Political Interest through the Generations

“There’s nothing we can do about politics,” Silence Chen, an account executive in Beijing says, “So there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.”

Stephen Elegant of Time Magazine portrayed the apathetic attitudes towards politics of the so called ‘ME Generation’ (covering the ages of 20 to 30 year olds). Describing the materialistic and almost greedy attitudes of the younger generations in modern day China, he explained that ‘one subject that doesn’t come up [in conversation with this generation] – and almost never does…-is politics.’ This lack of interest can be seen to create a wedge between the modern day ‘ME generation’ and previous generations before them whom the author describes as ‘Chinese elites, whose lives were defined by the epic events that shaped China’s past. The writer appears to feel as though the younger generations are ‘tuning out’ the past. However, I feel that this lack of political interest can be more put down to the naivety and contentment of the current generation and their lifestyle.

Born in 1906, Zhou Youguang, unlike some of the younger Chinese generation feels that democracy is ‘the natural form of a modern society’. He doesn’t understand how ‘free thinkers’ can gain respect until they challenge and question the Communist government. However, Zhou too has admitted that his passion for politics has hit him very late in his life. Only once he had retired at the age of 85, did he start to take an interest in the subject.  Let’s be honest, no matter where on the globe you find yourself, many people are just not interested in politics full stop. In particular, younger citizens may be too young to understand politics, never mind pay any attention to it. Perhaps without seeing or appreciating the effects a government and how it is run can have on themselves and on the people around them, causes them to be ignorant to politics as opposed to being apathetic to it.

It is said that there are 300 million under 30 year olds in China and that an investigation carried out by Credit Suisse showed that the incomes of 20-29 year olds increased by 34% roughly between 2004-2007 making this the largest wage increase of any age group. The have been described to possibly become ‘the salvation of the ruling Communist party’ as a result of their ‘self-interested, apolitical pragmatism’. However journalist Stephen Elegant explained that this ‘salvation’ will last only as long as the Communist Party ‘keeps delivering the economic goods.’ The idea is that this ‘ME generation’ is consumed by a world of by material products, self-gain and westernised tastes. They are described as citizens interested only in designer brands, sipping Starbucks coffees and using the latest mobile technology. They are seen to have no or little concern in regards to how the country is run and who should run it, almost as if they have become tools of the Communist government to ensure their continuing power.  Magazine publisher, Hong Huang claimed that ‘On their wish list…a Nintendo Wii comes way ahead of a democracy’. This being said, this generation’s Chinese youths have surpassed previous ones in areas of education and international affairs. Comparing the ‘ME Generation’ to the apparently named ‘Lost Generation’ of the Cultural Revolution, roughly 25% of Chinese citizens around the age of 20 have gone to college at some point in their lives, whereas, in regards to those of the ‘Lost generation’, many didn’t even finish high school. Chinese native and American Citizen, Author and expert of China’s middle class Helen H Wang explained that ‘Twenty years ago, China was a very different place. We had very little information about the outside world’, whereas it is said that in 2007 alone, around 37 million Chinese citizens travelled internationally and that in the coming decade Chinese tourists will outnumber that of Europe and the U.S combined.

Another apparent reason for the apathy of the young generation is that any previous attempts they will have heard from their elders, to stand up against the government have had negative outcomes with those such as The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This, and the fact these issues were so long ago, the ‘ME Generation’ have accepted that they are growing up in times better than their parents and their grandparents before them. They are probably reminded of this on a daily basis, so they have little motivation to care for politics. All they see is an ever growing strength in China and a flourishing economy and in the words 27 year old of Maria Zhang ‘We have so much bigger a desire for everything…and the more we eat, the more we taste and see, the more we want.’ This being said, there is one political event the younger generation has encountered and this is the incident of Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Zhou Youguang, 106 years old, explained in regards to the massacre of 1989, he feels that ‘one day justice will be done’. This shows that he disapproves of the Governments actions on that day. Nonetheless, to some younger citizens the student protests, if allowed to continue, would have upset the progress the country has made. Vicky Yang, who is 27 and an actuary at a consulting firm, explained her belief that ‘the students meant well’ but felt that the forced end to the demonstrations ‘was needed’. It may simply be that Vicky was only 11 when she witnessed the demonstrations, and perhaps didn’t fully understand the situation. It can also be the fact that perhaps, she is just content with the government as it is and feels change is not necessary. With they’re current economic success; can one really fault this belief? It is difficult to see however, who supports a Communist Government and who is just content with their lifestyle as it is now. Mr Zhou says we cannot say how favourable support for a Communist government really is, as ‘The people have no freedom to express themselves, so we cannot know’.

