A Brief Account on the Contemporary Digital Ink-Wash Animation in Hong Kong – An Aesthetics Endeavor


A background study on the theme “Digital Chinese Ink-wash Animation: Tradition versus Innovation in Themes, Forms and Techniques” has been conducted back in 2008 for the “20th Society for Animation Studies Annual Conference”. In this essay, the researcher aims to share a follow-up study on how Guohua (國畫), the traditional Chinese ink-painting has evolved through the “New Ink Art movements” (新水墨運動)  which fostered the digital ink-wash animation talents in Hong Kong. On the other hand, this article reveals several contemporary ink-wash animation practitioners and software developers in Hong Kong.

(English version published in Academia Letters, Article 2729)

Introduction and background

Guohua has faced a disruptive innovation in Hong Kong since the 1940s, essentially commenced by the advent of Lingnan School of Painting「嶺南畫派」[1] from the southern China, yet the unique expressive Zen Painting「禪畫」[2] originated by the world acclaimed painter, LUI Shou-Kwan 呂壽琨 (1919-1975), who is widely recognized the pioneer of ‘New Ink Painting Movement’ during the 1960s in Hong Kong. However, the emergence of the groundbreaking Chinese ink-painting animation short films produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio since 1960 has indeed initiated this novel animation genre.

Evolution from Ink Painting to the expressive Ink-Wash Painting

Ink painting is the orthodox Chinese painting genre, one of the forebear artistic traditions addressed the features of “national” and “native” in the sense that Chinese ink painters oppose to the Western art styles. They treasure the meticulous brushwork and the scrupulous ink-wash techniques to regulate and preserve this art form. Traditional Chinese painters do not aim to depict the natural scenery or the painted subjects (‘Naturalism’ in terms of Western art) but the heartfelt truth of themselves through the control and interplay of one’s sophisticated brushwork and inkwork to convey the literati sentiment. Such kind of aesthetics associates with the traditional practice of calligraphy, where the brushwork must be able to express the artist’s inward desire, reflecting one’s noble virtues and self-cultivation to learn from the nature, whereas to comprehend in the mind. Besides, most painters in the ancient China were scholar-officials who were well-educated and were poets too. Although these artists did not receive any formal art training, ink painting was one of the ‘Four Arts’「四藝」[3] for the aristocracy in ancient China so ‘Literati painting’ or Wenrenhua「文人畫」is the term used to denote this literati sentiment and attitudes connected to the heritage of literati aesthetics.

This Wenrenhua convention was established as early as during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) while some researchers traced it further back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), under the classification of Southern School「南宗畫」[4] for which this class of painting accentuated on the painter’s inner reality as well as their personal lofty scholarly aspirations. Nevertheless, this term was coined during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by a distinguished painter and art theorist, DONG Qi-Chan 董其昌 (1555-1636) who borrowed the concept from Zen (Buddhism) for such classification between the Southern and the Northern School of paintings.

Despite there were a rigorous system, very strict regulations for judging all traditional ink paintings, known as the Six Principles of Chinese painting (繪畫「六法」), established by the art theorist, who also an art historian and a famous portrait painter, XIE He 謝赫(c.479-502) in his treatise The Record of the Classification of Old Painters《古畫品錄》(c. 550), Chinese ink painting gradually developed into various classes or “schools” since the Tang and Song Dynasties. Amongst these styles, the “ink-wash feature” was popularized during the Tang Dynasty and flourished by the Song Dynasty. Thereafter, the “Freehand style” or Xieyi (寫意) was coined to present this liberated brush and inkwork approaches. One of the primarily and well-known Xieyi painter, LIANG Kai 梁楷 (c.1140-1210) also injected his Zen thoughts into the paintings and these paintings made Xieyi a profound impact to the proliferation of Ink-wash painting.

Xieyi refers to the spontaneity of inking and inkwash techniques carried out by the painters to capture the spirit and temperament of their painted subjects, to portray subjects as “beings” (Spirit, 氣韻) rather than to reproduce their appearance only. Painters usually use the techniques of calligraphy to convey the liveliness and poetic spirit of their drawn subjects, alike the ‘Expressionism’ in the Western art. Moreover, many modern ink-wash paintings, like Lui’s Zen Painting would apply ‘Minimalism’ to strike the balance between ‘Abstractionism’ and ‘Symbolism’, which ultimately created his exclusive Zen style.

