Chinese animation is booming — but don’t confuse it with anime

In 2021, Funimation viewers obtained what may need been their first introduction to donghua when the anime streaming service added the collection Heaven Official’s Blessing to its roster. But the service mistakenly listed the language on the Chinese import as “Japanese.” (It’s since been corrected to “Mandarin.”) Netflix is additionally streaming the collection — underneath the banner of its “anime” class. Cue confusion from curious viewers who noticed previews and requested, “What anime is this from?” The most simple reply: “It’s anime-style, but it’s Chinese, so we call it a donghua.”

“Donghua” — very similar to “anime” for Japanese audio system — is merely the Chinese phrase for “animation.” After a long time of stagnation within the animation trade, going way back to the Cultural Revolution, China has entered what many tentatively name a rebirth within the subject. It’s the results of 20 years of a Chinese identification disaster in animation, because the trade struggled to compete with the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli.

While donghua’s present type is closely influenced by anime, it has its personal identification. From the start, the medium has consistently developed to satisfy the mindset of the society it comes from.

Chinese animation has been round for practically 100 years. The first few donghua items, originating within the Twenties, have been misplaced. But the golden and silver ages of Chinese cinema launched signature animation types based mostly on conventional arts: shadow puppetry, paper-folded stop-motion, ink wash portray, and the brightly coloured pomp and panache of Chinese opera.

Milestone 1: Nezha Conquers the Dragon King

Enter the Cultural Revolution. The messaging and elegance of donghua modified to primarily turn out to be inspirational propaganda posters in movement. Meanwhile, Chinese society skilled a decade of upheaval that didn’t finish till 1976.

A young person wearing a white robe puts their hand on a dragon’s head while standing over it in a drawn image from Nezha Conquers the Dragon King.

Image: Shanghai Animation Film Studio

The aftermath of such emotional and ideological occasions is obvious in 1979’s Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, a donghua that continues to introduce many Chinese nationals and expats to a folkloric hero. Nezha, third noble inheritor of the coastal city Chentang Guan, is only a little one when he kills Ao Bing, the son of the Eastern Dragon King, for consuming kids as choices for rain. When the Eastern Dragon King summons his brothers to flood Chentang Guan in retaliation, Nezha’s father punishes him. Nezha, in a filial act, kills himself to appease the dragons, save the folks of Chentang Guan, and return his physique to his dad and mom.

This adaptation of a folkloric story was launched off the heels of the Cultural Revolution, and displays its theme of violent rebellion in opposition to abusive authority figures. It has been interpreted each as an allegory for the Cultural Revolution itself or for its ending, when its political perpetrators had been overthrown. No matter which interpretation you settle for, although, the core message continued to evolve by a long time of additional variations of Nezha’s story.

The animation and design of Nezha Conquers the Dragon King had been thought-about a return to conventional traits: During dramatic scenes, the music is performed by a well-known Peking opera ensemble, which was considered as an out of date, out-of-touch artwork through the Cultural Revolution. The exaggerated actions, facial options, and physique proportions — particularly the huge shoulders of heavyset males — replicate a mix of opera and ink work. It is a bit of nostalgia knowledgeable by a interval of turmoil.

Milestone 2: Legend of Nezha

By the Nineties and early 2000s, donghua had entered a interval of stagnation. Animated films like Disney’s 1989 function The Little Mermaid ushered within the Disney renaissance. Meanwhile, anime like Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon grew to become so fashionable, they constructed big and lasting worldwide fandoms.

During this time interval, China had begun introducing financial reforms to make sure a gentle upward development. But Japan and the United States dominated the worldwide animation market. Caught between these two giants, China couldn’t compete.

Nezha rushed again on display, this time in 2003’s Legend of Nezha, a donghua collection whose ending theme kids nonetheless sing at this time. This time, the story coated the textual content of your complete unique story, historic context and all. But it nonetheless emphasised the theme of overthrowing a despot.

Box art for The Legend of Nezha, showing a young person leaping into the air with a big spear, and some monstrous figures below and to the side.

Image: China International Television Corporation

The visuals had been designed with a mix of Disney and anime seems, that includes big-eyed characters and broadly drawn traces. Legend of Nezha and different donghua of this era had been solely home releases. If they made it to world distribution, it was solely by Chinese diaspora enclaves.

During that interval, donghua was largely seen as clunky, low-cost animation, working underneath the acquainted stigma of something labeled “made in China.” Both trade expansionists and Chinese folks at massive are nonetheless attempting to shake off that affiliation. It definitely didn’t assist that China was seen as a supply of low-cost animation labor, with donghua artists prioritizing outsourced work for Japanese studios over working with native studios. Many of the backdrops seen in anime of the period had been drawn in China.

As accessibility to the web expanded within the mid-2000s, the sport modified. Amateurs started utilizing on-line websites to distribute their very own home made animation. And the outsourcing of anime work to China had educated a whole era of artists in what had turn out to be a well-liked type worldwide.

China rolled out laws that restricted airtime for international works, leaving loads of room for home donghua. The nation’s financial system, which had been steadily but absolutely rising, reached such a bullish top that the federal government started funding the donghua trade. Private traders started pouring cash into the artwork.

