Bell Boy: Cartoonists and Animated Filmmaking in Southern China, 1940–1949

By Muyang Zhuang

In December 2020, an exhibition was held by the Guardian Art Center in Beijing to celebrate the 120th birthday of Zhang Guangyu (1900–1965), one of the most important Chinese cartoonists. According to the curator, Zhang Guangyu was the pioneer of not only Chinese cartoons, but also graphic design and animation.[1]The curator divided Zhang Guangyu’s achievements into twelve sections, and of these, his participation in animated filmmaking attracted numerous visitors because it featured a screening of Uproar in Heaven (Danao Tiangong 1961, 1964). Zhang designed several characters for a representative work of Chinese National Style animation. In addition to Uproar in Heaven, the exhibition hosted a short clip, on loop, of the animated cartoon Bell Boy (Qiaozhong Nanhai, 1947), made by Zhang Guangyu and his contemporary cartoonists Te Wei (1915–2010) and Liao Bingxiong (1915–2006) in Hong Kong.

Notably, the making of Bell Boy, as well as the cartoonists’ experimentations with animation, includes some previously-obscured stories about early animation in Southern China (mainly Chongqing and Hong Kong) during the full-scale Anti-Japanese War (1937–1945) and the Chinese Civil War (1946–1949). These stories were hidden because the official historiography in mainland China intentionally undervalues the significance of wartime Kuomintang (KMT) propaganda, including animations.[2]In addition, most scholars pay attention to the Wan brothers, which is understandable but also underestimates the roles of other participants in animated filmmaking, including the aforesaid cartoonists and painters.[3]From the perspectives beyond the Wan brothers-centered narrative, this essay will present a clearer look at the early history of Chinese animation by exploring its interplays with cartooning.

Zhang Guangyu, Pictorials, and Filmmaking in Republican China

In Republican China (1912–1949), the boom of pictorials witnessed a kaleidoscopic media ecology that intermeshed literature, art, filmmaking, stardom, political affairs, and consumer culture. Pictorials offered a platform for illustrators and cartoonists to portray the miscellaneous life happenings metropolitan Shanghai. Some cartoonists even founded their own pictorial magazine, aiming to play a larger part in cultural production.

Zhang Guangyu was one of the cartoonists who benefited from the flourishing pictorial culture. Born in 1900 in Wuxi, Jiangsu, Zhang started his career as an illustrator and cartoonist at the age of 15 as an apprentice in film set design in Shanghai.[4]In 1919, Zhang became an editor in World Pictorial (Shijie huabao) and created several illustrations.[5]Later, Zhang built up a reputation as a talented artist and was hired by the British-American Tobacco Company Ltd to draw illustrations for advertisements.[6]Working for these foreign companies did not only bring him a generous salary that enabled him to create his own cartoon pictorial, but also let Zhang encounter different exotic art styles, such as Art Nouveau and Soviet Avant-Garde, through Western magazines.[7]

Along with cartoons and graphic design, pictorials offered Zhang exposure to filmmaking. Zhang’s cartoons suggest his longtime interest in the film industry, a gesture toward the media mix of pictorials and filmmaking. In the late 1910s, Zhang’s cartoons portraying famous actors such as Chaplin were published in pictorials.[8]In the early 1930s, Zhang Guangyu founded Modern Sketch (Shidai manhua) supported by Shao Xunmei’s Modern Publication Ltd., which also sponsored a film journal Modern Cinema (Shidai dianying). In 1934, Zhang was sent by Modern Cinema to visit film studios in Japan, including Shochiku and Nikkatsu, together with the famous director Shi Dongshan (1902–1955).[9]

After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident on July 7th, 1937, Zhang migrated from semi-occupied Shanghai to the southwestern hinterland. While traveling across Chongqing and Hong Kong in the late 1930s to the 40s, Zhang continued drawing satirical cartoons and participating in filmmaking. In 1938, he even sought to establish a film studio in Hong Kong and to hire famous actors like Hu Die to create films in the British colony.[10]While this attempt failed, in 1940, Zhang was selected as the art designer for an anti-Japanese propaganda film The Progress of Our Time (Shidai de jinzhan), which was directed and written by Ye Qianyu (1907–1995), another famous cartoonist and Zhang’s close friend in prewar Shanghai.[11]However, this film was not completed for unknown reasons. After the Anti-Japanese War, Zhang Guangyu went to Hong Kong in 1946, where he directed the set design branch of the Great China Film Development Corporation (Da Zhonghua dianying gufen youxian gongsi) and began to experiment with animated cartoons.[12]

