Children in mainland China in the early 1980s were often fans of the feature-length cartoon Legend of the Sealed Book.
Based on a fourteenth century novel by Luo Guanzhong, the exquisitely-drawn cartoon tells the story of Yuan Gong, an official who unlocks the secrets of a magic book. Yuan, who is then banned from communicating the magic to anyone else, then has to raise a small boy, Dan Sheng, to save his community from a group of vixen (in human-form) and other calamities.
The format was one of a handful of widely-acclaimed cartoons to be released after the end of the traumatic Cultural Revolution, signalling the return of Chinese animation and the advent of a unique local style.
Almost 40 years after it was originally created, the cartoon has been rereleased in remastered 4K format, much to the joy of those who loved it the first time around.
In fact, the cartoon came fourth in box office takings on its debut weekend at the start of November. “I’m so happy to be able to share this with my own kids,” celebrated one audience member. “Stunning style,” applauded another.
Chinese animators have developed several distinctive styles that borrow from traditional art forms such as Peking Opera, paper cutting and ink painting. Early pioneers in the modern era were the four Wan brothers, who founded the Shanghai Film Animation Studio and produced Asia’s first feature length animation, Princess Iron Fan, in 1941.
Another much-treasured release was Havoc in Heaven a two-hour, technicolour extravaganza based on the Journey to the West novel (and especially beloved by the public until Mao Zedong banned it).
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards shut the Shanghai Film Animation Studio down and sent many of its artists to the countryside.
The studio partially reopened in the early 1970s to produce propaganda cartoons, like Little Trumpeter, a story about a young boy who became a heroic Red Guard, and Little 8th Route Army, another tale about a young boy taking revenge against the Japanese army.
Little Sentinel of the East China Sea ploughed a similar path, telling the story of a young girl who alerts the People’s Liberation Army to a chemical warfare attack by enemy agents. However, even China’s Ministry of Culture points to this period as a time when the Chinese animation sector lost its standing in other parts of the world, falling far behind the likes of the US and Japan in production of more popular fare.
“By 1978 it was clear that significant damage had been done by the Cultural Revolution… It was difficult for China to compete directly at home or on the big screen,” a piece on the ministry’s Chinaculture.org website admits.
The BBC is said to have had a key role in suggesting that the Legend of the Sealed Book be made – local media recount that conversations with the UK broadcaster began just as China’s opening up and reform period was beginning, though it wasn’t involved in the final production. The animation that resulted blends a Peking Opera-style aesthetic with Disney-esque elements of humour – something that was largely missing from Chinese cinema at the time. The newer version of the 90-minute classic has brighter colours and better resolution than the original but is otherwise largely the same. Predictably, it has been praised in the state media for being homegrown in its style. But for most of the audience, the appeal is a nostalgic one. As one put it: “For an hour and a half I was a child once again.”
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