In spite of the previous comments of the so called ‘ME Generation’, there is still proof that change does lie on the tongues of some of Chinas youths today.  As society modernises in China, many citizens take to the internet to communicate with each other. Apparently a new blogging language is starting to emerge in which the bloggers are said to ‘ridicule the government, poke fun at Communist Party leaders, and circumvent the heavily censored internet in China’. They have also been named by China Digital Times as part of the ‘resistance discourse’. For example the government’s claims of trying to maintain ‘harmony’ within China, is mocked by internet users who use words and mild insults which are almost homonyms of the Chinese word for harmony, and these represent suppression. This is proof that many feel dominated by the Communist government and this could be the beginning of an age directed more towards free thinking. In the words of Marc Macdonald of IHT, ‘To be harmonised, these days, is to be censored’, however to disallow these mild insinuated criticisms online would inevitably contradict the ‘harmonious society’ that the government is claiming to sustain. So it is as if, in the belief of Chinese writer Yu Ha, that ‘harmony has been hijacked by the public’.

Zhou Jiaying, a young school girl describes her opinion of China as she sees it saying, ‘On the surface China looks luxurious, but underneath it is chaos…Everything is so corrupt’. This is proof younger citizens do show interest in politics, beginning even at a young age. Her teacher on the other hand feels that ‘Just because they’re [the younger generations are] curious to see something doesn’t mean they want it for themselves…Maybe they will try something—dye their hair, or pierce an ear—but in their bones, they are very traditional’. This creates the thought that on some level, it may be that a general misunderstanding between the young and their predecessors. The idea that China’s younger generation does not share an interest in who runs the government is not really true. No matter where you are in the world there are always those who are not interested in politics; however it is unreasonable to mark a whole generation with this label. Perhaps this misunderstanding between generations is a result of the rate of such drastic change, forcing a wider gap between them. For it can be seen, despite all the condemnation of the youth of China, this ‘we want more’ generation is communicating political views in new and innovative ways from very young ages. It has been reported that working class riots and protests in the more rural areas are already increasing as the government continues to cater mainly for the middle and upper classes and although these sorts of political statements may be lacking in the satisfied middle class it is certainly not true that this so called ‘ME generation’ lacks concern in political matters. Naturally as the country flourishes economically, a political revolution is not logical. As it is, China as a country is doing very well for itself, and the public see this. To call this social contentment politically apathetic is ridiculous. Political interest is within the youth of China and it’s always been there and grows with them. One just has to look for it.

Assignment 3: ‘Made in China’

It has been said that Europe spends almost 12,630 Billion pounds a year on games and toys alone. Manufacturers have swarmed to China, which apparently assembles a massive 75-80% of the world’s toy production. China has 8,000 toy factories and more than 5,000 of them are in the Guangdong province and it has been said by USA Today in December 2006, that “some 1.5 million workers are making toys in Guangdong”.

With these figures in mind, I set about unpacking some of my and my family’s childhood belongings, searching amongst the boxes of stuffed toys, plastic gimmicks and even some more modern items and found that the majority of them were made in China. In fact the only two items I did find that did not carry the ‘made in china’ label was a stuffed toy, made in Vietnam, and a pack of collecting cards made in USA. The rest, including a rather large number of stuffed toys, cheap novelty products bought as joke presents and other items were all labelled ‘made in china’. I also asked a friend of mine to do the same and the results were very similar.

