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Te Wei and Chinese Animation: Inseparable, Incomparable

John A. Lent and Xu Ying report their experiences from visiting Chinaand speaking with one of China's leading artists -- animation-relatedor otherwise -- Te Wei, and discussing the nation's rocky past andquickly changing future.

When he began his cartooning in 1935, Te Wei asked permission of an older nephew whom he admired for his progressive ideas, to use his name to sign his works. After that, China's premier animator did not borrow much else in a fascinating career full of new principles and techniques that revolutionized animation.

Animation had its birth in China in 1926 through the diligent efforts of the four Wan brothers, who, with others, continued to produce shorts (and the first feature in 1941) until World War II. A few works also appeared in the late 1940s, but the real beginnings of modern animation occurred in 1949, when Te Wei and the painter Jin Xi were asked by the Ministry of Culture to go to the northeast and establish an animation group at the Changchun Film Studio.

Te Wei at home (seated right), next to author Dr. John A. Lent, with co-author Xu Ying (standing left) and critic Chen Jian Yao, last year in Shanghai, China. Photo courtesy of Dr. John A. Lent.

His Animation Beginnings

Te Wei remembers that he had a stomach ailment at the time and welcomed a more pleasant environment. However, he was not very keen on doing animation. "I like animation," he explained, "but I didn't like to do production. I liked doing cartoons, not all those monotonous frames. But, it was an order and I had to do this job." His other reservation was that he knew absolutely nothing about animation production.

Why then was he chosen to head this pioneering unit? And why was it put in the northeast? At the time, the Changchun Film Studio was headed by a woman (Chen Bo'er), who liked animation and had created and directed puppet works, including The Dream of an Empire. Wanting to widen the scope of the studio's films with animation, she called on Te Wei because she knew of his cartoons for the print media.

If Te Wei had not carved out a niche in the annals of animation, he still would be remembered for his pre-1949 print cartoons.

Born Sheng Song (in 1915) to a family of limited economic means, Te Wei finished only two years of middle schooling before working in a Shanghai advertising company. He began drawing cartoons in 1933, an opportune time as Shanghai teemed with humor magazines in the 1930s, and launched his professional career two years later. He drew primarily internationally-oriented cartoons for newspapers and magazines.

When Japan invaded China in 1937, Te Wei became part of an anti-Japanese cartoonists propaganda brigade, an august body of distinguished cartoonists (Liao Bingxiong, Ye Qianyu, Zhang Leping, Zhang Ding, Liang Baibo, Hu Kao), which he soon led. The group traveled from city to city (Shanghai, Nanking, Wuhan, Hankow, Changsha, Shangrao, Guilin, Chongqing, Hong Kong, etc.), boosting Chinese morale and spirit of resistance and warning the people about the Japanese invaders. Te Wei described the group's activities as, "We had exhibitions in and out of doors, printed our cartoon works as posters put on walls, and published journals against the Japanese. We did everything ourselves, and though economic conditions were very difficult, we found ways to survive." One way was through funds from the Kuomintang Military Committee. When these dried up in 1941, Te Wei went to Hong Kong where he published two collections of his cartoons -- Te Wei Satire Cartoons and Wind and Clouds Collection.

Te Wei's life took different twists in the 1940s. Like others, he left Hong Kong in 1942 when the Pacific War widened and settled in Chongqing. Because the Kuomintang controlled culture "loosely," he pursued painting instead, going into mines, factories and military bases for subject material. The large water and ink sketches that resulted were for exhibition, mainly "to reflect the poor people's problems." At the end of the war, he went to Yunnan Province, back to Hong Kong in 1947 and Beijing in 1949, where he attended the first Chinese Literature and Arts Conference.

Te Wei said that though he did not know animation, he could function when called to Changchun because "cartooning had similarities to animation, except for its lack of movement." The animation unit stayed at Changchun only a year. In 1950, Te Wei and staff felt Shanghai had "better conditions" and with the sanction of the Ministry of Culture, joined the Shanghai Film Studio. Te Wei retained his position as head of the art department.

