To celebrate Chinese New Year we’re delving into the history of the animation and film in China.  

Japan is often heavily associated with animation, but we never really hear about Chinese animation. Animation has been around in China for a long time but due to the country’s tumultuous history, animation and film were put on the back burner and neglected for a long time and as a result, Chinese animation and film aren’t as famous or successful as neighbouring Japan, or the rest of the world. 

However, it seems like this is all about to change. All you have to do is Google ‘Chinese Animation’ and you’ll be hit with numerous news articles from worldwide press telling of China’s recent success in animation. A reason for this is perhaps China’s appetite for animation. A recent study found that the Chinese consumer market has identified 11% of their audience are under the age of 13 and 59% between 14 and 17. This percentage combined with adults who watch animation could make a total of 500 million people who could be identified as cartoon consumers, giving China one of the largest domestic animation audiences in the world. 

One of the ways that China’s progress in animation is being noticed is the awards it is winning. Last year the winner of the Oscars Best Animated Short was awarded to Domee Shi for her animation: Bao. Despite growing up in North America, her award-winning film was inspired by her relationship with her mother and the pride she felt in her heritage. The film was widely celebrated by Asian audiences all around the world who felt a connection to the film and its themes, but in comparison, a number of western viewers just didn’t seem to get it. One viewer even said it was the most confusing 10 minutes of their life. Jon explored the difference between East and West last year in an article for Creative Moment Magazine, you can read his views here.

Following in Shi’s footsteps is Siqi Song, a Chinese animator who has just been nominated for the Best Animated Short category at the Oscars for her film Sister. Her film is about a man looking back on his childhood memories of growing up in China in the 1990s with an annoying little sister. Song’s inspiration for the film was her own childhood in China, where she was a rare second child in a country where they were banned from 1979 until 2015. Whilst growing up, she was the only one of her friends to have a brother.

Similarly, Chinese animation Liu Jian won the 2017 Best Animated Feature at the 54th Golden Horse Awards, an award ceremony held annually in Taiwan. His feature-length film Have a Nice Day was credited by IndieWire as ‘If Tarantino remade Pulp Fiction as an animated movie.’ Liu did most of the work for the film himself and it took him over three years to complete. Liu’s first feature, Piercing I,  was also critically and won the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

One of the reasons for this recent success could be the improvement of Chinese film production. In 2012 DreamWorks animation joined forces with China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance to create a Shanghai-based family entertainment company named Oriental DreamWorks. The purpose of the joint venture was to develop and produce original Chinese animated and live-action content for distribution within China and worldwide. The studio’s first animated feature film, Kung Fu Panda 3, was released in 2016. But the studio’s first original film was Abominable which came out in 2019 and reportedly made $30 million worldwide during its opening weekend. Another prominent animation and CGI company in China is Crystal CG who supplied computer graphics, digital imaging, and multimedia for several major events, including Beijing 2008, London 2012 Olympics, Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympics Organizing Committee, Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Bid. In 2012 Jon was lucky enough to spend a lot of time in China and visited the Crystal CG studios. 

Despite this recent resurgence in animation, China has a long animation history. Some of the earliest Chinese animation legends were the Wan Brothers. Wan Laiming, Wan Guchan, Wan Chaochen and Wan Dihuan (born between 1900 and1907) were the founders and pioneers of the Chinese animation industry. In 1922 Wan Laiming produced the first-ever Chinese animated cartoon avert for a typewriter. The Wan Brothers went on to produce the first Asian animation feature-length film and the 12th worldwide, Princess Iron Fan, in 1941. The film took 237 artists over 3 years to create and was stylistically part-inspired by Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1939).

However, the Second Sino-Japanese Chinese war was the reason that so Chinese animation fell so far behind the rest of the world. In 1967 when the war began you could be prosecuted for showing an opinion that differed to that of the political party. The Red Guard would often destroy artefacts, antiques, paintings and books. Many artists turned back to traditional jobs, such as farmer work, or were forced into manual labour, and some even took their own life to stop from being humiliated. Once the cultural revolution ended in 1976 the animation industry began working again, but by this point, the damage had been done. However, the Wan Brothers also worked extensively during the Second Sino-Japanese War to create more than 20 animated propaganda shorts focusing on various patriotic topics including resistance against Japanese troops, opium and imperialism. 

We’re looking forward to seeing what is to come in the world of Chinese animation, but it’s already looking very promising! Stay tuned to find out more about the film industry next week. For now though, Happy Year of the Rat! 



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