by Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman

Around the time I sat down to write this month's column, the media was making much of the fact that the six billionth person had been born on this earth. For some reason the honor went to an Eastern European child but in fact this waif had only a one-in-four chance at the most; a more realistic bet would have placed Mr. or Ms. Six Billy on the Asian mainland. With three-quarters of the world's population in hand, a cultural history that makes the Western record look like a seven-minute short, and a long tradition of exquisite art, one would expect that the nations of Asia would be world leaders in the art of animation. As it turns out, this happens to be true; regrettably, nearly all of the recognition goes to Japanese anime. In this month's column, we'll take a look at the history of Asian animation, its present state, and some possibilities for expanding world awareness of animation's exciting potential in the Far East.

With Disney Theme Parks spring up all over the world, it just reinforces the idea that they created animation.
© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Disney Is Not The First
One reason that Asian animation is not well known is simply because the art form was a Western invention. After animation became industrialized under the American studio system in the early 1900s, the production of shorts and features was mostly identified with that particular nation. That is not to say that there were no exciting developments going on in other countries; there certainly were. As many of us know there were at least two feature-length animated films produced before Walt Disney trotted out Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Both films were made in foreign countries and both predated Walt's classic by at least a decade. However, much of the general public still believes that animation originated with Disney and that his studio discovered and perfected almost every aspect of modern cartoons.

Beginning in the early 1920s, the export of American films to other countries steadily grew until the United States dwarfed every other nation in this respect. Felix was perhaps the first American and international cartoon star. The Disney films were ubiquitous, even more so after the advent of the Great Mouse; Mickey soon became a global icon and American animation held sway the world over. Other nations such as Great Britain had thriving animation industries, but while Merrie Olde England got its fill of Donald, Goofy, and Pluto no one in America enjoyed -- or had even heard of -- Bonzo Dog, Ginger Nutt, Foofoo, or The Colonel. In fact, so little foreign animation made its way on to American screens that it was almost possible to believe no other nation possessed animators, much less independent studios. It would be nearly four decades before those perceptions began to change.

At the same time that American animation was dominating the world, two of the largest nations on the Asian continent began to produce animated shorts, with notable results. China's greatest resource was the talented Wan brothers, a sort of Oriental answer to the Fleischers; in fact, their earliest films were much like Max and Dave's Out of the Inkwell efforts. The Wans made their first film in 1926, two years before the debut of Mickey Mouse. These brothers went on to found China's first animation studio in 1933, and in 1941 two of the trio produced China's first animated feature film. That same year saw the foundation of the Association of Chinese Animation, and after the war the Shanghai Studio (est. 1949) would become the largest producer of animation on the Asian mainland, producing over a hundred films. This record was interrupted by Chairman Mao (or more specifically his wife Chiang Ching, who virtually dictated the content of China's arts). The Cultural Revolution sent most of the Shanghai animators to "re-education camps" (and the Fleischers thought they got a raw deal from Paramount!) but the studio was resurrected in 1972 and truly began to thrive after Maoism took a final header in the mid-seventies. Led by passionate and creative artists such as Xu Jingda (better known as A Da), Chinese animation enjoyed a resurgence of shorts, feature films, and all the animated arts including Jin Shi's inventive stop-motion puppetry. The Shanghai output is rarely (if ever) seen by the American public, but represents some of the finest that Asia has to offer.

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