Childhood Memories: Chinese Animation and the Shanghai Animation Film Studio from the Eyes of an Animator’s Son

By Yan Shuchen; translated by Eva Chang

(Panel Chair) Yan Shuchen is the son of Teacher Yan Shanchun. He graduated from the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law in 1990. From 1990 to 1993, Yan Shuchen worked at the People’s Procuratorate in the Jing’an District of Shanghai. Since 1993, he has been working in the food industry in the field of foreign trade. Although it sounds like his background is not all that related to animated films, he grew up in one of Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s residential compounds. All of his life experiences are strongly related to the studio. Without further ado, let us listen to Yan Shuchen’s personal account of the studio. Please, welcome.

(Yan Shuchen) As a junior to all who are present here, I must say I feel very honored and privileged to accompany my father this time and join this forum. In the past two days, I have listened to all the uncles and aunties, all of whom I’ve been very close to since I was little, speak freely about their life journeys. It’s a very intimate experience for me, and I am very moved by all the talks.

Like what Uncle Chang Guangxi just mentioned, I frequented the Shanghai Animation Film Studio when I was growing up. How come? We were a double-income family, and so when it came to any school holidays, especially during summer and winter vacation, both of my parents had to work. Since nobody could look after me at home, my father would bring me to the studio so that he could still do his work while keeping an eye on me. I was quite naughty back then. Honestly, deep down inside, I really liked being brought to the studio because I was able to watch how my dad and his colleagues performed their jobs. Besides, for a kid like me, animation itself was full of attraction and induced much curiosity. I was able to witness the whole production process that other kids had no idea about. This gave me something to brag about when I went back to school. My classmates were indeed very envious of me being able to frequent the studio. In those days, people did not have many opportunities to even go to the cinema to watch movies, not to mention watch the process of making them. This is what I am always very proud of.

Moreover, at the studio, I could meet many other kids of my age because most families faced the same situation—having to bring kids to work. It was very fun to play with the kids of my father’s co-workers. I remember there were a few kids that I was most fond of. One of them was Ma Li, son of Uncle Ma Kexuan. Zhu Jiang is Auntie Wu Meikun’s son. There was also Chen Hongjun, son of Uncle Chen Guangming. We played with one another very often. The studio was very spacious, and it had a lot of rooms, staircases, and dark corners. It was a good place to play hide-and-seek. We were always zooming around, making lots of noise. The grown-ups did not really mind; they just let us play.

Also, the studio had an armory collection. My father told me that their gun collection consisted of guns made for militia training. However, those guns were very realistic. I think the materials were all real inside and out except that they couldn’t be fired. There were rifles, shotguns and Mausers. I especially liked the Mausers. I recalled many illustrators would use these guns as references when they did the drawings. We kids would secretly grab these rifles and shotguns to play with them. Looking back on it now, I realize that workers at the studio, like my father, brought their kids to work because they really considered the studio their home. Workers at public organizations back then would spend their whole lives at the same organization until they retired. So, their children, like me, naturally grew to feel like we belonged to that environment. Such a setting allowed the workers to have peace of mind and focus thoroughly on their creations.

There’s one other experience worth mentioning. I recall joining my father at the May 7th Cadre School. It was probably during one of my school vacations. You know the cadre schools; attending them was a miserable experience for the grown-ups. It was full of hardships. However, the kids could not yet comprehend their suffering. Rather, we found it quite an amusing experience. The countryside land was vast and there were plenty of things to play with. We kids just ran wild out there.

I also remember that my father had many opportunities to go on business trips. Sometimes he would bring us tasty foreign produce. Once, he went to Xinjiang. It was a trip of many days, and he probably flew back. He brought us back a box of seedless mare’s teat grapes. Oh my. They were so sweet and delicious. I meant to take a portion upstairs to share with my grandpa and great grandma, just so they could have a taste. However, by the time I climbed up the floor, I had already finished eating most of the grapes. Now, when we look back, we know that all these trips were meant for the artists to experience life. On-location shooting usually involves rough conditions on the road, and it is very exhausting. Also, collecting materials in the real world is all part of the preparation for creative work. You can’t just operate blindly in a vacuum. It would be very difficult to replicate such a philosophy and practice nowadays. Back then, on-site shooting was essential to the making of animation, and it was the most helpful method.

The happiest thing was to be able to watch animated films. This is because when we were little, especially in the 1970s, there were very few animated films within our reach. Most families did not have television at the time, and cinemas rarely screened animated films, as far as I could recall. Most children would be lucky to watch one or two animated films in a year. Back then, for me and probably for most children of the studio staff, animated films were in our proximity. There were always some internal tickets or special screenings available for us to preview. That’s why there are a number of animated films that still stand vividly in my memory to this day, such as The Little Trumpeter (1973), Arrows with Firecrackers (1974), and The Golden Wild Goose (1976). Especially the soundtracks of these films, I think Uncle Jin Fuzai was the composer for a few of these films. I may forget about the films themselves, but their beautiful melodies still linger in my mind, and bring back lots of childhood memories.

