February 2012 Meiyu Shidai (an art magazine in China)

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     Image scan from Meiyu Shidai magazine

Huang Yao and the early development of the animation industry in China

by Li Baochuan (China Cartoon Archive Studio)

Abstract: In the 1920s and 1930s, Mr. Huang Yao was the pioneer of the early cartoon art in China. His cartoon character, Niubizi had the same star status as Ye Qianyu's Mr. Wang and Zhang Leping's San Mao, they were the cultural product of that specific historical era. Unlike the others, Niubizi not only reflected the vicissitude of life in the society, it was a unique experiment and exploration of the cultural industry. In the midst of today's vigorous development of the creative cultural industry, the re-examination and study of Huang Yao and his Niubizi will be very useful as reference to a way of regaining the rejuvenation of the animation art today. 

Keywords: Huang Yao, Niubizi, cartoon movie industry

Huang Yao was born in Shanghai in 1917, a native of Jiashan, Zhejiang Province. In order to know  Huang Yao, one must start with knowing Niubizi. In the memory of the older generation of artists, the image of Niubizi is not unknown, Niubizi’s fame has even overshadowed that of his creator Mr. Huang Yao. In recent years, while I was going through the early animation literature of this country, I had often come across this “round-headed, round brained, round ears, round glasses” character, especially from cartoon magazines and picture collections in newspapers. I only got to know the true meaning behind this smooth and round image after a careful perusal of the documents. He was an iconic and rebellious character. Although small and ordinary, he was able to portray human kindness, and at the same time reveal the evil in mankind. He always criticized the wealthy and the arrogant from an ordinary guy's point of view, leaving them nowhere to hide. He compared seemingly insignificant norms of the society with important things central to the universe, bestowing meaning and value upon them (quote Chen Jiying).

By understanding Niubizi, one would also get a glimpse of Huang Yao's personality. Without one, the other would not be complete. Because of this, Huang Yao was awarded the title, “The bull” (or Ox Father), to his amusement some even called him Niubizi. However, Huang Yao's motivation in the creation of Niubizi,  the process, the manifestation and it's social significance, compared to the artistic creations of other cartoonists of the same period, it is clearly more worthy of consideration. Summarized below are the three main aspects: 

The first was to make a cartoon character of celebrity status. Huang Yao in his “Three lectures on Niubizi”, he wrote about his motivation for creating Niubizi stemmed from dissatisfaction of foreign powers taking over the country, with insults hurled on the Chinese for being the “sick man of East Asia”. Furthermore, while the nation was in unprecedented crisis, the foreign concessions in the 1930s China allowed  an influx of imported goods, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Popeye and others flooded the local market. Huang Yao was the editor of newspaper “Xinwen Bao” during that time, being a patriotic literati, he felt deeply the negative influence of the “Western animated cartoon celebrities”, he wanted to create a cartoon character that was “local”, in order to compete with the foreign cartoons, and to strengthen nationalistic sentiments. Thus, Niubizi was born.

The creation of local celebrities had started way back in the 1930s. At that time, old China was already star-studded with cartoon characters. Despite the discontinuance of Lu Shaofei's “Professor Modify” and “Tao Brothers”, other cartoons were going strong. Ye Qianyu's “Mr. Wang” and “Xiao Chen”, Huang Yao's “Niubizi”, Zhang Leping's “Sanmao”, Liang Baibo's “Miss Bee”, Gao Longsheng's “Ah Dou (Mr Fight)” and Wan Laiming's “Miss Lu” appeared one after another. These characters were all very popular and enduring. 

When we speak of cartoon celebrities, up to today, the ones we can mention with relish are still the “Monkey God” , “Nalakuvara (a Chinese legend), “The Gourd Brothers” and “Sheriff Black Cat”. However, among today's stars, none can compare to “Kungfu Panda”,  and certainly cannot compete against it. There is strong support for animation works in China, but they are either still born, or die shortly after birth, their vitality is really worrying. However,  Huang Yao's cartoon character Niubizi was an instant hit, it was the obsession of hundreds of thousands of readers all across China. It was as well known as Sanmao and Mr. Wang. In this way, Niubizi cartoon lived for more than 10 years without any break. Although the character was created about 80 years ago, our ancestor's experience in creation, is still worthy of our study. At the same time one should feel ashamed that no one has managed to overtake his popularity when it existed in China after all these years. 

