'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

Xu Wei
The trailblazing brothers of Chinese animation – Wan Laiming, Wan Guchan, Wan Chaochen, and Wan Dihuan – founded and experimented with the film form in the nation.
Xu Wei
'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

'Princess Iron Fan' (1941), adapted from a famous episode of Chinese literature classic 'Journey to the West,' was China's first animated feature film.

This episode of our cultural column "Lights, Camera" will continue to focus the lens on the Chinese animation industry in its infancy and early stage of development, paying tribute to the pioneers who discovered new animation technologies and styles in spite of poverty, wartime turbulence, and a lack of resources.

After the trailblazing brothers of Chinese animation – Wan Laiming, Wan Guchan, Wan Chaochen, and Wan Dihuan – presented the country's first animated short film "Uproar in the Studio," they did not cease their exploration of the novel film art.

The Wan brothers had sold many items and clothes to fund their animation experiments until they found an investor – Da ZhongHua Baihe Studio – for their second animated short film "A Paper Man Makes Trouble" (1930).

The 10-minute film, inspired by Max Fleischer's "Out of the Inkwell" (1918), was, like their first film, a hilarious story about a small paper man jumping out of an ink bottle and causing trouble for the artist, played by Wan Guchan.

Compared with "Uproar in the Studio" and some other American and European animations of the time, the film with both live footage and animated drawings showed major progress in its character design and body movements.

In former animations, most characters were laterally animated, with only a few parts moving. Although the film had a simple plot, the postures of the characters were so amusing that the audience burst into laughter.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

The Wan brothers were the founders and pioneers of Chinese animation.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

The 10-minute short 'A Paper Man Makes Trouble' (1930) by the Wan brothers was inspired by Max Fleischer's 'Out of the Inkwell' (1918).

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

A poster advertises 'Out of the Inkwell.'

Another remarkable change in the animation was that the Wan Brothers brought traditional Chinese elements of folk costume and ink-wash painting onto the big screen.

During Japan's invasion of China, the Wan brothers produced over 20 animated patriotic shorts from the end of 1931 to 1937, encouraging the Chinese people to resist Japanese troops and boycott Japanese goods.

China's first professional animation production institution – the animation unit of Mingxing Film Company – was set up in Shanghai in April, 1933. It hired the Wan brothers to make a series of animated films.

However, the Wan brothers were not content with the temporary popularity of animation in China as they realized that if animated films remained silent and continued to adopt simple production methods of live footage and animation, the new genre would face the danger of decline and demise. They began to make bold explorations in producing sound animations in spite of a technological blockade from foreign animators at that time.

In 1935, they presented the short "The Camel's Dance," which is known as the first Chinese cartoon with sound. The short film is a satire of a story from "Aesop's Fables." The dancing sound of the camel was recreated by the drum and percussion instruments widely used in Peking Opera.

The success of the sound film marked a new development phase of Chinese animation, a fundamental transformation from silent to sound. In that period of time, Chinese animations also made great breakthroughs in theme, art, technology, and aesthetic expression. It demonstrated that the Wan brothers had developed the ability to make animated features.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

In 1935, the Wan brothers presented the short 'The Camel's Dance,' the first Chinese cartoon with sound.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

Walt Disney's 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' (1937) was the first feature-length animated film in film history.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' was also released in China and inspired the Wan brothers to make a full-length feature animation of their own.

Years later, Walt Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), the first feature-length animated film in film history was released. This groundbreaking film marked Disney's successful foray into feature-length animation. With refined storytelling and a soundtrack, the movie created a huge sensation and held the box office record for the highest-grossing sound film until it was outperformed by "Gone with the Wind" in 1939.

After watching the film, the Wan brothers were enchanted by the film's animated storytelling and sound design and decided to make a counterpart to it.

In September, 1941, they completed the shooting for China's first animated feature "Princess Iron Fan" under difficult wartime conditions. Produced by the Xinhua United Film Company, the 73-minute film was adapted from a famous episode of the 16th-century Chinese literature classic "Journey to the West," centering on how the Monkey King borrows a fan from the Princess Iron Fan to put out a fire on a mountain.

The film gained huge popularity and wide acclaim when it was screened in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. It even inspired and encouraged famous Japanese manga artist and animator Osamu Tezuka, the creator of "Astro Boy," to pursue his dream of manga. In 1980, Tezuka arrived in China to visit Wan Laiming, who was then in his 70s.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

'Princess Iron Fan' inspired and encouraged famous Japanese manga artist and animator Osamu Tezuka, the creator of 'Astro Boy,' to pursue his dream of manga.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

A poster for Walt Disney's 'Pinocchio' (1940).

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

A poster for Japanese animation 'Astro Boy.'

From 1926 to 1949, the Chinese mainland produced 28 animated films and two puppet films. Chinese animated movies, owing to the consistent efforts of the pioneering artists, continuously explored and applied new animation technology and art. It laid a solid foundation for the comprehensive development of China's animation industry after the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

Professor Chen Zhihong, a veteran animation director and scholar from Shanghai University's Shanghai Film Academy, said that in terms of the endeavors of pioneer Chinese animators represented by the Wan Brothers, China's animation industry made significant progress in both production and quality, and took a leading position in Asia in the 1930s and 40s.

In his eyes, the animation creation team and production process in China became quite mature, especially with the debut of "Princess Iron Fan" in 1941. Prior to that film, only a few animated feature films such as Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Pinocchio" (1940) had been officially released.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

'Princess Iron Fan' had a profound influence on Chinese animation.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

The iconic animated image of the Monkey King – Sun Wukong is frequently seen on Chinese and Japanese screens.

'Lights, Camera' presents: Chinese animation's development from 1926 to 1949

A poster for "The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven" (1961).

Since "Princess Iron Fan" is based on the story of "Journey to the West," the iconic image of the Monkey King – Sun Wukong also appeared on the animated screen for the first time.

"Its impact was profound," Chen said. "In 1961, the milestone work of the Chinese school of animation – 'The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven' was also produced on this basis. Some characteristics of the Monkey King, such as his wit, humor, and power already took shape in 'Princess Iron Fan.' The film had a strong influence on Japanese animators. Even today, Monkey King remains a frequently seen animated character on Chinese and Japanese screens."

During this period of time, the Wan brothers realized that China's traditional culture could inject vitality and creativity into animated films.

"They actively explored stories from classic novels and sought inspiration from traditional Chinese opera performances," Chen added. "Their passion for the animation art and courage in innovation are setting good examples for today's animation creators."

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