Animation in the Sinosphere: A Review Essay

Puppets, Gods, and Brands: Theorizing the Age of Animation from Taiwan, by Teri Silvio
Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation, 1940s-1970s, by Daisy Yan Du

Reviewed by Evelyn Shih
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2020)

Teri Silvio, Puppets, Gods, and Brands: Theorizing the Age of Animation from Taiwan Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019. 290 pages. ISBN: 9780824881160 (Paper); 9780824876623 (Hardcover).

Daisy Yan Du, Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019. 276 pages. ISBN: 9780824877644 (Paper); 9780824872106 (Hardcover).

Has the age of animation begun? And if it has, to whom does it belong? Two new books on Chinese and Taiwanese animation bring these questions into focus using materials that have thus far received scant attention in English-language scholarship. In global animation studies, by far the dominant loci for animation have been America and Japan—the former beginning with the worldwide stardom of Mickey Mouse, and the latter beginning with the post-WWII boom of anime, which subsequently drew interest to earlier animation and related media. The modes of animation that emerged from these locations have come to define the paradigms through which most scholars approach animation, and included among these framing paradigms is the specter of national cinema. While both Teri Silvio’s Puppets, Gods, and Brands: Theorizing the Age of Animation from Taiwan and Daisy Yan Du’s Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation engage with that framework, they also work to push the model forward with new perspectives.

Silvio challenges “Japanamerica” through the lens of post-colonialism, taking as her case study a past colony of Japan and a neo-colonial client state of the US: Taiwan.[1] More importantly, however, she broadens the field of animation studies by finding an interdisciplinary interface with anthropology and religious studies—that is, she engages seriously with media studies, especially areas such as fan and reception studies, film analysis, and production studies, but her strength is in cultural theory. The “age of animation” that she proposes in her title is not just an acknowledgement of increasingly sophisticated digital technologies and virtual realities reaching a new level of omnipresence in contemporary life; it also redefines animation as a mode of post-humanism. As she puts it, “animation in the narrow sense (a kind of cinema or video) is popular because animation in the broad sense (giving objects lives of their own) is good to think with—specifically, to think through what is happening right now in the intersections of technology and capitalism, of the global and the local, of the human and the nonhuman” (3). In one deft move, Silvio provincializes Japanese and American animation, which is after all just “a kind of cinema or video,” and finds a larger question that puts a relatively marginal mode of Taiwanese puppet animation at the center. Puppets, after all, are objects that exist precisely to have a “life of their own.”

Her next move is to oppose “animation” as a paradigm to “performance.” Chapter 1 offers the reader a rapid-fire version of how “performance” developed as a significant concept in anthropology, religious studies, gender studies, and even in business and politics before clarifying how the concept of animation works in tension with it. In short, performance emphasizes embodiment and identification, of human bodies inhabiting and introjecting a role or a type of self; whereas animation emphasizes projection and interaction with an exterior object that may or may not be human. If the animation is a puppet, a god, or a brand, the affective appeal to a fan is likely not self-expression, because the object expresses only itself. In the case of the ang-a, a small anthropomorphic figure used in multiple ways in Taiwan, from the religious object to the convenience store collectible, the object can be an expression of a higher being, an idea, or even a character that is larger than the sum of all its manifestations. In effect, Silvio advocates for animation as a kind of ontological flattening, within which we give the animation object the same kind of agency that we attribute to humans. This ang-a mode of animation, the subject of chapter 2, is perhaps the furthest afield from conventional animation studies, but it bears the most theoretical fruit as a result.

By contrast, Daisy Yan Du stays closer to the kind of cinema and video most often indicated by the word “animation,” but with detailed archival research she too demonstrates that it was never as simple as “Japanamerica.” Du uncovers the history of animation as it developed within Republican and Communist China, taking up a Cold War framework that allows her to reflect on the blind spots created by that ideological division. It stands to reason that China would develop socialist networks of animation production—even if most Americans and Japanese were not paying attention. Furthermore, if Japanese animation was entangled from the start with American animation, despite the two nations being at war in the 1940s, Du shows how Chinese animation had complex relations with both sides during the global emergence of the medium. Adopting a film historian’s methodology, she commits strongly to her transnational framework, and in doing so begins to undo Japanamerica’s primacy—its “firstness” in world cinema—when it comes to the specific field of animation.