Bell Boy: Made in Hong Kong

The Great China Film Development Corporation was co-founded by Jiang Boying (?–1957) and Run Run Shaw’s eldest brother Runde Shaw (1898–1973). As the first established film company in postwar Hong Kong, Great China was ambitious and attracted many famous directors, actors, and artists.[13]For example, Zhang was invited by Jiang Boying and subsequently assigned as the director of art design. His colleagues included a few illustrators and cartoonists active in prewar Shanghai, such as the famous cartoonist Yao Jiguang. Zhang also designed the Great China logo, with the studio’s slogan: “Devoting to film arts, fighting for nation-building.”[14]

According to Zhang’s children who sorted out his diaries, when Zhang agreed to work for Great China as an art designer, he did so on the condition that the company allows and supports him to experiment with animated cartoons.[15]His children suggest that this is because of Zhang’s long-time interest in early Disney animations.[16] Disney’s Mickey Mouse animations were very popular in Republican China, especially in prewar Shanghai. Further, cartoons featuring or parodying Disney characters were commonly seen in pictorials.[17]Instead of merely watching American animated cartoons, Zhang, together with two other cartoonists Liao Bing xiong and Te Wei, decided to animate their own drawings. As far as we know, the outcome of their experiments is Bell Boy (1947).

The film strip of Bell Boy was preserved in Zhang’s house in Beijing and was restored and screened in the aforementioned exhibition in 2020. While this animated short is not a completed work, it still shows the cartoonists’ efforts and some traces of early Chinese animated filmmaking (Fig. 1). The beginning of Bell Boy portrays the hands of an animator who is drawing a human face on a painting of a bell. This role of the animator’s hands was frequently seen in many early animated cartoons. The film then changes scenes, showing an anthropopathic bell is sleeping while hung on a tree. After the cycled scenes of the sleeping bell, a little boy with a pair of angel wings and a hammer on his hand flies around the tree. The film then shows a close shot of the bell boy while he plays with the hammer before striking the sleeping bell. Lastly, there is another scene showing the cyclical movement of some laughing flowers, which was featured elsewhere in this same film.[18]

Fig. 1: still of Bell Boy, 1947

In an interview, Zhang’s children said that their father was concerned about first, how to animate their paintings; second, how to maintain the sequential movement of facial expression; and third, how to produce animations with a low budget.[19]From the film clip, it seems that Zhang and his friends managed to solve the first problem. But, the second issue regarding sequential movement may be largely subject to the budget since they did not only adopt cartoons, which were easily drawn, but also made full use of their drawings and cycled the movement. As such, it is unsurprising that Bell Boy appears to be a limited animation.

After the Wan brothers made the first Chinese animated feature Princess Iron Fan in 1941, animators, cartoonists, and filmmakers all wanted to make the second one. The Wan brothers migrated to Hong Kong in the late 1940s to make their second animated feature The World of Insects (Kunchong shijie), but this project remained unfinished until they returned to mainland China.[20]Likewise, Zhang’s animation career did not end with this short clip, as he became more ambitious after making Bell Boy. Before leaving Great China, Zhang Guangyu was supported by the company to adapt his well-received serial cartoons Journey to the West (Xiyou manji) into animated feature film.[21]Journey to the West was one of the most welcomed cartoons created in the 1940s, and was even displayed in exhibitions held in Chongqing, Chengdu, and Hong Kong. Parodying the classic Chinese novel of the same name, Zhang’s serial cartoon feature depicts the journey of the four protagonists in fictional countries, satirizing corruption and darkness under the KMT’s governance.

