Donghua — Chinese animation, sometimes mistakenly conflated with anime — covers as wide a variety of tones and subjects as any other type of animated story, from sunny necromancers to particularly rebellious children with dragon friends. Donghua titles have been showing up on Crunchyroll and Netflix more and more lately, and some of them, like the fantasy of gods and demons in Heaven’s Official Blessing, follow familiar emotional roller coaster beats. Others have their own tear-jerking, laugh-inducing forms of impact. Many donghua movies and TV series retell household Chinese tales, and all of them reach out and question the audience’s relationship with the contemporary world. The characters are fun, sassy, or determined, like heroes in stories from any country, but they blend the past, present, and future of an irreplaceable culture.
The visuals may remind anime fans of Disney, DreamWorks, or anime movies, but they have their own purposes, their own storytelling aesthetics and iconographies. They’ll be as visually grounded as Disney’s Tangled one second, or as stylized as Into the Spider-Verse the next. Here’s a guide to get viewers started on taking in the breadth of Chinese animation by checking out some of the best titles the country has to offer.
Run time: 6 minutes
Created by the Chinese American-founded Taiko Studios, Pan Gu is free to view on YouTube. It’s a little journey that retells the Chinese myth of the creator of the Earth through a father and his son. Neither of them says a word, and they don’t have to. This geometrically-minded animation speaks intergenerational volumes through its shapes and the increasingly differing ideas between the characters. Taiko Studios was formed by a former Disney and Sony Pictures animator, Shaofu Zhang, who wanted to pave his own creative path, and it shows.
Pan Gu is available to stream on YouTube.
Monkey King: Hero Is Back (Xi You Ji Zhi Qi Tian Da Sheng Gui Lai)
Run time: 89 minutes
This crowdfunded underdog became a cultural icon when it was released, becoming China’s highest-grossing animated film of the year. It’s a retelling of the story of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King crushed under a mountain as a punishment for destroying heaven, and his subsequent journey west as the protector of a Buddhist monk.
In the original story, Sun Wukong kills with impunity, and some of the biggest plot points hinge on the pacifist monk’s attempts to teach him compassion. This film inverts their master-disciple dynamic. Sun Wukong still falls from power, but instead of being picked up by the Buddhist monk, he is now the reluctant road-trip dad to Jiang Liu’er, a wide-eyed child monk and the Monkey King’s biggest fan. Meanwhile, Sun Wukong himself tries to find out how to restore his former powers. He isn’t done with causing chaos for the gods, after all (or for the world at large, for that matter). To viewers familiar with the original tale, it’s a good chuckle at all the inside jokes sprinkled throughout the dialogue. To those unfamiliar, it’s a slapstick-y, accidental parenting story much like Grogu and the Mandalorian.
Monkey King: Hero Is Back reexamines their bond from the original story. Sun Wukong still comes to value the well-being of this morally devout monk who is nothing like him. But instead of Sun Wukong being the annoying thorn in the monk’s side, it’s Jiang Liu’er who’s chittering in his ear.
Monkey King: Hero Is Back is streaming for free on Vudu with ad support.
Big Fish & Begonia (Da Yu Hai Tang)
Run time: 1 hour 45 minutes
This is the film they call “the dawn of the Chinese animation industry.” It was inspired by Studio Ghibli-esque animation and designs, but based on cultural texts like the Classic of Mountains and Seas. With vast, sweeping designs to show the fine line between nature and the supernatural, this existentialist film pulls on the audience’s heartstrings. To restore the soul of a man who saved her, the dolphin-human Chun defies the natural order — and shakes not just nature, but her relationships with her loved ones, down to their roots.
White Snake (Bai She: Yuan Qi)
Run time: 1 hour 39 minutes
The snake demon Bai Suzhen spent a thousand years cultivating herself into the form of a woman. She’s selfless and loving, a better human than most humans. This film is a retelling of the folktale Legend of the White Snake, which in its earliest form was a good-versus-evil story where Bai Suzhen is a malignant snake spirit. But that’s not what the tale is known for: Through the centuries, it evolved into a love story where she marries a mortal, but the happy couple is forced apart by a Buddhist monk. This film evolves the story further from straightforward romance by sending her on a mission to slay the general who’s oppressing her people. She loses her memory in the process, and fights to recover it while falling in love with the man who will be her mortal husband. Bai Suzhen in her flowing white robes contrasts sharply with the verdant landscapes of the mortal world, and you can see every emotion in her DreamWorks-esque eyes as she does it.
Run time: 1 hour 50 minutes
“Oh my God, he’s so ugly, I love it,” says Accented Cinema, YouTube’s resident expert on Chinese film. The little imp Nezha — not a literal imp, but a classic Chinese character who appears in a variety of forms in a variety of myths — terrorizes a town for slapstick kicks and bonds with his other half, a prissy, princely dragon who spends most of his time in human form. Things really go down as the day approaches where both of them have to reckon with their terrifying god-tier powers — and the fact that they were born and raised to destroy each other. The fights aren’t just fluid and wild, they’re titanic and absolutely magical.
