The restored version of a cartoon classic boosts the nostalgia of Chinese moviegoers
By Li Qing  ·  2021-11-29  ·   Source: NO.48 DECEMBER 2, 2021
A poster for The Legend of Sealed Book (FILE)

"Hoping domestically produced animation can go back 30 years," is a well-known saying in China's animation industry, or guoman. Why do audiences and industry insiders alike long for works produced during that era? Can those old stories and old-fashioned elements still satisfy an increasingly discerning generation of viewers?

The return of a cartoon created 38 years ago provides answers to these questions.

On November 5, the 4K restoration of the classic Chinese animated film The Legend of Sealed Book made its debut in theaters. Widely regarded as one of the best animated films in Chinese history, it is hailed for its artistry, narrative, imagination and profound meaning.

The plot follows the story of a young boy who, after hatching from a swan's egg, is given a sealed book by an immortal Taoist saint. After learning the magic contained in the book, the boy helps villagers prevent three evil foxes from doing vicious things. The unwavering perseverance and a broad-minded pursuit of justice promoted in the story strongly influenced young generations. Today, it still scores 9.2 points out of 10 on the Douban review platform, higher than 98 percent of animations recorded on the website.

Zhang Xiaoxu, a white-collar worker in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, reviewed the movie with her 7-year-old son. "I am not surprised to know he likes the animation. It is a beautiful memory from my childhood, and now it is part of his," Zhang told Beijing Review.

"The Legend of Sealed Book is different from the Disney-style stories he's growing up with," Zhang explained, adding that the work fits his aesthetic which is subtly influenced by education and society.

Defining the look and feel of modern Chinese animation, the film's restoration has generated much discussion among the public about the Chinese animation industry. Other products created by the same company, Shanghai Animation Film Studio, founded in 1957, were also brought into the spotlight again. For example, The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven, released in 1964, tells the story of the Monkey King's rebellion against unfairness, and was restored and re-released in 2019.

Although the subjects remain popular, can the beauty of these films, with their traditional aesthetics, be maintained through an innovative approach today? Is this an effective way to boost the development of Chinese animation?

A glorious page

As a bonus feature of the re-released The Legend of Sealed Book, a short documentary at the end tells audiences the stories behind the movie's production. In 1980, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, produced by Shanghai Animation Film Studio was presented at the 33rd Cannes Film Festival. The work, focusing on self-awareness, allowed European and American audiences to get to know Chinese animation for the first time.

That same year, the BBC proposed a joint project with the studio to create a product that featured Chinese culture, and offered some scripts written by sinologists based on Chinese classical literature.

The cultural barriers in the scripts forced the studio to rewrite the story in a way that could be understood by both foreigners and Chinese audiences. Though the BBC later terminated the cooperation for financial reasons, the project continued and achieved great success in the domestic market.

Before production began, the team had already conducted a lot of preparation, including collecting materials through on-site research, which was helpful to the overall animation design process. The studio also invited dance teachers to teach them how to convey emotions through physical expression.

In terms of style, the film adopted traditional techniques such as paper-cutting and ink wash painting. Images developed from Chinese New Year paintings and Peking Opera included bronze implements, frescoes and other elements. The soundtrack came courtesy of traditional Chinese instruments.

The combination of these elements is typical of the Chinese school of animation, and The Legend of Sealed Book is one of its most representative works. The 80-minute film was the product of the best animators in China, who drew 120,000 sketches over three years without the assistance of computers.

Viewers can also spot elements of everyday life in China in the 1980s within the animation. For example, a particular cardboard doll that was popular among children during that decade was designed as the image of one character in the film, with the doll's recognizably rigid body and spinning head making one of the villains seem ridiculous rather than scary. This particular character was a favorite of Zhang's son.

"The production, characters and plots reveal the wisdom and hardworking nature of those old-generation artists," Wang Guanying, an animator in Beijing told Beijing Review. "We have embraced more advanced technologies and watched works of all countries with many different features, but the artistic aesthetics of Chinese animation such as The Legend of Sealed Book still successfully withstand the tests of market, audience and time."

Reproducing a classic

Restoration of The Legend of Sealed Book began in 2018 as Shanghai Animation Film Studio found the original film had begun to deteriorate and digitalization had become urgent.

Su Da, head of Shanghai Animation Film Studio told The Beijing News, the biggest challenge lies in restoring the film's sound. In the original version, dubbing, sound effects and music were all recorded on one track. So restorers were required to separate all the elements and repair the damaged parts using modern techniques. At the same time, all changes needed to be consistent with the audience's memory of sound and emotion.

Some people doubt the studio's motives, believing it merely wants to increase its profits by repeatedly selling classics without new features. The product itself offers the best response to these critics. The 4K version provides a different experience for moviegoers, and restoration requires both innovation and creation, Su said. "I hope this version with added details and supported by advanced technologies can inspire the next generation of young animators."

"It also offers a chance for moviegoers to pay closer attention to the processes their predecessors used to create these classics," Su said, adding more restored works will be released in cinemas or on websites.

Reviving Chinese cartoons

A report on the development of the Chinese Cultural Industry in 2020, released by Peking University in January 2021, listed 10 achievements. "Guoman is exploring a path of Chinese style" ranked sixth. It recommends that these works not only combine new technologies with traditional Chinese visual elements but, even more importantly, that they center around Chinese stories, and create modern representations of traditional culture and values, while also reflecting modern society.

"The market has realized the importance and benefits of using animation to present Chinese culture, after some well-received works emerged in recent years, such as Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification," Wang said. It is a 3D computer-animated film featuring the mythological interpretation of the historical figure, Jiang Ziya. "Following this same trajectory, over 100 animation products registered from 2015 to 2021 are based on mythological figures or stories.

However, creating the effects for The Legend of Sealed Book, which uses styles such as ink wash painting, remains a challenge as it places high requirements on the technology employed, she added.

Wang also said that the industry should be aware that this method of creating animated films will cause aesthetic fatigue among the public. Currently, at least 10 projects are focusing on the Monkey King, she explained. "Animators should expand their knowledge of traditional culture and avoid mistakes as much as possible."

"Chinese animation has developed over the last 80 years. In terms of aesthetics, it does not simply draw inspiration from folk music and ink painting, but is outstanding for its comedic expression with Chinese characteristics. The narrative showcases the wisdom and humor of the Chinese people," Zhou Jie, an associate professor of the School of Fine Arts and Design at Guangzhou University, said.

"Therefore, the development of guoman should not follow the methods and philosophies of the past, but rather conform to the rules of animation and national culture," Zhou told Yangcheng Evening News.

(Printed Edition Title: The Legend of Chinese Animation)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

Comments to

China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency   |   China Daily
CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860