History of Chinese Animation | WooKong

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Animation is China is an often overlooked artistry, over time the industry has experienced incredibly highs and unimaginable lows.

Artists who were celebrated one month were then persecuted the next.

Throughout the years there there have been countless incredible stories in this field, this is a brief history of Chinese animation.

The story of Chinese animation begins during the war between China and Japan with four siblings affectionately referred to the wan brothers.

Wan Chaochen, Wan Dihuan, and the twins Wai Laiming and Guchan were born in Nanjing at the dawn of the 20th Century After much experimentation, they first produced an animated advertisement for the Shanghai Commercial press titled Su Zhendong's Chinese Typewriter in 1922 After fleeing the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, the twins Wan Laiming and Wan Guchan began their work creating the first animated feature in Asia, the renowned Princess Iron-fan.

The final phase of production was completed back in Shanghai and was released in 1941.

The film adapted chapters from the Chinese classic Journey to the West and utilised and animation process called Roto scoping where live action film was painted over to create cheap and smooth animation.

Princess Iron-fan received stellar reviews internationally Most notably was the reception received from their then enemy Japan.

Despite carrying slight undertones of anti-Japanese sentiment, the film became a hit and Japanese animation studios quickly rushed to create their own feature length animation which was completed three years later.

Osamu Tezuka the father of modern Japanese manga, anime and the creator of Astroboy, is often said to have been greatly influenced by Disney, but he has said many times that the Wan Brothers film also played a huge role in his life's work.

After the war ended with Japan, the Chinese civil war continued on and the twin Wan brothers travelled to Hong Kong to start their next project.

They ultimately failed to generate enough funding but upon their return to the main land they found that the animation industry was growing faster than ever.

After the civil war and during the 1950's the animation industry was flourishing, but critics claimed that it was unable to separate itself as something uniquely Chinese.

The 1955 short film why the Crow is Black received many awards internationally, but was actually mistook as a Russian film during one award ceremony.

This began to change when Mao Zedong launched launched the 100 flowers campaign a movement which called for artists to voice their criticisms of the government, celebrate their culture and push China into the international stage.

Te Wei produced the acclaimed short "the conceited general" which was the first step towards developing China's iconic styles.

The hundred flowers campaign was unable to withstand critics and failed horribly, but it help launch golden age of Chinese animation.

Embracing Chinese traditional artistry, Pigsy Eats a Watermelon was the first animated short using Chinese paper cutting Te Wei created another critically acclaimed hit with where is Mama?

Incorporating the uniquely Chinese ink wash painting style.

Then in 1961, the Wan brothers' work culminated in the timeless feature, Havok in Heaven.

Following Te Wei, the film took heavy inspiration from Beijing Opera and told the story of Sun Wukong's first encounters with the Jade Emperor.

Released in two parts, the film was enthusiastically received throughout the world winning numerous awards.

The film was initially celebrated in China for its artistry and revolutionary attitude, but the film's success, and the freedom of all animators was short lived.

In 1966 Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution as an attempt at purging China from all capitalist and traditionalist ideologies.

Following Mao's claim that art should reflect the class-struggle and life of the people almost all animations were banned and a large majority were destroyed.

Havoc in Heaven which just a few months ago was heralded as a masterpiece was now banned and no longer considered true art.

As the focus heavily on culture, China's once app-lorded animators were sent to reeducation camps Te Wei spent his time feeding pigs, and being forced to write self criticisms. Under such restrictive and harsh conditions, the Chinese Animation industry was brought to a screeching halt with nothing but crude propaganda films being created for the next 10 years.

This was not the end of animation in China though, as they say tragedy breeds creativity.

At the end of the Cultural Revolution with animators returning to their passions, a huge number of genre defining films were created.

While the Wan brothers did not return to their careers as before, Chinese Animation stormed back on the scene with Nezha conquers the dragon king winning multiple awards internationally and is still considered a masterpiece of Chinese animation.

Films such A deer of nine colours, the deer bell's, Lao Mountain Taoist, and three monks simultaneously impressed audiences and subtly criticised their previous persecutors.

Te wei after his long awaited returned produced his magnum opus, The Feeling from Mountain and Water.

There were still a great deal of animations that focused heavily on nationalism, but these were more reflections on the past than total propaganda.

For the next 10 years Chinese animation was seemingly back on track and started to grow again, the problem was that in the meantime everyone else had become fully grown.

While China experienced multiple imposed hiatuses in the development of animation, the rest of the world had continued to raise the industry standard and audience expectations.

So By the time Deng Xiao ping opened China to rest of the world at the end of the 1970s, the influx of Western and Japanese animation made Chinese animation look outdated by comparison.

from the 1990s onwards animators now found much more profitable to work as animation outsources for western studios than in creating original Chinese animations this coupled with the government policy restrictions meant that creativity once again became stagnant in China.

That's not to say that there was nothing being made, television became more prominent within the industry with cartoons such as the black cat detective, calabash brothers, pleasant goat and the big bad wolf, and more recently the Boonie bears gaining recognition and generating impressive profits, but the largest majority of Chinese cartoons struggle to find an audience outside of China.

The future of Chinese animation is still uncertain, but it does seem to heading in the right direction.

Since 2004, The Chinese government has slowly come to realise the importance of animation as a cultural export and as such has begun to invest somewhat in animation technologies.

Collaborations and partnerships with overseas studios has helped Chinese studios learn the management skills necessary to create films for the international market.

Online platforms have given new young artists a place to grow, hone their skills and experiment in ways that have not been demonstrated before.

So it seems that China is just one step away from entering the big leagues.

But there are multiple factors to consider in the coming future, salaries have increased meaning that outsourcing to China is becoming impractical, government restrictions on content limit artistic vision, and a focus on quantity rather than quality creates many issues to overcome, but as the industry continues to develop and gain domestic recognition, it is one step closer to finally earning it's place on the international stage.

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