In 1918, an experimental short film named ‘Out of the Inkwell’ reached the shores of China. Produced by Max Fleischer, the film introduced the idea of animation to the Chinese.
Exploration of animation in China started to develop with four brothers; Wan Laiming, Wan Guchan, Wan Chaochen and Wan Dihuan. They created the ‘Great Wall Film Company’ and released many films between 1920 and 1930. They created short films that were entertaining, but also thought provoking. The designs of these films were uniquely Chinese and also incorporated live action.
Animation is a lengthy process and at the time, trial and error was a huge part in the industry. During World War II, Great Wall Film Company released short films in opposition to the Japanese war effort. These political films touched on subjects such as imperialism, opium and Japanese troops.
Steady growth in the animation industry came in the 1940’s with it sprouting further in the 50’s and mid 60’s. When the Cultural Revolution took full effect in 1967, Mao Zedong promoted Chinese animation, but only if the correct message was put over. The unrelenting force of the Red Guard destroyed anything that conflicted with the values and ideals of Mao, which in turn crippled the animation industry in China. If we cannot have artistic freedom then how can we express ourselves?
I feel the political and educational stance of the majority of China’s animation and film has left them trailing behind compared to foreign films. Sun Lijun, dean of the Animation School of the Beijing Film Academy states that ‘’Foreign productions are far more original and entertaining…’’ Maybe he is right? The wide variety of animations and films that we are exposed to now really does make the market seem daunting from a Chinese point of view.
I think the problem with the Chinese take on animation and film is that they are too interested in creating cartoons or animations aimed more at children. With the likes of South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy and other western animated series, China doesn’t have a globally recognised set of series or characters. Not only this, but they also tend to lack any compelling or original storylines compared to western work.
John Lent, author of ‘Animation in Asia and the Pacific’ states that ‘‘…one of the main problems I hear coming out of China and many other places in the Far East, is storytelling’’. Zhang Yimou, director of the film ‘Hero’, who states that ‘’when they have a good story they want to make a motion picture out of it, not an animated film’’ also backs this up in a way.
In animation, the only real productions that are seen in the west are from Japan and there is plenty of reason for this. Storytelling and technical ability has been allowed to flourish, whereas the Chinese industry has been left to lag behind in terms of originality and technique.
Having said this, with the change in the Chinese animation industry, they are slowly catching up to the standards of Japan and the West. The youth of China today have more creative freedom than ever and they must make this count within the animation industry. The opportunity to release films with more than a basic statement or blatant message is over, and the time of euphemism is definitely in.
I feel that if the animation industry in China didn’t have the revolutionary setbacks that occurred in mid to late 60’s, they would be right at the top of the industry. I personally think it’s a crying shame to see original and historical stories being lost due to lack of technique and exposure to the world.