To summarize, both the Lingnan School and Zen Painting are found revolutionary and innovative since the next-generation of Lingnan masters, CHAO Shau-An 趙少昂(1905-1998), YANG Shen-Sum 楊善深 (1913-2004) who came to Hong Kong in 1948 and 1930 respectively. Also, LAI Ming 黎明 (1929-) who is born in Macau, also a disciple of GAO Jian-Fu 高劍父and lives in Hong Kong. These Lingnan School masters and Lui are internationally notable painting masters who resembled the Western visual arts into their creative Chinese ink-wash paintings. They have emancipated the ‘New Ink Art’ and provided a platform to further advance such contemporary ink-wash painting whereas Hong Kong holds a special position in the championing of ink-wash art movements. (Pls. see References for details on New Ink Art: Innovation and Beyond)

From Chinese Ink-painting Animation to Digital Chinese Ink-wash Animation

The Chinese ink-painting animation, or Shuimodonghua (水墨動畫), was made known to the world in 1960 with the release of its first ever masterpiece Where is Mama《小蝌蚪找媽媽》, which was jointly produced by TE Wei 特偉 (1915-2010) and QIAN Jia-Jun 錢家駿 (1916-2011) from the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Besides Te and Qian, both DUAN Xiao-Xuan 段孝萱(1934-) and XU Jing-Da 徐景達 (aka A-Da 阿達, 1934-1987) are also considered the masterminds behind the invention of this ink-wash painting animation technique.

TE Wei, who was a famous manhua (comic) artist and an animation director, adapted the ink painting techniques to produce animation with great help from QIAN Jia-Jun. They both are recognized as founders of the Chinese ink-painting animation industry, also pioneers of Chinese ink-wash animation style. In the 1950s when it was the “Golden era” of Chinese animation in Mainland China, Te, Qian and Duan explored ideas creating a Chinese art film which they targeted to differentiate from the Disney techniques and aimed to invent a national identity-type of treatment. As a result of many other animators’ hard work, including A-Da, ink-painting animation became one of the unique artistic styles which was known as the “Chinese School” worldwide.

Te and Qian then co-directed their second ink-paining short film The Cowboy’s Flute《牧笛》in 1963, and other notable ink-painting and ink-wash style animations were created, such as The Deer’s Bell 《鹿鈴》(1982) which was co-directed by TANG Cheng 唐澄 (1919-1986) and WU Qiang 鄔強 (1927-), for whom Wu moved to Hong Kong later. The third and the last ink-wash animation by Te was Feeling from Mountain and Water《山水情》produced in 1988. The next remarkable milestone happened in 2003 in the SIGGRAPH Animation Theatre, they screened the Ode to Summer, a digital ink-wash animation short film directed by Ron HUI from China. This film won another recognition of Chinese ink-wash animation internationally, but in the realm of 3D computer animation this time. Three years later in 2006, The Brush, created and produced by a Chinese oversea student in U.K., CHEN Lei, as his master’s degree project in 3D computer animation course, earned another praise in the digital Chinese ink-wash animation because his film was screened in the 2006 SIGGRAPH’s Electronic Theatre, which was one of the most prestigious screenings in the 3D animation industry. There are in fact numerous exceptional 2D and 3D computer animated ink-wash animated short films and a few was reported in the author’s presentation slides available online. (Pls. access at https://www.academia.edu/3650015/Tradition_versus_Modernity_in_Chinese_Ink-wash_Animation)