This process of toppling the idea of a clean, simple primacy occurs mainly in the first two chapters, in which Du teases out the delicate back and forth between Chinese and Japanese animators during the WWII period; the lasting implications of this dance for postwar Japanese animation, which was entering global prominence; and the untold history of a leftist Japanese animator who remained in China and helped to launch a new era for Socialist animation. The winning strategy in these chapters is Du’s designation of multiple protagonists in this historical narrative: the Wan 萬 brothers are discussed side by side with Seo Mitsuo and Tezuka Osamu; Princess Iron Fan and Sun Wukong as a counterpart to Momotaro and Atomu; and, interestingly, Mochinaga Tadahito as the non-Chinese figure who dominates chapter 2 because he serves as a missing link to the early phase of Mao-era animation. Although she deals with periods of sharp animosity between China and Japan, and even in the contested territory of Northeast China/Manchukuo during the 1930s and 1940s, Du is able to avoid the restrictions of nationalist sentiment by studying the fluidity of animation. She borrows the term “plasmatic,” which is usually evoked to describe the attractive visual quality of animation, to describe animation’s tendency to exceed the interpretive powers of the national cinema framework. A work of animation, after all, can be easily dubbed in different languages. When it comes to questions of visual style, it is also difficult to fix a certain image within a specific national aesthetic (chapter 3). Animation, Du seems to argue, is good to “think with” because it removes limitations that pertain to other forms of cinema.

This argument converges with Silvio’s contention that animation always brings in an element of the non-human and does not necessitate a one-to-one identification between the viewer and the animated object. If we take one of Du’s case studies from chapter 1, the monkey Sun Wukong from The Journey to the West, who appears in various animations in both China and Japan, we can easily conceive of his character as a kind of ang-a. Sun Wukong is not a religious figure like Mazu or the City God (城隍), as Silvio discusses in her chapter 3 (“The Cutification of the Gods”); but like them, he can be animated an infinite number of times, and his fans can imagine him both as a specific, singular manifestation or the sum total of all manifestations. (Perhaps fans of the Monkey King are accustomed to doing so already, given his penchant for self-duplication.) Multiple identities can be projected on the iconic character of Sun, which is capacious enough to hold all of these fleeting shadows. Even if we consider the practice of rotoscoping, in which animators draw over footage of a human or animal actor’s movements to create smoother, more lifelike animation, Sun Wukong is never limited by his human embodiment. Comedic performer Han Lan’gen 韓蘭根, whose performance was the basis for the rotoscoped Sun Wukong in Princess Iron Fan (1942), was a Chinese actor; but this did not prevent a young Tezuka Osamu from becoming attached to this version of Sun Wukong; decades later, at the end of his career, he would transform himself into the Monkey in I Am Sun Wukong (65-67).

If both Du and Silvio do a lot of work to establish theoretical and methodological frameworks in the first halves of their books, they begin to examine the more local and fine-grain nuances of these ideas in the second halves. Du deals with China’s internal debates over national and international style (chapter 3) and the ethnic allegory of animated animals (chapter 4), focusing on domestic concerns surrounding animation during the Maoist era. Instead of conceiving of the transnational as the movement of people and objects across national boundaries, she develops a model in which transnational events (such as the Sino-Soviet split) and cultural watersheds (such as the Cultural Revolution) have implications for domestic animation. The model shifts from the “encounters” she posits in her title to something more akin to cultural flow. Silvio’s book, by contrast, moves from grand theorization to the particulars of her case study: the Pili International Multimedia Company. She follows its attempts to take Taiwanese budaixi (布袋戲) puppets global, exploring both the company’s development over time and the fan culture surrounding its products. One additional chapter, almost a coda, discusses the Japanese animation franchise Axis Powers Hetalia, in which characters are anthropomorphized personifications of nations. Here Silvio argues that even when national identification is heavily suggested, a close study of the fan culture reveals that this is not a simple matter of (self-)stereotyping. Just as fans construct a character collectively, animating it from their heterogenous positions, so too do members of a community animate it with their own beliefs. Animation and performance are not mutually exclusive, but dialectical.

