A Chinese mother prepares a pile of white dough, kneading it into circles. She wraps meat in the buns and steams them. As she sits at the dining table, she sighs, feeling lonely. The mother prepares to eat her bun, but it begins crying. The bun is alive.
The mother decides to raise the bun as her own child. The bun grows up, and as time passes, begins to distance himself from his mother. He abandons his mother on daily errands, spends all his time talking with his friends on the phone and rejects his mother’s home cooked meals. One day, the bun announces that he is moving out.
The mother becomes frantic at the thought of his departure. As the mother and bun argue, the mother grabs him, puts him into her mouth and swallows. Once she realizes what she’s done, she lies on the bed and sobs.
It’s then that the mother’s son comes home. Mother and son have a tense relationship, but the son offers her bread from the bakery as a peace offering. She accepts, and as the two sit on the bed eating their bread, they both begin crying. It is revealed that all along, the bun was a metaphor for the mother’s human son. “Bao,” which can mean “precious treasure” in Chinese, was a reference to the mother’s conception of her son.
The story depicted in “Bao,” a Pixar animated short, was written and directed by Domee Shi, a Chinese Canadian. It won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2019.
“Bao” is an example of a Chinese storyteller rendering a distinctly Chinese story. Amid wider issues of misrepresentation in the animation industry, the cultural authenticity “Bao” offers demonstrates how companies are recognizing and implementing their stake in global animation through storytelling. Representation that caters to both Western and Eastern audiences is illuminating stories that are often not visible onscreen.
Representation as Formative Experience
For the Chinese diaspora, “Bao” was especially meaningful. Veronica Wang, a blogger at the Asian American arts organization Kollaboration SF, says that watching “Bao” was a significant experience for her on a cultural level.
“It just kind of struck me how Chinese communities are so similar wherever the Chinese diaspora is, and the way that [Shi] depicted the family and wrote their conflicts,” Wang says. “It really made me realize, ‘Wow, [Shi] understands this particular perspective of Chinese immigrants and the cultural gap between the parent and the child.’ It was a story I really related to.”
For Lexie Chu, a development assistant at Skydance Animation, “Bao” had a similar impact.
“It just felt right,” says Chu. “That’s all I can say. It just felt so right to have it out there and [the story] was just normalized.”
Alexander Yeh, a senior at USC studying art and animation, expresses that he felt “Bao” was “lovingly made.” Growing up, he never saw anyone in cartoons who looked like him. He expresses that by creating shorts like “Bao,” the animation industry is driving a positive trend for diverse representation as a whole.
“People are paying better attention to how to lovingly craft, not just Asian characters, but also characters of all different races and ethnicities,” Yeh says.
Disney’s newest animated film “Encanto,” for example, centers on a Colombian family living in a fantasy version of Colombia. It came out this November. Pixar’s animated film “Soul” (2020) features its first-ever Black male lead, and the ongoing Cartoon Network series “Molly of Denali” focuses on an Alaska Indigenous lead named Molly.
While films like “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) and “Big Hero Six” (2014) have been lauded for their representation specifically for the Asian community, it’s evident that animation has shifted its focus to equitable and inclusive representation at large.
Exoticising the East: Challenges in Diversity and Inclusion
For all the positive impact that animation can have for the Chinese community, the art form also presents its challenges.
Specifically, Western animation about Chinese culture often falls victim to exotifying the Chinese community. This may be attributed to the fact that visually, animation is more subject to racial caricatures than live-action films.
This is especially true for Chinese characters, as stereotypes are rendered frequently in their visualization. In her Kollaboration SF article “Asian Representation in Animation,” Wang points to the animated television series “Xiaolin Showdown” as an example. The Chinese character Omi is depicted with “bright yellow skin” and “a heavily exaggerated accent,” writes Wang, which accentuates the character’s foreignness.
For Yeh, the character Jake Long in the animated television series “American Dragon: Jake Long” offers a similar representation.
Jake Long is a Chinese American who Yeh describes as having “beady eyes.” Throughout the series, Long must hide his ability to turn into a dragon and fight against villains that threaten other magical creatures.
