An Overview of Animation Studies in Mainland China, 1949-2020

By CHEN Yishui; adapted by Yixing Li

While Chinese animation originated in the 1920s and had an early impact on world animation, animation studies in mainland China remained rudimentary until the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The field developed steadily after the Reform and Opening-up and has made significant progress in the 21st century.

The Historical Development of Animation Studies in Mainland China

From 1949 to 1966, Chinese animation studies were relatively preliminary and pragmatic. Research was focused on the application of animation technology and foreign animation experience. For instance, the essay “The Present Situation of Animation Film Studios of Soviet Union”[1] describes animation production in the Soviet Union, and the article “Walt Disney”[2] aims to introduce the American animation film director Walt Disney, etc.

Despite the creation of innovative animation genres such as paper-cutting animation, puppet animation and traditional ink-painting animation, in terms of academic research, animators and researchers of mainland China had not established the theoretical value and academic significance of the “Chinese School of Animation” at this stage.

After the disruption of the Cultural Revolution and following the launch of the Reform and Opening-up policy, Chinese animation studies experienced a Renaissance from 1979 onwards. 

In 1982, Chinese animation attracted extensive attention worldwide after a Chinese ink-painting animated film won awards at the 15th Zagreb International Animation Festival, the 14th Annecy International Animated Film Festival and other international animation festivals. Chinese animators who participated in the film festivals wrote articles to reconsider the significance of the Chinese School of Animation, such as the essays “Returning from Zagreb,”[3] “The First Cartoon and Several FIRSTs of our Country,”[4] “The Chinese School in Animated Films”[5] and so on. At the same time, scholars in mainland China had also begun to study the aesthetic rules of animation art, such as in “Exploration for the Artistic Rules of Animated Film,”[6] “The Aesthetic Characteristics of Cartoons,”[7] etc.

During the 1990s, Chinese animation suffered a period of brain drain, insufficient funds and low quality. Popular research topics in the 1990s also shifted from aesthetics to technical discussions, such as computer interactive technology and dynamic image simulation system, amongst others. At the same time, scholars reflected on the decline of animation in articles such as “Where Have the Chinese Animated Films Gone?”[8] They also began to pay attention to television animation series and its value and impact on popular culture.

From 2001 to date, Chinese animation studies have been undergoing rapid growth and development. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the aesthetics, genres, technology, cultural policy and industrial scale of Chinese animation have experienced tremendous changes. Scholars of mainland China are gradually and consciously trying to conduct systematic research in the field of animation studies.

At the beginning of the new millennium, with China joining the World Trade Organization, animation research in mainland China was mainly focused on the animation production against the backdrop of the new media age, the construction of Chinese cultural identity from a global perspective, and other issues. For example, the essays “The Dilemma and Future of Chinese Animation,”[9] “Discussion on Revitalizing Chinese Animation Industry,”[10] “Discussion on the Development of Chinese Animation,”[11] etc. try to explore the capacity for future development of Chinese animation, in the context of globalization.

Since 2004, with the strong support from the government, the animation industry in mainland China has developed rapidly. Animation industry bases have been established in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Chengdu and other cities, along with the vigorous development of television animation series and the rise of the Internet. Furthermore, with the emergence of a large number of new animation genres such as TV animation series for children’s education and the new media animation for teenagers and adults, the animation research of mainland China has begun to place emphasis on the technology, aesthetics and industrial research systematically.

In terms of technology, articles such as “The Digital Age of Animation,”[12] “The New Visual Aesthetics of Interactive Animation,”[13] “The Visual Realism: The Establishment of the Aesthetic Features of 3D Animation”[14] mainly discuss the influence of digital, computer graphics and 3D technology on animation. In terms of aesthetics, in the essays “The Aesthetic Value of Animation Art,”[15] “Animated Films: Narrative and Ideology,”[16] “The Imagination of China in American Films: Global Culture, Animation Forms, and Cultural Politics,”[17] scholars of mainland China consciously employed comparative literary theory and film theory to discuss the artistic ontology and cultural expression of world animation, forming a distinct discourse system of Chinese animation research.

