Chinese Independent Animation: Renegotiating Identity in Modern China, by Wenhai Zhou. Palgrave Animation, 2020. 222 pp.

By Isabel Galwey

Chinese Independent Animation: Renegotiating Identity in Modern China offers a systematic, academic study of contemporary Chinese independent animation theory and practice. Written by Wenhai Zhou as part of the Palgrave Animation series, intended to explore and theorize animation in an accessible way, Chinese Independent Animation combines close case studies of individual animators and their works with a detailed, interdisciplinary theoretical underpinning. The final result is a cohesive and focused study of Chinese independent animation. The volume also succeeds in drawing meaningful connections between independent animation and other areas of Chinese animation, as well as Chinese visual culture more broadly. Zhou engages with China’s complex post-socialist reality as reflected and interpreted in animation, as well as analyzing the creative and practical infrastructure — or, as he terms it, “media ecology” — which has allowed Chinese independent animation to grow steadily over the past two decades. While the choice to focus on well-known animators such as Pi San and Lei Lei (alongside non-animation artists such as Ai Weiwei) for his detailed case studies may mean that those hoping for a broader survey are disappointed, Zhou’s approach has the benefit of allowing him to conduct closer analysis of the careers of his chosen practitioners, offering theoretical insights which are certainly applicable to other independent animators operating in (and outside) China today. 

Like many academics in the burgeoning field of animation studies, Wenhai Zhou adopts a syncretic approach when theorizing contemporary Chinese animation communities and practices. However, Zhou’s work departs from earlier studies of Chinese animation because he spends at least as much time analyzing the creative, socioeconomic, and political contexts which underpin Chinese independent animation’s very existence as he does on the content of the animations themselves, drawing on media and communication studies methodologies to structure his content and arguments. Key to Zhou’s conceptualization of Chinese animation is DeLanda’s theory of assemblage, as elucidated by Graham Harman: he argues that animation practice is constantly defined and redefined at an individual, national and global level.

Another noteworthy aspect of Zhou’s approach to writing about Chinese independent animation is that he combines both Chinese and English-language debates surrounding contemporary media practices to inform and balance his work. Therefore, this volume succeeds at “filling in the blanks” around Chinese animation scholarship and promotes an intercultural understanding of the field.[1] Zhou also emphasizes the need for a sophisticated conceptualization of “independent” animation in a Chinese context, and the “constant negotiation” (12) which animators and studios conduct as part of their existence and success in response to various external pressures.

Zhou begins by describing the post-socialist context in which contemporary Chinese independent animation operates and outlining the usefulness of various definitions of “independent animation” in the Chinese context. He then goes on to summarize the discourse surrounding national style or meishu animation in the mid-twentieth century; the development of commercial animation in the reform period; and the uneasy but dynamic relationship which contemporary independent animation has with both. He lays out the theoretical concepts of the mediascape (Appadurai), imagined communities (Anderson) and assemblage (DeLanda) as a framework for understanding the Chinese independent animation ecology, redefining it as “a distinct mode of contemporary cultural expression” (53). The volume’s structure allows Zhou to establish a solid theoretical methodology before applying it to a number of carefully selected case studies. It also sets Zhou’s study apart from some earlier studies of Chinese animation, which take a more historical and “text”-based approach to the topic.

His framework established, Zhou then uses it to analyze, not only the work, but the entire creative ecosystem surrounding three media practitioners: Ai Weiwei, Pi San and Lei Lei, noting the striking similarities and differences between their roles in various media assemblages. Zhou then examines the career trajectories of Pi San and Lei Lei in more detail, conducting a close reading of individual animations as part of his analysis of their evolving media practice. This theme of evolution continues into the final chapter, which plots the future trajectory of Chinese independent animation.