Niubizi was a funny humorous character in the early days, often expressing interesting incidences in life. With the impending outbreak of war, it transformed into one that favored sarcasm, irony and poking fun at situations, arousing passion or sobering thoughts. Unfortunately, after the war, Huang Yao left for Vietnam and Thailand in search of a new life. In 1956, he settled in Malaysia, and “The Bull” had lived on in foreign land since then. However, the spirit of Niubizi lives on in China. People in the cartoon world know about Niubizi, but rarely of Huang Yao. 

The second reason for Huang's creation of the character was possibly to awaken the wisdom of the readers and create awareness for patriotism and family values. Taking into account the birth dates of these cartoon celebrities from the 1930s, Niubizi came later than Mr. Wang but a year earlier than Sanmao and Miss Bee. Sanmao, Miss Bee and Mr. Wang represented groups of people to ridicule as the ills of the society and it feels as if I were reading someone's biography when I read those cartoons. But Huang Yao's Niubizi was like a versatile movie actor who played different roles in different movies. Some of his more memorable roles include: Guan Gong (Guan Yu, a well-known Chinese historical figure). Wu Song (a famous martial art character), a Nazi officer, a warlord, Zhang Fei (famous commander known in “The romance of Three Kingdoms”), a Qing emperor, a director, a tiger, the Buddha, or Monkey God and others. Niubizi is convincing in any role he takes on, but his distinctive image renders him unique in every instance. 

In his own words, Huang Yao had remarked that, “No matter how many different roles Niubizi was in, there is one connecting theme we must never forget, and that is China is no longer the “sick man of East Asia.”

Chen Jiying, an author who had written much on Huang Yao, also wrote that:“Huang Yao's works portray human kindness and at the same time reveals the evil in mankind. He always criticized the wealthy and the arrogant from an ordinary guy's point of view, leaving them no place to hide. He compared seemingly insignificant norms of society with important things central to the universe, bestowing meaning and values upon them. No matter how many different roles Niubizi plays under Huang Yao's pen, one message is never forgotten, that China is no longer the “sick man of East Asia.”

Impart wisdom to the public, awaken the spirit of the people, to produce educators for the later generation, these were the original intentions of Huang Yao in creating the cartoon character Niubizi. They are also Niubizi's inherent character and human spirit! Mr. Wang Liuyi had commented, “Among the famous cartoon characters created by China's artists, perhaps Niubizi is the only character created as the prototype of an intellectual ....he felt the world's inconstancy, telling the story of the ordinary people....”

Huang Yao not only created the image of Niubizi, he even invited the Wan Brothers to write articles about the character, which culminated in the chapters, “Dissecting Niubizi”, “How to draw Niubizi”, “Why create Niubizi?”and others, making available the technique of drawing Niubizi to the public. Due to the simplicity in lines and style, Niubizi was easy for children and adults to imitate. Although there were different styles of execution, they still looked like Niubizi. It seemed, at that time there were over a few hundred imitations that existed. Interestingly, during the war, the Japanese also plagiarized Niubizi to embellish the war. There was a column in the “Peking Current Affairs Newspaper” forging Niubizi cartoons, in order to spread traitorous contents to confuse the people. The government in Chongqing had a special press conference to clarify the facts and expose this ugly incident. 

The making of a cartoon character of celebrity status and one with a mission of it’s era , teaching and helping people, is what epitomizes Niubizi and marks its place in China's cartoon culture. However, during the times of old China, Niubizi seemed no different from the others like Mr. Wang, Xiao Chen, Miss Bee and Sanmao. But Niubizi stood out from the rest because Huang Yao understood the potential of this emerging industry and was able to successfully navigate through smart promotion events and competitions involving his audience. 

