The global box office has long been dominated by Hollywood blockbusters. If you look at one of the past decade’s annual lists of the highest-grossing films, chances are you will be confronted with the continuing adventures of Marvel superheroes, the latest iteration of Star Wars, and other such bankable tentpoles. Things changed in 2020, however: the pandemic shut down cinemas across America, but did not necessarily have the same effect elsewhere in the world. China took over from the United States as the world’s biggest movie market and, as a result, four of the year’s ten biggest box-office hits were Chinese.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is nowhere to be seen on that top-ten list. In its place is Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification, the follow-up to the 2019 film Nezha. These two animated features each belong to a series aspiring to be the Chinese counterpart to Marvel’s superhero franchise: the Fengshen Cinematic Universe.
The series derives its characters from Fengshen Yanyi, a 16th Century Ming dynasty novel whose title has been translated variously as Investiture of the Gods, Creation of the Gods, The Birth of the Chinese Gods and Apotheosis of Heroes. The novel is a romanticized retelling of the defeat of King Zhòu (the last ruler of the Shang dynasty) and the establishment of the Zhōu dynasty. At 100 chapters, the novel also integrates many Chinese mythological figures who are involved in the struggle as well.
In this, the films are drawing upon an established cinematic tradition: like the exploits of the Monkey King recorded in the roughly contemporaneous Journey to the West, Investiture of the Gods had already shown its worth as source material for Chinese animation. As explored, it’s been adapted in various forms across the years.
Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979)
Of the previous animated works adapted from Investiture of the Gods, perhaps the most significant is the 1979 film generally known in English as Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (although the Chinese title, Nezha Nao Hai, translates literally as Nezha Fights the Sea). While not included in the Fengshen Cinematic Universe, like the 2019 Nezha, this film is based on a narrative contained in chapters 12 to 14 of Investiture of the Gods.
In the novel, the military leader Li Jing receives his third son in a supernatural birth; the child is named Nezha by his mentor Taiyi Zhenren (a mythological figure whose name is sometimes translated as Superiorman Paragon or Fairy Primordial). Time passes, and the boy’s activities by the shore bring annoyance to the denizens of an undersea kingdom. Nezha is first confronted by Li Gen, a yaksha (nature spirit) scout from the underwater realm, but Nezha overpowers the monster using a magic bracelet that he throws as a weapon. He then battles and defeats Ao Bing, a dragon-prince with power over rain. Next, Nezha goes up against Ao Bing’s father – Ao Guang, dragon king of the east sea – outside the Heavenly Palace; having been granted the gift of invisibility by Taiyi Zhenren, Nezha is able to overpower the dragon.
Ao Guang then gathers together the other three dragon kings to meets with Nezha’s father Li Jing and complain of the boy’s irreverent behaviour at the Heavenly Palace. Nezha, wanting to prevent his parents form being punished, sacrifices his own life in an attempt to placate the dragons. With the aid of Taiyi Zhenren, he is subsequently reincarnated and trains to become a warrior.
The animated version abridges the story, omitting much of Nezha’s family background and removing an episode (after the battle with Ao Guang but before Nezha’s sacrifice) in which the boy-hero fights the witch Lady Rock. The film also prettifies some aspects of the narrative: when compared to its tragic origins, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King makes clear that the Disneyfication of classic literature and mythology is not confined to American cartoons.
While Investiture of the Gods describes Nezha being born from a rolling ball of flesh or meat, the animation shows him being born from a dainty flower contained inside a glass dome. Although his literary counterpart reaches six feet in height during his childhood, the animated Nezha remains cutely diminutive. Nezha’s sacrifice, meanwhile, is changed from a gruesome act of auto-disembowelment to something more discrete (albeit still bloodier than would have been expected from a Hollywood children’s film). On top of this, he receives an adorable animal sidekick in the form of a semi-anthropomorphised deer, who has no counterpart in the source text.
The film’s biggest change, however, is in completely re-writing the third and final part of the story. Investiture of the Gods details the dragons accepting Nezha’s sacrifice and departing from the narrative, while the reincarnated Nezha enters a conflict with his father. This dispute is settled with the aid of a wise man, who predicts that the father and son shall someday work together assisting a new ruler (this connects to the novel’s wider narrative about the rise of the Zhōu dynasty).
