- The Rebel of the Chinese School:Modernist Expression in A Da’s Late Animations
From the 1960s to the 1980s the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, known both at home and abroad as the Chinese school of animation, produced a significant number of outstanding animation films. The success of these films lies primarily in the fact that “this is entirely Chinese-style animation.”1 Over the thirty years during which the Chinese school blossomed, two generations of animators drew on an approach inspired by Chinese traditional culture and classical arts and used it to educate and entertain children.
Xu Jingda, known as A Da (1934–87), one of the second-generation animators, worked for the Shanghai Animation Film Studio for seventeen years after graduating from the film department of the China Ministry of Culture. As several scholars have suggested, A Da “was nourished by Chinese traditional painting and folk art,” which led him to develop a distinctly Chinese form of animation.2 In fact, he “combined modern animation concepts with traditional Chinese culture.”3 A Da at first absorbed and followed the school’s conventional, classical manner, but his later works look significantly different from other Chinese school animations, which suggests that he eventually broke free of the school’s established ways. When we place A Da and his work in the context of the history of both Chinese animation and art movements, it becomes evident that the approach he chose in the last period of his career is not that of the Chinese school but rather a style influenced by modernist art and movements from Western countries, which in fact, as I show, can be said to directly conflict with the essence of the Chinese school. The application of modernist principles to animation has been evident in the West [End Page 81] since the 1920s; however, it was a completely new phenomenon for Chinese animation, which was relatively isolated from international art movements prior to the 1980s.4 In this respect, A Da was a pioneer and a revolutionary who introduced new artistic and philosophical models to the China of the 1980s.
In this article, I rethink A Da’s later works and explore his evolving style in the context of the Chinese school and the modernist movement in China in the 1980s. I begin with a brief introduction to the Chinese school and an account of A Da’s life and career and follow that with an analysis of his most representative work, Three Monks (1980). I compare this animation from the middle period of his career to his last two animations, the six-minute-long Super Soap (1986) and five-minute-long The New Doorbell (1986). I explore aspects of modernist expression in Super Soap and The New Doorbell and various techniques A Da borrowed and adapted from modernist painting and literature. Overall, I aim to elucidate the revolutionary approach A Da crafted at the end of his career in the light of the history of Chinese animation and the profound cultural and artistic transformations that were brought about by the reform and opening up period in the late 1970s.
The Chinese School and A Da
While frequently used in Chinese animation studies, the expression “Chinese school” needs to be clarified. A national style of Chinese animation emerged and coalesced in the 1950s and gradually disappeared by the end of the 1980s, and during this period the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was the only professional studio in China and produced most of the country’s animated films. Thus, in this article, the “Chinese school” is defined as a group of animators associated with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio between the 1950s and the 1980s who shared traditional Chinese philosophical and aesthetic approaches and whose works present strong national characteristics. The representatives of the Chinese School include Te Wei, Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming, Qian Jiajun, Yu Zheguang, Wang Shuchen, Qian Yunda, Zhang Songlin, A Da, Yan Dingxian, Lin Wenxiao and others. According to incomplete statistics, from 1956 to 1988 more than 240 animation films were produced by the Chinese school, which won around fifty international awards.5 Inspired by traditional Chinese painting and folk arts, these...