To animate these well-received cartoons, Zhang formed the Chinese Cartoon Company (Zhongguo katong gongsi) in Hong Kong with the support of Jiang Boying. By doing so, they were claiming the necessity of making the second Chinese animated feature film and catching up with the American animation industry. The Chinese Cartoon Company also planned to make another three animations featuring traditional fairy tales including the story of Chang’e, The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, and Lady Meng Jiang.[22]

Despite these grand ambitions, like the Wan brothers’ The World of Insects, Journey to the West was never adapted into animation, neither were the other projects conceived by Zhang and Chinese Cartoon Company. Zhang’s sponsor Jiang Boying left the filmmaking business in 1948 due to the inflation caused by the financial policy of the nationalist government.[23]Zhang stayed in Hong Kong till 1949 when the PRC was founded, before that he temporarily worked for another Hong Kong film studio Yong Hwa Film Co. as the director of set and art design branch.[24]

Animated Filmmaking in 1940s Southern China

In the making of Bell Boy, Zhang was joined by two of his cartoonist friends Liao Bingxiong and Te Wei. Unlike Zhang who was invited to Hong Kong by film tycoon Jiang Boying, Te Wei and Liao Bingxiong went to Hong Kong to join a leftist artist organization, the Human Studio (Renjian huahui). Founded and led by the woodcut artist Huang Xinbo (1916–1980), the Human Studio played an influential role in postwar left-wing propaganda in British Hong Kong.[25]In 1947, Huang and the Human Studio assisted Liao Bingxiong with exhibiting his Cat Kingdoms (Maoguo chunqiu), another highly-praised leftist serial cartoons.[26]Zhang was also a member of Human Studio, and he never hid his intention in bringing leftist or progressive propaganda into animated cartoons. Journey to the West, for example, was created to criticize the governance of the KMT regime.

There is no record of what political messages, for any, that Zhang aimed to tell through Bell Boy. However, the making of this animated short implies two undercurrents of wartime Chinese animated filmmaking. First, through the case of Bell Boy, we can identify the political reason that promoted the intimacy between cartoons and early Chinese animation. Similar to early Soviet animated filmmaking, the intimacy between cartoons and animation was tightened by the same goal of political agitation. Some early Soviet animators directly animated political cartoons to highlight the ideological messages conveyed through these images.[27]Likewise, Zhang, Liao Bingxiong, and Te Wei were trying to animate the cartoons such as Journey to the West that denounced the KMT.

The close relationship between cartoons and animation in Republican China is further indicated by Liao Bingxiong’s and Te Wei’s participation in animated filmmaking. In fact, both had prior animated filmmaking experience when they joined Zhang to make Bell Boy in Hong Kong. Prior to moving to Hong Kong, Liao served as a character design lecturer at an animation institute in Chongqing in 1940.[28]Te Wei, who was later designated as the chief of animation branch at Changchun Film Studio (the branch relocated and reorganized as the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in 1957), had already joined Qian Jiajun (1916–2011) in making an animation called Growing Life (Shengshengbuxi) in 1943.[29]

The second neglected facet of early Chinese animation that is shown through the making of Bell Boy pertains to animated filmmaking in 1940s southern China, mainly in Chongqing and Hong Kong. During the Anti-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT government migrated to the southwestern hinterland and set Chongqing as the wartime capital city. Many artists and intellectuals, including Zhang, Liao Bingxiong, and Te Wei, gathered in the wartime capital to contribute to creating anti-Japanese propaganda. Animated filmmaking was an important section in wartime cultural production and propaganda.[30]The Wan brothers also participated in making some animated cartoons sponsored by the government in Chongqing.[31]These works highlighted the necessity of anti-Japanese propaganda in animated filmmaking in wartime hinterland, leading audiences into a different story from those made in semi-occupied Shanghai and Northeastern China.

Hong Kong also played an underestimated role in mapping early Chinese animated filmmaking. In addition to the three aforementioned cartoonists and the Wan brothers, several attempted to make animations in postwar Hong Kong. For instance, Qian Jiajun, creator of the highly-appreciated animated cartoon Happiness in a Pleasant Family (Nongjiale, 1940) in wartime Chongqing, was invited to join the South China Animation Art Institute (Nanguo donghua yishu xueyuan), which was founded in 1946 in Guangzhou by Luo Yiwei from Hong Kong.[32]It is said that the institute hired over 50 artists interested in animated filmmaking.[33]Unfortunately, the institute was forced to shut down in 1947 due to political reasons, after which Qian went back to Shanghai and continued animated filmmaking and teaching at Suzhou.[34]Therefore, Qian was unable to make any animations in Hong Kong, neither did he have a chance to work with Zhang or the Wan brothers. However, they finally met each other in the 1950s when the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was established and began to produce animation in the National Style endorsed by the head of the studio, Te Wei.