The topic of the show’s Chinese stereotyping is often discussed in online forums. Viewers question whether or not the series exotifies Chinese mythology (ex. Jake turning into a dragon) rather than providing a glimpse into the more subtle aspects of Chinese culture.
Exotification isn’t isolated to culture or characters. It also occurs in Western animation about China as a country. As a child, Yeh recalls being exposed to Western stereotypes about China watching animation. It’s a sentiment echoed by Wang, who states that shows like “Sagwa” set in “ancient China” always had to make the character revolve around the culture, rather than the other way around.
However, such depictions did not affect Yeh’s perceptions of China. Although he had never been to China until he was a teenager, Yeh had the cultural benefit of being taught about China from his parents, who would tell him that the popular representation of China in animation was not what China actually looked like.
He expresses that due to that education growing up, Yeh was aware of Western animations’ emphasis on an exoticized vision of ancient China. Those depictions are not reflective of contemporary China, which he views as the reality.
“Between when I was growing up and now, China has undergone many changes,” Yeh says. “The China that I would have heard of then is not anything like what China looks like now.”
However, Yeh’s case is not universal. Olivia Stark, a current series coordinator at Skydance Animation, reflects on how despite being ethnically half-Chinese, she grew up without ever visiting China. Her exposure to China came mostly from stories by her grandparents and Western media, specifically the China represented in “Mulan” (1998).
“Hearing these stories about when my grandparents lived in China, and [how] it was so different back then, in my mind it’s like this ancient civilization,” says Stark. “And I think that that is just the impact that media can have on young minds … obviously if you’ve never been to China and this is how you see it portrayed even as someone who’s Chinese, that’s what your mind is going to think of when you think of China.”
For many Asian creatives, the exoticism in animation is evidence of the animation industry’s systemic issues surrounding diversity and inclusion. Fundamentally, it has to do with the underrepresentation of Asian characters on screen. This points to a lack of diverse creatives behind the scenes.
A 2019 Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study titled “Inclusion in Animation” found that only five percent of animated film producers were women of color and only six women of color were executive producers in television.
In a 2021 study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen and her colleagues surveyed 1,300 films and found 51,159 speaking characters, of which only 5.9 percent are API. Proportionally, this percentage fails to measure up to the 7.1 percent of API-identifying individuals in the U.S. population. These statistics are precisely why social change is necessary when addressing the issue.
In response to the worrying lack of Asian representation in animation, Chu co-founded Asians in Animation, a full-fledged online community that began in 2020 as a group chat between Chu and Stark, as well as two of their other friends Brandon and Joshua. The group chat now has around 800 members.
Chu currently serves as the president of the organization, which has approximately 1,000 members across 42 countries.
“It’s just mind-blowing to me how much we needed this space to support each other,” says Chu, explaining that the community is a “safe space” where the full range of Asian stories is respected and valued. “There are so many stories to be told, especially in animation.”
In addition to compiling resources and promoting educational opportunities, the team is also creating a comprehensive directory of Asian creatives. Chu hopes that Asians in Animation will serve as a bridge between Asian talent and studios during the recruitment process.
A Global View of Cross-Cultural Animation
Envisioning a world where animation is racially, ethnically and culturally representative is increasingly important. While representation is more of a debate among the Chinese diaspora, it’s also a topic of global importance for mainland Chinese audiences. Economically, mainland Chinese consumers are a major demographic that Hollywood seeks to cater to.
From the perspective of mainland Chinese audiences, portraying Chinese culture accurately is integral to positive reception. At the forefront of such discussions is the role of internationally-minded content, which has the potential to establish stronger cross-cultural ties between China and the United States. For Western animation studios wanting to extend their reach into China, being able to render China with care is crucial.
As most Western content and programming is banned in China, creating content for mainland Chinese audiences often means collaborating with Chinese studios. Netflix, for example, has adopted a wider China strategy that involves partnering with Chinese streaming platforms such as Youku for distribution rights and in 2017, licensing original content to iQiyi.
Amid debates over a film’s cultural authenticity, however, geopolitical tensions also come to the forefront. In her article, Wang brings up the case study of the 2019 film “Abominable.” The film was a co-production between Dreamworks Animation and Shanghai-based Pearl Studio (formerly “Oriental Dreamworks”).
