Chinese Animation: In Search of a Style | Video Essay

Updated : Jan 14, 2020 in Articles

Chinese Animation: In Search of a Style | Video Essay

This episode is sponsored by… Skillshare It has been a good year for Chinese animated films Yes, I’m eating my own words And it’s oh so delicious I’m super excited, and a little bit ashamed Because, for decades at this point Chinese animation has been struggling… Hard Cynical people like me have already given up hope I mean, just look at this! Little did I know The industry has been growing Sprouting And in 2019, it bloomed Not once, but twice! Today, we are going on a journey Through the history of Chinese animation See its rise and fall And talk about the industry’s everlasting struggle In the search of a style we can call our own And maybe Just maybe I can convince you to give it a chance The same way the industry has convinced me Our journey begins in the 1950s While there were animations made before this Much of it has been lost to history You know, with WWII and things So Chinese animation didn’t really begin Until the founding of Shanghai Animation Film Studio A studio largely founded by the government With the intent of creating works of art that represent Chinese culture We can see this intent right from one of the studio’s earliest works The Proud General A quick glance, and the film looks undeniably Chinese The character design The color palette The movement And the music are all heavily inspired by Chinese opera But also pay attention to the weirdly shaped horse And characters curvy, flowing line work Even the general, who’s supposed to be very masculine Is very curvy, with almost no straight lines That is, until you realize that is a look taken from Tang Dynasty paintings With works like this The studio quickly proves their talent and worth And in 1956, the Chinese Government began the Hundred Flowers Campaign A campaign in which the state heavily supported And promoted the development of arts Which ushered in the Golden Age of Chinese animation The influence of the golden age cannot be overstated During this time Shanghai Animation Film Studio pushed the boundaries of animation To places unseen in the rest of the world On one side, we have Pigsy Eats Watermelon Yes, it’s actually what it’s called It’s the first film to utilize the unique visual of paper cutout animation Reminiscent of Chinese shadow puppetry On the other end, we have A Clever Duckling The first folded-paper animation Even in a stop-motion animation The filmmakers managed to compose the frame In the style of ancient Chinese ink paintings But perhaps the most striking work in this period Is Where is Mama and its stylistic successor The Cowboy’s Flute These two animations are, without exaggeration Some of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen It’s Chinese ink paintings come to life It oozes classical Chinese beauty The serene, pastel look With spots of vibrant colors It takes my breath away Look at those gold fishes and their translucent body Such masterful work All of these artistic developments culminated to Arguably the highest achievement in the history of Chinese animation Havoc in Heaven An adaptation of a story from Journey to the West Havoc in Heaven mastered the Tang Dynasty painting landscape And the opera style character designs and movements With its vibrant color And grand scale It is a treat for the eyes Everything from the shape of the clouds The angle of the mountains The manes of the horses To the ribbons on the gods Are all stylized to be filled with Chinese iconography It’s traditional Yet radical Much different from western animations from the same period This came out in the 1960s I was born in the 90s And I still remember watching and loving this movie A true testament to its timelessness Sadly, the golden age didn’t last long 1966, China entered the period of Cultural Revolution During this time, animation productions were practically non-existent And the few films that were produced Were highly propagandistic Gone are the traditional elements of Chinese visuals and stories The films look… safer While they nevertheless look beautiful It’s hardly a progression for the industry Things didn’t go back to normal until 1976 With the fall of the Gang of Four Came the end of the Cultural Revolution And the studio, once again, produced their masterful works 1979 saw the release of Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King The traditional folk tale elements return And so do the landscape and character design It’s also interesting to see that Nezha’s design sticks closer To the more realistic style seen in propaganda films Changing from this To this I quite like it, actually In many ways This film is a spiritual successor to Havoc in Heaven And its legacy is also very similar To this day, this remains the definitive version of Nezha to many Chinese people Myself included Another spiritual successor is Feeling from Mountain and Water A 1988 film that continued the legacy of Chinese ink painting animations In this story of an old guqin master passing his art to his young apprentice We see the film’s visual style become even bolder and more abstract Often, large sections of the frame are left completely white And objects like this boat are barely detailed enough to be recognized These techniques can be traced back to Song and Yuan dynasty landscape paintings Where the composition aims for a mood that is often beyond words It’s mesmerizing And breathtaking On the surface, this seems like a return to form for the industry Some may even call it a Silver Age I, cynically, disagree While the quality of the films from this era is undeniable To me, it feels like but an echo from the yesteryear One last outing from the golden age Trying to be relevant Nearly 20 years had passed between Havoc in Heaven And Nezha’s Triumph Very little stylistic and technological advancements were made One year after the release of Feeling from Mountain and Water Disney blew everyone out of the water with The Little Mermaid And Japan took over the world with Dragon Ball Z China was lacking way… Way behind Our story brings us into the dark ages of Chinese animation Awaiting for a hero to save the day And, what if I tell you YOU can be that hero? No, seriously The director of the highest grossing Chinese animated feature Is a doctor turned self-taught animator And with Skillshare You can do that, too! Skillshare is an online learning community with thousands of inspiring classes to help you achieve your goal Be it creative writing Film & video Or, of course, animation I recommend starting with this lesson on creating a walk cycle It may sound simple But it teaches all the fundamental techniques of animations Like designing and rigging And with oh so many other classes available You can easily find classes that fit both your schedule and your skill level Not to mention, it’s affordable A annual subscription for skillshare is less than 10 dollars a month! Click the link in the description to get 2 free months of Premium Membership and explore your creativity So, join now And make 2020 a year to explore new skills Towards the end of Feeling from Mountain and Water The old master passes his instrument down