Milestone 3: Monkey King: Hero Is Back

Wukong the Monkey King sits in deep reflection in an image that looks like he’s in the middle of a twisting wave. A red cape swirls around him, in Monkey King: Hero is Back.

Monkey King: Hero is Back visible
Image: Beijing Weiyingshidai Culture & Media, Hengdian Chinese Film Production Co., October Animation Studio, S&C Pictures, Shandong Film and Television Production Center

2015’s Monkey King: Hero Is Back was a turning level. This function movie, starring one other oft-adapted folklore character, was crowdfunded — a mannequin of funding so fashionable on the time, firms like Alibaba jumped in on it too.

The story this time round was not a verbatim adaptation of a well-known folks story, but a broad reimagining of 1. The visuals and results had been up to date with laptop animation, and it was the type that struck a chord with the viewers. As Accented Cinema, the Chinese Canadian YouTuber and movie essayist, places it: “The familiar Chinese music, the ribbons and the exaggerated proportions of gods, the stylized clouds and mountains… It’s all so familiar. But now the action is like anime. After 20 years of soul-searching, my generation finally grew up.”

Monkey King: Hero Is Back made its manufacturing funds again twice over. It was the highest-grossing animated film in China till Zootopia and Kung Fu Panda 3 broke the report.

Milestone 4: Big Fish & Begonia

The upward trajectory continued, and this time pierced the worldwide market. Funimation dubbed 2016’s Big Fish & Begonia, one other feature-length donghua. Big Fish & Begonia is a myth-like fantasy story that focuses on an underwater being, Chun, who surfaces into the human world within the type of a dolphin. When a human drowns whereas saving her from a web, Chun makes a deal with an afterlife caretaker to are likely to the soul of the human, which itself takes the type of a child dolphin.

A large red fish embraces a woman floating nearby, as other large fish swim around in what looks like a pagoda in an animated image from Big Fish and Begonia.

Image: Horgos Coloroom Pictures, Beijing Enlight Media, Biantian (Beijing) Media, Studio Mir

Audiences had been drawn to its existentialist themes. The movie explores the steadiness of nature and society, private bonds that overlap the 2 (Chun seeks recommendation from her grandfather, who is a tree), and the character of reincarnation, which Chinese audiences would acknowledge as a trope in its fantasy genres.

What reviewers and social media followers praised specifically was the aesthetic supply of those themes. “It is unsurprising, but also unfair, that the film has repeatedly drawn comparisons to Studio Ghibli,” wrote one Reddit reviewer. The clean animation and the character designs draw from the Classic of Mountains and Seas — a Chinese textual content not in contrast to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The previews and music movies closely featured the tulou, a region-specific Chinese dwelling used incorrectly in 2020’s Disney film Mulan. But what grabbed folks’s consideration probably the most on social media was the primary theme, “Big Fish,” which grew to become singer Zhou Shen’s declare to fame. It even caught consideration within the West, with tune covers all over YouTube. Zhou Shen has continued to garner English-language feedback on the positioning. This would be the first donghua lately to achieve reputation within the Anglosphere.

Milestone 5: Nezha

Nezha got here again in 2019, this time on Netflix. Like Monkey King: Hero Is Back, the brand new feature-length donghua reimagines the character’s story for a brand new era. Nezha is now a social outcast whose solely good friend is the character he murders within the unique textual content, Ao Bing. In this model, they’re each kids of circumstance, whose households dictate they be enemies.

That inherently makes the story about combating future. Instead of pursuing a rocky path to filial piety, this Nezha questions filial loyalty altogether. It hit dwelling for a era of millennials in China — a era whose younger individuals are touring internationally greater than any time in historical past, and whose dad and mom fret as a result of they’re marrying years after the “acceptable” age to be single (in the event that they marry in any respect). This is the place ladies are selecting to turn out to be single moms, shattering expectations of what a household ought to be. Globalization and financial development have created a literal world of alternative to pursue, but dad and mom unused to the change nonetheless anticipate younger folks to begin households as an alternative. Social norms are in a significant state of change, and this newest breakout donghua hit displays that tumult.

The 2019 version of animated Nezha has a devilish grin and an impish expression.

Image: Chengdu Coco Cartoon/Beijing Enlight Pictures

Nezha retains the weather that make donghua culturally distinctive. It makes use of a randomly positioned Peking opera ensemble to create a comedic reference to the unique Nezha Conquers the Dragon King. The largest shift from conventional donghua could also be Nezha himself. His character design departs from the spherical, virtually cherub-like face that reveals he’s a toddler. In this adaptation, his exaggerated facial options replicate types drawn from the wild-eyed grimaces and beneficiant mouth signature from a variety of characters present in Chinese work and sculptures — from demons to deities just like the Four Heavenly Kings to extra historic figures like Bodhidharma. The trope of an unpleasant, socially vilified protagonist could even resemble digital “monster” characters within the West, like Shrek. Regardless, it is a departure from an try and imitate each American and Japanese affect. To quote Accented Cinema’s enjoyment of his new design: “I mean, if they wanted to copy Disney, they wouldn’t make Nezha an imp. Oh my God, he’s so ugly, I love it.”

