Donghua has its own identity, and it’s one worth knowing
January 24, 2023 5:39 AM   Subscribe

Chinese animation is a vibrant, distinctive industry — so why do so many people still call it ‘anime’? [Polygon] ““Donghua” — much like “anime” for Japanese speakers — is simply the Chinese word for “animation.” After decades of stagnation in the animation industry, going as far back as the Cultural Revolution, China has entered what many tentatively call a rebirth in the field. It’s the result of 20 years of a Chinese identity crisis in animation, as the industry struggled to compete with the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli. While donghua’s current form is heavily influenced by anime, it has its own identity. From the beginning, the medium has constantly evolved to meet the mindset of the society it comes from. Chinese animation has been around for nearly a hundred years.” BONUS: [10 best donghua to get into Chinese animation]
posted by Fizz (16 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
One of the Nezha movies, and White Snake are part of an interconnected universe, I think. Unfortunately, you can't watch them all in one place. Netflix has Nezha and a different White Snake movie, and the sequel to the White Snake movie mentioned here. I really enjoyed them.
posted by Spike Glee at 6:32 AM on January 24

While donghua’s current form is heavily influenced by anime, it has its own identity

I don't know how to say this without it sounding like an insult but: it really doesn't, not yet. That top 10 list still looks like a cross between Japanese anime and American Pixar/Dreamworks output. I don't think there has yet formed a distinctive visual identity that people would look at and instantly say "That's definitely Chinese animation" in the way there is with Japanese, American, or even European animation. That's not to say Chinese animation doesn't produce great work, but it just hasn't formed that distinctive identity yet.
posted by star gentle uterus at 8:33 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

That's certainly why Americans call donghua "anime" - it looks like anime to us, and although "anime" may be Japanese for "animation", it's American (I can't speak for other Englishes) for "animation that looks like Japanese animation" which donghua does.
posted by timdiggerm at 8:50 AM on January 24

There's a running joke (in Western fandom) that anime is mistaken for "Chinese cartoons" by the uninitiated, so it's ironic that actual Chinese cartoons are mistakenly referred to as "anime."

That said, there is a whole debate about what "anime" means in a Western context (in Japanese it refers to any animation, including Western and Chinese examples.) It may shake out that the term encompasses all East Asian animation. Which may be overly broad, but having separate terms for each country could get unwieldy. Then again, on the print side the terms manga, manhua, and manhwa (Japanese, Chinese, and Korean language comics) are all in use by Western fans.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:51 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

I watched "Scissor Seven" for a while, it held my attention a lot longer than I expected. My exposure to animation is very thin, so for all I know this series is incredibly derivative and shoddy, but it kept me going for at least two seasons and I found it pretty funny.
posted by elkevelvet at 10:05 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]

Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979; based on chapters 12-14 of Investiture of the Gods) is mentioned at both links, and it's great. Note that suicide is a plot element resolved in a mythological way but sometimes mentioned as upsetting to reviewers who saw it as a child.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:10 AM on January 24

Mo Dao Zu Shi is spectacular and a must-see for anyone who binged The Untamed on Netflix maybe an embarrassing amount of times. (Lan Wangji forever!)
posted by haplesschild at 11:09 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

I don't know a thing about donghua but sheesh, I struggled with this article. Was absolutely nothing of note released between 1979 and 2003? Really? (Can't help but think of one real-world event that's right in between those dates.) And the majority of the milestones are from the last 8 years, which again makes me wonder about what's not being discussed.

FInally, I bounced off of this paragraph about five times:

Generations of influence by Japan and the United States’ soft power is inevitable for any country; they are two of the biggest animation markets in the world. Before the pandemic, the biggest Japanese pop culture convention outside of its country of origin was Japan Expo, based in France. When Disney’s Coco was released in 2017, a Peruvian father-son duo dubbed the film in Quechua, the most common Indigenous language still spoken in South America. China is no exception. Donghua is unique because it is the reckoning of identity by a third country that has put the resources into matching the giants toe-to-toe.

To the extent I understand what this is trying to say, it whiffs more than a little of Chinese government rhetoric.
posted by ZaphodB at 12:17 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

I did find their claims of 5,000 years of Chinese animation a bit suspicious.
posted by star gentle uterus at 1:27 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

Agreed, haplesschild, Mo Dao Zu Shi (English title: The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) is really worth a watch. MXTX has been very lucky in her adaptations, actually. It's pretty rare for even popular authors to have their work in adaptation sufficiently respected that they create interesting cross-references among the different interpretations of the original. (I understand that Priest, for example, hasn't been so lucky--though I'd love to see a donghua version of Word of Honor/Faraway Wanderers.)

