This summer, China’s undisputed box office champion was a spunky, mischievous god-prince. “Ne Zha” raked in more than 4.7 billion yuan ($656 million) in less than two months, making it the country’s highest grossing animated film and second-highest grossing domestic film of all time.
Although not as well-known abroad, Ne Zha is a household name in China, where he’s possibly the second-most beloved mythological hero after “Monkey King” Sun Wukong. (“Monkey King: Hero is Back” previously held China’s animated box office belt.) The third son of deity Li Jing — sometimes known as the “Pagoda-bearing Heavenly King” — Ne Zha was born a troublemaker and a fighter. Often whirling through the air on wheels of fire, with a floating red sash draped around his shoulders, Ne Zha is one of the few child deities in the Chinese pantheon.
But this summer’s blockbuster isn’t the first time Chinese animators have brought Ne Zha’s tale to the big screen. “Prince Ne Zha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King,” released in 1979, at the beginning of the “reform and opening-up” period, is a beloved classic and one of the best-known Chinese animations of all time. Revisiting it today, after the towering success of this year’s adaptation, offers an interesting window into how the country’s animation industry — and the values it espouses — has changed over the past 40 years.
“Prince Ne Zha” is based on what is arguably the most famous legend associated with the boy god: his battle against the Dragon King. When Ne Zha was 7 years old, he went to bathe himself in the legendary East Sea. Churning the waters with his sash, he disturbed the Dragon King’s underwater palace and later brutally killed the king’s third son in battle.
A still frame from 1979’s “Prince Ne Zha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King,” showing Ne Zha pulling out the dragon’s spine. From Douban
Mythic justice is harsh, and the heavens decree that Ne Zha’s parents must die to wash out the blood. Before the sentence is carried out, Ne Zha decides to save them by killing himself. He slices off his flesh and carves up his bones, returning them to his parents in repayment for the harm he had caused. Afterward, however, his teacher uses the flowers, leaves, and roots of a lotus flower to create a new body for Ne Zha and bring him back to life.
In traditional interpretations, Ne Zha’s decision to commit suicide to save his parents is treated as the epitome of filial piety. In the 20th century, however, modernizers sought to distance China from its Confucian past, and contemporary retellings have tended to imbue Ne Zha’s extreme sacrifice with a different significance.
When “Prince Ne Zha” hit theaters in 1979, it was the first big-budget color animated feature film produced in China. Although it was released three years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the movie’s take on Ne Zha’s fight against the Dragon King is nevertheless infused with intense revolutionary imagery and themes. The film reinterprets their struggle as a battle between a young hero who despises evil and desires to serve the people, and a tyrannical Dragon King who oppresses the masses.
The film’s treatment of Ne Zha’s father, Li Jing, is also notable. Corrupt, counterrevolutionary, or ideologically backward father figures are a common leitmotif in revolutionary literature and film. To realize socialism and build a better society, the young hero must break with his or her father and thereby destroy the patriarchal and paternalistic family structures at the core of so-called feudal society.
When the Dragon King demands Li Jing hand over Ne Zha, Li betrays his son and hides Ne Zha’s two magic weapons. Thus weakened, the climax of the film sees Ne Zha, dressed in clothes as white as snow, march out into the dark and stormy night and slice his own throat. It’s a dramatic moment that Chinese animators have never surpassed. “Prince Ne Zha” turns Ne Zha into a symbol of youthful rebellion against the patriarchy and autocracy that has dominated his life.
Although “Ne Zha” draws on the same story, it’s a vehicle for a very different kind of message. When this Ne Zha is possessed by a “demon pill,” he seems predestined to spend his life as a naughty troublemaker. Later, however, he is inspired by the love of his family to rebel against this destiny and become a hero. At the film’s climax, Ne Zha bravely faces a lightning bolt sent from heaven to destroy the demon pill — i.e., him — and cries out: “I’m the master of my own fate!”
In many respects, the newer “Ne Zha” resembles a Marvel-style origin story. The protagonist, after struggling with his identity and power for a while, sacrifices himself for the greater good. Through this selfless act, he is transmuted into the hero he was always meant to be.
There’s no East Sea in this story, no dead dragons, and no self-disembowelment. Ne Zha’s father Li Jing is portrayed not as a sniveling bureaucrat of the heavenly court, but as a good husband and loving father willing to sacrifice his own life to save his son. It’s an idealized depiction of family values and relationships that’s very much at odds with its revolutionary forebear.
Left: A scene from “Prince Ne Zha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King” in which Ne Zha’s father declares, “You are no son of mine.” From Douban; right: Li Jing supports his pregnant wife in 2019’s “Ne Zha.” From Douban
The only remaining trace of “Prince Ne Zha” lies in the importance of rebellion — only here, it’s not a battle against patriarchy or autocracy, but intangible concepts like destiny and fate. The film’s climax takes place when Ne Zha realizes that it’s not the circumstances of his birth or the opinions of others that define him, but his own choices. It’s certainly a more soothing revelation than the lead character choosing to kill himself in a fit of revolutionary passion.
Watching the new “Ne Zha,” I couldn’t help but think of “Harry Potter”. At the end of the series’ second book, Harry confides in wise headmaster Dumbledore that he sees parts of the evil Lord Voldemort in himself and wonders if he belongs in Slytherin, Voldemort’s old school house. Dumbledore responds by asking Harry why, if he really was so similar to Voldemort, the magical Sorting Hat chose to put him in Gryffindor house. “Because I asked not to go in Slytherin,” Harry replies.
“Exactly,” Dumbledore tells him. “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
It’s a long road from the radicalism of “Prince Ne Zha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King,” to the reassuring “chicken soup for the soul” that is the climax of “Ne Zha.” Stories like “Ne Zha” and “Harry Potter” speak to very modern concerns about our origins, where we come from, and who we’re meant to be. Ne Zha is possessed by a demon pill and Harry Potter is marked by Voldemort, but neither is defined by his past.
This sentiment carries extra weight at a time when social mobility in both China and the West is on the decline, and our outward markers of identity — gender, race, class — sometimes threaten to subsume our inner selves entirely. Change and growth are still possible, these narratives remind us, and we are still the masters of our own fates.
“Ne Zha” is a worthy, if not definitive, entry in the character’s long and illustrious canon, and one well-suited to our current cultural moment. The magic of a good story is that it can be told and retold endlessly, for any audience, and at any time. The only question now is: Who — or what — will Ne Zha battle next?
Translator: David Ball; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Promotional images for the animated films “Prince Ne Zha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King” (left) and “Ne Zha.” From Douban)