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Once a distant dream within the animation community, the rise of Chinese animation has increasingly become a reality over the past decade. But for many young animators, the industry and market are a long way from rendering lasting success

By Yi Ziyi , Xu Pengyuan Updated Dec.1

Still from Monkey King: Hero is Back

The turning point for Chinese animation came with the 2015 release Monkey King: Hero is Back. Adapted from the novel Journey to the West, the film’s story picks up with the fabled Monkey King 500 years after his adventures portrayed in the 1961 Chinese animated classic, Havoc In Heaven. The Buddha had imprisoned Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) under a mountain for the chaos he caused in the heavens. After half a millennium, young novice monk Jiang Liuer accidentally releases him.  

Sun proves the same recalcitrant, proud and powerful character he was in Havoc in Heaven. However, his years of punishment had affected him. Sun is lost, self-loathing and aimless. Shackles remain on one of his wrists – a reminder of his imprisonment. Accompanied by Jiang Liuer, Sun embarks on a journey of self-discovery.  

Monkey King raked in 956 million (US$134m). Sixteen days after it premiered on July 10, 2015, its box office earnings surpassed the DreamWorks blockbuster Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) to become the highest-grossing animated feature in China. Many interpreted Sun’s journey as a metaphor for the history of Chinese animation, which had lost its way but is now regaining the glory days of Havoc in Heaven.  

Several quality Chinese animated films followed to unprecedented success. In particular, the 2019 animated blockbuster Nezha took in a total box office of 5.03 billion yuan (US$707m), making it the highest-grossing non-US animation film and the second-highest-grossing film of any kind in China that year.  

Released on August 19, New Gods: Yang Jian, an animated film based on the novelInvestiture of the Gods, grossed 529 million yuan (US$73.5m) as of October 2, a relatively impressive performance during the post-Covid period.  

“Chinese animation has set off again. Now we have a second wind,” Chen Liaoyu, associate professor at the Department of Animation at Beijing Film Academy, told NewsChina. 

Return of the King 
The road to making Monkey King was rocky for the film’s producers and creators, but getting it funded was the hardest part. “At the time, it was tremendously difficult to fund any animation project,” Lu Wei, one of Monkey King’s producers, told NewsChina. 

Lu said the Chinese animation industry in the early 2010s had not yet recovered from its 1995 downturn. With the exceptions of TV series Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf and Boonie Bears, no Chinese animated work had earned over 100 million yuan (US$13.9m). In the eyes of investors, animation was children’s entertainment that did not require big budgets.  

“You can’t cut costs too much for animated films. If a project doesn’t get enough funding, it is likely to fail,” said Wang Shuang, an experienced animation producer. “Strictly speaking, the involvement of techniques, special effects and creativity in an animated film is on par with a live action sci-fi movie, which stands at the top of the pyramid in terms of techniques,” Wang told NewsChina.  

In the eight years it took to make Monkey King, director Tian Xiaopeng exhausted all his savings and borrowed money from his parents and in-laws to keep the production going. Lu Wei signed on 10 companies as co-producers and crowdfunded 7.8 million yuan (US$1m) from 89 investors. With a total investment of 60 million yuan (US$8.3m), Lu told our reporter they initially would have been happy with breaking even.  

But their efforts paid off far beyond expectations, not only in its box office performance of 956 million (US$134m), but also its impact on the whole industry. The film’s success changed the public’s long-held negative views on domestic animation.  

The film sparked a vibrant online community of fans. Calling themselves zilaishui (which literarily translates to “tap water” but is a pun for “voluntary promoters”), they splashed original art, fan fiction and posters inspired by the film across social platforms. They mobilized groups to watch the film multiple times to boost its box office numbers, and even advised theaters on scheduling show times.  

He Mu, a 30-year-old bank employee in Beijing, is a fan of animation, comics, games and light novels (known as AGCN culture). Like many millennials in China, she grew up watching Japanese and American cartoons. He was also a “tap water” fan.  

“I saw it three times in the cinema, because I felt obligated to make more contributions to support this great work. The 3D visual effects, the characterization and storytelling are so impressive – if you were to dub it in English and tell people it was from Disney, Pixar or DreamWorks, many would believe it, because it’s that good. We felt proud that [Chinese] animators made it. The film was like a torch that rekindled a long-neglected land and preludes more splendid works to come,” He Mu said. 

The film’s success encouraged other Chinese creators and producers. As Cheng Teng, director of the animated fantasy Legend of Deification (2020), told NewsChina, “Monkey King achieved a record-breaking box office of nearly 1 billion yuan (US$140m), which raised awareness of Chinese animation and encouraged more investment. As a result, lots of new projects can launch, giving more young creators the opportunity to express themselves.”  

Later animated films, including Big Fish & Begonia (2016), Little Door Gods (2016), Dahufa (2017) and White Snake (2019) boosted the public’s confidence in domestic animation even more. As their appeal spread beyond its core audience, cinemas responded, scheduling more screenings.  

Positive audience reception for Chinese animation reached fever pitch with another landmark 3D animated film – Nezha. As with Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979), the film draws on the novel Investiture of the Gods and centers on the mythological character Nezha, the disobedient boy who becomes a teenage deity after dying in battle with the Dragon King. In the film, Nezha is portrayed as a demon-child who, despite being despised and feared by the townsfolk, saves them from destruction.  
Raking in 5.03 billion yuan (US$707m), Nezha helped the domestic animation market surpass imported animation for the first time since the 1990s, grabbing a market share of 65.9 percent.  

According to The 2020 Chinese Animation Industry Research Report by consulting firm iResearch, the Chinese online animation industry has grown rapidly since 2015. In 2020, China had over 970,000 animation-related companies and 348 colleges offering animation programs. There were only four animation studios in China in 1990. In 1993, less than 30 animators had a college degree in animation. 