From these two points we can see,“Niubizi's celebrity image was established early on, and this was quickly followed by his popularity and fan base. These conditions made it ripe for an entire enterprise to be formed around the character. Niubizi has proven to be irresistible to its audience and the figures speak for themselves: Nine volumes of Niubizi cartoon books have been published, and sold like hot cakes within 2 months of being published, both locally and internationally, with over eight thousand copies sold. Other than the individual cartoon books, Oxhead magazine was established in Shanghai on 1st May 1937. Huang Yao was the editor, and the magazine had a special page called “Children's Niubizi Exhibition”. The page published children's drawing of Niubizi from all over the country. Unfortunately, Oxhead magazine was forced to put on hold after it’s first edition. It was bad news to the cartoon world. 

Today, although China's produces the most animation and cartoons compared to any country in the world, all kinds of magazines, industrial base, theatre media industry across the country, we have yet to see any great quality production and even adaptations of classical cartoons to movies are rare. Looking at the movies today, animation of well-known cartoons are basically from Europe or United States. Batman, Spider-Man and Astro Boy are blockbusters achieved through the adaptation of cartoon classics. Were we to go back to 1930s, when the people's expectations of  entertainment were simpler, the older generation of cartoonists had also attempted to make movies with cartoons: Zhang Leping's “Adventure of Sanmao”, Ye Qianyu's “Mr. Wang” both managed to gain success on the big screen. In 1938, there were suggestions to make Niubizi into cartoon movies to serve the anti-Japanese propaganda. 

The friendship between pioneers of China's cartoon movie, the Wan Brothers and Huang Yao were very close. The cooperation to bring Niubizi to big screen was not a passing interest. In “Shidai Manhua” no. 29 (20th August 1936) designed by Huang Yao, photographed by the Wan Brothers “Love March” was an unique “puppet animation”. 

Today, we generally think that Wan Chaochen of the Wan Brothers was the pioneer in “puppet animation”. The early records shows that the puppet animation “To the Front” was shot in 1939 by him. But in 1936, “Niubizi second volume” published by Huang Yao, there was a three-dimensional image of Niubizi on its cover. This should be regarded as China's earliest “doll image” based on the development and design of cartoon animation. All these experiences are preparations and experiments to make cartoon movies of Niubizi by Huang Yao and the Wan Brothers. The model of Niubizi was ready, just waiting for the preparation to be completed. But the war started, the KMT authorities implemented the passive resistance policy, feature films with anti-Japanese content were restricted, let alone cartoon movie of Niubizi. Imagine that if they had successfully worked together, Niubizi might be the first “puppet animation” in the history of China's animation.

Undoubtedly Niubizi would also be China's most versatile cartoon movie star. 

In the late 1930s, the Wan Brothers returned to Shanghai (from Chongqing while Huang Yao remained there), they never worked together again. After the war, Huang Yao left Kunming for Hong Kong, hoping to collaborate with Li Minwei on movie projects. The plan had to be shelved when Li contacted terminal illness and Huang Yao left for Thailand and Malaysia.   

In the chaos of old China, Niubizi can be considered a pioneer in establishing cartoons as a way to brand local culture. Until now, Huang Yao can be regarded as the first person that started this movement. Back then, Huang Yao had applied to register Niubizi, and was given the registration number 8716 by the government. Today, cartoon characters register for copyrights mostly to protect themselves against plagiarism, but for Huang Yao, the registration was not to prevent Niubizi from being copied, rather it was used to promote the cartoon character. Huang Yao had planned for Niubizi to be reproduced into toys, on letterheads and other merchandise. He wanted to find new ways of putting Niubizi to practical use, to compete against the imported goods. At the same time, his cartoon merchandise would be exported to foreign countries so they could make money and regain what China had lost through foreign trade (quote The Wan Brothers).

Although the above plan had failed to come to realization because of war, Niubizi did appear in the old China's advertisement industry. In Shanghai's “China Manhua” issue no 6, Niubizi was used to advertise Garbo cigarettes. This was a rare occurrence as cigarette advertisements were usually accompanied by beautiful women. Even more interesting was while Huang Yao was traveling through China's south-west border, Niubizi appeared as Kunming's tourism “ambassador” when he appeared in Kunming Tourism Manual. Niubizi must have been very popular, this stardom experience was beyond that of the other cartoon stars in the same era. Huang Yao and his brand awareness, was the first of its kind in China's animation industry. We should study and learn from his experience with Niubizi.

Article from Meiyu Shidai

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