As two books that both stake their claim in the field of Chinese animation studies, Du’s and Silvio’s offerings seem very different, but they do converge on several points and can be seen as posing productive questions to each another. For one, Du’s research on puppet animation in Japan presents an interesting prehistory to the more recent collaboration between Japanese animator and writer Urobochi Gen and the Pili company to make a Taiwanese budaixi video series (2016) that is discussed in Silvio’s study. What happened to puppet animation in Japan between Mochinaga Tadahito and Urobochi Gen? And if early Chinese socialist puppet animation still exists within cultural memory for the contemporary mainland audience, how might that endear such an audience to Pili-style animation—or repulse them from it? These are questions that future studies might answer.

Second, both books overlap in their posthuman approach, with Silvio showing a greater affinity for object-oriented ontology and Du indicating animal studies as a relevant field for scholarship on animation. Again, we can imagine future works that fill the gaps in between. Silvio’s study stays within the scope of the anthropomorph, the humanoid figure—but as long as we are considering the animated object to be non-human, we can easily make the leap into the non-humanoid, or the animal. What changes in the landscape of the “age of animation” if we start including animals, aliens, or even non-sentient objects? What happens when we move to different positions in the animacy hierarchy?[2] Du’s study of animals in animation comes mostly in a chapter about allegorizing ethnic minorities using emblematic animals. What happens if we take the post-human commitment further and question the non-human animal nature of animated animals?

Finally, I want to address a more methodological question—namely, what is the role of close reading in studies of culture and media history? Silvio, an anthropologist by training, uses mainly ethnography in the form of oral interviews and observation, but does offer a few close readings throughout her book. For example, she reads the “online novel/manga/film” Densha Otoko in order to dramatize the difference between performance and animation in chapter 1; scenes from the film The Arti: The Adventure Begins (2015) and the series Thunderbolt Fantasy—Sword Seekers (2016) when she discusses the productions of the Pili International Multimedia Company; and Axis Powers Hetalia (as well as fanfiction narratives) in chapter 6. Du incorporates much more close reading into each section of her book, and it is perhaps most important in chapter 3, in which the differences between the “international” and “national” styles are carefully delineated. Both authors, however, seem to return to an analytical strategy that interprets the qualities of an individual work as a meta-commentary on the medium itself. For example, Du’s analysis of The Fishing Boy (魚童,1959) rereads the plot to allegorize the “triumph” of the national style and the “exorcism” of the international style, with the titular boy serving as a “figure of animation” (130).  Similarly, Silvio has a reading of a scene in Thunderbolt Fantasy (東離劍遊紀) where one character represents a more traditional folk animation position, and the other represents the “magic of the archive” that becomes possible with digital animation and new media techniques (146-147). In this fight scene, animation is not at stake within the narrative; but, like Du, Silvio finds the triumph of a certain animation style in the conclusion of the battle.

While this strategy can be useful for orchestrating a meeting between a particular object of study and an overarching argument, it does have limitations. If everything is marshalled to the end of showing us what animation is conceptually, we will be left with too little idea of its experiential, affective, and formal dimensions that animate animation. Certainly, Du and Silvio address these dimensions in different, and quite successful, ways. I would simply suggest that close reading, too, can be a site where animation can come to life. Chinese and Taiwanese animation deserve this (close) attention.

Further insightful readings of these cultural works are surely in the offing. The great achievement of both books is to open up rich conversations, not just within Chinese studies, but beyond: in the fields of media studies, anthropology, religious studies, and, yes, in animation studies, which can no longer afford to just address Japan and America. I believe they also provide excellent resources for anyone who is interested in teaching Chinese animation, transnational cultural history, and more specific topics such as the wuxia genre and fan culture within the Sinophone sphere. They move beyond the largely taxonomic work of previous scholarship and explore the ways in which Chinese animation can be instructive, even prescient, about cultural transformations to come.

Evelyn Shih
University of Colorado, Boulder


[1] I draw the term “Japanamerica” from Silvio’s text, and she quotes the concept from Roland Kelts, Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[2] I refer here to the concepts developed in Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Duke University Press, 2012).