I think I watched the most animated films in my junior and senior high school years. It was the most concentrated period. This timing echoes the studio’s evolution from its revival in the late 1970s to the booming 1980s and 1990s, when it reached a new artistic climax. At that time, the screening channels for animated films had greatly expanded. I was like most of the other youngsters, finally getting to watch a variety of animated films produced by the studio since the 1950s. It was so eye-opening. I then started to learn about the richness and diversity of Chinese animated films, both in their forms and content. Now, more than 30 years have gone, and I am nearly in my 50s. When I revisit these Chinese animated films that I had seen before, particularly the masterpieces among them, I find them not outclassed by any of the newer animated films that we have been exposed to—neither American animation nor Japanese animation. Chinese animated film is an important member in the family of world animation. It is full of distinctive Chinese characteristics.

Speaking of Chinese characteristics, I can share two main opinions from my perspective as an audience. First, Chinese animated films are filled with dense ethnic styles. The artists are adept at extracting ingredients from the voluminous references of classical Chinese literature, arts, and drama as well as diverse folklore and ethnic art and sports to produce representative Chinese animation characters that could only be created by the Chinese. Take the examples of Sun Wukong (Monkey King), Nezha, the herd boy and the water buffalo, and Effendi and Landlord Bayi. I particularly like Landlord Bayi. I’m not sure who dubbed this character. I know Bi Ke was the voice for Effendi. Landlord Bayi was probably dubbed by Yu Ding (it should be Qiu Yuefeng). His voice matches perfectly with the character! Then there are also the fishing boy, the three monks, snow boy, and Peacock Princess. There are numerous characters. I won’t count them one by one. These characters are of strong Chinese features that cannot be replicated by foreigners. Foreigners may be able to give a touch of Chinese elements in their works. Nonetheless, they have not immersed themselves thoroughly in Chinese culture nor have they subtly absorbed the influence of Chinese literature and arts, so they can only touch the surface of a subject. The Chinese animators are completely different. As Chinese people, they share the same roots in the culture, deep and solid. As a result, their works, with deep cultural roots, grow like a tree blossoming with colorful flowers, well posed to flourish. 

This morning, Uncle Jin Fuzai played clips of Three Monks (1980), which I’ve coincidentally brought up. I think this film is a great example of how the great affection these artists had for Chinese culture was reflected in all aspects of the film. Both its animator and the musician are full of talent and artistic sensitivity. Its excellent scriptwriter is truly a writer. Together, they gave birth to an incomparable masterpiece. Without a deep, foundational understanding of Chinese culture, it would be impossible to create such an animated film full of Chinese characteristics. In summary, the studio’s works, especially these all-time classics, all contain some kind of irreproducible Chinese flair and spirit in them, regardless of how the production technologies have transformed over the decades.

Speaking of such “flair” and “spirit,” I can move on to my second opinion. I feel that the masterpieces of the studio consistently reflect the unique values of the Chinese people. For instance, Uproar in Heaven (1961-1964) and Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979) both illustrate Chinese people’s fighting spirit—resistance to oppression, protesting against the unjust without fear of power. Then, Snow Boy (1980) and Jiazi Saves the Deer (1985) reflect the long-praised virtues of self-sacrifice and devotion in Chinese culture. Also, Effendi (1979-1989) and Ji Gong’s Cricket Fighting (1959) touch on how ordinary civilians tease and mock conceited rulers; they also celebrate the wisdom and nobility of ordinary people. Films like The Herd Boy’s Flute (1963) and Feelings of Mountains and Rivers (1988) are very classy and unrestrained. They are like pieces of living landscape painting and ink painting, concretizing the Chinese philosophies of unity and harmony between man and nature as well as being unconscious of one’s self and the surroundings. This in fact touches on a deeply Chinese spiritual yearning shared by Chinese philosophers.

In a word, I think three things are necessary for Chinese animated film to occupy a noteworthy place in the world: ethnic characteristics in appearance, traditional culture in content, and Chinese spirit in the soul. I recall Uncle Dai Tielang also mentioned this idea of “soul.” Perhaps my opinion matches his point of view. I will just simply wrap up here. Please excuse my humble opinions. Lastly, I want to wish all my seniors good health and long life. I wish productive research to all the teachers here and academic success to the students. I also wish that Chinese animated film will have a bright future. Thank you!    

(Panel Chair) Ok, from the speech we just heard, it feels like a person who grew up in the environment of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio inherits something in the blood that naturally grows into a very professional understanding of this industry. I believe the intimate childhood memories that he just shared are in fact an endearing collective memory that most of our generation holds towards the studio. It’s very interesting for us to remember that special period altogether. Next, we will take a 15-minute break for the time being.   

Bio

Eva Chang received her Bachelor of Science in Cell Biology and Genetics from the University of British Columbia, Canada in 2001. She is currently working as endTB Research Team Lead at the Harvard Medical School, Boston, USA. She is a freelance translator and an avid fan of animation.

The translation was financially supported by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong (RGC Project Number: ECS 26400114)

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