In terms of industrial research, scholars increasingly focus on using empirical research methods, combined with data survey in the field of journalism and communication, to systematically and scientifically observe the development of Chinese Animation, Comic, Game (ACG) culture, such as in the essays “Analysis of International Competitiveness of Chinese Animation and Comic Industry,”[18] “The Four Major Problems in China’s Animation Industry,”[19] “The Reason, Current Situation and Development Tendency of IP Transfer,”[20] etc. Since 2013, there have been annual reports on the animation industry research in mainland China, such as “2013 Chinese Animation Consumption Survey Report,”[21] “Marketing and Word-of-Mouth: An Empirical Study on Chinese Audiences’ Consumption of Animated Films from 2011 to 2012,”[22] “The Brand Communication Value and Optimization Strategy of Domestic Animation IP under the Background of Media Convergence”[23] and more. Scholars of mainland China from universities and academic institutions began to play important roles, providing advice and services to government ministries and entertainment companies.

With an increased emphasis on quality rather than quantity, Chinese animation embraced another peak. In 2015, the film Monkey King: Hero is Back was released, hitting the box-office record of the year and also proving the real potential for the rise of Chinese animation again. Since then, well-made animated films for all ages have continued to be produced in mainland China. In 2019, Ne Zha became the first Chinese animated film that surpassed live-action films to become the box office champion of the year. In response to these hot spots in the creation of Chinese animation, scholars’ research focused more on the discussion of Chinese animation films and the revival of domestic animation. The essays “Monkey King: The Return of Narrative and Humanistic Concern,”[24] “The Discussion on Development of Chinese Animated Films from the View of Ne Zha,”[25] “The Road to Recovery: Domestic Animated Film,”[26] “Calm Thinking on the Current Situation and Development of Contemporary Chinese Animated Films,”[27] etc., are all insightful analysis of animation works, aiming to give an overall context of Chinese animation and capacity for further development.

In short, mainland China’s animation research in the past five years has paid more attention to theory and research methods. It contains not only the local viewpoints on Chinese animation but also the global perspective of world animation development. There are abundant theoretical breakthroughs in technical analysis, aesthetic innovation, cultural expression and industrial consumption.

Influential Animation Research Publications in Mainland China

Since 2000, Chinese scholars have established an animation academic research system with rigorous logic and scientific research methods, while the number of books, academic journals, yearbooks and self-media publications have been increasing steadily.

Early books on animation published in mainland China were mainly graphical. For instance, Modeling The Animation Design of The Monkey King[28] was written by Guangyu Zhang, the celebrated character designer of the film The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven, which is the first color animation film since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. This book was published in 1980s by Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Press. Although not strictly an academic study, it holds a certain historical value for the study of Chinese animation.

In the 21st century, scholars have been constructing an academic research system of animation studies. The first book to systematically study the history of Chinese animation is The History of Chinese Animation in the 20th Century[29] written by Huilin Zhang and published in 2002, which summarized and critiqued the development of Chinese animation from 1920 to 1999.

The History of Chinese Animation Film[30], published in 2005, written by Hui Yan and Yabin Suo, was part of the book series A Hundred Years of Chinese Film Studies. This book constructs a theoretical system of Chinese animated films under the framework of Chinese film history. The book World History of Animation (Part 1 and Part 2)[31] written by Puwen Zhu, who is a professor of Jilin College of The Arts, is China’s first comprehensive and systematic study into the history and current situation of animation in the world, including commentary on the development of animation in the United States, Russia, Japan, and China.

In addition, World Animated Film Master[32] and Non-mainstream Animated Films[33], which are written by Yanping Xue, the famous animation scholar from School of Animation and Digital Art of the Communication University of China, cover the biographies of dozens of world-renowned animation artists and studios. The books are highly sought-after among animation fans and continually republished, while they have also been questioned on the authenticity of the historical rumors they disclose. The Handbook of Independent Animation[34] published in 2016 introduces in detail 15 independent animation veterans in the world and is known for containing reliable historical materials and a large number of animation design drafts. The author, Chunning Guo from the School of Arts, Renmin University of China, has exhibited her E-mail interviews with independent animation veterans and her books hold significant historical value.

It is worth mentioning that the book Notes for Animators[35], compiled by Professor Weizheng Yu from Taiwan, was published in simplified Chinese in 2009. This book is composed by dozens of senior animation experts and scholars around the world and aims to provide in-depth analysis and summary on animation aesthetics.