The animated version opts for a more Aristotelian conclusion. After being reborn and receiving a warrior’s training, Nezha heads undersea to battle the still-vengeful Ao Guang and his army of sea creatures. There may have been a satiric intent behind the film emphasising the dragons as the central villains: in his book Chinese Animation, Rolf Gieson speculates that Ao Guang and his three fellow dragon-rulers represent the so-called Gang of Four, a faction of the Chinese Communist Party who controlled government media prior to their downfall in 1976. One of the directors on Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, Xu Jingda (also known as A Da), parodied the Gang of Four more directly in the 1978 cartoon One Night in an Art Gallery.
A degree of Disney influence can be found amongst the film’s Chinese design aesthetic – witness the Bambi-like deer – and like most of Disney’s animated features, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is a musical. But whereas Disney’s musicals draw from the song-and-dance routines of Broadway, Nezha is patterned upon ballet.
The musical accompaniment is instrumental, the rhythmic on-screen action heavily stylised: the large red sash on Nezha’s bracelet spreads across the screen like a living brushstroke; waves crash in unison like choreographed fountains; and even the nominal villains occupy a wondrous aquatic world in which oyster-maidens act as graceful dancers, their shells spreading out like butterfly wings. The balletic aesthetic extends to the film’s fight scenes, the conflict playing out in time to a heavy percussion beat.
Nezha Conquers the Dragon King became a classic of Chinese animation, and helped to establish the mythological hero as a popular cartoon character who could be reinvented for later generations – a Chinese counterpart to Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, with the added virtue of being in the public domain. He starred in the television cartoon Legend of Nezha in 2003, and even took part in a crossover with the Transformers franchise that began in 2017. Come 2019, Nezha received a CGI makeover and appeared on IMAX screens around the world…
The Fengsheng Cinematic Universe Nezha (sometimes rendered Ne Zha, and known in China as Nézhā zhī Mótóng Jiàngshì – literally, Birth of the Demon Child Nezha) came out four decades after Nezha Conquers the Dragon King. Inevitably, it reflects the developments in animation that occurred during the interim – the most readily apparent being the emergence of Pixar and DreamWorks.
If the 1979 Nezha bore a dab of Disney influence, the 2019 version is aligned with the current American CGI aesthetic, from character designs (give them appropriate costumes and the Incredibles would fit right in) to the heavy amounts of slapstick and bodily-function comedy (most of the gags could just as easily have turned up in Kung Fu Panda).
The CGI Nezha is born as a ball of flesh, as per Investiture of the Gods; the ball then sprouts a cartoon face and shock of punk hair, making it look like nothing so much as a toy out of a vending machine, before rolling around and throwing the locals into a knockabout panic. When he takes on human form Nezha becomes a superpowered Bart Simpson – gleefully terrorising the community by bonking people with mallets, knocking over pagodas and tricking his fellow children into pits of mud and urine, this Nezha who would never be caught dead performing balletic twirls of his sash.
In short, Nezha has been seemingly updated for the era of “little emperor syndrome”: as TIME describes it, the influx of spoilt only children resulting from China’s one-child policy. The supporting cast is similarly reimagined, so that Nezha’s mentor Taiyi Zhenren – portrayed in the 1979 film as a wise and dignified figure who flew on the back of a crane – becomes a farting, vomiting fatso who rides on a flying pig with magical sneezes.
For all of its vulgarity and broad humour, Nezha is also genuinely imaginative. The film has no shortage of inventive hurdles for its pint-sized hero, ranging from the floating bubbles of saliva spat out by the water-monster Li Gen (those who touch the fluid are turned to stone, and can be cured only with the monster’s snot) to the magic painting in which Taiyi Zhenren imprisons his rebellions pupil. Here, a dab of a brush can alter reality, and the world even becomes a two-dimensional pinball game in a particularly memorable scene.