Set in China, the film about a Chinese girl discovering a yeti on her roof was banned in Vietnam, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries for depicting China’s controversial nine-dash line in a map. The line marks the country’s large claim in the South China Sea and is contested by China’s neighboring countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite being a cross-cultural collaboration, “Abominable” ended up perpetuating cross-cultural conflict.
Thus, for an animated film to tell a Chinese story without being solely reduced to its politics, the answer lies in striking a balance.
Erica Smith at the blog “Analyzing Fairy Tales for Television” writes that this is precisely what the Netflix animated film “Wish Dragon” (2021) does. By setting the “Aladdin” tale in a Chinese setting, the film is able to reconcile more abstract Western themes with Chinese culture. Smith describes how this is evident in the Westernized names of the two main characters: Din, whose alias is “Dan,” and Li Na, who can be pronounced as “Lina.” This is further demonstrated in the film’s stylistic setting and structure.
“Signs and products are labeled in both Chinese and English and songs switch back and forth between both languages,” Smith writes. “‘Wish Dragon’ is designed to appeal to a Chinese audience while still performing well for Western audiences.” “Wish Dragon” was released in Chinese movie theaters to a sizable audience, opening with $7.15 million (in U.S. currency) in the China box office.
Stark says that “Wish Dragon” reconciles the two cultures by focusing on contemporary China. Instead of employing exotified tropes of an ancient, mystical China, “Wish Dragon” doesn’t show China as static, but as constantly changing, which is especially important in an era of globalization. Such progressive representations of contemporary China are able to show China as on par with the Western world and promote equal ground in diplomatic relations.
“It was refreshing to see [China] portrayed in more of a realistic and modern way,” Stark says.
Perhaps the best example of cross-cultural appeal might be the 2008 Dreamworks film “Kung Fu Panda.” According to the BBC, the film garnered $41 million at the U.S. box office and $53 million in China. Its largely positive reception in both countries shows how “Kung Fu Panda” managed to appeal to both mainland Chinese and Western audiences.
The story of a panda who is told he is the legendary Dragon Warrior and must save China, “Kung Fu Panda” was released to critical acclaim in mainland China. Film critics described it as an insightful, nuanced take on martial arts and Chinese culture. In a 2008 Washington Post article, Maureen Fan writes that the film was able to combine “American humor” with “matching Chinese subtitles” that did not lose the intended effect.
Wang believes the film’s success can be attributed to the story not taking itself too seriously as a Western representation of Chinese culture. “Kung Fu Panda” currently rates 7.6 out of 10 on IMDB and a whopping 8.1 out of 10 on Douban.
As an intern for Janet Yang Productions, Stark has witnessed firsthand the importance of globally-minded animation. Janet Yang, the founder and president of the company, conceptualized “Over the Moon” (2020).
“Over the Moon” is about a young Chinese girl who seeks to discover whether or not the Chinese myth of moon goddess Chang’e is real. The story’s application of Chinese culture is an example of how Yang’s company aims to foster positive relations between China and the United States through entertainment. The film itself was jointly produced by Netflix Animation and Pearl Studio.
“‘Over the Moon’ resonates with so many other themes beyond just being a Chinese story. It’s kind of a human story that can resonate with everyone like whether you’re Chinese or not,” says Stark. “It’s about loss and grief and moving on and beams of family, but then [the filmmakers] also incorporate all of these elements in the film that are uniquely Chinese.”
Despite not gaining much traction in the Chinese box office, “Over the Moon” was commended by mainland Chinese critics for its rendering of Chinese culture. It was also the first animated co-production between China and the United States to receive an Oscar nomination for “Best Animated Feature.”
This question of reconciling universality and specificity is central to Chinese storytelling in animation. Animation is a visual art form, but in many ways it’s also character-driven. That requires an understanding of who the characters are and what determines their authenticity.
In the end, it’s about culture, but it’s about the characters first and foremost.
“Having people who understand the cultural nuances of what it is to be these characters is the most powerful tool that any studio could have to create really authentic stories that are going to resonate emotionally with audiences all over the world,” says Chu. “And that’s what entertainment is meant to do.”
Photo credits: Disney/Pixar; Disney; USC Annenberg; Dreamworks Animation LLC; Netflix; Netflix