With digital media and animation being established as new major areas of study in universities and academic institutions, animation textbooks and animation theory research works have also surfaced. For instance, Introduction to Animation[36] written by Lijun Sun and Wen Feng, and Introduction to Modern Animation[37] by Xiaohui Cao have been made textbooks for animation majors in Beijing Film Academy. Re-understanding Animation[38] by Shuliang Liu, an independent animator who holds a PhD from the School of Animation and Digital Art of Communication University of China, encompasses the origin, history, definition, genre studies and guidance for young animators and scholars. Cartoon, written by Xinru Nie, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, is considered to be “the first domestic systematic introduction to the theory of animation art.”[39] Professor Nie’s research fields cover film studies, documentary film and animation. Therefore, this book explains the principles of animation art from the perspective of moving images, earning it popularity among animation students in mainland China.

The spike in animation studies ought to be discussed within the context of the ACG industry, which started to flourish around 2008. From 2008 onwards, universities and government agencies began to publish professional and authoritative survey reports about China’s ACG industry. The Chinese Animation Industry Development Report was first published in 2008. The book uses the industry chain as the core theoretical system to analyze the “production, communication, exploitation, consumption” process of animation industry in mainland China.

In 2010, Report on the Development of China’s Animation Industry[40] by Jian Pan of Zhejiang University, which compares the development models of the animation industry both home and abroad, contains a large amount of data on the development of the animation industry in mainland China. It researches into a series of problems that have been exposed and suggests solutions. It is expected that a report on the market survey and recommendations of China’s animation industry will be published every year.

In 2011, the Blue Book of Animation: Annual Report on Development of China’s Animation Industry[41], published by the Social Sciences Academic Press, was the first blue book on the animation industry in mainland China. It systematically analyzes and comprehensively reflects the development of the international and domestic animation industry in the form of a report, and this publisher is projected to publish a blue book annually.

Furthermore, there are Investigation Report on ACG Industry Development in China,[42] which has been published annually since 2010, the Animation+: Research on Transformation and Upgrading of China’s Animation Industry,[43] which integrated analysis of animation and game industries, etc. These reports are devoted to research into the transformation and upgrading of digital economy, such as animation and games, film and television and Internet streaming media platforms in the context of media convergence.

Prior to 2018, there was no academic journal dedicated solely to animation studies. Theory-oriented research articles were primarily published in journals such as Movie Literature (Dianying wenxue), Popular Arts (Theory Version) (Dazhong wenyi: lilun ban), Movie Review (Dianying pingjie), Home Drama (Xiju zhijia), Art Education (Yishu jiaoyu) and Art Panorama (Yishu guangjiao), while technical articles were normally found in Audio & Video Production (Yingshi zhizuo), Art Science and Technology (Yishu keji), Computer Knowledge and Technology (Diannao zhishi yu jishu) and Computer Fan (Diannao aihaozhe).

Universities and research institutions in animation research have been committed to launching professional animation academic journals. China Animation Yearbook,[44] which was founded in 2006 by the Digital Content Industry Research Center in the School of Animation and Digital Art of Communication University of China, has a certain historical value and statistical significance. The content of the yearbook covers cultural policy, industrial development, theoretical research, case study, etc. It is a valuable reference material for animation scholars in mainland China.

Another important publication is Animation Research (Dongman yanjiu),[45] which was founded in 2015 by Sichuan Animation Research Center and published annually. To date, five volumes have been published. Compared with other academic publications, although the circulation of Animation Research is relatively small, it gathers young mainland scholars in the forefront of animation studies and has high theoretical value.

The monthly journal founded by the China Television Arts Committee in 2012, China TV (Animation)[46] (Zhongguo dianshi: donghua), has 37 issues so far. This journal mainly published industry research and theories on TV animation as well as critical analysis. However, due to various reasons, it was suspended in 2014.

Contemporary Animation (Dangdai donghua)[47], a professional academic journal for animation studies, was officially launched in April 2018. As of now, it is the only academic journal in mainland China that focuses solely on animation studies. It was hosted by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), and China Film Archive (China Film Art Research Center), and specifically undertaken by the journal Contemporary Cinema (Dangdai dianying) of the mainland China’s Social Sciences Citation Index (CSSCI). Contemporary Animation is published quarterly and there are seven issues in total currently. Each issue of the journal is divided into several sections, such as phenomenon research, animation theory hotspots, case studies of new animation works, industry observations, animation education and etc. This journal is open to contributions from the society and is currently the most vital animation studies publication in mainland China.