Of course, anybody expecting a faithful adaption of the source text will be disappointed: the film’s plot bears about as much resemblance to the Nezha narrative in Investiture of the Gods as Disney’s Frozen does to Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Snow Queen. A prologue explains the existence of two magical spheres, the Spirit Pill of good and the Demon Pill of evil. The deity Yuanshi Tianzun plans for the Spirit Pill to be incarnated as Nezha, but this plan is sabotaged by his embittered and resentful assistant Shen Gongbao (this figure, sometimes referred to in English as Aggrandizing Bobcat, appears elsewhere in Investiture of the Gods but is not involved with the narrative of Nezha’s birth). As a result, the Demon Pill is born as Nezha, while Shen Gongbao gives the Spirit Pill to the dragons, allowing it to be instead incarnated as the king’s son Ao Bing.
The dragon prince is a comparatively minor character in Investiture of the Gods, serving as an intermediate antagonist between the yaksha scout Li Gen and the dragon king Ao Guang, but the film builds him into one of its central characters. Human-looking apart from his horns, this Ao Bing is portrayed as the polar opposite to Nezha: tall, elfin, and dignified where Nezha is squat, impish, and vulgar; an embodiment of good who was born to monsters, where Nezha is an embodiment of evil born to humans; and commanding powers of water where Nezha is gifted with fire. Each character has one half of the Yin-and-Yang symbol on his forehead to underline the point.
Yet the two rivals do have some things in common. Both the demon-souled Nezha and the dragon-horned Ao Bing face prejudice from ordinary humanity, and each also has a desire to escape his destiny. While Nezha is doomed to become an evil demon, and Ao Bing fated to save the world by destroying him, the two characters end up fighting for the right to decide their own destinies. These character traits not only give the brattish Nezha a sympathetic dimension, they form the emotional core of the film. Nezha’s self-sacrifice – performed here through the CGI-friendly method of flying into a lightning storm – is framed not as an act of penance but as a triumphant act of self-determination that he shares with Ao Bing.
Nezha was a roaring success on release, and broke multiple records by becoming amongst other things the third highest-grossing Chinese film in history and the highest grossing animated feature to have been produced outside the United States. A sequel of some sort was an obvious option – and in the mighty Marvel manner, the film’s credits sequence is interspersed with teases for follow-ups, one of which includes an appearance from Jiang Ziya…
Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification (2019)
While Nezha appears to be a purely mythological character, the other star of the Fengshen Cinematic Universe has a degree of historical documentation to his name. Long before Investiture of the Gods was written, Jiang Ziya’s exploits were recorded by the Han historian Sima Qian (c.145 – c.86 BC) and he is traditionally regarded as the author of Six Secret Teachings, an influential book on military theory.
Furthermore, unlike the comparatively minor (if memorable) character of Nezha, Jiang Ziya is one of the most significant players in Investiture of the Gods. It is Jiang Ziya who carries out the act alluded to by the novel’s title, when various participants in the preceding conflict are deified. Jiang Ziya is also given the job of killing one of the novel’s main villains: the fox spirit responsible for manipulating King Zhou by impersonating his concubine Daji. Chapter 97 describes Jiang Ziya decapitating the false Daji after her assigned executioners, too taken in by her beauty to believe her guilty, decline to do so.
Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification takes this episode as its starting point, but inverts much of the narrative. This time it is Jiang Ziya himself who is reluctant to execute the fox spirit (here referred to as Nine-Tailed) after seeing that her soul is bound to that of an innocent girl who would be killed in the process. Accusing him of being taken in by an illusion, the forces of heaven exile Jiang Ziya to earth.
After living ten years as a recluse, Ziya chances to meet a girl named Xiao Jiu who has fox ears. He recognises her as the innocent soul bound to Nine-Tailed, but she has no memory of her origins or history. As Ziya accompanies Jiu on her journey of self-discovery, he is faced with a choice: should he help her, or should he kill her to protect the world from the machinations of Nine-Tailed?