to his young apprentice And the old masters from the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Also passed the torch to the younger generations It was the 90s The economic reform was in full swing And China opened its gate to the outside world Almost immediately, the Chinese animation industry Found itself crushed between two giants The Disney Renaissance And the booming popularity of anime Like many of you I also grew up with The Lion King And Digimon Chinese animations? Not exactly a big part of my childhood Mainly because Disney had cornered the animated feature market And Japan took over TV After a decade of stagnation China simply could not compete I mean, which one are you going to watch? This? Or this? But the main issue is… The parents… Look, I don’t want to blame the boomers, but it is true! People who were born and/or raised around the Cultural Revolution Did not grow up with animations… And if you are my generation You know how much our parents dislike cartoons It’s common for animation to be stigmatized as a medium for children But Chinese parents don’t just believe that Many parents actively shun the viewing of cartoons The act of viewing anime is seen as a sign of laziness So the industry’s achievements The beautiful ink wash animation The abstract bold cartoons It’s too old school for children And paradoxically, too childish for adults The industry could not compete In a market that didn’t exist Chinese animation was barely kept alive Doing outsourced work for Japanese and Western animations As well as producing low budget TV programs Aimed at extremely young children And I mean toddlers For the next two decades Chinese animation struggled Occasionally, a feature film comes out Trying to rekindle interest in classic style Chinese animation Due to limitations of all kind It usually ends up looking very bland See how much the characters now resemble Disney designs For a long time it seemed like Chinese animation was truly dead Chasing after other popular styles that are more profitable God, I hated this… But then, in 2015… The dead tree… sprouted In 2015, Monkey King: Hero is Back was released And it blew everyone away Which is weird Because the movie is not really all that good The plot is messy The pacing is all over the place The characters, other than the titular Monkey King, are either bland Or annoying But the opening sequence Oh my god, the opening sequence IT’S HAVOC IN HEAVEN The familiar Chinese music The ribbons and the exaggerated proportions of gods The stylized clouds and mountains It’s oh so familiar But now, the action is like… Anime! After 20 years of soul searching My generation finally grew up And we never stop watching animations The stigma went away In the same 20 years The constant outsourced work had trained a generation of artists To handle a wide variety of art styles Their technical competency has always been there And many of those same artists never gave up hope In this one scene, the animators reawaken something inside the Chinese audience A memory We did grow up watching Havoc in Heaven We just didn’t remember it Like the Monkey King returning after 500 years Suddenly, Chinese animations came back at full force 2016’s Big Fish & Begonia is a valiant attempt at merging the Ghibli anime style With a Chinese visual aesthetic The visual is undeniably beautiful That Chinese color palette does wonders But at the same time The Chinese elements are not strong enough To really sell this Chinese fantasy story Each frame looks more anime than it is Chinese The landscape, the mise-en-scene There, but not quite there I suspect that’s why people criticize its story And are willing to overlook the flaws in The Monkey King Its visual and character design don’t quite resonate with the audience One year later The Guardian also aims for an anime aesthetic A bit more comedy driven, this time Right from the opening shot You can see how it brings back the ink painting visual from the golden age Although substituting the monochromatic ink With vibrant watercolor Giving it an identity to stand on its own I’d say it is more unique looking than Big Fish & Begonia, already But the industry pushes forward 2018’s The Wind Guardian And Crystal Sky of Yesterday Are both aesthetically competent Although stylistically kinda basic What’s important Is that unlike Big Fish, or the Guardian These two films didn’t create a world decorated with Chinese elements They actively flaunt about their settings Crystal Sky of Yesterday, for example Depicts the idealized Chinese highschool life wholesale No more lampshading with Japanese high school uniforms With each film It seems like the industry is gaining more and more confidence In depicting and selling its own culture Its own identity All of it came together in 2019 With the release of White Snake And Ne Zha And my god, it is glorious White Snake, in particular, is one of the most beautiful CG films I’ve seen! Using the foundational technique learnt from American and Japanese animations White Snake builds its identity on top The clouds and mountains The graceful, flowing line works The shape of a character’s eyes resembles Chinese religious murals So does the movement, actually Small details like these show that the animators weren’t just making a Frozen clone The film has a well thought out Culturally driven aesthetic That aims to resonate with Chinese audience I mean, if they want to copy Disney They wouldn’t make Ne Zha an imp Oh my god he’s so ugly I love it In fact, Ne Zha’s character design draws a lot of similarities to Havoc in Heaven And even The Proud General The exaggerated proportions and contours And even the movements give me deja vu Not to mention the updated Chinese iconographies They are unique Familiar Yet fresh But perhaps the most significant part of the two films Is the way they adapt existing Chinese stories Unlike Havoc in Heaven or Nezha’s Triumph They are not retelling of same old legend Ne Zha merely uses existing characters to tell an original story Replacing the old story of a son fighting against patriarchy With a more up-to-date moral tale of a young boy fighting against fate and destiny Whereas White Snake is a prequel to the original folk tale Further expanding the theme of human prejudice Adapts and changes The industry isn’t just looking to relive the glory of the old days But is pushing ahead, in search of new identities It has been 30 years But finally Chinese animation has started going forward once more Towards the end of Feeling from Mountain and Water The old master passes his instrument down to his young apprentice What I didn’t realize is that the apprentice was still young at the time It takes time for him to become the next master At the end of the day The industry is blessed and cursed by its history Its fragmented legacy delayed its development multiple times Yet it also gave the industry a much wider range of style to work with In the pursuit of that nebulous ideal of a Chinese visual identity The animators have not forgotten what inspired them But are not afraid to learn from others With this newfound confidence in self expression Chinese animations are looking better than ever And most importantly This is just a beginning


