Chinese animation

Unleashing the creativity of Chinese animation

October 2, 2014 by Yuen Sin

The Chinese animation industry, which has been expanding at the rate of 1.6bn yuan a year from 2010 to 2013, is basking in its improved fortunes of late. But will state involvement in the industry help or hinder the remarkable creativity it has shown in recent years?

A measure of the success of Chinese animation is the February 2012 landmark deal involving the American giant DreamWorks Animation, which announced a joint venture in partnership with Shanghai Media Group, China Media Capital and Shanghai Alliance for a family entertainment company, Oriental DreamWorks. Oriental DreamWorks holds a 45% stake in the company, which has a capital worth totalling US$350m. The blockbuster animation Kung Fu Panda 3 is already in the pipeline, slated for release in late 2015, and it is likely to do well based on the combined earnings of $96.5m for the previous two instalments of the Kung Fu Panda series.

How much longer can the stars shine upon the estimated 4,600 animation companies in China? The answer, it appears, lies with the Chinese government, whose role in determining the fortunes of the animation industry is paramount. In the 1990s, mainstream animation companies struggled to compete against their Western counterparts like Pixar in the United States and Aardman in the United Kingdom.

Their flagging fates were reversed from 2002 onwards, when the authorities recognised the importance of preserving national culture through the animation industry. Policies, such as a 2004 rule forbidding the broadcast of overseas animations during prime time, a favourable tax regime, preferential policies and awards helped to encourage the production and exposure of domestic animations. By 2007, total cartoon production reached 101,900 minutes – more than three times that of 2004, according to this USI Media Observatory report.

Yet deeper implications lie behind the Chinese government’s heavy involvement in the animation industry. The challenge for Chinese animation, as academic Weihua Wu notes in China’s iGeneration: Cinema and Moving Image Culture for the Twenty-First Century, is to navigate the tricky balance between state-framed discourse and individual artistic representation.

State-sponsored (and regulated) mainstream animation companies are not given explicit guidelines for content, but many of them tend to feature patriotic elements with an ideological discourse in line with state rhetoric. Shiwei Animation, for example, has recently produced the high-quality animation movie Peony Fairy, which, incidentally, is the nickname given to Peng Liyuan, China’s first lady. The movie chronicles the triumph of the Peony goddess over hardship and adversity, resulting in the blooming of peony flowers, China’s national flower, in a magical flower valley.

Even more striking is how animation companies have been roped in to partner the state in achieving policy aims. In August this year, Shenzhen Qianheng Cultural Communication Company announced the launch of a “Princess Fragrant” cartoon series after winning a tender bid last year. The story is based on the well-known legend of a girl from Kashgar city who in the 18th century captivated China’s Qianlong Emperor with her appearance and sweet fragrance and became his concubine. This was part of a campaign by Xinjiang authorities to promote “ethnic harmony and solidarity” in light of the increasing tension between the Han and Uighur ethnic groups in the region.

As Sheng Jun, deputy director of the cultural industry office at the Xijinag Bureau of Culture told the Global Times, such a move is similar to “fighting a war in the realm of ideology. If we don’t pass on positive energy, the opposite side would occupy the battlefield”. The series will air on television in late 2015, with plans for a film to follow in 2016.

Patriotic themes in Chinese animation can be traced back to the 1930s, when the Wan Brothers’ nationalistic films protested against the Japanese invasion and occupation of China. In modern times, however, the involvement of the state in a strictly regulated animation industry leaves animators in an agonizing double bind: either join in the mass commercialization of the once-marginal creative form under the state-regulated industry, or work alongside other independent animators in a personal film-making scene that faces a lack of governmental and institutional support.

The concept of “independent animation” was only first introduced in 2002 at the Chinese Cartoon Industry Forum, when a scholar explained that independent animation in the US would be helpful to Chinese animation education. For now, the two main platforms for independent animation are the China Independent Animation Film Forum, as well as the Independent Animation Biennale in Shenzhen, both launched in 2012. Neither receives government support, though it is unclear if their organizers have deliberately avoided the government or vice-versa.

However, prominent independent animator Skin3 (real name Wang Bo), who is also the founder of the China Animation Film Forum, notes that his industry actively chooses to retain its independent spirit: “It is impossible for the government to support the independent scene. The work of professionals should be left for them to do, and we have to believe in the power of civil society instead,” he tells China Outlook.

For independent animators, passion is the main driving force behind their work, which may or may not produce commercial payoffs – or might not even be intended to do so in the first place. “The definition of mainstream animation in China is becoming less distinct as class ideology in state-sponsored products is being replaced by greater public interest in animation. But independent products feature a more rebellious spirit, as compared to more dogmatic mainstream works that lack creativity and sometimes feature plagiarised elements,” Skin3 says.

Opportunities are still available for the independent scene, albeit on a smaller scale than commercial ventures that would drive China’s soft power expansion and economic clout. Internet animation collectives such as BingTangHuLuer provide a platform for time-starved artists to collaborate on a film project, with films like Ruuun! featuring the work of over 100 artists. Recruitment and distribution of the films is carried out online, and a sister website also discusses contemporary and classic animation from around the world.

Temple University’s Professor John A. Lent, editor of the International Journal of Comic Art and Asian Cinema, believes in the staying power of Chinese animation, whether on the mainstream or independent platforms. Technological sophistication, he says, is not the main key to Chinese animation rivalling the West: “When concentration is centred on good storytelling, China will have a better chance to compete. There are billions of interesting stories in China to be told.”

It would take some time for that creative vision to be fully realised, if Skin3’s assessment of the industry’s potential is accurate: “Too many Chinese, not just animators alone, lack imagination and creativity. In the age of the internet, there are multiple means and channels for expression. But too many young people have caved in to the pressures of reality, or of an education system that is akin to brainwashing, thus the loss of the courage to create.”

The very involvement of the state in the creative process, it seems, inadvertently prevents the development of the fiercely independent spirit that practitioners like Skin3 define as true creativity. Until that inherent tension has been resolved, China might only be able to churn out more Princess Fragrant and Peony Fairy cartoons from its rapidly expanding animation industry in the near future, neglecting the potential that its long history and diverse population has for shaping a unique patchwork of voices and multiple national narratives through animated storytelling.

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