Animation and the Republican Chinese Film Industry

By Christopher Rea

Animation appears throughout Chinese cinema of the Republican era (1912-1949). Historians have paid close attention to the handful of available fully-animated Republican films. Yet dozens of live-action films also include animated segments, and examining where, when, and why such short animations appear might open up new possible approaches both to animation studies and to cinema studies. This essay suggests a few principles and illustrates methodologies inspired by those principles by examining a small selection of film clips, mostly drawn from a growing open-access repository, the Early Chinese animation playlist I host on the YouTube channel Modern Chinese Cultural Studies. The goal of this essay is not to exhaust, but rather to encourage, exploration of how animated sequences function as a part of early Chinese feature filmmaking.

1. STUDY ANIMATION IN LIVE-ACTION FILMS TOO; DON’T FOCUS SOLELY ON ANIMATED FILMS

The animated full-length feature Princess Iron Fan (1941) has taken pride of place in studies of early Chinese animation, given its status as a “first.” Animated short films (like those discussed in Panel 2 of the 2021 ACAS inaugural conference) will enhance this history, once they become publicly available.

Scholars’ tendency to focus on completely-animated films is understandable, as such films represent the most dedicated investment of animators’ creativity. Animation is central to such work—not an afterthought or a supplement—and each film arguably represents a fully elaborated animation-centered aesthetic. Likewise, completely animated films have been the focus of studies of animation in the early People’s Republic of China, when government support of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio and other entities greatly boosted the production of cel, line-drawn, brush-drawn, and stop-motion shorts and features.

Paying more attention to films that combine live action and animated sequences could yet result in a radical shift in animation historiography. I would argue that such a shift is necessary to understanding early Chinese animation as a cultural product, given that, between the 1920s and 1940s, live-action films containing animated sequences far outnumber fully-animated films.

Examples of the former include everything from wuxia genre flicks to some of the most celebrated films of the Republican era. A few examples: A String of Pearls 一串珍珠 (1925), The Mighty Hero Gan Fengchi 大俠甘鳳池 (1928), The Burning of Red Lotus Temple 火燒紅蓮寺 (serial film, 1928-1931), Woman Warrior of the Wild River 6: Rumble at Deerhorn Gully 荒江女俠第六集大鬧鹿角溝 (1930), An Amorous History of the Silver Screen 銀幕艷史 (1931), Love and Duty 戀愛與義務 (1931), Goddess 神女 (1934), The Great Road 大路 (1934), New Women 新女性 (1935), City Scenes 都市風光 (1935), Song at Midnight 夜半歌聲 (1937), Street Angels 馬路天使 (1937), Hua Mu Lan 木蘭從軍 (1939), Long Live the Missus! 太太萬歲 (1947), Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan 三毛流浪記 (1949), and Crows and Sparrows 烏鴉與麻雀 (1949). Innumerable musical films also feature animated song lyrics (on which, more below).

Republican-era audiences, I would speculate, saw many more animated sequences in live-action Chinese films than they did animated Chinese films. Moviegoers received steady, if modest, doses of animation as part of their cinema viewing experience. Any attempt to try to assess the cultural impact of animation during that era should thus take those smaller units of animation into account. My impression from having watched over a hundred Republican-era films is that animation was by no means central to the Chinese film industry, but that it was pervasive and routine. Its ubiquity raises many questions about labor and production, text and artistry, and even the very definition of “moving pictures.”

Historians like Zhang Zhen (2005) and Daisy Du (2019) have pointed out that animation was common in the special effects-laden silent supernatural martial arts films that dominated the Chinese box office in the 1920s. Print culture materials, production stills, Chinese filmmaking guides of the 1920s, and the few extant films all tell the same story. The Mighty Hero Gan Fengchi (1929), for example, contains an animated sword fight (Fig 1):

Figure 1: Still from The Mighty Hero Gan Fengchi (1929)

A production still suggests that the same animation technique was used in the lost film series The Burning of Red Lotus Temple (1928-1931) (Fig 2).

Figure 2: Production still from The Burning of Red Lotus Temple (ca. 1928-1931)

The silent film A String of Pearls (1925) conveys its moral lesson through an animation that has the title luxury commodity arrange itself into the word “misfortune” (huohuan 禍患) (Fig 3):

Figure 3: Still images from A String of Pearls (1925)

The talent show scene in Goddess (1934) shows the touching innocence of the young boy and his mother’s bursting pride at his public performance. His rendition of the song “The Newspaper Boy’s Calls” 賣報之聲 is represented both with shots of the adorable child actor Henry Lai (Li Keng) with animated lyrics in the title cards, which unfold a story of striving in the face of poverty. The sequence establishes a scene of tender vulnerability, after which the malicious gossip of other women in the audience appears all the more despicable (Fig 4).