With the rapid development of the Internet industry in mainland China, animation research from online platforms is also a valuable resource. Anim-babblers, an online group founded in 2013, is considered to be “the most influential media and network community for animation enthusiasts in domestic animationdom.” The Anim-babblers as a widely known network account has been established on various commonly used Chinese self-media platforms, such as Sina Weibo, WeChat Public Account, Zhihu and Bilibili. It aims to share professional film reviews, theoretical knowledge and trends in the animation industry. Its founders are composed of domestic animation enthusiasts and animators with a professional background in animation studies. The independent animator Shuliang Liu, author of the book Re-understanding Animation mentioned above, is one of the founders of the Anim-babblers. One of its editor-in-chief, known online as magnil, also has a large number of fans on self-media platforms. He is concerned with domestic and overseas animation phenomena, and often transfers historical materials for animation studies from foreign websites such as YouTube. He is highly appreciated by animation fans and has a certain influence in the animationdom of mainland China.

Compared with the development of foreign animation studies, although mainland China’s animation research seemingly started late, it has grown rapidly in the past few decades. In the 21st century, a particular academic system and perspective of animation studies have been quickly constructed. Since 2001, a large number of articles on animation studies have been published, and industry survey reports, professional journals and yearbooks were founded. Multitudinous books on animation are published, and self-media animation research communities have been formed, making extraordinary contributions to animation studies in mainland China. It could be concluded that animation studies in mainland China are remarkable in terms of depth, width, relevance and capacity for development.

[1] Bai 1958.

[2] Qiao 1956.

[3] Zhang, Xu and Zhou 1982.

[4] Bi and Chen 1982.

[5] Yin 1988.

[6] Song 1982.

[7] Hu 1983.

[8] Yan 1991.

[9] Xu 2001.

[10] Zhang 2003.

[11] Chen and Song 2005.

[12] Sun 2004.

[13] Huang 2001.

[14] Sun 2012.

[15] Tong 2005.

[16] Chen 2010.

[17] Chen 2010.

[18] Zhang and Wei 2009.

[19] Pan 2010.

[20] Yin, Wang, Chen and Feng 2015.

[21] Zhou, Cao and Li 2013.

[22] Xiang, Liu and Guo 2013.

[23] Su 2019.

[24] Chen 2015.

[25] Wang 2019.

[26] Wei 2020.

[27] Gao 2020.

[28] Zhang 1980.

[29] Zhang 2002.

[30] Yan 2005.

[31] Zhu 2003.

[32] Xue 2010.

[33] Xue 2010.

[34] Guo 2016.

[35] Yu 2009.

[36] Feng 2006.

[37] Cao 2008.

[38] Liu 2016.

[39] Nie 2006.

[40] Pan 2010.

[41] Lu, Zheng and Niu 2011.

[42] Hao 2010.  

[43] Zhang 2016.  

[44] Editorial department of China Animation Yearbook, Digital Content Industry Research Center, School of Animation and Digital Art, Communication University of China, 2006-2016.

[45] Sichuan Animation Research Center 2015-2019.

[46] China Television Arts Committee 2012.

[47] China Film Archive (China Film Art Research Center) 2018-2020.

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Bio: 

CHEN Yishui is a lecturer in the School of Communication & Media, Beijing Normal University. She obtained her PhD in Film studies and was a post-doctoral fellow in art theory in Beijing Normal University from 2016 to 2018, and a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York during 2014-2015. Currently, her academic interests include film, cultural studies, animation and science-fiction film studies. She has published articles in Chinese academic journals, such as Contemporary Cinema, Film Art, and Contemporary Animation. Her academic book, coauthored with Professor ZHOU Wen and titled Studies of Animation Images: Art, Consumption, and Industry (Zhongguo dangdai dongman xingxiang yanjiu: Yishu, xiaofei yu chanye), was published by Beijing Normal University Press in June 2020.

Yixing Li holds an MFA in Creative Writing and BA in Chinese Language and Literature, both from Peking University. She was educated bilingually in Singapore and is experienced in Chinese-English and English-Chinese translation.

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