Growing up in Montreal, my sister and I thrived on a steady diet of cartoons from around the world. We watched American series like Animaniacs and Tiny Toons dubbed in Québécois French, Christmas specials from France (Asterix and Cleopatra), and Mandarin-language VCDs (remember those?) that baba brought back from business trips to China.
We quickly grew to love the bombast of Chinese animation, and ran up and down the house imitating our favorite folk heroes. Watching Chinese shows allowed us to tap into the mythology of our “native” land and share a sense of culture with our extended Chinese family.
Whether you’re part of a mixed-nationality family, an expat parent looking to immerse their child in Chinese, or have Beijing-born kids who identify with the local culture, here are five classic Chinese animations to dip your toes in:
1. Three Monks (1980, pictured above) 三个和尚
This little gem tells the story of a young monk who fetches water for his monastery from a lake downhill using two buckets balanced from a pole. When a second monk comes along, they share the burden but are able to carry less water. The balance is completely disrupted with the arrival of a third monk, and it’s only when all three learn to work together that peace is restored. Featuring a different musical motif for each monk, this short film condenses an important life lesson in 20 minutes: “In strength lies unity.”
2. Little Tadpoles Search for Mother (1960) 小蝌蚪找妈妈
Designed to resemble a traditional ink painting, flowing lines and muted colors impart a particularly Chinese feel to this animated short. The story follows a group of tadpoles as they try to figure out which animals among the denizens of the pond is their mother. Along they way, they receive clues from chicks, shrimp, goldfish, crabs, catfish, and more. When mother and babies find each other in the end, it’s hard not to let the scene tug on your heartstrings at least a little bit.
3. Feeling from Mountain and Water (1988) 山水情
Produced by the same studio as Little Tadpoles Search for Mother, Feeling from Mountain and Water is essentially a piece of moving poetry. This award-winning short is devoid of dialogue, relying instead on the sounds of gurgling water, howling wind, and plaintive guqin to tell the story of a young girl who cares for an elderly man and learns music from him in the process. The piece is an ode to patience, the changing of the seasons, and the beauty of China’s landscapes.
4. Calabash Brothers (1987) 葫芦兄弟
Better known as 葫芦娃(hulu wa) within China, Calabash Brothers is second only to Havoc in Heaven in terms of bravado and high adventure. When two demons escape confinement from a cave, an old man is told to plant seven multicolored hulu or gourds to defeat them. Seven boys, all with different superpowers, emerge from the gourds to save the day. My sister and I ate this one up for all the demons, battles, and righteous speechmaking from the seven brothers. Click here for the complete series.
5. Havoc in Heaven (1961 and 1964) 大闹天宫
Havoc in Heaven is the gold standard of Chinese animation. Though one of the oldest works on this list, it has aged gracefully and remains a popular film. The story is based on the first few chapters of Journey to the West, featuring the famous Monkey King. The series is a fantastic introduction to the various heroes and villains of the Journey to the West pantheon, including Nezha, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, the Celestial Emperor, Erlang Shen, and more.
Our favorite superpower of Sun Wukong’s was his ability to transform into anything he wanted. He usually prefaced the act with the word “bian!” (transform), which my sister and I took to shouting at the top of our lungs throughout the house – much to our mother’s dismay.