Figure 4: Still images from Goddess (1934)

To give just one example here from a sound film: in Sanmao’s first encounter with the street gang boss in Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan (1949), the burly thug’s menace is conveyed by an animation of the dragon tattoo on his arm, which seems to leap off his skin at our young hero (Fig 5):

Figure 5: Still images from Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan (1949)

Animation, in short, appears in ways big and small in films of multiple genres: from martial arts action films to social dramas to cross-over comedies aimed at both adults and children.

2. TREAT ANIMATION AS FILMMAKERS DID—AS ONE OF MANY TOOLS IN THE FILMMAKING TOOLKIT

So many predominantly live-action films include animated elements that animation comes across as not a separate genre of film but yet another tool in the filmmaker’s toolkit. Chinese filmmakers used animation to create a wide range of effects, from projecting a corporate brand (like in Song at Midnight or Love and Duty) to representing dialogue (like in New Women) to reinforcing the central theme of a film (like in A String of Pearls).

The Great Road (1934) uses animation as one of several techniques—visual and sonic—to create an atmosphere of playfulness. One running joke conveys the camaraderie of road workers through the repeated motif of a face swipe and chin punch, accompanied by a dubbed sound effect. When the group’s good cheer is threatened by a traitor’s henchman, Hong, one of the road workers gives him an “airplane ride” by lifting Hong onto his shoulders and spinning him around. Animated stars and an airplane spinning around his head, accompanied by a buzzing sound effect, convey Hong’s dizziness and disorientation (Fig 6).

Figure 6: Still images from The Great Road (1934)

The Great Road also includes dubbed songs with animated lyrics, acted visual gags accompanied by dubbed sound effects (notably the repeated face swipe and chin punch), and superimposition (notably the ghost steamroller in the final scene). Sun Yu, it seems, used animation to add yet another type of formal variety to an already complex film.

Yuan Muzhi’s directorial debut City Scenes (1935), a sound film, contains a 1-minute cartoon created by the Wan brothers, which is intercut with shots of characters watching it in a cinema as a film-within-the-film (Fig 7). Viewing the cartoon in isolation, our attention might first be drawn to what appear to be its imitations of Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop (Fig 8).

Figure 7: Graphic matching of “Mickey Mouse” and “Betty Boop,” in the audience and in the cartoon, in still images from City Scenes (1935)

Figure 8: A competitor and “Mickey,” in a still image from City Scenes (1935)

Figure 9: “Mickey’s” competitor, left, in a still image from City Scenes (1935)

Viewers who have been watching the film from the beginning, however, will notice that the cartoon plot mimics the plot of the film so far: two males—one rich (a predator in a trench coat) (Fig 9), one poor (Mickey)—visit the home of a young woman, compete for her favor (with the poor creature suffering slights), and young romance is interrupted by a portly parent, who appears in the cartoon as a pig.

The moment is metacinematic: the live-action characters watch their story unfold onscreen and smile or frown in reaction to their animated counterpart’s actions. Yuan, in other words, uses animation to tell the story-so-far a second time. Unfortunately for real-life Mickey, when he and his date leave the cinema, she promptly ditches him for his rich competitor.

In the case of City Scenes, the Wan brothers cartoon strikes me as being of a piece with Yuan Muzhi’s overarching fondness for gags, dumb shows (the cartoon has no dialogue), and novelty sounds and images. These experimental elements include the Shanghai peep-show motif and song that he uses to bookend the film. Animation returns near the end of the film in two scenes, first as a large question mark that seems to suggest that recent plot events are inexplicable (Fig 10):

Figure 10: Still image from City Scenes (1935)

and then, following a second rendition of the “Come have a look at Shanghai” song, an animation closes in on the confused migrants at the train station, who had been so eager to come to the big city, and now get stuck trying to depart. The darkness closes in on them, followed by yet another question mark, which then morphs into wan 完 “The End” (Fig 11).