Conclusion

By navigating through the story of making Bell Boy, we can explore more about early Chinese animation. The animated short not only unfolds the three cartoonists’ engagement with animation before 1949, but also highlights the media mix in Republican China, suggesting the intimacy between cartoons and early Chinese animation. Moreover, the making of Bell Boy helps clarify the relationship between political propaganda and cultural production in China during the 1940s. Finally, it helps unveil the roles played by animated filmmaking in wartime Chongqing and 1940s Hong Kong, mapping the history of wartime Chinese cultural production from either the “occupied gaze” which emphasizes the perspective “apart from Japanese agents (including military bodies, government institutions, and news agencies) and from the Chinese resistance”,[35]or the perspective of socialist cultural production.

[1]“Bu zhi Danao Tiangong”(Not only Uproar in Heaven), China News, December 23, 2020, https://www.chinanews.com/cul/2020/12-23/9369175.shtml.

[2] For example, in Yan Hui and Suo Yabin’s book, animated filmmaking supported by the wartime Chiang Kai-shek regime is not mentioned, except for Qian Jiajun’s work. See Yan and Suo, Zhongguo donghua dianying shi, 24–32.

[3] In the foundational research done by John Lent and Ying Xu, the history of Chinese comic art is told from one animator to another. See Lent, John A., and Ying Xu. Comics Art in China (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017), 151–193.

[4]Tang Wei and Huang Dagang, Chronicle of Zhang Guangyu’s Life (Zhang Guangyu nianpu)(Beijing: SDX Joint Press), 11–12.

[5]Tang and Huang, Chronicle of Zhang Guangyu’s Life, 16.

[6]Tang and Huang, Chronicle of Zhang Guangyu’s Life, 17–19.

[7]Yitiao, a vlog media, published a video essay and interviewed Zhang Guangyu’s children in December 2020, see “Guomanzhifu danchen 120 nian” (The 120th birthday of the father of Chinese comics), accessed April 15, 2021, https://k.sina.com.cn/article_5135808743_v1321e38e701900qcyy.html?sudaref=www.google.com&display=0&retcode=0.

[8]For example, Zhang’s cartoons on Chaplin were published in Huaji Huabao (Comic pictorial), see “Zhuobieling zishu” (Charlie Chaplin’s Words), Huaji Huabao, no.1 (1919):15–17. For Zhang’s interest in filmmaking, see John A. Crespi, Manhua Modernity: Chinese Culture and the Pictorial Turn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020), 88–89.

[9]Zhang Guangyu, “Dongjing tancha” (Exploring Tokyo), Modern Cinema (Shidai dianying), no.5 (1934):23.

[10]“Zhang Guangyu jiangzai Xianggang ban yingpiangongsi,” (Zhang Guangyu to set up film company in Hong Kong)Yule (Entertainment), no.1 (1938): 15.

[11]“Dapi yishujia fuyu”(A number of artists coming to Chongqing), Cinema Life (Dianying shenghuo), no.18 (1940): 6.

[12]Tang Wei, “Chronicle of Zhang Guangyu’s Life III,” Zhuangshi, no. 3 (2007): 49.

[13]Poshek Fu, “Japanese Occupation, Shanghai Exiles, and Postwar Hong Kong Cinema,” The China Quarterly, no. 194, (June 2008): 380–394. Liu Gang, “‘Dazhonghua’ yingchen Zhongguo yingye fengguang shike” (Great China reflects the peak of Chinese cinema), Sohu, accessed April 15, 2021: https://www.sohu.com/a/286391551_786067.

[14]Liu Gang, “Dazhonghua yingchen Zhongguo yingye fengguang shike”.

[15]“Guomanzhifu danchen 120 nian” (The 120th birthday of the father of Chinese comics), accessed April 15, 2021, https://k.sina.com.cn/article_5135808743_v1321e38e701900qcyy.html?sudaref=www.google.com&display=0&retcode=0.