The Conceited General (1968) draws its style from the traditional Chinese arts, including the Peking Opera. Photo: Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

Building A National Studio

In the 1950s, Te Wei and his growing staff learned animation through "study and exploration," mainly of Soviet concepts and techniques. "Every aspect of everything was learned from the Soviets at the time," Te Wei said, "because Soviet animation had high level skills and very healthy contents." His enthusiasm for the Soviet model was dampened when the Shanghai Film Studio's Why Crows Are Black won an award at the 1955 Venice Animation Festival, but was regarded by the judges as a Soviet work. At that point, Te Wei decided it was time to make Chinese animation reflective of Chinese customs, tales and techniques.

In 1956, while directing The Conceited General, Te Wei hung a slogan on the studio wall that implored animators to explore a national way. The Conceited General was the first experiment in Chinese-style animation with its Peking opera-like movements. Te Wei said, "We had a clear idea to draw useful things from the traditional arts -- local opera, drama, Peking opera. From the models to the movements, we followed these operas. Most importantly, we invited opera teachers to the film studio to show us how to move."

As The Conceited General and other animated films with prominent Chinese styles became popular in art circles and society at large, the experimentation accelerated, not only with content and techniques, but also basic raw material. Te Wei explained, "We made paper cut and puppet as these were plentiful materials from Chinese culture. We have a long tradition of paper cut and shadow puppetry, and we made paper cut animation very successfully." Wan Guchan, one of the brothers who started Chinese animation, and Hu Jinqing worked for a year to make the first paper cut-out film, the award-winning Piggy (Zhu Baijie) Eats the Watermelon (1958). It was followed by others such as The Little Fisherman (1959), The Spirit of Ginseng (1961), Wait for Tomorrow (1962), More or Less and Red Army Brigade (both 1964).

Te Wei then proceeded to take as a challenge a hope expressed by Vice President Chen Yi, that one day, water and ink painting mastered by painter Qi Baishi would be animated. According to Te Wei, "This type of painting was very famous and had a long history, so I thought we should do animation this way. Qi Baishi painted a lot of tadpoles and shrimp; we thought we'd make them move. We tried many ways before they moved. We made samples and showed them to the art association and got a strong positive reaction." The film, Where Is Mama? (1960), won five awards, including ones at Annecy, Cannes and Locarno. Flushed with the joy of depicting movement so flawlessly, Te Wei wrote the script and directed a second water and ink film in 1963, Buffalo Boy and the Flute, and later served as general director of Feelings from Mountain and Water (1988). There was only one other water and ink animated film, Deer Bell (1985).

The golden era inaugurated by Te Wei in the 1950s continued until 1964, spewing forth other unique Chinese techniques and stories that made the animation world take notice. Yu Zhenguang adapted the ancient Chinese folk craft of paper folding to animation in A Clever Duckling (1960); Wan Laiming (another of the four founding brothers) used the Peking opera military style of performance in creating Havoc in Heaven (first part, 1961; second part, 1964), termed by David Ehrlich as "surely the most ambitious and ultimately the most well loved work" produced at the Shanghai Film Studio.

Feelings from Mountain and Water (1988), used a brush-painting, water and ink technique. Photo: Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

The Dreaded Cultural Revolution

What Te Wei and his highly-talented crew put together in the first 14 years of the studio (1950-64) was shelved or destroyed in the next 14. Many of the studio's works (Buffalo Boy and the Flute, Havoc in Heaven, Red Army Brigade among them) could not be shown in China again until the late 1970s or 1980s. Two years before the dreaded Cultural Revolution, Te Wei's work was already criticized by party leaders (as not reflecting the class struggle), who demanded that he write self criticism; when he could not comply, they sent him to a factory to work.

When the Cultural Revolution started, for one year, he was isolated in a small room, under very close surveillance. Te Wei talked about that experience: "In my tiny room, I had a table with a pane of glass on it. I drew many paintings on it. When I heard sounds -- the guards coming -- I erased the paintings with a wet cloth. I drew everything by imagination; I drew like I'd been there and saw it. This capability was from having drawn cartoons and animation. Later when my job was feeding pigs (along with fellow animator A Da), I saw a lovely baby pig that I thought I would animate when I got out, but I didn't. One fat pig we named Wu Fa Xian, after one of the Gang of Four. A Da and I amused ourselves with humor at times."

