‘Yao-Chinese Folktales’ is a collection of eight separate 20-minute "Monster (Yao)" stories, launched jointly by Shanghai Animation Film Studio and Bilibili.
The series takes inspiration and characters from traditional Chinese folktales to tell stories about our current zeitgeist. Each episode highlights a unique Chinese aesthetic that has enraptured audiences. The aesthetic in ‘Goose mountain (鹅鹅鹅)’ takes forms inspired by calligraphy painting, while ‘Xiao Man (小满)’ uses paper cutting.
We are particularly interested by the role of the folktale. Unlike other literary genres like myths that may focus more on grand cultural narratives, folktales are a form of story that can address pertinent social topics and appeal to a distinct audience.
One tale we are particularly interested in is ‘Nobody (小妖怪的夏天)’. This episode reflects the experiences of confusion and pressure in a bureaucratic and hierarchical world faced by young people entering the world of work.
As one viewer commented, “‘Nobody’ is a perfect combination between traditional culture and contemporary reality, it explains the ‘Journey to the West’ story in a brand new way, it really surprises me.”
In this short piece we'll situate folktales sit in the Chinese animation landscape and identify why we think 'Yao-Chinese Folktales' embody narrative tropes that we see connect with audiences across popular entertainment formats and marketing communications.
Chinese Animation Rising
2022 marks Disney's 100th anniversary. Lesser known but also celebrating a centenary is the first Chinese animated advertisement - for a sewing machine brand directed by the Wan brothers (万氏兄弟) – who also directed China's first feature-length animation ‘The Princess of Iron Fan 铁扇公主’ in 1941, and are regarded as the fathers of Chinese animation.
In recent years Chinese animation has benefited from the success of domestic breakthrough hits like ‘NeZha’ from Coloroom (彩条屋) and ‘New Gods: Yang Jian’ from Light Chase Animation.
Unsurprisingly, many recent successful Chinese animation projects use classical Chinese mythology and familiar grand stories as a narrative base, with contemporary resonance. If originally the ‘NeZha’ mythology was a tale of paternalism, filial piety and self-sacrifice in the context of fatherhood, in its latest renewal it makes a more sociologically up to date comment on broader family relationships and identity expression themes.
The explosion of science-fiction in recent years has also proven a boon to animation - Bilibili and Tencent launched two competing versions of 'The Three Body Problem' almost simultaneously.
However, appreciation for Chinese animation is not universal despite wide promotion and deep investment. The Bilibili version of the ‘Three Body Problem’ was criticised by viewers for its low-quality aesthetic and poor character development. In comparison, it only has a 3.9 score on Douban with viewers harshly critiquing the show.
“The reason why Ye Wenjie wants to destroy the Earth must be because she saw this version of ‘Three Body Problem.’”
Equally, for all of its success, the gender and persona transition of Yang Jian’s faithful ‘Howling Celestial Dog’ (嘯天犬) to a crazy girl is largely viewed as an unnecessary twist on the original narrative which results in offending women, and not finding contemporary relevance.
Besides the big names in the industry and an increasing sense Chinese studios can deliver on par with global firms, it is smaller independent animation studios and even individuals who are starting to find their own platform to showcase their talents and creativity.
One such example is ‘Capsule project (胶囊计划)’ held by Bilibili. In the past year, with the help of the project, 12 individual anime short films were launched on Bilibili. Bold exploration on topic and genre can be found in these short films. In addition, ‘Ores project (原石计划)’ and ‘Cosmoses project (小宇宙计划)’ provide people who are interested in animation with training and a stage to be discovered.
While modernizations of classic myths and epic space opera narratives deliver box-office success, and touch on macro-cultural discourse - it is folktales playing on familiar narrative structures with stories of the everyday that have touched a disaffected youth audience.
Folklore is the narrative format of the underrepresented. Following the example of Maxim Gorky, in his ‘Theory and History of Folklore’ Vladmir Propp defined folklore as ‘the literary output of the exploited classes.’
While traditionally this was a peasant class, the group who most find affinity with the “subaltern class dynamics that exist in competition and conflict with official society” (Gramsci, Selections From Cultural Writings) are the contemporary alienated youth and white-collar workers who dominate Bilibili viewership - and are the first to buy Naxue Milk Tea’s IP collab with ‘Nobody.’
‘Yao-Chinese Folktales’ employ many narrative structures and elements that appeal to the subaltern class which define the relative appeal and success of Yao-Chinese folktales for this audience.
Beyond the stylized aesthetics that offer deep nostalgia via flashbacks to a specific Chinese visual memory, depictions of quotidian life in China or childhood memories, such as in “The Village Bus Took Wang Haier and the God (乡村巴士带走了王孩儿和神仙)” provide a typical Chinese village life as the background of the story.
The underdog is a powerful cultural motif and the clever use of deuteragonist roles such as Pig in ‘Nobody’ closely align the narrative with the audience who see themselves as NPCs and non-heroes. This affinity building is a key function in the performative enactment between story and storyteller in folkloric conventions.
Traditionally, folktales were oral forms of storytelling and perhaps the short 15 mins video format of ‘Yao-Chinese tales’ - to be consumed as a kind of ‘digital snack’ - are a close equivalent of that media format today. As of publishing, ‘Yao-Chinese Tales’ has gathered 200 million views on Bilibili with a score of 9.9. If folktales are an oral tradition, that’s not bad word of mouth.