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By Serena Zhang
With no signs of slowing down, the latest animated film Nezha has been China's biggest box office hit of the summer – it's projected to rake in over 600 million USD, according to Variety. But before it became one of the country’s highest-grossing animated films, Nezha, the protagonist was a prominent figure in ancient Chinese mythology known for his dark past and eventual heroic sacrifice to save his families. Here are eight things to know about the young deity.
According to the classic Taoist novel The Investiture of the Gods, Nezha was supposed to be a reincarnation of God.
A long wait
In the original tale, Nezha's mother was pregnant with him for three and a half years. She actually gave birth to a big ball of flesh at first (just let that mental image simmer behind your eyelids for a minute). Her husband, thinking it was some demonic presence, slashed it open with his sword, but instead of slaying whatever evil lay within, out jumped Nezha, a fully-grown, energetic child with superhuman strength and the ability to speak. Now there's a story to tell at the dinner table.
An even longer wait The film took a total of five years, over 20 Chinese special effects studios and 1,600 animators to make. One scene, in particular, took nearly two months to complete.
As the original tale goes, Nezha was born into a prestigious family during the Shang Dynasty (1,600BC to 1,050BC). His mother is named Lady Yin, and his father is a military commander named Li Jing, who is also known as the 'pagoda-wielding heavenly king'. In typical Chinese tiger parenting fashion, he is strict with Nezha and they have a tense father-son relationship.
In the original tale, Nezha kills Ao Bing, the dragon king's son, who is his friend in the movie. In some versions, Nezha does it by accident while the two are roughhousing, but in others, it is a purposeful act of cruelty.
Tragedy repeats itself
Following Ao Bing's death, the dragon king unleashes his wrath on earth and Nezha sacrifices himself to save his parents and people. However, he is later reincarnated by his mentor, who uses lotus roots to reconstruct his body. So while this version of Nezha may appear human, he is in fact reborn as a three-headed, six-armed deity, or 'a personified lotus, a body without a spirit, one that's free from all pain and suffering'. It's also why the lotus later becomes a symbol of Nezha's power.
The film has grossed over four billion RMB (595 million USD) so far, officially becoming the third-highest grossing movie in China. It is by far the highest-grossing animated film in Chinese cinemas, surpassing overseas blockbusters such as Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Zootopia and Pixar's Coco.
Due to Nezha's rebellious character, he is often considered an allegorical figure for societal misfits, anti-authority narratives and rebellious youth, making him popular among young people. In addition, because he flies swiftly around on two fiery wheels, he is linked to an unusual local Chinese superstition. For anyone who drives, it's said that if you place a small Nezha statue on your vehicle's dashboard, it'll dispel 'evil spirits' on the road and ensure a safe drive behind the wheels.