While confined to the room, Te Wei was deprived of sleep for three days on one occasion while being interrogated and at other times was tortured. When he was sent to the countryside, he carried garbage and manure, helped dig a river, and as he said above, raised pigs with A Da.

A Da, at 49 years of age in Vermont in 1983. Te Wei and A Da were confined to the countryside together during the Cultural Revolution. Photo: David Ehrlich.

A Return to Art

As the animators gradually returned to the studio in 1973, where they made mostly propaganda films, Te Wei at first was made head of the library, and then in 1975, directed a film about Tibet. After the perpetrators of the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, fell in 1976, he regained his position as head of the animation studio, and for the next eight years or so, was responsible for yet a second important period of Chinese animation. Veterans and newcomers alike -- animators such as A Da, Lin Wenxiao, Qu Jianfang, Zhou Keqin, Hu Xionghua, Hu Jinqing, Jin Xi, Qian Jajun, Yan Dingxian, Wang Shuchen, Chang Guangxi, Zhong Quan and Wang Gang -- made many puppet, paper cut and cel works that were shown (and captured awards) at international festivals.

After finishing his administration as head of the studio in 1984, Te Wei directed the 1985 feature Monkey Conquers the Demon and Feelings from Mountain and Water (1988). The latter was awarded five prizes, including grand prizes from Montreal and Shanghai International Film Festivals. In 1995, ASIFA gave Te Wei a lifetime accomplishment award, which hangs proudly over his bed. "The award means I can draw a dot to my career," he said, but adding, "I think I can do more to make animation unique." At 86, he said he is waiting for a good script to direct, implying it might be a water and ink production, because he thinks this technique is unique and should be preserved.

Speaking with Te Wei

In our 4 1/2 to 5 hour meeting with Te Wei, June 16, 2001, first in his Shanghai apartment and then at lunch in a nearby restaurant, he recalled (though sometimes in roundabout ways) how and why animation was done in the manner it was during his tenure as studio head and discussed (though a bit hesitantly) problems of the profession today.

Question: Of all the Chinese arts, why were water and ink, paper cut, folding paper, and puppet adapted to animation?

Te Wei: In the 1950s, we thought we should have Chinese art films. The first animation was puppet. They were not called cartoons, but art films. When we closed the door to the U.S., you seldom heard of cartoons, only art or animation films. The staff at the time seldom said we should learn from Disney, but most of them liked Disney skills in movement, styles, etc. When the Kuomintang left (1949), they left behind some Disney work, including Fantasia, which Chinese animators had seen. The word animation can include all aspects, paper cut, paper fold, puppet, etc. We didn't waste time over what to call it; we just did things to make a national identity type animation. We also learned from the high skills of foreign countries. A problem now is that seldom do animators carry out deep research on foreign animation.

lenttewei05.jpg Te Wei, at 80, holds his ASIFA prize for lifetime achievement, which was awarded at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in 1995. On the right is Swiss animator and friend Georges Schwizgebel. Photo: David Ehrlich.

Q: What in your life are you most proud of?

TW: When I was young, working as a cartoonist. I not only drew many cartoons, but I also organized and attended many activities in the 1930s. I was a famous cartoonist then. Most of my life has been connected with animation, and in those decades, I did one important thing; I explored national styles and ways for animation. I not only said what had to be done; I not only put a slogan on the wall, but I did something -- made outstanding water and ink films.

But seldom can I feel satisfied; I always felt that there were defects in my works. It's a common phenomenon for directors to have regrets when they finish a film. At that time, film companies gave us money to do water and ink animation, and we were very happy to have that strong government support. Now, no one gives money to do water and ink animation.

Another accomplishment was I organized talented people. From several people, gradually we developed many people talented in animation.