I was still unsure about these statistics. So I thought when studying the toy industry where else better to go than ‘Toys R Us’? Of course this visit was purely for research purposes… There I did the same thing, and investigated just how much of the company’s stock carried the ‘made in china’ label. As soon as entering the front door you are greeted with an abundance of Lego games and stuffed toys. Lego it seems is made in many places including Denmark and Mexico but many parts are still also made in China. In the stuffed toy section, while rummaging through the selection despite strange looks from both customers and staff, I found that the entire section seemed to be ‘made in China’.
As it turns out the rest of my trip around the store went in a similar fashion. ‘Made in China’, ‘Manufactured in China’, ‘Fabricado en China’ and many other variations of this made it apparent (after much scrutinising of the fine print) that most of the stock and merchandise all shared this similarity. In fact, by the end I was almost praying that I would find even some products that weren’t made in china. Although there were some toys, like the ever-popular ‘Barbie’, some ‘Disney Products’ and some ‘transformers’ toys that despite predominantly being been made in china, they also had some models that were manufactured in Vietnam. As a matter of fact the only toys I could find that appeared not to be ‘made in China’ were the products of Playmobil which is said to be manufactured in Germany, and some board games. The rest of the products I found however, definitely were ‘made in China’.

While there, I asked some shoppers some questions about the products they were buying and generally to consider general products they had at home. I asked them, without checking, if they could guess where some of the products they were about to purchase and also in their opinion, where most of the products they already own were made. Most people guessed China; however some other common answers were other Asian countries, Turkey and India. The next question involved the person recalling their favourite toys from their youth. Many I could recall were probably made in China; however, many after investigating were not. Some such as ‘a sheep skin teddy bear’ was made in Scotland. It seemed that the younger the person interviewed the more likely the chances their favourite toy was manufactured in China showing the over-all shift in manufacturing industries from more local areas, to overseas. This reminds us that it wasn’t so long ago, that factories lined our very own cities. Opinions on the quality of goods made outside the UK varied quite largely. Many or even most however, felt that the quality was good or had improved over the years. There were a number however, that felt that the quality was not good and was worsening. Yet, this could probably be a result of the present financial situation with tighter budgets for buyers; manufacturers have no choice but to lower quality in order to keep up with buyer’s low price demands. Perhaps this is why a number of interviewees felt that product quality, in some aspects at least, was decreasing. However, the majority stood with a rather high quality from products made outside the UK and in particular China.
For the next question I asked why they felt that the importation of Chinese goods into Europe and the U.S was so high. Almost all agreed that it was cheap labour costs and many added that it was also the larger workforces that allow for shorter manufacturing times. However, these similarities in opinion soon vanished when I asked what they thought of the working conditions these people were under and how they felt about them. The words ‘slave-labour’ and ‘poor conditions’ were thrown around a lot. However many argued they were under the impression that conditions had changed or presumed they worked within decent ethical codes and laws. The mere comprehension that such a powerful country could still be subject to slave labour seemed unrealistic. Whereas other interviewees felt the opposite, that for things to be so cheap there had to be a certain amount of this behind the scenes. In fact, according to an investigation carried out by the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, 7 out of every 9 companies, will break Chinese laws and breach the ethical codes set by buyers to the rights of their workers. It is said they have fake wage and hour slips, and pay their staff to lie during inspections. Staff are said to fear defending their human rights in case they lose their jobs.According to Tai Guang Lai, a manager of a toy factory in China that many of the workers are from poor provinces, so they ‘have no choice but to come here and work ‘. The workers, in the words of an American Industrial Designer who works in China himself said, ‘People are the most adaptable machines’ and it appears as though they are being treated in this way. I ended with a simple question, if it meant improving the working conditions of these people, would you be willing to pay more for the toys and all products in general? Again, the answers I received differed from person to person. It’s all circumstantial, to the person. Many said ‘If I had the money, I would’ and ‘In an ideal world’. The harsh reality is that whether the person said they would or would not pay more hypothetically means nothing. A lot of the problems that can be seen are down to the ignorance and naivety of the rest of the world. However, it seems most people I asked were in some manner, aware of how some of their products were ‘probably’ produced. So one can’t help wonder if this ‘ignorance’ is intentional. That perhaps people prefer to close their eyes and pretend the world’s a better place because, let’s be honest, isn’t playing ignorant so much easier than actually doing something about it?

Assignment 2: China and Animation

China is believed to be one of the biggest animation markets on the planet. It has a population of 1.3 Billion, with 370 million of them being children. A survey carried out by the ‘Quatech Market Research Company’ concluded that citizens from the age of 14 to that of around 30 in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing spent over RMB 1.3 billion Yuan on cartoons every year. However, 80% of this was spent on animation from other countries. It has been said that only 11% of China’s youth prefer animation made locally. The other 89% prefer works predominantly from Japan and also a good deal from America. It is in the opinion of many that Chinese cartoons focus too much on education and not enough of on entertainment. 60% of China’s youngsters prefer Japanese animation which is probably due to the fact that Japanese plots introduce more true to life problems that children have to face, making their characters more relatable to the viewers than compared to characters found in Chinese animations. According to Japanese cartoonist Chiba Tetsuya, “Chinese cartoonists are as good as Japanese ones, if not better…But a good cartoon requires not only good drawings, but also an interesting plot. Chinese cartoonists need to spend more time on creating adventure story lines and on upgrading their story skills.”