  • Hope you enjoy this double-size episode! If you'd like to know more about Chinese Animations, I recommend checking out DongHua Reviews. He's a long time viewer of this channel, and much more knowledgeable at this topic than I do.
    Check out his video on "The History of DongHua":

  • How can this art didn't get enough expose to foreign market? Is Chinese market already enough to break even point so foreign market isn't a priority or option?

    Thank you for the information. I hope I can watch those movie

  • Holy shit that ink brush animation is fucking awesome, I never knew I needed that in my life until now.

    Nice video, great stuff as always.

  • I still get goosebumps watching the scene where Monkey King at last reveals himself taking out staff from his ear and blasts the ugly demon. The background score with that scene is a masterpiece. By the way thumbnail is awesome.

  • As a Chinese-Canadian animator, this video means a lot to me. As it differently stands, I do my best to marry the duality of my cultural upbringing, uniting east and west. This opened my eyes more to the rich history of Chinese animation and I'm really greatful for that. Always looking forward to your next video.

  • whats the problem with copying Disney ? none of their stories are "original" american stories …they ripped of old stories from around the world.

  • Thank you for making this wonderful video.

    Sadly I still felt a “homemade” animation film wouldn’t sell unless it was attached to some kind of “traditional IPs” like classic novels or folk lores. To become a healthy market, more original work need to reach to the the average audience.

    The industry seems to be on the right track. Hopefully so do the money and policies.