In the introduction to this volume, Zhou offers some valuable context by outlining the post-socialist environment and the large-scale commercial animation industry with which Chinese independent animation negotiates. He gives a brief overview of previous writings on Chinese independent animation, and the various lenses through which it has been studied. He observes: “the distinctive characteristic of ‘personal’ Chinese independent animation develops an alternative visual narrative in contrast to the mainstream animations that are always overly controlled and rather institutionalized” (11). Zhou also delves into the definition of Chinese independent animation in more detail, assessing the usefulness of adjacent terms such as “personal,” “unofficial,” or minjian (“folk” or “popular”) for understanding the contemporary Chinese animation scene. Rather than defining independent animation as an overtly oppositional force to “commercial” or “politically correct” animation, he emphasizes that it is often produced in delicate negotiation with more mainstream works.

In chapter 2, Zhou outlines the legacy of the meishu style both on Chinese animation itself and on the discourse surrounding it. He charts the development of a nascent “Chinese animation industry” in the final decades of the twentieth century, with transnational links to Hollywood and Japan through outsourcing networks. He contrasts these two animation traditions with the emergence of shanke (flash) practice and aesthetics in the early 2000’s, noting that its impact lasted beyond its initial moment in the spotlight: “the spirit of independence was irrevocably established and imperceptibly formed the basis of an independent ecology in the ensuing decade” (35). Zhou uses Flash animation as a springboard from which to begin his interrogation of “Chineseness” in mainstream animation as a hegemonic cultural construct, and establishes the need for “a model of creative practice that not only acknowledges the historical and political reality but also frees up space for a more neutral conception of a creative community” (39).

In chapter 3, Zhou continues to build on the assemblage-based framework for understanding animation which he set up at the end of chapter 2, situated in the context of China’s “post-socialist reality” (53). He emphasizes the need to “engage with this art’s contextuality, even its interdisciplinary nature,” (55) including its symbiotic relationship with social media and new technologies. Here, Zhou draws on the work of communication theorists such as Scolari, McLuhan and Fuller to emphasize the appropriateness of “ecology” as an inclusive term to refer to the “cultural community of practice” surrounding Chinese independent animation (46). Zhou goes on to build on this idea of community through reference to Anderson and Appadurai’s theorization of “imagined communities,” bridging the gap between “ecology” and “community” with DeLanda’s “assemblage” theory. It is at this stage that Zhou introduces the first of his case studies: Ai Weiwei. He then goes on to apply his theoretical approach to two Chinese independent animators and their surrounding “assemblages”: Lei Lei and Pi San.

In chapter 4, Zhou focuses on Pi San through the study of two of his most well-known works: Kuangkuang and Miss Puff. He highlights some key aspects of Pi San’s distinctive style and analyzes the animator’s engagement with China’s social transformation through “deeply hybridized animation texts” (78). He argues that the two animations present different methods of negotiating China’s often challenging production environment. Kuangkuang, which took off on social media, is the more daring in terms of content, while the Miss Puff webseries offers a more subtle and commercially viable approach. Taken together, these two animations are representative of the way that Pi San and other independent animators respond creatively to China’s post-socialist reality, combining elements of daring and pragmatism in an innovative and dynamic process of cultural production. The historical marginalization of animation as an art form often gives animators an ambiguous kind of freedom, especially when compared to their counterparts producing independent cinema who tend to be more overt in their social commentaries. While Zhou’s insights regarding individual works are limited at times, he makes some interesting points about the themes and visual characteristics of Pi San’s “imaginative world” (77). For example, he points out that although the bold, distinctive Flash aesthetic is foundational to Pi San’s work, his animation also incorporates handmade and live-action elements, which contributes to their ambiguity as assemblages “anchored within an unstable ‘postmodern’ visuality” (123).  

