Between Ideological Confinement and Cultural Creativity: An Exploration of Chinese Independent Animation as a Formative Agent of Cultural Identity, Ph.D. dissertation, by Aaron Wenhai Zhou, The University of Waikato, New Zealand, 2017. 318 pp.

By Cyrus Huiyong Qiu

Aaron Wenhai Zhou’s Ph.D. dissertation offers an in-depth exploration of the flourishing independent animation industry in modern China. While the growing animation industry in China and its rich variety of mainstream cultural products receive much of the spotlight from the media as well as attention from academia, research on Chinese independent animation, as Zhou comments, remains insufficient, arguably due to “the difficulties of highlighting the ontology of any ‘independent’ cultural production within contemporary China” (pp. 3). In his attempt to contribute to the study of both the independent animation industry and contemporary society and culture in China, Zhou employs Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage theory as a framework to analyze the ecology of Chinese independent animation within the context of China’s “post-socialist” culture from 1994 onwards. Zhou argues that Chinese independent animation embodies a potential to “discover a realm of discourse beyond the current post-socialist Chinese society, also as an alternative opportunity to challenge the traditions of conventional Chinese animation” (pp. 5). In doing so, Zhou sheds light on how individual animation artists—Pisan and Lei Lei in particular—navigate the border between political constraints and individual expression in their creative practices.

Zhou’s dissertation consists of seven chapters. In the introductory chapter, Zhou provides an overview of his research on Chinese independent animation, and contextualizes it in China’s post-socialist culture. He argues that, while meishu style (national style) plays a dominant role in Chinese traditional/mainstream animation, as well as literature and art, “the predicament of having to negotiate between the creative possibilities of [independent artists’] work and the post-socialist social order is the crucial element that distinguishes the Chinese ‘independent’ scene from others” (pp. 20). Zhou then offers a literature review of the recent scholarship on Chinese animation, and he proposes an ecological approach to examine the mediascape of independent animation. He points out that there is a significant artistic shift in contemporary Chinese animation from meishu (national style) to “an independent sector with a more divergent profile” in 1994, as the country transformed from a “planned economy” to a “market economy” (pp. 25). The proliferation of Flash animation (created by independent artists known as shanke) around the 2000s further exemplifies the desire for self-expression and the urge to reconstruct a collective identity among the animation practitioners who “stand out as one of the most significant post-socialistic initiatives” (pp. 53). In order to construct a clear trajectory of the independent artists’ movements during the post-socialist phase of reform after the 1990s, Zhou proposes an “ecological” conception, which is further discussed in the ensuing chapter.

The second chapter provides a detailed discussion of the methodology used in this project. Zhou makes it clear that rather than creating an exhaustive record of the current independent animation industry, he endeavors to expand the possibilities of an ecological conception of independent animation through analyses of interview transcripts, specific texts, and the institutional framework and ideological constructs, with a focus primarily on works by Pisan and Lei Lei.

For his theoretical framework, Zhou employs Manuel DeLanda’s assemblage theory to further an “ecological” study of the dispersed yet interconnected independent practices of animation. According to Zhou, the ultimate aim of this approach is to “identify specific strategies for how independent animation artists find their own way out and renegotiate the balance between national propaganda, discourse and global culture” (pp. 82).

Applying the concept of media ecology to specific cases, Chapter 3 highlights three contrasting instances—Ai Weiwei, Pisan, and Lei Lei—to examine how these artists have strategically confronted and dealt with the post-socialist reality in terms of varied levels of political constraints on their practices. Zhou demonstrates how they utilize social media for different purposes in response to the sociopolitical milieu in China. While the political activist/artist Ai focuses on the issue of democracy and social concerns, independent animators Pisan and Lei Lei concentrate on the freedom of artistic creation itself, as a form of self-expression (pp. 108). Along with the establishment of CIAFF (Chinese Independent Animation Film Forum) in 2011, the outcome of their endeavors is, as Zhou suggests, that independent animation artists have developed a sense of community—“not simply as an ‘imagined community’ but as participants in a globalized ecological assemblage” (pp. 124).

