As of July 29, the Chinese animated film Nezha garnered over 900 million yuan in the domestic box office, and was on track to break the record among all Chinese animations previously held by Monkey King: Hero is Back. The massive success of the film can be mainly attributed to its trendy character setting and the rising popularity of so-called shipping, a desire by fans to put two characters into a romantic relationship. For example, many fans ship Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter franchise, hoping the two characters will end up together.
Nezha, originally a deity in ancient Chinese Taoist mythology, has appeared in numerous TV and film productions including the CCTV animation series Legend of Nezha and Journey to the West. In the 1986 version of Journey to the West, Nezha, a male character, was played by an actress wearing girly costumes consisting of red scarves and lotus ornaments. Depicted as a heroic figure, he was the one that helped Monkey King win his fight against the Bull Demon King.
In the traditional Taoist classic The Investiture of the Gods, Nezha is a more complex character. Born into a mortal family of Tang Dynasty general Li Jing, he was in fact a reincarnation of God. It took his mother three and a half years to birth him. With infinite power, he developed a cruel and violent character early on in his life. In an ocean fight with Ao Bing, the son of Dragon King, he savagely slaughtered the little dragon by taking out his tendon and adding that he would make a belt out of it for his father Li Jing. The slaughter was later reported to the Jade Emperor in heaven.
In order to save his parents and the people from the wrathful revenge of the dragon king, Nezha committed suicide and carved up his own flesh. His teacher used lotus roots to reconstruct his ravaged body, making him look like a human. In reality, however, Nezha was a personified lotus, a body without spirit, one that’s free from all pain and sufferings in the mundane world. He was also exempted from the pain of reincarnations.
This is how lotus became a symbol of Nezha’s power and spirit in later stories. The new film does a good job of using the lotus symbols, for instance, in the pattern on his childhood bellyband, in the shape of the tip of his weapon, in the shape of the fire during the final battle. All of those pay tribute to ancient Chinese classics.
The screenwriter of Nezha kept the complexity of his character, while also keeping pace with the time. The new Nezha has a specific anti-hero temperament. He wears smoky eye make-up since birth. He talks and walks like a 30 year old soul trapped in a three-year old body. Despised by everyone in the village for his demonic powers, he wants to fight his destiny, since he is nothing but a reincarnation of evil spirits. One of the most memorable lines in the film goes like, “I myself should decide my own destiny, rather than god. Whether I’m a god or demon, it’s my own call.”
Nezha is a rebellious idol, the kind that youths look up to: cynical and negative, self-mocking, a little evil but not entirely. But most importantly, he is courageous, righteous and kind inside, and willing to make sacrifices.
The shipping craze
The complex friendship between Nezha and Ao Bing depicted in the film also largely contributes to the enthusiasm with which the film was accepted by fans. In the movie, Ao Bing was completely different from Nezha in character and upbringing. Being the son of the dragon king, he was born with the mission of rejuvenating the whole dragon race. He is mild-tempered, composed and even cold, which forms a stark contrast to the firey, angry and passionate energy of Nezha. The combination leads to a classic “love and hate” mode of interaction.
Even before the release of the film, a lot of fan-fiction and other fan art could be found on the Internet. Fans gave the couple the lovely nickname, “Bing Zha”, which literally translates to breadcrumbs. However, some found it annoying and called out “rotten girls” (girls, usually manga fans, who love novels that feature romantic relationships between men) for spoiling the film.
“Now I feel uncomfortable about people shipping the two. It is a film for all age groups. And please, let go of Nezha, he is only three years old in the film,” a Weibo comment says.
It is not the first time that Chinese fans indulged in shipping traditional Chinese characters. In the 2015 hit animation Monkey King: Hero is Back, many shipped the Monkey King with Jiang Liuer, a character based on Monkey King’s master Monk Tang. Jiang Liuer is also the first of Monk Tang’s ten reincarnations. In the original novel Journey to the West, Monkey King waited 500 years trapped under a mountain until Monk Tang lived through 10 reincarnations and came to his salvation. Due to the deep bonding and connection between the two characters, online shipping stories abounded after the film broke out.
Interestingly, Monkey King is not much different from Nezha, both of them are a mix of a god and a demon. As the saying goes, “Buddha or evil, it all depends on a flash of thoughts”, whether they are good or evil depends on how they make use of their power.
Some might hate the “rotten girls” for trying to couple the two male leads of this film, but it is undeniable that this shipping craze is part of what made Nezha a massive success.