Chinese animation has been said to be influenced by other forms of art and historical and cultural events and also obtaining a lot of influence from ancient folklore and Chinese manhua. Manhua are Chinese comic books sharing similarities to Japanese Manga and Korean manhwa. However, unlike manga, modern day manhua usually comes in full colour with some panels created completely in paint for single issue format. Chinese manhua originated in the late 19th century to the early 20th century. It is said that manhua was developed in some way from small picture books called Lianhuanhua and these became popular in Shanghai in the 1920s.

It is undeniable that China, as it presently stands, isn’t exactly renowned for its outstanding animation. However, one cannot say that they didn’t play role in the innovation of the art form at all. Around 180 AD Ting Huan, an inventor created the earliest version of the Zoetrope. This device, made of semi-transparent paper of mica panels, was hung over a lamp. The Zoetrope would spin with the rising air creating the impression that the images that were painted on the zoetrope were moving. Although, China may have lagged behind in the progression of the animation industry over time, it can still be seen that the country was already ahead of its time in regards to the very concept behind animation itself.

The earliest examples of animation to hit China, was the series ‘Out of the Inkwell’ which was released in 1918. That and many other examples from Europe and America influenced the trend in China greatly. The first Chinese animation was created by Wan Laiming in 1922 for the shuzendong Chinese Typewriter. Shortly after, Wan Laiming and his brothers Wan Dihuan, Wan Guchan and Wan Chaochen formed together and worked for the Great Wall Film Company. There, they made many advances in animation. The Wan Brothers, as they became known, wanted to create a style that was distinctly Chinese. It was common place during this period to use the combination of live action footage and traditional 2D animation. The first animation they made was a 10-12 minute long piece called ‘Uproar in the Studio’. In 1935, they went on to create China’s first animation with sound ‘The Camel’s Dance’ and in 1941, created one of the most well renowned Chinese animated feature films, ‘Princess Iron Fan’. The story of this animation was apparently influenced in some way from the Chinese folk tale ‘Journey to the West’. It was the first animated feature film to be presented in Asia. The film was produced by a team of 237 artists under the supervision of the Wan Brothers and it was done using rotoscoping during the Second World War. It cost over 350, 000 Yuan and was over 20,000 frames in total.

The movie was said to have had a great impact on animation in Asia, and in particular, inspired Japan to also develop a feature-length animation ‘Momataro’s Divine Sea Warrior’. In 1956 the Wan Brothers went on to develop ‘Why is the Crow Black-Coated’ which was one of the first coloured Chinese animations and is recognised world-wide. A mere two years later, the brothers went on to create animations using cut paper based on folk art. Examples of this style can be seen in ‘Pigsy Eats Watermelon’. In addition to this, the animator Yu Zheguang established another new method of animating using origami in the film ‘A Clever Duckling’. However, the progress of Chinese animation didn’t stop there. The Wan Brothers were yet to create their most recognised film ‘Havoc in Heaven’. The film broke boundaries in technique, colour and skill and was 2 hours long. The Film took almost 4 years to complete.

After the Cultural Revolution however, it is said that animation took an almost stand-still. Over the 20 years from 1960 to 1989, predominantly American shows were imported to Hong Kong. In regards to Asian animation, Japan had taken the forefront with popular anime shows that were exported to Hong Kong, Europe and the U.S. China had, and still to this day, has strong competition for interest,  not only word-wide, but also at home. Nevertheless, The Shanghai Animation Studio, which the Wang Brothers and many other popular artists became part of in the1940s launched a further 219 animated movies in the 1980s. Some of these animations such as ‘Three Monks’ and ‘Feeling from Mountain and Water’ went on to become award winners.