[16]“Guomanzhifu danchen 120 nian”, https://k.sina.com.cn/article_5135808743_v1321e38e701900qcyy.html?sudaref=www.google.com&display=0&retcode=0.

[17]Shanghai Library ed., Retrospections of Walt Disney in Shanghai: A City Chronicle of ROC (Dishini Shanghai wangshi: Minguo shiqi de chengshi jiyi), (Shanghai: Shanghai Scientific and Technological Literature Press, 2016), 89–91.

[18] The clip of Bell Boy is available online, see Qiaozhong Nanhai, Tencent Video, accessed April 15, 2021: https://v.qq.com/x/page/w0776bov2j8.html.

[19]“Guomanzhifu danchen 120 nian”, https://k.sina.com.cn/article_5135808743_v1321e38e701900qcyy.html?sudaref=www.google.com&display=0&retcode=0.

[20]Daisy Yan Du, “Suspended animation: The Wan Brothers and the (In)animate Mainland-Hong Kong Encounter, 1947–1956”, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, 11:2(2017), 140–158, DOI: 10.1080/17508061.2017.1322783.

[21] “Zhang Guangyu shi huizhi Zhongguo katong changpian Xiyou Manji” (Zhang Guangyu creating Chinese cartoons Journey to the West), Yih-yeou pictorial (Yiyou huabao), no.16 (1948): 8.

[22]“Zhang Guangyu shi huizhi Zhongguo katong changpian Xiyou Manji”, 8.

[23]“Zhongguo yingye gaoji SOS: Gang Dazhonghua bengkui” (SOS of Chinese cinema: Great China (Hong Kong) in crisis), Zhongnan Dianying (Chinese cinema), no.3 (1947): 3–4.

[24]Tang Wei, “Chronicle of Zhang Guangyu’s Life III,” 50–51. For the founding of Yong Hwa, see Poshek Fu, “Japanese Occupation, Shanghai Exiles, and Postwar Hong Kong Cinema,” 380–394.

[25]Tan Xuesheng, “Yi zhandouzai nanfang de geming meishutuanti: Renjian Huahui” (In memory of the revolutionary art group fighting in the south: Human Studio), Meishu, (Art magazine)no.2 (1984): 14–15.

[26]Liao Bingxiong, Huang Mingju, and Liao Ling’er ed., Dangdai lingnan wenhua mingjia: Liao Bingxiong (Contemporary Guangdong cultural figures: Liao Bingxiong), (Guangzhou: Guangdong People’s Publishing House, 2017), 26–30.

[27]Lauri Pontieri. Soviet Animation and the Thaw of 1960s: Not Only for the Children, (New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing Ltd., 2012), 6–13.

[28]Liao Bingxiong, Huang Mingju, and Liao Ling’er ed., Dangdai lingnan wenhua mingjia: Liao Bingxiong, 422.

[29]Li Zhen, “Qian Jiajun’s Biography and Filmmography,” Contemporary Cinema, no.11 (2011):40.

[30]Li Zhen, “Qian Jiajun’s Biography and Filmmography,” 40.

[31]Fu Hongxing ed., Zhongguo yingpian dadian: Donghuapian juan (Filmography of Chinese Cinema: Animation Volume) (Beijing: Zhongguo guangbodianshi chubanshe, 2012), 11–14.

[32]Er’er, “Nanguo donghua yishu xueyuan” (South China Animation Art Institute), Dianying yu boyin (Cinema and broadcasting), no.8-9 (1946): 44.Li Zhen, “Qian Jiajun’s Biography and Filmmography,” 40.

[33]Er’er, “Nanguo donghua yishu xueyuan,” 44.

[34]Li Zhen, “Qian Jiajun’s Biography and Filmmography,” 40.

[35]Jeremy E. Taylor, Iconographies of Occupation: Visual Cultures in Wang Jingwei’s China, 1939–1945 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2020), 15–16.

Bio:

Muyang Zhuang is a PhD student in the Division of Humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His research interests include Chinese cartoons, animation, modern Chinese art history, and cinema and visual culture in East Asia.

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