  • 我觉得中国父母并没有把主要矛头对向了动画 至少我小时候看动画片没什么大的阻碍 阻碍其实是更大的 电视本身 “少看电视” 而且 相比动画片 或者说电视电影 更大的攻击对象其实是“游戏”

  • I do hope that they get away with all the more famous classics (such as 西游记,三国,etc) and go for something less known. It's always 西游记 I'm going crazy soon.

  • Im really happy that chinese animation is now growing at a fast rate. Really hope that my country one day also develops its own animations with its own unique style.

  • Chinese boomers need to hurry up and die, or at least be shut out of society. They are the most greedy, rude, stubborn, ignorant, scamming generation probably in China’s entire history. Only with them out of the way can Chinese society feel safe from scams, food quality, and be able to advance. China will NEVER be able to compete with Japan or US on soft power (movies, video games, animation, music) when these boomers have a death grip on Chinese culture. China’s most famous IP, Three Kingdoms, was popularized by Japan, sad!

  • Chinese content is usually too hellbent on deep cultures that the rest of the world don't understand and cant relate to.
    Hence they limite their audience to the chinese falks

  • no no as a chinese i grew up with calabash brothers, 3000 whys of blue cat, rainbow cat and blue rabbit, and pleasant goat and big bad wolf, plus gg bond and Little Nezha i never watch oversea stuff until i was in 5th grade and that was like 2014

  • I figured China's film animation industry will grow, learn, fail and improve time after time. I hope they keep on going. Amazing topic.

  • I’d like to ask how you define ‘Unique visual of paper cut out animation’? To my knowledge the first was The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Reiniger came out in 1926….

  • @accentedcinemais there a subtitled version of havoc in heaven (the original stylized one not a later iteration) and if so where can i watch it?

  • I haven't seen "White Snake" but at 18:17, was that a glimpse of the little green snake, the heroine's confidante and side-kick? In the original story she's my best girl.

  • I think I have a love for a lot of Chinese animation because they seem often so inspired by their own history and culture and actually bother to show it. Japanese anime has a stupidly high amount of variety which is cool in its own right, but there is a real lacking for their own history. Those shows are definitely out there like Mushi Shi, but they're no where near as common as in Chinese animation.

  • Sorry, the art of these anime may involve Chinese traditional art.
    The value behind the story is western value.
    For example, the old anime focuses more on fighting between social classes, and this is the idea which was introduced by Soviet Union.
    The new anime focuses on fighting with your fate.
    None of which is traditional Chinese value.
    Nothing about understanding, peace, harmony, respect and responsibilities, honestly, I see these are symbols of westernisation. No eastern values.
    Even in Kunfu Panda, you can tell that Master Chifu and Master Wugui is of Asian value, but Pooh does not share Chinese value at all.
    With these two anime, none of the characters are of Asian value. So it maybe come back of Asian art, but certainly not a come back of Asian value.

  • The cartoon about the general actually has the color palette and style that very very much reminds me of USSR cartoons of the same era. Not the cartoony ones, but the ones where they tried to go for max life like realism.

  • Not to be critical but styles only don't make great animations. You need more diverse literatures to adapt. Not The journey to the West(Monkey King)/Ne Zha again and again and again. Heck most Ghibli studio films are Western literatures adapted with Japanese style. Technical side of things though, you guys really got a golden generation right here, animation seem to be the one to revive Chinese cinema.

  • Mo Dao Zhu Shi is the art style that caught my attention. The use of Red to highlight things are too common in Chinese that they usually overuse it. MDZS kinda got the balance right. Although I'm not fond of 3D animations, I did like the Character designs of Battle through the heavens. Then Rakshasa Street, an attempt by BiliBili. But the story lines suffer lack of continuity… or like something is lost in transition of the scenes. Legend of hei has interesting art but music and story simply keeps you to it. Hope to see some diversity in the animation field especially because the Japanese animations are decent but lacking good enough stories now. Different cultures give a new perspective to stories or so.

    Love your video. Second time youtube recommended me a good critique.

  • Just don’t put CCP propaganda in it & More Chinese culture/tradition in it & I’ll be watching it👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼👍🏼

  • I watched mo dau zu shi(?) last year, and was amazed that it could exist as a TV anime. Most years, there isn't a japanese TV anime that looks that good, and then a chinese work just appears and goes above and beyond. Utterly baffled.

