Old or new art? Rethinking classical Chinese animation

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From the 1950s to the 1980s, a large number of outstanding animations produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio gained high international reputation on the basis of their unique Chinese style and oriental aesthetics. These successful animation works made at the height of the Chinese animation industry, such as Havoc in Heaven (1961/1964, 114 min) and Three Monks (1980, 20 min), are usually referred to as “classical Chinese animation”. Although many scholars highly appreciate the national and traditional style of classical Chinese animation, and believe that it was the most important factor that contributed to the success, I would argue that this style also greatly limited the independence and originality of Chinese animation. In this essay, I will rethink classical Chinese animation through a systematic analysis of the intimate relationship between Chinese animation and traditional Chinese literature, painting, and opera, with the aim to demonstrate that, in spite of its international reputation, classical Chinese animation was largely dependent on other prestigious art forms, rather than existing as an independent art. Faithfully appropriating original stories and narrative strategies from classical literature subordinated Chinese animation to the literary classics, and prioritizing the techniques and conventions of traditional Chinese painting and opera inevitably tied animation to the original masterpieces and harmed its inherently cinematic nature. All of these factors overshadowed the destiny of classical Chinese animation and precipitated its foreseeable decline after the 1980s. In this essay, established readings of the features of classical Chinese literature and art will be applied to the analysis, combining with concepts drawn from animation theory and film criticism on adaption, narrative, and cinematic language, with a view to produce a critical re-evaluation of the role and aesthetics of classical Chinese animation and its success.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-188
JournalJournal of Chinese Cinemas
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 11 May 2017


  • Chinese animation
  • Shanghai Animation studio
  • classicism
  • nationality

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