The movie’s iconography consists of supernatural door guards in historical bronze masks present in archeological digs all through China. Nezha’s grasp swaggers round in exaggerated proportions and speaks Sichuan dialect — a localized selection for a movie in commonplace Mandarin. It isn’t nearly making a brand new identification — it’s about reconciling the brand new world with the one they got here from.

Because of its cultural specificity, the brand new Nezha and its characters resonate in diaspora communities outdoors of China itself. At Anime NYC in 2021, fashionable artists just like the Chinese American Velinxi bought prints that includes Nezha’s new iteration with his former homicide sufferer turned greatest good friend, Ao Bing.

Although a lot of her work is based mostly off acquainted Japanese and Western tales with preestablished fan bases within the United States, she has begun drawing for a brand new wave of media based mostly off Chinese storytelling, together with Strike the Zither, a retelling of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Chinese American writer Joan He. Joan He, herself raised on media from China, has stated, “Journey to the West was basically my SpongeBob.”

Milestone 6: MXTX

While donghua is reimagining previous pantheons, it’s making new ones as effectively. In school, Chinese indie writer Mo Xiang Tong Xiu penned three books. The most well-known, Mo Dao Zu Shi, was tailored right into a donghua collection in 2018. Then it was tailored into 2019’s The Untamed, a live-action drama obtainable on Netflix and YouTube. They are many individuals’s introduction to every respective medium. Chinese diaspora usually establish Mo Dao Zu Shi as the primary story they might share outdoors the neighborhood. Heaven Official’s Blessing, her third novel, has since adopted swimsuit on Funimation.

Donghua amongst anime and manga followers

A figure holding a sword stands on a clifftop, as two figures look at each other above them with text in between them. Clouds surround the figure on the clifftop. The image is animated, and from Mo Dao Zu Shi.

Image: Tencent Penguin Pictures, B.C May Pictures

For informal viewers — particularly followers who watch imported animation in English — it’s commonplace to lump donghua films and options in with anime, particularly if they’re anime-type. Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s books, formally launched in English in December 2021, are marketed as mild novels underneath the “manga” part of Barnes & Noble; Seven Seas, the writer that holds the license to those books, historically interprets Japanese books. Western advertising and marketing — particularly American advertising and marketing — has provided Japanese tales because the default East Asian media for thus lengthy now that they sometimes pitch different international locations’ works underneath the identical grouping.

Korean manhwa (comics) are sometimes given the identical therapy, filed within the manga part of bookstores, remoted from the comics part that carries graphic novels from the Western world.

American impression is simply as sturdy: The double commonplace

Like every Nezha adaptation, MXTX makes use of an historical historic backdrop to inform themes which can be ruminating in Chinese folks’s minds now. Even the title Heaven Official’s Blessing — “tiān guān cì fú” is a Daoist phrase nonetheless discovered on commercialized talismans in China.

Donghua exists in its present type attributable to a detailed relationship with anime, but such broad categorizations and blatant errors increase the query of if folks even acknowledge East Asian works and the folks behind them as separate cultures.

It additionally ignores the equally heavy impression of American animation.

China grew to become the world’s second-largest leisure market in 2017; the primary is the United States. The two actively work collectively: Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) and Netflix’s Over the Moon (2020) are each co-productions between American and Chinese manufacturing firms, and each tales are set in China. The major producing firm for each movies, Pearl Studio, is based mostly in Shanghai but made up of each locals and former Disney and DreamWorks creators from the United States.

Chang’e meets the protagonists on her diva stage on the moon in Over the Moon

Over the Moon
Image: Netflix

Generations of affect by Japan and the United States’ mushy energy is inevitable for any nation; they’re two of the largest animation markets on the earth. Before the pandemic, the largest Japanese popular culture conference outdoors of its nation of origin was Japan Expo, based mostly in France. When Disney’s Coco was launched in 2017, a Peruvian father-son duo dubbed the movie in Quechua, the most typical Indigenous language nonetheless spoken in South America. China is no exception. Donghua is distinctive as a result of it is the reckoning of identification by a 3rd nation that has put the assets into matching the giants toe-to-toe.

By extension, it is a reckoning not just for that nation’s home folks, but its world diaspora as effectively. Just as Europeans flock to have fun the anime, manga, and video video games they love, Chinese folks and the Chinese diaspora have drawn from fluid Japanese animation. Just as this Peruvian father and son wished to share Coco with their village and the 8 million audio system of their language, Chinese and diaspora folks have sought to specific their love for American storytelling with their very own tradition.

Through a long time of innovation and cross-generational dialog, donghua has turn out to be one thing to be pleased with. Chinese folks, the biggest ethnic group on the earth with simply as many complexities, have a type of animated storytelling all their very own. It deserves greater than to be haphazardly lumped into the class of “anime” just because it too comes from East Asia. The conflation of all issues East Asian as part of one class is a harmful one, be it with artwork or with folks.

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