Despite this from the 1990s onwards, Chinese animation was ousted from the public eye with the global commercialisation of American and Japanese works. It can be seen today that China are still improving their skills, however it’s almost as though they are losing the feeling of an animation that was distinctly Chinese. It has been claimed that China is adopting western and Japanese styles, even in modern works of manhua, and in turn losing the sense of culture and individuality that they had endeavoured to preserve all those years. Yet, in spite of all this negative opinion, near the end of the millennium, China was introduced to the internet. This has provided China with a new means of getting their animation out to the world, and allowed for more freedom instead of everything being, in the words of Jin Guoping (shanghai Studio Director) ‘ decided by …the government’. China appears to have had its ups and downs in this area, and although it’s never quite held a place at the forefront in the progression of the animation industry globally, after all this time, the country’s still improving to this day. In this time, amidst the remarkable growth of China, one can only wonder if it will ever become a recognised figure in the industry as it has been threatening to do for all these years.

The Art of Chinese Storytelling

Although Chinese Film hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm, opinion on their progress of the art has been said to improve. The extent to how much of an improvement they have made on this topic however, appears to be a controversial one. It is undeniable that, just like everything else in China, the movie industry too, has started to grow.  English Critic Tony Ryan is rather optimistic in his opinion and states that “A dozen of the world’s most innovative and exciting films made anywhere in the world in the last few years have come from China”. Despite the fact that Chinese film is often criticized for its hollow characters, lack of realism and depth. Now, even some of those who are sceptical of the level of China’s progress in this industry, such as Linda Jaivin from the Australian National University admits that “Chinese film has been receiving greater international recognition”.  However, there was a time when Chinese innovation combined with cultural aesthetic made China the pioneer of a different form of entertainment.

In the early 19th century the legend has it that distraught with the death of one of his concubines due to illness, Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty stopped caring for the affairs of the state. To comfort the Emperor, the concubine Wang, was in the words of the historian Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.E – 220 C.E) ‘revived’ for him using ‘magic practices’. These ‘practices’ were the art of Shadow play. Shadow play, or shadow puppetry involves very detailed, transparent and usually jointed figures performing before of a lit background.  Using donkey hide, the concubine’s joints were animated using 11 separate pieces of the leather, and decorated with painted clothes. Her shadow was made to move using an oil lamp ultimately ‘bringing her to life’.

The Chinese name for ‘Shadow Puppet’ is “pi ying” meaning ‘shadows of hides of leather’. The Puppets themselves are very difficult to make. It requires great skill and craftsmanship. The puppets were originally made of paper. Later they were made from the hides of donkeys or oxen.
Carving the figures is very intricate: using a knife, to hollow out the face and carve delicate detail into the body. The face in particular requires an ‘out-line’ as thin as wire. The body can be engraved with many patterns, shapes and symbols.

The Characters usually have exaggerated features for the practicality of identifying them. Costumes and faces in particular, were made to be very memorable and detailed. The type of character being portrayed is made apparent by his/her mask. Similar to the masks in Beijing Opera, red represents honour and righteousness; black signifies loyalty whereas white denotes deceit. Heroic and likeable figures have long narrow eyes, small mouth and a straight nose. On the other hand the villains have small eyes, jutting forehead and drooping mouth. The Clown or humorous character has circles around their eyes. The figures were treated more like sculptures, pieces of art. So many delicate details and designs are crafted into them. One puppet alone can undergo up to 24 processes and over 3000 incisions. The leather is usually painted with bright colours but is transparent, usually black, red, yellow and green.

Shadow Play became very popular as early as the Song Dynasty. Holidays became a time renowned for them.  The art is still alive today and is still found in many provinces and regions including the Huan Xian County, where Daoqing shadow play originated, in northwest Gansu Province. There are many different types of shadow puppetry, Daoqing is performed by one person who controls all the figures and also conducts the orchestra. Chinese shadow puppetry has been performed in many European countries and also in America and Canada. The Huanxian County Shadow Play Troupe has presented 50 shoes in 20 cities including Venice, Milan, Rome and Florence since 2005.

Catherine yi-yu Cho Woo claims that “…the Chinese cinema has become an exciting, new artistic medium that preserves and extends Chinese cultural patterns”. Although many people argue this is not true and that as China rapidly modernises, it is also westernising, and losing its culture and heritage, the simple fact that the art of shadow play has existed for over 2000 years and still does to this day, proves that perhaps certain things cannot be lost so easily.