Donghua: What to Know & Where to Get Started

One of the most rapidly rising stars in the animation world is donghua, which literally translates to "moving picture" or "painting" in Chinese. Though in recent years, the medium has carved out space in the international market with its unique animation and storytelling style, donghua is still a little difficult to access for those outside of its country of origin. But increasingly, companies like Funimation and Netflix are bringing more donghua titles to streaming, opening them up to a whole new audience.

For those unfamiliar with donghua, here's a complete guide on what it is, where to watch it, and some key series to get started with.

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What Is Donghua?

Ye Xiu from The King s Avatar

There is some discourse on the differentiation of donghua and anime -- and whether donghua can be called "Chinese anime" -- but the two are essentially the same thing: animation. We often associate anime with Japan because that's how Japanese people refer to animation, and the same goes for donghua.

Donghua is a great entry point for those who want to learn more about Chinese history, mythology, folklore, customs and traditions. It's also infamous for its 3-D animation, which can be disorienting and look rather strange -- especially for those who are used to the more traditional 2-D styles -- but this style has helped donghua stand out in the industry.

One of donghua's most distinguishing aspects is its various genres. For new viewers, the fantasy/historical donghua might be confusing to those unfamiliar with Chinese history and lore. There are a few commonly found types: xianxia and wuxia.

Xianxia translates to "immortal hero" and is known as high fantasy, rooted in elements of magic, Chinese mythology, and meditating and cultivating Qi in the hopes of achieving immortality. Wuxia translates to "martial heroes" and is about training Chinese martial arts to achieve supernatural fighting abilities. Transmigration is similar to the isekai genre in Japanese anime, where the main characters are transported to another world.

Where to Watch Donghua

nezha poster

Unfortunately, most donghua are not easily accessible to viewers outside of Asia. But as it's getting more and more recognition internationally, platforms like Bilibili, Tencent, Youku, and iQiyi are releasing some episodes of select series on their official websites and YouTube channels. Some series can be found on Amazon but selections are limited. Netflix has also made the move to stream some donghua movies and series but it's a fairly small library for now.

Funimation is one of the first major companies to stream donghua, with the BL series Heaven Official's Blessing being the first available for a wider international audience -- and they're not stopping. The streaming service recently announced its second donghua, this time an original series called Link Click, which is about a duo who has the ability to time travel through pictures.

Donghua to Watch

Mo Dao Zu Shi

The 2017 series King's Avatar is many people's gateway into donghua. The story follows a professional eSports player named Ye Xiu who is one of the best pro players in the online game Glory. Once the captain of team Excellent Era, Ye Xiu has long since left his gaming days behind and has become the manager of an internet cafe -- but he's pulled back into Glory sooner than expected.

Fans of BL (Boys' Love) can start off with Mo Xiang Tong Xiu's various series: Mo Dao Zu Shi (The Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation), Heaven Official's Blessing, and Scum Villain Self-Saving System. Each series is a xianxia. The first two follow a couple solving mysteries and cases, while the latter is much more humorous with the main character transmigrating into a character of a harem novel.

A Netflix original with a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin, Scissor Seven is a hilarious, largely hand-drawn donghua that follows a hapless hitman aiming to be a successful assassin -- even though he's number 17, 369 on the Assassin Ranking List. Seven opens a barber shop as a disguise while trying to (unsuccessfully) kill people. The animation style looks 'cheap' compared to other donghua at first glance, but Scissor Seven is extremely funny and has a lot of heart, making it one of the surprising breakout series on Netflix.

If you want to try watching 3-D animation, Nezha is a great one to start with. Released in 2019, Nezha is a donghua film based on a Chinese folklore character (who is also based on a figure from Hindu mythology, Nalakuvara). The story is about a Demon Orb named Nezha who is cursed to be struck by lightning in three years' time. A second, separate movie named New Gods: Nezha Reborn was recently released on Netflix. A biker named Li Yunxiang discovers he has a deep connection with Chinese mythology when he realizes he is actually Nezha reincarnated. With such a variety in genre and style, each of these titles are sure to offer something for everyone.