Figure 11: The animated ending represented in these still images from City Scenes (1935) turns a question mark into the character wan (the end)

For Yuan Muzhi, as for Sun Yu with The Great Road, animation appears to have been part and parcel to an overarching artistic disposition of formal experimentation. Indeed, City Scenes is perhaps the best example of a film that treats animation as just yet another “moving picture” effect. While I would not go so far as to conflate animation and live-action, or to suggest that their effects are identical, I do believe that we could view them on a continuum with other special effects and visual and sonic gags.

Besides understanding textual aesthetics and filmmaking style, animation can also help us to identify symptomatic meanings of films’ historical contexts. Hua Mu Lan (1939) incorporates a brief pair of animated shots into the opening sequence of Mulan shooting down a goose from a flock flying in formation (Fig 12):

Figure 12: Live-action Mulan shoots down an animated goose at the beginning of Hua Mu Lan (1939)

For this wartime film, which employs rudimentary sets and is shot mostly at close distance (this is the only location scene), I suspect that animation is less a stylistic choice than a budget-saver.

3. PAY ATTENTION TO ANIMATED TEXT, ESPECIALLY SONG LYRICS

 A rough qualitative survey (NB: not a rigorous quantitative study, though I’d welcome one) of extant films made up to 1949 suggests that most animation in Chinese films (by number of sequences and total screen time) was not of figures but of text. Animated song lyrics accompany musical numbers in dozens of films. To measure the influence of animation on Chinese popular or mass culture, then, we might pay more attention to the words that accompanied sound and image.

Street Angels (1937), like many other “singies” of the 1930s, pairs dubbed songs with animated lyrics and a bouncing ball to guide listener-readers, beginning with Zhou Xuan’s rendition of “Song of the Four Seasons” (Fig 13):

Figure 13: Animated lyrics and bouncing ball accompany “Song of the Four Seasons” in this still image from Street Angels (1937)

For just a few of numerous other examples, see the Sounds of early Chinese cinema playlist link at the beginning of this section.

To give just one example of animation to represent dialogue: New Women (1935), a social melodrama directed by Cai Chusheng and starring Ruan Lingyu, contains perhaps the most famous instance of animated text in Republican cinema. Wei Ming, on her deathbed, cries out “Save me!” and “I want to live!,” represented both with dubbed sound and animated words growing out of her mouth (Fig 14).

Figure 14: The famous animated dialogue appearing near the end of New Women (1935)

Animated text first appears in New Women, however, around minute 6, when the landlady calls out “Phone call for Miss Wei in the parlor!” (Fig 15)

Figure 15: The first animated dialogue that appears in New Women (1935)

At minute 6 (unlike in the deathbed scene), the text represents offscreen sound, as the landlady is speaking from near the telephone on the landing but the speech is seen in a shot inside Wei Ming’s apartment.

These two scenes represent the only moments when the film represents speech using text-over-image instead of title cards, a repetition that begs interpretive questions: Why did the filmmakers use this animation effect at these (and only these) two particular points in the film? The first instance is an everyday, mundane utterance. The speaker’s significance in the narrative has not yet been revealed. At this point, the landlady is an everyday figure; only later is she shown to be an antagonist. (It is she who tries to prostitute Wei Ming to the caller, the playboy Dr. Wang.) The second instance occurs during a climactic scene. In both, animated text makes a spectacular display by suddenly expanding into the screen space and distracting from the diegesis. Why choose these moments to highlight speech through an animation effect?

Bao Weihong (2015) interprets the deathbed scene as being a cri de coeur nor just for the heroine, but also for silent cinema itself, threatened by the advent of the sound age and “seeking an emphatic resurrection.” The filmmakers seem to be signaling their desire to “save” silent cinema so that it can “live” on, despite the long odds. What meanings, symptomatic or implicit, might be drawn from the earlier instance?

4. USE ANIMATION TO ANALYZE FILM FORM

 Animation is an avenue for analyzing films syntactically, as well as semantically. How can we use animation, say, to analyze narrative structure? Before we jump to analyzing the meaning of animations (such as their representative styles or iconography), we might ask: When in one film—or a group of films—does animation appear? A few clear patterns stand out across the Republican-era industry: We see animation in film company logos in the opening credits, in song sequences, in special-effects action sequences, and at key plot points, especially in sound-on-disk films.

The animated lighthouse at the beginning of Song at Midnight, for example, both establishes a spooky, gothic atmosphere and also resonates with the film’s central dialectic of light (guangming 光明) versus darkness (Fig 16).