Nezha is streaming on Netflix.
New Gods: Nezha Reborn (Xin Feng Shen: Nezha Chong Sheng)
Run time: 1 hour 50 minutes
Another remake of the original story of Nezha, but this time, it’s steampunk. In this CG feature from the director of White Snake, Nezha is reborn as Li Yunxiang, a motorbike-racing rebel who seeks to redistribute hoarded water to the poverty-stricken people of Donghai City. The action speeds through Donghai — a New York-meets-1920s-Shanghai metropolis — and its “how the other half lives” story. Its namesake ocean ripples with detail as it rises to meet the city. Li Yunxiang sticks close to his friends and battles his internal conflict as he questions who may get hurt in his mission of saving the world. This one’s a timeless, immersive film — the city’s Roaring ’20s aesthetics may be a thing of the past in the 21st century, but its rich-and-poor narrative isn’t.
New Gods: Nezha Reborn is available to stream on Netflix.
Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (Nezha Nao Hai)
Run time: 1 hour 5 minutes
This film is the OG, both in animated Nezha stories and in Chinese animated features. All roads lead to this animation that signaled the return of expressive storytelling after the Cultural Revolution. It was the first adaptation of the Ming dynasty novel Investiture of the Gods. The character designs we see in all the other Nezha adaptations from the last few years came from this film. It directly informs the Chinese perception of what Nezha’s story symbolizes today.
The main conflict is between Nezha, his military-leader father, and Ao Guang, the tyrannical Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. When Ao Guang eats a local child, Nezha attacks him in retribution, but justice isn’t cut and dried: Ao Guang threatens Nezha’s town, and the conflict shifts as Nezha’s father demands Nezha apologize to appease the dragon king. This storyline has set in motion each consequential adaptation’s contemporary take on juggling familial and societal duty. This retro animation takes a 40-minute side trip to follow the exaggerated motions of the characters, like the quick and sprightly Nezha and the large and bumbling Eastern Dragon King. It’s a style based on traditional arts like Chinese opera, a bombastic performance known to pull no punches when it comes to brightly colored flair.
Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is available to stream on YouTube.
The King’s Avatar
Run time: 12 ~24-minute episodes + three 27-minute specials
Based on a web novel of the same name, this series brought together young Chinese people’s appreciation for anime and esports. Ye Xiu, a professional esports player, must leave his team after years of commitment to the game. Forced to start again, he slowly chips his way back to the top of his game’s ranked ladder in an internet cafe. The King’s Avatar is as much about the game world his avatar slashes through as it is about the emotional bonds he forms in his real life.
The fantasy action in the gaming world reflects the influences of anime and League of Legends, and it’s balanced out by the emotional tenor shown through the characters’ slight smiles as they wander the bright snow of the city. It manages to contain both the thrill of action and an oddly profound snapshot of contemporary Chinese urban life.
Ye Xiu’s quiet determination is so effective, The King’s Avatar has been adapted into a live-action remake, available on Netflix.
The King’s Avatar is available to stream on YouTube.
Mo Dao Zu Shi
Run time: 35 ~24 minute episodes (three seasons)
Based off the Mo Xiang Tong Xiu web novel that flooded bestseller lists when a print edition was released in the United States, Mo Dao Zu Shi is the story of Wei Wuxian, a sunny-dispositioned young man who invents necromancy to fight a war, dies, and is resurrected — this time with a chance to connect with a man who has been in love with him since they were teenagers. Critics have lauded the effects and transitions used for both large magical battles and sequences built around emotional conflict. Wei Wuxian is reputed to be the scourge of the earth, and he has to pick up the pieces of the past relationships he inadvertently damaged with his massive power. The music, world-building, voice acting, and reimaginings of the original web novel’s plot all come together to create an enrapturing fantasy world.
Mo Dao Zu Shi is available to stream on YouTube and Viki.
Heaven Official’s Blessing (Tian Guan Ci Fu)
Run time: 12 episodes (season 1)
Based on a Mo Xiang Tong Xiu novel that hit No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list, Heaven Official’s Blessing doesn’t pull its emotional punches. It lets viewers laugh a little at the martial god Xie Lian, who has been banished from heaven. Then it abruptly shifts the tone as it showers viewers in a world full of silver butterflies and bloodstained wedding scenes.
As the story progresses and Xie Lian begins to fight with surprising competency, it becomes clear there’s more to him than meets the eye. He’s led away by a stranger with an eyepatch who seems to know him well. That’s just the pilot episode. Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s storytelling asks audiences to look beyond a single person’s reputation and examine instead how they came to earn it. Come to admire the Tian Guan Ci Fu scenery, then dive deep into the gods’ entangled histories and motivations in this character-driven narrative.