Digital Ink-wash animation in Hong Kong

​Regarding the evolution of Hong Kong’s Chinese Ink-wash animation, a highly experienced and award winning animator, Buck MOK, who was one of the interviewees for the background study conducted in 2008, revealed that it was in the late 1990’s, WU Qiang from the Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and Roger HO from the Hong Kong Art Centre have started creating ink-wash animation who adopted the styles from Mainland China (Wu is one of the early ink-painting animators from the Shanghai Animation Film Studio and has moved to Hong Kong in the 1980s. He has participated producing The Secret Book of Animations《動畫秘笈》[5]). Mok himself made his first attempt and published the short film Farm Boy Azhi《白石阿芝》in 2001. He used a local software engineer Alex S. C. HSU’s proprietary application software called ‘Creature House Expression’ to create this film, the software was acquired by Microsoft’s Expression Studio in 2003. Mok then released his other ink-wash short films, Mei, The Stream from Heaven《天上人間─梅蘭芳》in 2005, and Wu Song Diary – Wu Song Kill Tiger 《武松日記之打虎》in 2011. Mok shared in the interview as he aimed to employ the aesthetic execution from master QI Bai-Shi 齊白石(1864-1957) in the production of Farm Boy Azhi, and the Lingnan School style in his Wu Song Diary’s art direction.


(Farm Boy Azhi is available at (1) https://vimeo.com/23846605 (2) https://vimeo.com/23846191 and Wu Song Kill Tiger at https://vimeo.com/265669064)

Besides Mok, other practitioners were also interviewed including Vincent YEUNG and Ein YEUNG from the Hong Kong Digital Entertainment Support Centre, which was under the Hong Kong Productivity Council. They produced A Hero who commands the sky (2005) for The China Game Publishers Association and this two-minute long short film was shown in the MIPCOM 2005 in Cannes, France as well as during the Game Show in the Hangzhou’s Comic-Anime Festival the same year. It was an experimental film compiled a “physics-based animation” (‘Cloth simulation’ and Motion captured actions). They applied the motion capture and non-photorealistic rendering (NPR) technology in order to realize the authentic Chinese kung-fu incorporated into an artistic Chinese ink-wash scenery filled with pine trees, rocks and mountains. Ein mentioned he indeed had spent nearly four months to merely test on the visual effects generated by the computer graphics application software and this two-minute film took them a complete nine months’ time to produce.


In contrary to the freehand or Xieyi style, a Gongbi (工筆) style which refers to the meticulous fine brushwork, another key technique for the conventional Chinese painting, has also been deployed by Hong Kong animators. KWAI Bun (aka VIP), and his colleagues were responsible to produce an animated shot namely “Along the river during the Qingming Festival shot” for the animated feature film McDull, Kung Fu Kindergarten 《麥兜響噹噹》(2009). Kwai acted the 3D animation director and shared during the interview that this two-minute shot involved five animators and they worked three months to experiment on how to imitate the look and feel from the original master piece of Along the river during the Qingming Festival《清明上河圖》by the Song Dynasty painter ZHANG Ze-Duan 張擇端 (1085-1145), which applied Gongbi skills. They finally decided to use 3D computer graphics “shader effects” to fake the Gongbi treatment because there was no ink dispersion required in the shot. They decided to render out from a 3D scene to generate a false 2D perspective creating a flattened representation of space. In addition, they also added a grayish-yellow tone and combined a slow pan motion to simulate the panoramic view from this ancient handscroll painting.


In 2008, Kwai already anticipated the future trends of digital ink-wash animation would focus on the inking effects. He shared that he indeed tried out the ‘MoXi’ system invented by Dr. Nelson S. H. CHU although he finally decided to use 3D commercial software instead for the “Along the river during the Qingming Festival shot” project.

‘MoXi’ is a real-time ink simulation engine created by Dr. Chu when he was studying PhD at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He then developed the ‘Expresii’ system to further enhance this “real-time eastern watercolour” program based on his Moxi engine added also his ‘Yibi’ brush engine. (Further details are available at http://www.expresii.com/) In 2017, Angela WONG from the ‘Rooftop Animation’ made an attempt using Expresii and Moxi to experiment shots with a red squirrel and some swallows. She shared the trials over the internet at https://www.artofangela.com/. Some Hong Kong animators and software developers keep striving to excel the contemporary digital ink-wash animation production for which their efforts should be appreciated.