  • What a beautiful video. I'm not very knowledgable about full feature animation films from china but I do like the style. What I trully want to see though (a bit willfully I admit) would be for chinese animation to move beyond the traditional setting. To move beyond Journey to the west, 3 kingdom romance and the likes. This adherence to the setting fells like chinese animation is constantly retreading it's heritage without getting away from it. Do you see what I mean? Or maybe it's me and I have not seen enough and I'm spouting nonsense (I just want Lord Of The Mysteries by Cuttlefish That Loves Diving to be adapted 😊)

  • The art work is almost like it reflects that it is dormant and then blossoms along with the culture influences. The animation from other countries follow their same rhythm as their culture as well just like Japan or America; but more hyper and a little industrially toxic.

  • A very interesting video, I loved it!

    Please do a video on other countries animation, like the South Korean or French ones.🙏🙏🙏

  • I think two points also worth mentioning is 1. the influence of Kungfu Panda (like a shot of adrenaline and intensifying interest in 3D animation) and 2. influence of popular Chinese video games (many mmos) that feature 3D work, as the 3D animation industry and 3D graphics in video games have a lot in common

  • Interesting video essay, especially in regard to comparing 20th century animation styles to Chinese history of art.

    One would expect some Soviet influence on Chinese animations until the 'Sino-Soviet Split', given it's resonnance in Eastern European animation – from where it was bought e.g. by Western German public TV channels (e.g. the 1967 adaption of 'The Snow Queen' by Lenfilm or the Czech character 'Mole' by Zdenek Miler).

    Trying to define a national style can be elusive as You say – but offering diversity in styles to choose from is surely a sign of a naturally 'blooming' consumer industry .

    "It took me a long time to realize it, but when I draw Krtek, I was drawing myself." (Zdeněk Miler)

  • In my country, I , as a child and also other kids my age were mostly watching Disney cartoons not even so much anime(few years later).i think mostly because people didnt get japanese "cartoons".when i was older in my early teens i discovered sailor moon…and…i…was…. blown away😵

  • There is Chinese animation. Then there is Scissors Seven in Netflix deconstructing everything you know about Chinese animation.

  • Thanks for this fascinating insight into China's animation tradition. I just wish you had included Hong Kong-animation attempts like Tsui Hark's animated A Chinese Ghost Story movie.

  • Great video! I did my masters dissertation on finding a culturally approriate and viable aesthetic for animation in Pakistan and that exposed me to some excellent works across the globe and how each artstyle invokes a sense of identity

  • Great video. One request. In the future, could you list all the films you talk about in the description? Looking to add a bunch of these to my "to view" list.

  • I tried a couple Chinese animations, but they always felt like soulless imitations of either Disney or Anime, now I understand why. The moment I saw the classical animations you showed in the beginning, and later the rebirthed modern versions, I immediately felt a unique soul. Chinese animation must not try to be a second Disney, or a second Anime, it has to find it's own soul, it's own voice. And in those scenes, I can see it.

  • I feel frustrated by how the 2d animations films being replaced by 3d cgi animation as I grew up watching Disney films on vhs during their renaissance in the 1990s, but when Pixar toy story came out with a success 3d animation became popular and were changing in the 2000s until finally their was the 3d cgi crazed do to the success of avatar and the 2010s were dominated by cgi.

  • Just watching u talk abt Chinese advancement gave me chills. I’m so proud that China persisted and to the creative ppl that helps give chinese donghua a proud name. Thank u China for giving me Nazha and white snake

  • What a masterful breakdown of the history of Chinese animation! Your scripting is incredibly expressive and literary, it's a pleasure to hear the way these thoughts are put together. I had no idea Chinese animation had such a vibrant history. I would not have guessed that features from 1960s China could be so gorgeously made.

    Interesting that you would say Big Fish and Begonia follows Ghibli style. It looks to me more like Western animation like Avatar, especially The Legend of Korra. In fact, a lot of the features shown here, including Havoc in Heaven, look more influenced by American/Disney style than Japanese to me. While others definitely have that Ghibli feel. It's nice how they preserve the quality of animation while bringing in the stylistic elements from the traditional Chinese art forms like those mentioned here.

    What are those soothing songs playing during the conclusion and credits?

    Great job on this!

  • i see your video lack of depth. 发条张 did a much better work to demonstrate the history of Chinese animation. You can learn a lot from him.

  • Thank you so much! This is the most complete analisys of the chinese animation cinema that I found in the whole internet, please keep up the good work.

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