As Zhou turns to Lei Lei’s work in chapter 5, he reemphasizes the importance of Chinese animators’ “distinctively light way” (129) of contributing to the contemporary Chinese mediascape. He also highlights the importance of Lei Lei and other independent animators’ light-weight production model, in which they work either solo or in small teams to produce works to be released on social media. Zhou, like Lei Lei himself, emphasizes the centrality of individual creative freedom of expression to Lei Lei’s work, and argues that the distinctive visual and narrative style that arises from this freedom is a key factor in Lei Lei’s popularity in China and internationally. He argues that “Lei Lei often describes animation as a kind of lifestyle rather than an occupation, which stimulates collective practices to be articulated with an individual ideology…Such an independent and exotic style has become part of Lei Lei’s personal manifesto that defines his personal contribution within the Chinese independent ecology” (132). However, Zhou also emphasizes the importance of multidisciplinary, collaborative practice to Lei Lei’s work, including collaborations with brands. Despite Lei Lei’s self-declared aversion to any kind of political interpretation of his work, Zhou draws out some social commentary in Lei Lei’s 2007 animation Face, comparing and contrasting Lei Lei’s approach to animated self-expression with that of Pi San and other Chinese independent animators. From an artistic perspective, Zhou also argues that Lei Lei’s animation pushes back against preconceived notions of what “Chinese animation” should look like; rather than adhering to previously recognized schools of Chinese animation such as ink-painting or paper-cut, Lei Lei has developed his own highly distinctive visuality: he is representative of auteur animators’ embrace of “diversified aesthetic styles and understandings of independence in the context of post-socialistic China” (170).

In chapter 6, Zhou draws on the works of several other animators to plot a trajectory for the future of animation in China, and to problematize the notion of animated “Cheesiness,” especially in mainstream works (176). He compares and contrasts another well-known “independent” animation, Piercing I, and a roughly contemporaneous “mainstream” feature animation, Kuiba. Through these two animations, Zhou presents both the opportunities and the shortcomings of the Chinese government’s “soft power” ambitions for Chinese animation. He contrasts the official “spotlight” placed on commercial animation with the “shadow” status of independent animation (180) in a paradigm reminiscent of Lev Manovich’s famous statement: that animation is “cinema’s bastard relative, its supplement, its shadow.”[2] However, Zhou argues, it is this marginalization that has in fact allowed independent animation ecology to follow a multivalent, “transformative trajectory” (181), and engendered such darkly humorous works as Liu Jian’s Piercing I. Zhou underscores the differing priorities of Chinese mainstream and independent animation by contrasting the anime-adjacent technical spectacle of Kuiba with Liu Jian’s hand-crafted, “low-budget” aesthetic. However, he concludes the chapter by pointing to the creative prowess of recent high-end mainstream Chinese animations such as Monkey King: Hero is Back and Nezha, which may represent a bridge between these two apparently disparate paths.

In chapter 7, Zhou concludes with a recapitulation of his earlier arguments, summarizing the historical development of Chinese independent animation and evaluating his own interpretation of the complex Chinese media ecology. He reemphasizes the importance of imagined communities and assemblage theory for “facilitating a nuanced and multi-directional account of the operation of the community of independent animators in a dynamic sense rather than as a static model.” (204) He summarizes the multidisciplinary nature of independent animation as an art form and highlights the fact that many of the challenges it faces are representative of broader issues in the “post-socialist milieu” (204). With reference to the case studies detailed in earlier volumes, he reiterates the diversity of independent animators’ strategies when negotiating their creative, economic and political positions. Finally, he looks once again towards a future of continuous transformation, emphasizing the national and international impact which these animators are having on contemporary media ecologies. 

Chinese Independent Animation: Renegotiating Identity in Modern China offers a much-needed close study of Chinese independent animation as a phenomenon. Wenhai Zhou uses an ambitious methodological framework to make sense of what can often seem a dauntingly nebulous new field, poles apart from the clear-cut canon of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Rather than constructing an artificially static model, Zhou embraces the dynamic nature of contemporary Chinese animation and offers a number of useful conceptualizations through which to study it. Readers who are looking for a straight-forward survey of contemporary independent animation in China may not find it in this volume, focused as it is on a handful of relatively well-known animators. Nevertheless, Zhou’s study of Chinese independent animation — and the theoretical issues surrounding it — is invaluable as a starting point for exploring the field, allowing readers to navigate this complex “independent media ecology” with new confidence. 

[1] Wenhai Zhou, Chinese Independent Animation: Renegotiating Identity in Modern China (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 5.

[2] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 298.

Bio:

Isabel Galwey is an MPhil student in the Division of Humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. From 2015-2019 she studied Chinese at the University of Oxford and Peking University, graduating with a First. Before beginning her BA she completed a foundation diploma in Art and Design, specializing in moving image. Her research interests include animation studies, urban studies and twentieth-century mass media in China. 

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