Conclusion and Future Work

It is obvious that both the Chinese Ink-wash painting and Ink-wash animation have undergone a disruptive innovation in Hong Kong, while the quintessence of this artistic cultural heritage is proved can be preserved. The modernity of ink-wash is now being addressed as ‘New Ink Art’, a new art form and a precious art style that embraces the empirical and the transcendental progressions. To ignite inspiration through practicing “with no definite method for painting”, in Chinese「畫無定法」and the “method of no true methods”, in Chinese「無法之法」, both were being grounded from the Zen philosophy, and advocated by the art theorist and great painter, FANG Xun 方薰 (1736-1799). Thereupon, there is no violation for ‘New Ink Art’ to exploit the advantage of computer graphics technology, for an example, the River of Wisdom (2010), which was a 3D animated mural transcended from the Along the river during the Qingming Festival, as presented an interactive installation art piece during the Shanghai World Expo 2010 inside the China Pavilion, received an overwhelming success worldwide.

Finally yet importantly, many Hong Kong computer graphics practitioners are expecting and looking forward taking another leap to integrate the emerging technologies into animation production since the ‘Virtual Reality’ (VR), ‘Augmented Reality’ (AR) and ‘Mixed Reality’ (MR) already become ubiquitous. ‘Immersive animation’ has extended a new research area for animation scholars to study and investigate how the “illusion of life” could be revised to incorporate the heuristics of animation, to create an immersive experience for future animation viewers to enjoy having the “perception for being physically present in an animation world”!

[1] The Lingnan School of Painting is an art movement took place in Canton (nowadays Guangzhou in China) in the nineteenth century established by GAO Jian-Fu 高劍父 (1879-1951), GAO Qi-Feng 高奇峰 (1889-1933) and CHEN Shu-Ren 陳樹人 (1884-1948), who were the disciples of the innovative and renowned Chinese flower painters, JU Chao 居巢 (1811-1865) and JU Lian 居廉 (1828-1904) as they invented the exquisite Geshan School of “boneless colour wash” painting style 「隔山派」. Their three followers, the founders of Lingnan School then developed a manifesto to innovate Chinese painting by “blending the Chinese and Western, integrating the ancient and modern”, in Chinese「折衷中外,融匯古今」. Their next-generation who arrived Hong Kong and Macao, CHAO Shau-An (1905-1998) and YANG Shen-Sum (1913-2004) from 1930s onward helped stretching out this modernization of Chinese painting in Hong Kong and further blended in the Western styles into this modernized Lingnan School paintings.

[2] LUI Shou-Kwan’s Zen Painting captured and manifested an abstract and elusive sentiment to inspire the viewers. His sophisticated expressive power conveyed the Buddhist philosophy of boundless and emptiness, which made him a great ‘Abstract expressionist’ in the realm of “New Ink Painting”.

[3] The ‘Four Arts’ for the ancient Chinese scholars included practicing a seven-string instrument (Gin 琴), the Go chess game (Qi 棋), Chinese calligraphy (Shu 書), and Chinese painting (Hua 畫). These four subjects were considered the four main academic accomplishment for all aristocratic scholars.

[4] The Southern School of Chinese painting is also known as Wenrenhua, a term denoted those artists who opposed the Northern School of painting, which was a formal and orthodox approach during the Northern Song dynasty.

[5] The Secret Book of Animations《動畫秘笈》is a manuscript produced by the animators from Mainland China who moved to Hong Kong during the 1970s and 1980s. This guidebook provided the step-by-step instructions on animation filmmaking. (More details can be found on p.18 at https://www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/CulturalService/HKFA/documents/2005525/2007343/newsletter69_c.pdf)


Doran, V. C. (2008, October 7). “New Ink Art: Innovation and Beyond". Retrieved from http://www.aicahk.org/eng/reviews.asp?id=212

“New Ink Art: Innovation and Beyond" (2008). Retrieved from https://www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/Arts/artportal/card/eh2008.0011_01.pdf

The Lingnan School of Painting : Art and Revolution in Modern China 1906-1951. Retrieved from http://www.lingnanart.com/lingnanschool-eng.htm (中文網址 http://www.lingnanart.com/lingnanschool-ch.htm)

Author’s Academia.edu page




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