Whereas Chapter 3 focuses on the independent artists’ strategies to work around the social and political confinements in China, Chapter 4 and 5 offer an in-depth analysis of Pisan and Lei Lei’s independent animation works to explore how their animated universes serve as a response to China’s post-socialist reality and resonate with their audiences. In Chapter 4, Zhou first gives a brief introduction of Pisan and his career path, highlighting how Pisan prefers to use Flash to create animation for the reasons of practicality (as a low-cost technology) and convenience (for distribution on social media platform). Zhou then focuses on two of Pisan’s most well-known animation series: the politically sensitive Little Rabbit Kuangkuang (2011), which is banned in China, and the commercially successful Miss Puff (2011). He argues that Little Rabbit Kuangkuang, with its dark humor and playfulness, “critiques and questions the ultimate purpose of political propaganda by using unobtrusive manner to capture the reality of ‘post-socialist’ existence on a collective basis” (pp. 159). In comparison, Pisan refrains from dealing with actual politics in Miss Puff, and instead explores the “suppressed desire for freedom…an individual expression to confront social confinement” through the protagonist’s eroticized body and sexual promiscuity (pp. 191).    

Chapter 5 focuses on the career trajectory and selected animation works of Lei Lei, another independent animation artist that is starting to receive recognition from both domestic and international audiences. Different from Pisan’s approach to political/social issues, Lei Lei’s intent through his animation is “neither to compliment nor criticize social events, but rather, to deliver his personalized creative expression” (pp. 197). Through his thorough analysis of Lei’s works—The Face (2007) and The Universe Cotton (2009) in particularZhou demonstrates how they embody “a level of self-expressionism rooted in [Lei’s] upbringing and memories” which greatly resonates with the young audiences (pp. 233). Zhou argues that Lei’s tactful use of abstracted faces, metaphorically significant colors, motifs, and symbols reveals “a genuinely postmodern reality and vision through Lei Lei’s eyes,” and “an attitude of resistance from the youth generation in response to sociocultural changes” (pp. 233).

With Pisan and Lei Lei as case studies, Zhou has hitherto demonstrated how independent artists operate within the ecological system in post-socialist China and negotiate a space for their individual artistic creativity. In Chapter 6, he presents an overview of two feature-length animation films—Liu Jian’s Piercing I (2010) and Wang Chuan’s Kuiba (2011)—to discuss how the independent and mainstream sectors are deeply interconnected in the contemporary media ecology of China, and how they contribute to the discourse on the notion of “Chineseness.” Zhou points out that mainstream animation, especially projects that receive financial support from the government, tends to emphasize its contextual linkage with traditional Chinese culture and literature in order to establish a “national ideology of Chineseness.” Zhou then argues that independent animation (Piercing I, in this case) reveals “an abiding postmodern ambivalence to the notion of ‘Chineseness’” (pp. 259), because “independent animation was positioned in the shadow to capture the post-socialist milieu based on vivid experience and rising concerns regarding individual identity” (pp. 283).

To conclude, Zhou’s dissertation adopts an ecological approach to capture the Chinese independent animation mediascape, emphasizing the complexity and diversity of its various assemblages that interact with each other within the transformative media ecology in post-socialist China. What is especially insightful in Zhou’s work is that he provides both an insider view (on how artists navigate their way to succeed and survive in the context of China’s contemporary sociocultural configuration), as well as an outsider view (on how various artists, industry sectors, institutes, etc., exert influence on each other while remaining closely interconnected). It is a significant work that contributes not only to the study of Chinese independent animation but also to a greater understanding of a changing China.


Cyrus Huiyong Qiu received his B.A. in Japanese from Shenzhen University (Shenzhen, China) and M.A. in Modern Japanese Literature and Popular Culture from the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada). His Master’s thesis, entitled “Keroro Gunsô: Carnivalization in Japanese Anime,” explores issues of political humor, war history/memory and gender as embedded in anime comedies. Qiu is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, and his research focuses on Japanese popular culture and its circulation among Japan, Korea, and China. 

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