would pay tenfold. Many young animators chose higher salaries instead of venturing on original projects for low returns.  

As a result, China became the world’s biggest animation factory. Many well-known Japanese animation works, such as Detective Conan, Inuyasha, Naruto and Mushishi, which were extremely popular in China, involved Chinese animators at outsourcing companies.  

According to statistics from the Institute of Journalism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in 1991, 66.7 percent of the animation that aired in Beijing was imported, half of which was from Disney. During 2002 and 2003, Japanese animation was the most popular among Chinese youth, followed by American animation.  

For most of the 1990s and 2000s, domestic animation was poorly made and derivative. Only one domestic series – Lotus Lantern (1999) – was a hit with Chinese audiences. It was SAFS’s first commercial blockbuster. Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf (2005), an animated series aimed at young children, was the only successful domestic cartoon show of the decade.  

“Sadly, the developmental road of the Chinese School was cut off, whereas animation in many other countries kept developing,” Chen Liaoyu told NewsChina.  

Chinese animation, once considered a powerhouse of creativity and innovation, gradually fell behind American, European and Japanese productions in the 1990s. For a long time, Chinese animators struggled to regain the confidence and identity of the past. But they would redraw these lines in the 2010s, and pick up where the Wan Brothers left off.

Poster for The Legend of Sealed Book (1983)

Poster for Lotus Lantern (1999)

Still from Pigsy Eats Watermelon (1958), an animated short based on Journey to the West, by Wan Laiming and Wan Guchan at SAFS