Figure 16: The atmospheric animated film studio logo in the opening credits of Song at Midnight (1937)

Opening credits in Long Live the Missus! (1947) appear in front of several versions of an animated fan, a key prop that appears in the film’s final shot (Fig 17).

Figure 17: The motif of the fan in Long Live the Missus! (1947) appears first in the animated opening credits

In addition to enhancing our macro view of filmmaking trends, using animation to analyze the syntax of an individual film, or of a filmmaker’s corpus, can also reveal insights about the artistry of a particular text or artist.

5. USE ANIMATION TO IDENTIFY CULTURAL CONCERNS BEYOND CINEMA

Filmmakers’ choices about what to animate can reveal symptomatic meanings about cultural concerns. The motif of the Scouts of China 中華民國童軍, an organization founded in 1912 and formally recognized by the Nationalist government in 1934, is one example how animation might draw our attention to ideological themes and undercurrents in filmmaking.

A Scout of China (akin to the Boy Scouts of America) appears in the opening animation of Great Wall Film Co.’s A String of Pearls (1925) (Fig 18).

Figure 18: Animated Scout of China in the opening credits of A String of Pearls (1925)

The figure has no apparent connection to the plot of the film but, like the film company’s name, signals an enthusiasm for—and attempt to affiliate one’s corporate brand with—patriotic symbols.

In Playthings (1933), Sister Ye re-encounters (but does not recognize) her stolen son when he comes to buy a toy from her on the street. He asks whether her toys are all domestic products. She says yes and asks him about his uniform. He replies: “This is the uniform of the Scouts of China. When I grow up, I’m going to save China” (Fig 19).

Figure 19: Sister Ye re-encounters (but does not recognize) her kidnapped son, who wears a Scouts of China uniform, in Playthings (1933)

Moved, she gives him a toy for free—an extendable line of soldiers—and he returns to the chauffeured limo of his adoptive mother. Notwithstanding the ironies of this scene, the reappearance of the Scouts of China indicates that filmmakers gravitated to this ready symbol of youthful patriotism.

Scouts of China reappear in the New Life Movement-influenced Sports Queen (1934) (released the same year the KMT recognized the Scouts) as a marching band among spectators at a sports meet, and marching in unison in a final montage that exhibits collective athleticism (and militarism) at work in broader society (Fig 20).

Figure 20: Scouts of China in two scenes from Sports Queen (1934)

Dr. Chu Minyi, a leading Nationalist Government figure and intellectual, appears in a Scouts of China uniform at the beginning of a 1937 documentary film demonstrating Chinese athletic exercises (Fig 21).

Figure 21: Dr. Chu Min-yi, a high-ranking official in the Nationalist government, wearing a Scouts of China uniform at the beginning of a 1937 government video promoting athletic exercises, produced by the Star Film Co.

Scouts of China appear yet again in Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan (1949), a film that began production before, and finished production after, the People’s Liberation Army entered Shanghai. We see Scouts, led by a fat leader, marching in a Children’s Day parade from which Sanmao and his friends are excluded (Fig 22). In this iteration, the Scouts represent a specifically bourgeois, self-important, and unforgivably exclusive form of youth patriotism that is to be deplored. At the end of the film, they are welcomed into a PLA victory parade, in which no Scouts appear.

Figure 22: Scouts of China march in a Children’s Day parade at minute 29 of Wanderings of Three-Hairs the Orphan (1949)

From the 1920s to the 1940s, then, the political symbolism of the motif changed, and eventually reversed. Even a cursory analysis of these moments reveals that, for filmmakers, Scouts of China had symbolic power, tied to iconic associations: their uniformed look, marching in unison, the youth of its participants, their middle-class or upper-class socioeconomic status, the organization’s close ties to the Nationalist government, and Scouts’ putative status as the future leaders of China.

Animation, in other words, draws our attention to genealogies worthy of further study. The Scouts of China example demonstrates that the organization was of interest to filmmakers seeking to make social, cultural, and political statements, whether affirmative or critical. From its innocuous appearance in the credits of a silent film, we can identify connections between films of different eras and genres.

What other significant patterns can we trace from even such fragmentary instances of cinematic animation?

Bio:

Christopher Rea is Professor of Chinese at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949 (Columbia, 2021), The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015), and Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World) (with Thomas S. Mullaney; Chicago, 2022). The films mentioned in this article are available with English subtitles on the YouTube channel Modern Chinese Cultural Studies and at the website chinesefilmclassics.org.

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