The film turns out to be drastically different to its predecessor Nezha in tone. There is still a good deal of broad physical humour, but this is confined to designated comic-relief characters; Jiang Ziya himself, along with the fox-girl Xiao Jiu and the antagonists, are played straight. The central characters are also more complex than in Nezha, with the film reveling in their ambiguity and refusing to give them easy answers. Jiang Ziya is portrayed as a noble soul, yet his doubts over his past leave the lingering possibility that he might slay his fox-girl companion for the greater good. Jiu herself is in many ways a childlike innocent, and a cheerful foil to the solemn Ziya. Yet she also has a ruthless streak: as they travel the desert, she argues against sharing scarce water-rations to save a dying man.
Shen Gongbao, the villain from Nezha, turns up as a drastically different character that indicates a considerable amount of personal development between films. He is now a goodhearted (if somewhat oafish) muscleman who acts as Jiang’s friend, and over the course of the story evolves from a comedy sidekick to a self-sacrificing hero.
Among the most effective sequences in the film is the one that re-establishes the two villains. The fox spirit Nine-Tailed turns out to be a weird, intangible being who resembles a tentacled sea monster as much as a fox, her tails manipulating the heroes almost like a puppeteer’s strings. The dethroned King Zhou, meanwhile, is portrayed as an unhinged and paranoid man lurking in a cave. He insists that he has been deified as the god of marriage — while this does indeed occur at the end of Investiture of the Gods, the film gives the impression that his claim is a mere delusion.
Although Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification is set after the war against King Zhou – an event compressed into a 2D-style prologue – it conveys little sense of triumph at Jiang Ziya’s side having won. The landscapes traipsed through by the main characters are often desolate wastes of snow or sand, broken up by towering chunks of lifeless rock – quite possibly the result of budget-saving stylistic minimalism, but nonetheless appropriate for the atmosphere of post-war grimness.
Indeed, the film’s treatment of its source material is heavily revisionist. It offers an interpretation of Investiture of the Gods in which the fox spirits are given a sympathetic side (as were the dragons in Nezha) and the courtesan Daji, quickly killed and replaced by her supernatural impostor in the original novel, is finally granted her own story. Even heaven is viewed as an object of suspicion, with Jiang Ziya’s character arc shaped by a mistrust of his divine superiors and their desire for him to kill the fox-girl.
The film’s climax – which, amidst the CGI fireworks, contains such genuinely otherworldly sights as Ziya climbing a tornado of wailing ghosts in an effort to rescue Jiu – pits the hero directly against heaven. Perhaps the noble Jiang Ziya is not as different from the rumbustious Nezha as it may seem, then: both characters, in their computer-generated updates, end up rebelling against the divine order and the destinies that it has laid out for them.
This common ground is not entirely obvious, however, when the two characters meet each other. Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification includes a self-contained skit – which, although positioned during the credits, is very much in the spirit of the short cartoons that play before Pixar’s movies – in which Nezha’s family visits Ziya at home, and the military leader’s patience is pushed to its limit by the boy’s pranks. After this, the casts of both films (including the two versions of Shen Gongbao) offer a message to the audience: “may we meet again after braving the storm”, presumably a reference to the pandemic that delayed the release of Jiang Ziya from the start of the year to October.
The Future of the Fengshen Cinematic Universe
Just how well that storm has been weathered remains to be seen. While Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification was a commercial success on release, reports from China indicate a tepid critical response and a degree of audience bewilderment at the more revisionist aspects of the film’s story, raising questions about the future of the series.
Notably, publicity material for the films – including this music video released in September – depicts characters from Jiang Ziya and Nezha alongside Journey to the West’s Monkey King – specifically, the version from the well-received 2015 film Monkey King: Hero is Back. Given that the simian trickster never appears in Investiture of the Gods (although, granted, Nezha does turn up as a character in Journey to the West) this may represent a dampening of interest in the idea of a cinematic universe derived specifically from the novel.
But then, the Monkey King had long been a popular subject for animation. There were feature-length cartoons about him decades before Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, and longer still before anyone had successfully made an animated hero out of Jian Ziya. Whether or not it continues, the Fengsheng Cinematic Universe has helped to re-establish some fascinating legendary figures within the contemporary movie marketplace – and in an industry so thoroughly dominated by a handful of Hollywood properties, that doesn’t feel like a bad thing.