Still from Big Fish & Begonia (2016)

Still from Dahufa (2020)

Old Myths vs New Stories 
This year will see five animated films based on the mythological figure Yang Jian hit theaters – New Gods: Yang Jian arrived in August, while four are waiting in the wings. Yang Jian, or Erlang Shen, is a god of justice in Chinese mythology who has an all-seeing third eye on his forehead. Like Nezha, Yang Jian is also a major character in Investiture of the Gods.  

From the early Wan Brothers works to blockbuster hit Nezha, Chinese animated films drew mainly from mythology, legends and folklore. Journey to the West and Investiture of the Gods, which both feature mythological characters, are favorites of Chinese animators.  

In the last decade, animated adaptations of myth and folklore have far outnumbered original stories, such as the dystopian animated satire Dahufa and I Am What I Am (2020), a film about a country boy who seeks to prove himself as a traditional lion dancer. Between 2015 and 2020, China saw 119 films released based on Chinese myths – 24 of them feature the Monkey King and 11 are about Nezha.  

Cheng Teng, director of Legend of Deification, told NewsChina that studios see familiar stories as a safe bet, something he blames on market and industry immaturity.  

“Audiences may not like a 100-percent original story. For a long time, Disney was adapting the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. Only when the industry matured did it take on more original projects like Inside Out (2015) and Soul (2020). I don’t think doing adaptations shows a lack of creativity. Actually, almost every creator hopes to make original projects. When the industry and market are mature enough to enable most animators to survive, I’m sure more animators will venture into original projects,” Cheng said.  

Wang Shuang agrees. “The industry right now is still heavily profit-oriented. A project adapted from mythology instantly attracts investors, as it’s a much safer and more efficient strategy. It’s too difficult to make a successful original project, and much harder to build a franchise based on an original story.”  

Founded in 2013, Light Chaser Animation Studio is one of China’s most influential animation studios, creators of movie franchises Little Door Gods, White Snake and New Gods. The prolific studio has cranked out a full-length animated feature every year since 2016.  

Yu Zhou, co-founder and CEO of Light Chaser, told NewsChina about the studio’s dilemma when choosing between original projects and adaptations. Their first works – Little Door Gods (2016), Tea Pets (2017) and Cats and Peachtopia (2018) – are original projects. All three had a tepid reception, earning a total of 130 million yuan (US$18m) at the box office. The company finally profited with its fourth and fifth features, White Snake (2019) and sequel Green Snake (2021), both adapted from the Chinese folktale about a romance between a white snake spirit and a mortal. The White Snake series was acclaimed and lucrative, bringing in 1.05 billion yuan (US$146m) for the studio, almost 10 times that of its first three projects combined.  

In the last two years, Light Chaser released two more myth adaptations in its New Gods series – New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021) and New Gods: Yang Jian (2022). Yu said he hopes to rack up a couple of more box office blockbusters before venturing on more original projects. 

Still from Legend of Deification (2020)

Poster for New Gods: Nezha Reborn (2021)

Poster for Nezha (2019)

Still from White Snake (2019)

Poster for Little Door Gods (2016)

Parental Units 
The lack of an animation rating system is another thorny issue for animators and consumers in China.  

According to a survey of 1,026 parents by the Consumer Protection Association of Jiangsu Province in April 2021, over 80 percent advocated for tighter content controls on animated films and television series aimed at children.  

The surveyed parents listed 21 animated films they deemed inappropriate, most of which they said contained violence or criminal activity that children might imitate.  

Among them, parents complained that the popular live-action Japanese TV show Ultraman Tiga (1996) contained too many armed fights and explosions. Japanese animated series Detective Conan drew ire for its bloody crime scenes. But Chinese CGI-animated series Boonie Bears topped the survey as the most inappropriate for its excessive cartoon violence. The parents complained Logger Vick, the protagonist of the Boonie Bears series, often appears holding a gun and chainsaw.  

In the report’s wake, Chinese streaming platforms removed Ultraman Tiga in September 2021. The move sparked controversy on social media, and amid a rising wave of complaints, platforms reversed the decision days later.  

Yang Xiaolin, director of the Institute of Film Studies at Tongji University in Shanghai, argued that a film rating system is a necessity for the development of Chinese animation, as it not only protects children from unsuitable content but also frees up creators to explore more subjects.  

In Japan, the film rating system comprises four age-based classifications: G, PG12, R15+ and R18+. Japanese manga and animation has a separate rating system based on six categories: children, teenage boys, teenage girls, young adults, women and adults.  

“Both Japanese and American animation developed from animation aimed at young children to teenagers and all ages,” Yang wrote in his essay “On the Creation of Chinese Adult Animation with the Analysis on the Japanese and American Film Rating Systems” published in the journal Movie Review in 2019. “The targeted shift from young children to all ages and animation developing as a separate commercial genre are two key signs of a mature animation industry.”  

Yang Cheng produced the animated indie film Have a Nice Day (2017), a crime thriller about a driver who steals US$1 million and gets dragged into a net of violence. The film earned a nomination for the Golden Bear Award at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival – the second East Asian-animated feature to do so since Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away shared the prize with British-Irish feature Bloody Sunday in 2002 – and won Best Animated Feature at the 2017 Taipei Golden Horse Awards. However, the film was not screened widely in Chinese theaters.  

“The animation released to Chinese mainstream audiences has always been quite homogeneous, since animation was long seen as entertainment solely for kids,” Yang told NewsChina.  

“Things have gotten better with the recent releases of more animated works for all ages, but most focus on visual effects instead of diverse and layered content. As long as the market continues to mature, audiences will be exposed to complex works diverse in themes and subjects, which will deepen their understanding of animation,” Yang added.