Is There a Future for the ‘Chinese School of Animation’?
A new, 4K restoration of the classic Chinese animated film “The Legend of Sealed Book” has arrived in theaters. Originally released in 1983, “Sealed Book” was part of a wave of strident, uncompromisingly creative masterpieces produced in the early days of the “reform and opening-up” era. Alongside other classics from that time, like “Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King,” it defined the look and feel of modern Chinese animation for generations of filmgoers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film’s restoration has once again rekindled discussions among filmgoers about the supposedly diminished state of the country’s animation industry. Similar debates occurred after the release of a restored version of 1961’s “Havoc in Heaven” in 2019 and the uncut version of another animated classic, “Saving Mother,” in 2006. While domestically produced animation, known in Chinese as guoman, remains popular, audiences raised on the classics often complain that contemporary animation lacks the beauty of those earlier films — as well as their innovative approach to adapting traditional aesthetics.
But is this really a fair criticism? Animators today are working in a far more international context. Their target audience of young Chinese have grown up in a very different cultural landscape, one in which they’re as likely to know the ins and outs of the Marvel universe as the great Chinese novels on which so many classic animations were based.
The notion of a distinctly Chinese approach to animation has its roots, surprisingly enough, in the words of a British animator. After a screening of “Feeling From Mountain and Water” at the inaugural Shanghai International Animation Film Festival in 1988, John Halas — the animator of the 1954 adaptation of “Animal Farm” — hailed the discovery of a new world of Chinese animation. Building off Halas’ praise for Chinese animators’ unique style, within months, local critics and scholars were talking about a “Chinese school of animation” characterized by a mix of traditional Chinese art styles, opera, and vernacular literature.
But the thriving animation scene Halas admired in 1986 was actually the second golden age of Chinese animation. The first, stretching from the 1950s to the early 1960s, peaked with films like “Havoc in Heaven,” “Where is Mama?” and “The Proud General.”
In that era, Chinese animators were driven by strong, top-down directives to cultivate nationalism and nationalist imagery. As Chen Huangmei, the then director of the Central Film Management Bureau, told some of the country’s top animators in 1955: “Animated films need to contain children’s stories, myths, and folk stories. They need to draw from national culture; failing to honor our national legacy signals an absence of nationalism.”
Chen’s words had a huge impact on the development trajectory of Chinese animation. In response, animators sought to create a distinct visual language centered around ancient Chinese art and the performance rhythms of traditional Chinese opera.
They largely succeeded. All but three screenplays selected for an anthology of animated films between 1949 and 1979 drew material from ancient Chinese legends and folk stories. In terms of style, Chinese animation was influenced by traditional techniques such as paper-cutting, paper-folding, and ink wash painting. Many craft and fine artists were drafted to help with the design process, creating images based on historical art and artifacts like bronze implements, lacquerware, frescoes, and Chinese New Year paintings. The stories, meanwhile, borrowed heavily from the stylized performances of Peking opera and other local opera styles, including features like the use of gongs and drums to open the show.
The second golden age of Chinese animation was, at least to an extent, a continuation of the first. Beginning in the late 1970s, animators produced a number of classic films based in Chinese traditional culture, including “Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King,” “Feeling From Mountain and Water,” and “The Legend of Sealed Book.”
Despite second-wave animators’ frequent use of China’s “national legacy,” they also borrowed widely from a range of non-Chinese sources, including classic Hollywood, expressionism, and film noir. For example, the first-wave animated film “Havoc in Heaven” includes an intense fight between the Monkey King and the Chinese deity Erlang Shen. Mirroring the martial arts scenes found in Peking opera, the editing team employed slow, long shots to visualize their confrontation. But when the protagonist of 1979’s “Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against the Dragon King” dies by suicide at the film’s climax, the animators instead make a series of fast cuts between Nezha, his father, and the Dragon King to disrupt the action and emphasize the scene’s emotional impact.
In this sense, “The Legend of Sealed Book” is undoubtedly a product of the 1980s. Although much of the story is rooted in Chinese traditional culture — specifically a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novel’s narrative of a hero’s battle against fox spirits called “Quelling the Demons’ Revolt” — the movie’s real conflict is found in the battle of wills between the Jade Emperor and Yuangong, a side character tasked with guarding the emperor’s heavenly scriptures. Yuangong comes to believe that the emperor is monopolizing the scriptures’ power for his own ends while allowing the human world to suffer. So he brings them to the mortal plane, only to be seized and returned to the heavenly court for punishment.
At first glance, “Sealed Book” has a traditional Chinese aesthetic. The art style is influenced by the Ming Dynasty Wumen School, and the character designs are patterned off opera archetypes: the fox spirits are coquettish huadan, the hero Dansheng is the dashing young wawasheng character, and Yuangong is the hongsheng, or red-faced older man.
But the film’s visuals were also grounded in the everyday life of 1980s China. For instance, the film’s presentation of the county magistrate draws on both comic archetypes from Peking opera and toys like jack-in-the-boxes that were popular with Chinese kids at the time. His clothes are all traditional opera, but his body is connected to his head by a spring, leaving his protruding, sharply angled face swaying back and forth over his shoulders. Likewise, the Little Emperor was styled after another popular toy from the time: a cheap, cardboard doll with a fixed body and a spinning head. The result is a character that simultaneously strikes audiences as both powerful and utterly lacking in agency.
All this is to say that “Sealed Book” is remembered as a classic not only because of its abstract aesthetics or its presentation of traditional Chinese culture, but also because of how it connected with the era in which it was created. When we look back at the film’s dragon and lion dances, shadow plays, bustling markets, and fishing boats, they may seem like relics of a bygone era, yet they were all still part of everyday life in China in the 1980s. From its spiritual message to its experimental flourishes, “Sealed Book” was a product of its times.
Even the film’s use of opera elements has more to do with opera’s relatively mainstream status in the 1980s than a tribute to traditional Chinese culture. The reason the film’s animators based their characters’ expressions on opera archetypes is because they were a set of aesthetic symbols universally recognized and understood by their intended audience. And even then, the meaning of these archetypes was not fixed. Yuangong, for instance, may be depicted as a hongsheng in the tradition of warriors like Guan Yu, but at a time when Western literature and culture was once again accessible on the Chinese mainland, many filmgoers also associated him and his battle against the selfish gods with the Greek myth of Prometheus.
Despite what surface-level readings might suggest, the “Chinese school of animation” was never simply about incorporating elements of China’s “national legacy” like opera, painting, or paper-cutting. Culture isn’t static, and neither is art. Proponents of a traditionalist revival of guoman would do best to leave the rigid reproductions of the past to a museum, and the making of art to the artists.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A promotional image for the 4K restoration of the animated film “The Legend of Sealed Book,” 2021. From @电影天书奇谭 on Weibo)