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The Legend of the Sealed Book
The Legend of the Sealed Book (1983)

The story behind this lost 1980s Chinese animation

Originally released in 1983, The Legend of the Sealed Book will be available to stream at this year’s Odyssey festival

Between May 10 and June 10 at cinemas in London, Edinburgh and online, Odyssey is celebrating outstanding and innovative cinema from the world’s largest film industry – not Hollywood, but greater China.

Beyond vital strands such as those on ‘Women Through the Lens’ and new and emerging filmmakers, one section spotlights the lesser-known animation prowess of a nation that went from a “golden age” of animation to closing one of its key animation studios in just a couple of years. Nestled within this programming is a “surprise film” that is considered a cherished and nostalgic classic among Chinese audiences.

The film in question is The Legend of the Sealed Book (also known as Secrets of the Heavenly Book, and Tian Shu Qi Tan in its original Mandarin); a 1983 feature from Shanghai Animation Film Studio, directed by Wang Shuchen and Qian Yunda. It touches on spellbinding Chinese mythologies in its narrative and setting – while also being the product of a fascinating period of modern Chinese history. And while it is otherwise a total obscurity in the West, it nearly held an important role in bridging the Chinese and British film and television industries at a time when the former country was just beginning to open up to the world.

From the striking opening titles, which showcase an assortment of quirky characters over bold colour backgrounds of pink, orange, green and blue, it’s clear to see why there’s so much affection for The Legend of the Sealed Book in its homeland.

The Legend of the Sealed Book tells the story of a mountain-dwelling deacon who is banished by the Jade Emperor after taking a sneaky look inside the book of the film’s title. One day, while fulfilling his punishment – of guarding the book for an excessive 3,000 years – he catches a bird’s egg which falls from the sky, which later hatches into a human child. All the while, three wily fox spirits have transformed into humans themselves and will attempt to trick and cheat their way to getting their hands on the book thereafter. Much craftiness ensues. 

Beautifully animated, occasionally psychedelic, and packed to the rafters with vivid folklore, wacky SFX and striking scenery, The Legend of the Sealed Book looks far distinguished from the likes of Disney – but retains so much of the Hollywood powerhouse’s sense of charm. When the titles appear in red over a swirling storm of blue, and the traditional Chinese music begins to play, a mystic allure is created which endures right until the end.

But what’s even more interesting about The Legend of the Sealed Book is what took place behind the scenes before it was completed. 

This was the height of the Deng Xiaoping premiership in China – Chairman Mao had passed away in 1976, and under Deng’s leadership, China was undergoing major reforms. Among the most notable was a new Open Door Policy, which enabled far greater collaboration with foreign businesses than what had been possible during Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. The latter had been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths between 1966 and 1976, and by the admission of the Chinese Communist Party in 1981 was “the most severe setback… since the founding of the People's Republic”.

The Legend of the Sealed Book, then, was initially scripted by the BBC and pitched to the Shanghai Animation Film Studio as a kind of olive branch. But the cultural gap and ideological differences between China and foreign countries like the UK were still significant – and the Chinese team were not satisfied with the BBC’s work which, according to director Qian, had tried to “merge all the Chinese myths”. (It’s criticism that Hollywood still comes under fire for today whenever it looks to the East for inspiration.)

The Chinese team rewrote the script, retaining elements like the egg-born child and the presence of the fox spirit, but focusing keenly on the storytelling and taking influence from the Sansoi Pingyau Zhuna (a 14th century, Ming dynasty Chinese novel that combined elements of mythology with comedy and fantasy; also known as The Suppression of the Demons). 

By the time the script was done the BBC were having financial concerns, and they disappeared from the project altogether. The Chinese team, meanwhile, journeyed to Hebei province – the site of China’s largest surviving royal garden and an assortment of Qing dynasty temples – and stayed for two months to interview the local monks and survey the ancient complexes. 

When the film was finally animated, elements from woodblock prints, folk art and even Peking Opera masks were incorporated into the animation, ensuring that the “Chinese aesthetic” that was missing from the BBC’s vision was restored.

Of course, the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was fully capable of pulling off the feat on its own. It is, after all, the longest-running and largest studio of its kind in China – having now completed over 500 movies and TV series and won over 200 awards in China and overseas since 1957.

This storied history is highlighted elsewhere at this year’s Odyssey festival – via four short films, which are available to stream in restored 2K on the festival’s website this month. Between them, they offer a glimpse of lesser-seen animated brilliance as well as a fascinating look into China’s past.

1958 short Little Carp Jumps Over the Dragon Gate – a relic from China’s “golden age” of animation – finds a group of acrobatic pond-dwellers on a journey to a mythical paradise. At the end of their quest, they find the twinkling lights of a modern city – with a message about the benefits of regenerating the land.

1962’s The Little Stream is even more heavy-handed with the propaganda. It opens with an Avatar-esque establishing shot evocative of classic Chinese landscape paintings, and a song about “Going toward a bright future”. The story thereafter follows a watery spirit who rushes past cornfields, wrinkling trees and voyaging wooden boats, always “Going forward” and bringing health and happiness as she does so.

1981 and 1982’s The Nine-Colored Deer and The Deer’s Bell, meanwhile, were completed in the wake of the Cultural Revolution – which saw the studio shut down for seven years. The two shorts take inspiration from wash painting, ancient Chinese Buddhist painting and other innovative art styles. The former is a re-telling a story found on a mural in the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang; the latter offers a dialogue-free, Bambi-esque story about the union of heaven and human, guided by enchanting music. 

The Legend of the Sealed Book and four more Shanghai Animation Film Studio shorts are available to stream from the Odyssey website.