A technicolor twist on Yu the Great

For most Chinese, Dayu, or Yu the Great, is a household name. His feats blend myth and history, and range from taming raging Yellow River floods to starting the Xia Dynasty

(c. 21st century-16th century BC).

Despite legends about him appearing in ancient records like the Shan Hai Jing (The Classic of Mountains and Seas) and the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), little is written about the hero's childhood or youth.

Recently, Shan Hai Chuan Qi (Legends of Mountains and Seas), an animated series consisting of 52 episodes in four seasons, has found a fresh perspective for chronicling Dayu's youth. It starts with him being raised by Zhulong, a half-human, half-snake deity, after his father is executed for stealing the Heavenly King's magic soil to stop floods and rescue suffering tribes.

Since its debut on CCTV-1 on March 18, the series has captured attention by bringing to life more than 400 figures and creatures from the Shan Hai Jing, including Gonggong, a bad-tempered god who governs the waters, and Xingtian, a mythological figure who continues to fight even after losing his head.

Cao Liang, the project's director, tells China Daily that he was commissioned by the China Media Group — the country's largest broadcaster — to create an animated series inspired by the Shan Hai Jing, which he describes as an encyclopedia that reflects the social life and geographical knowledge of ancient China.

The 18-volume classic is believed to have been compiled between the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and the early Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and encompasses a wide array of subjects, including myths and medicine, as well as information about animals, plants, oceans, and astronomy.

The initial challenge facing the team was deciding which figure from the sprawling book to choose as the lead character for the animated series.

Cao says that they originally considered some of its most renowned figures, including Houyi, the mythological hero who shoots down nine of 10 sons of the Heavenly King to save the Earth from scorching; Kuafu, a giant with the ambitious goal of racing against the sun; and Jingwei, the daughter of a god who transforms into a bird and tries to fill the sea with twigs and stones to avenge her drowning in the sea.

After holding meetings with screenwriters and experts specializing in mythology and folklore, Cao says they finally chose Dayu because despite the mix of actual and fictional content, the sheer number of depictions and records about him suggest that he was an actual historical figure who exerted a massive influence on ancient China.

"As a human hero, who figures prominently in the origin of Chinese civilization, Dayu might be more relatable to a modern audience, especially youngsters," Cao continues.

While the author of the Shan Hai Jing remains shrouded in mystery, the director says that certain scholars speculate that Dayu himself might have orchestrated the compilation of the ancient masterpiece, recorded it originally with an oral tradition, and got it passed down later in written forms.

Cao says that this conjecture arises from the book's intricate depictions of different customs and landscapes across the Nine States (an administrative concept in ancient China), which are believed to mirror the territories Dayu traversed during his heroic endeavor to control the floods.

The project's team of around 200 creators and animators has taken over two years to polish the tale and design the characters, with the aid of established scholars like Chen Lianshan, a professor of folklore at Peking University, and Xiao Jun, director of the Ancient Astronomy Research Center at the Beijing Planetarium.

Interestingly, the animated series, which features a lot of creatures whose names include rarely-used Chinese characters, is deemed by some parents as good educational material for their children.

"We are delighted that the cartoon has sparked the curiosity of many students, and is aiding them in memorizing these characters better through their vibrant visual representations," says Cao.

The creatures in the series are both formidable and adorable. For example, Taowu, who is one of the four most fearsome beasts in ancient folklore, is depicted with the intimidating appearance of a white-haired tiger with fiery red and dark stripes. Ershu, a timid creature Dayu encounters in a lush forest, looks like a squirrel but can use its oversized ears as makeshift wings to soar through the air.

Explaining that the team did a great deal of research, Cao says that the main creators also traveled to Henan province. They visited Yinxu Ruins, where the last capital of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC) was located, and Erlitou Site, generally considered to be the ancient Xia capital. Museums on the sites house artifacts estimated to be thousands of years old, and so are closest to the era in which Dayu is said to have lived.

"Unlike the well-established fine art system with typical Chinese aesthetics seen during the Tang (618-907) and Song dynasties (960-1279), an artistic tradition had not fully developed in the distant past. However, ancient artistry can be found in the patterns adorning items like clay pots. So, we feature these elements prominently in the animated series, from costumes to utensils," says Cao.

Another highlight of the series is its use of verses from Tian Wen (Heavenly Questions), written by one of China's greatest poets, Qu Yuan, who lived around 2,300 years ago, as the lyrics for its closing title song by renowned composer Zhang Yilin.

An award-winning graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Cao says that the project is the first time in his career that he has attempted to understand the way ancient Chinese faced natural disasters and mysterious phenomena.

"Our ancestors possessed a spirit of perseverance and diligence that enabled them to overcome natural disasters and ensure the continuation of the Chinese people. Their pioneering spirit gradually merged into the bloodline and genes of the entire Chinese nation," he explains.

"So when we now assert that Chinese people are industrious, this is not mere rhetoric; it is the cornerstone for achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," Cao says.