Donghua - the history of Chinese animation | Sunday Observer

Donghua - the history of Chinese animation

13 November, 2022

Donghua, translated literally as moving sketches, is the term used to refer to all Chinese animated works.

Though the term donghua is generally used for animation from China, it can also apply to any animation in Chinese, regardless of which country it’s produced in.

Though more recent works have made some waves and critical acclaim, such as ‘The Legend of Deification’, ‘White Snake’ and the ‘Ne Zha’ franchise, Chinese animation has struggled to find its footing domestically and internationally. Though its history has been groundbreaking for animation as a whole, donghua has since been greatly overshadowed by many of its Asian contemporaries, particularly Japan.

Despite the current state of the Chinese animation industry relative to it, donghua actually has a longer history than Japanese anime, much as how Chinese manhua existed long before Japanese manga.

Early in the 20th century, the Wan brothers were instrumental in pioneering animation in China, having produced the first true Chinese cartoons. Prior to the four brother’s collaborative efforts, animation in China was limited to short clips for advertising and cartoons imported from the West.

The Wan brothers were greatly influenced by those western cartoons, having grown up watching them. After seeing Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), the Wan brothers were inspired to create the first feature-length animated film in Asia, ‘Princess Iron Fan’ (1941).

The success of which spurred the development of Japanese animation and served as direct inspiration for generations of manga and anime creators, notably including the legendary Osamu Tezuka.

Until the 60s, prior to the Chinese cultural revolution, the Chinese animation industry was in its Golden era. At that point, it was by far the most advanced in terms of design, techniques, and storytelling, the culmination of which was ‘Havoc in Heaven’.

The movie was made by the Wan brothers as a part of Shanghai Animation Film Studio, the shining star of the Asian animation industry of the time, which served as direct inspiration for many great animation studios today such as Studio Ghibli.

Havoc in Heaven was released in two parts, in 1961 and 1964, the full movie was screened in 1965 and served as the final hurrah of the Golden era of Chinese animation.

Until that point China saw animation as a technological marvel and a cultural triumph, but under the Chinese Cultural Revolution led by Communist leader Mao Zedong, much of China’s cultural achievements until then were erased. Animators were forced to flee the country or were killed, and Chinese animation was essentially completely halted for the next decade or so.

Even after the Cultural Revolution had ended and reforms to rebuild the nation had started in 1978, the animation industry found it difficult to regain its footing.

Though it used to keep pace with the strongest animation industries in the world, after over a decade of stagnation and loss, it was clear that Chinese animation had fallen far behind.

Some iconic films were made during this period of recovery, such as ‘Nezha Conquers The Dragon King’ (1979) but animation in China still experienced very little growth at the time, which led to American and Japanese media taking over China in its place. A trend that continues to this day.

Since around the 90s and 2000s China’s animators saw little support from the domestic studios and government, the industry leaned towards outsourcing its talent, working for foreign studios in America and Japan. While this was very profitable for China, as it was for South Korea’s animation industry, it was seen as negatively impacting the development of domestic Chinese animation.

And after decades of stagnation, ‘Ne Zha’ (2019) was thought to be a huge turning point for donghua, being an internationally well received animated film. It performed exceptionally well at the box office, currently ranking as the 4th highest grossing film of all time in China.

But films since then have not seen comparable success. Released in the same year as Disney’s live action remake of Mulan (2020), China’s own attempt at an animated adaptation called Kung Fu Mulan was so poorly received it was pulled from theaters just days after release.

Critics have noted Chinese audiences only value animated depictions of Chinese mythology, history and folklore, with very few works going beyond those boundaries seeing any commercial success. Currently Chinese animation is still in a delicate position but some are still optimistic for its growth.