Feeling Te Wei was too modest about his accomplishments, animation critic and scriptwriter Chen Jian Yao, who was present, added:

Te Wei's accomplishment as animator and artist is that he made several masterpieces -- Where Is Mama?, The Conceited General, Buffalo Boy and the Flute and Feelings from Mountain and Water. These works can go down from generation to generation. In 1999, the government chose the 100 outstanding films of China; only 20 animation works were represented and Te Wei's four were among them. Also, as a leader of the animation industry, Te Wei's had three accomplishments: 1. He founded a Chinese national style of animation; 2. He established a highly talented group; under his leadership, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio developed from several to hundreds of staff, uniting seniors like the Wan brothers and cultivating the younger generation of animators; 3. He led both of China's golden eras of animation and most of the famous Chinese animation was made when he was the leader. In 1989, when the Chinese government chose four filmmakers as most outstanding of more than 50,000 people who had worked in the industry, Te Wei was one of them.

Q: What would you have changed if you had had the chance?

TW: I'm very strict with my own works. When I made films, I did not pay attention to social reflection [audience reaction]. What I didn't do is what I regretted. Next time, I would do better.

Q: What have been the biggest changes in the past 50 years of Chinese animation?

TW: There were two ups and downs. 1960-64 was the first golden time with outstanding films. After that, with the political movements until the end of the Cultural Revolution, everything stopped. The 1980s was also a golden period. The second era was much more intense than the first because all the artists had been oppressed during the Cultural Revolution and collected much energy as a result, and they wanted to do something. The level of work was much higher because all of them wanted to make their best works and they worked hard during that time. After the Cultural Revolution, animation films were revived and it was the best period.

Q: What is the biggest artistic change in animation of the past 50 years?

TW: It is hard to say what the big artistic changes were. Artistic skills keep being promoted, and animation production keeps going smoothly; there are no ups and downs artistically.

Q: What are the characteristics that distinguish Chinese animation from that of other countries?

TW: From 1956, I said Chinese animation should find its own nationality and this was so until I retired in 1988 [after directing Feelings]. This way is still going smoothly. It is still different from foreign animation. After 1980, Chinese animators attended international animation festivals, and China had its own; during these times, Chinese animators had a chance to open their eyes and found they lacked certain skills.

Through international animation festivals, foreign animators know more about Chinese animation; on the other hand, Chinese animators learn from the outside. Because of these observations of foreign work, Chinese animators are not satisfied just doing traditional animation. They know they have to learn other skills and when they learn good things from foreigners, some bad things come in also.

Q: What has been learned from foreigners?

TW: When I was working, I put more attention on creation. Now, retired, I feel some animators pay more attention to working for foreign companies; it's not their work, not Chinese animation. This is a bad impact. This situation has been around for years, not just recently. Chinese animators have tried to do something about the [drain of talent to] foreign work. Shanghai Animation Film Studio recently made Lotus Lantern which had market success. You can see Disney in it, but at least they tried. Seldom is there a film here like that these days; it is not common to make efforts at high quality animation like Lotus Lantern. The artistic exploration and atmosphere are not strong.

Artistically and commercially, Lotus Lantern made contributions. We should not expect too much of these films, because seldom can the animators do exploration they need. Nowadays, the animation competition worldwide is stronger and stronger. Chinese animators should take bigger steps like Lotus Lantern. After its success, others have made efforts to do features. Disney has its own ways and methods; Chinese animation must have its ways and methods to compete. But Disney and DreamWorks are too powerful and it is not easy to catch up with them.

Q: Why don't the animators pay more attention to artistic exploration now; why are they going to work for foreign companies?

TW: Working for the foreign companies means more pay, but it also means there is no time to do Chinese animation exploration.

Q: Does the senior generation of animators worry about this?

TW: I feel helpless; I can't change -- or know when or how to solve -- this problem.

Q: How much control from government did animators face in the past?

TW: Seldom was there government control of the animation industry. Some believe there was so little government control so that the industry could develop smoothly. And some senior government leaders have been artists, literary and cultural workers, like Xia Yan, Chen Huang Mei, Premier Zhou Enlai. Even Zhou gave his attention to animation and spiritual support and suggestions. I saw Zhou many times and he often talked about animation films. On one occasion, when he visited Southeast Asian countries, Zhou took Chinese animation with him to show. When he met Japanese delegates, he told them Chinese art films could find their own ways.

John A. Lent is professor of communication at Temple University, chair of Asian Cinema Studies Society, and editor of both the International Journal of Comic Art and Asian Cinema.

Xu Ying is senior research associate at China Film Archive, Beijing, and author of more than 100 articles on film, including some on animation.