It's a shame then that this article spends so little time on MXTX's actual works and instead uses it to segue into a complaint that bookstores shelve the translated novels in the place where the people who are most likely to buy them are most likely to look. It's correct that lumping the cultural products of countries in East Asia together is reductive, but B&N is making decisions about shelving based around predicted buyer behavior, not any objective value of the work. It's just as reductive to shelve One Piece next to Princess Jellyfish simply because they're both manga.

I'd wager that a lot of people who watched Squid Game last year suddenly got Netflix recommendations for The Untamed or Boys Over Flowers and it's not because those properties are really alike, at all. It's because that "one-inch barrier of subtitles" is actually one of the hardest sells there is to a lot of English-only speakers. It's only once you're past that barrier (as people browsing the manga section might be assumed to be) that you can be sold a work on its own merits.

So, on its merits, then, if you like fantasy stories filled with magic, sword-fights, politics, family drama, and gay longing, check out The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation or The Untamed. (And if you're in the mood for something a bit more spicy, the original novels are where the uncensored--literally--stuff lives.)
posted by radiogreentea at 3:35 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

I feel like video games should be in there. Take Genshin Impact - made in China and visually looks like Japanese anime, but they integrate SO MUCH Chinese culture (and others too but esp Chinese) in it, such as incorporating actual Chinese opera with a legit Chinese opera singer voicing a character from the same background. Their YouTube channel currently has a series of videos showcasing traditional Chinese arts and you can definitely see the in game influences.
posted by creatrixtiara at 3:37 PM on January 24

That’s funny, because Genshin Impact was exactly something I was thinking about above. I don’t play mobile games and avoid gacha games like the plague but am familiar with them via osmosis through anime, manga, and reading about Japanese pop culture. So for years I assumed Genshin Impact was Japanese from the screenshots and clips I’d encounter because it looks exactly like every other of the zillion Japanese mobile fantasy games out there.
posted by star gentle uterus at 3:57 PM on January 24

I feel like video games should be in there. Take Genshin Impact - made in China and visually looks like Japanese anime, but they integrate SO MUCH Chinese culture (and others too but esp Chinese) in it

Kind of reminds me of the Dynasty Warriors series, in that the characters are all from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but that was made by a Japanese company.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:10 PM on January 24

fwiw a lot of the examples in the OP seemed pretty distinct to me *shrug*
posted by creatrixtiara at 4:16 PM on January 24

I've been watching a lot of donghua of late, and of the recommendations in the post I have only watched Mo Dao Zu Shi and Tian Guan Ci Fu. I have been watching The King's Avatar on and off, but haven't been motivated to marathon it the way I did with the drama adaptation. The writer of the article seems to have focused on series available through Netflix, and not really explored what's available on Crunchyroll/Funimation, or YouTube through the channels of Chinese streaming sites such as Bilibili, Youku, Tencent, or iQIYI.

As somebody who is also an avid anime watcher, for me what characterizes current donghua visually is the preponderance of 3D computer animation that makes episodes look like they came out of a video game. Beautiful 2D-look animation such as in Mo Dao Zu Shi and Tian Guan Ci Fu are the exception (even MXTX was not able to evade an unfortunate adaptation, see Scumbag System). Computer animated fights scenes can be quite impressive - see this opening fight from the first 4 minutes of Perfect World.

In terms of subject matter, cultivation story narratives seem to be distinctly Chinese, as well as stories taking place in the martial arts world ("Jianghu"). I find myself overlooking sometimes painful animation just because I find the story and characters interesting.

Setting aside my rambling thoughts, I highly recommend seeking out 中国奇谭 ("Yao-Chinese Folktales") either on YouTube or Bilibili. It is a collection of 8 episodes from different animators adapting traditional Chinese stories, and 5 episodes have been released so far. One of the YouTube links to Episode 2, Goose Mountain, as a starter.
posted by needled at 5:50 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Just want to recommend a series based on a popular cultivation story called "A Mortal's Journey to Immortality" / 凡人修仙传. It's 3D and therefore very video-game looking, but the story and the fight scenes are good enough for my daughter and I to overlook that. It's available on Youtube.

I have been hearing really good things about 中国奇谭 ("Yao-Chinese Folktales"), and the new Donghua movie that just came out, 深海 "Deep Sea" has been getting a lot of attention for its beautiful animation style.
posted by of strange foe at 6:05 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]

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