Viewpoint: Misunderstanding China

Curious Pictures prez Richard Winkler reflects on his recent trip to China and the state of the country's animation industry.
February 8, 2007

For a week in November 2006 I was a participant in the first International Animation Artists Salon in Wuhan, China, co-hosted by the Wuhan University Journalism School and the Beijing Film Academy, one of the oldest film school in Asia. Attendees in-cluded the most accomplished and venerated people in Chinese animation, plus for-eign guests from the US, Canada, Iran, Switzerland and South Korea. What I learned might have some value for program creators and producers in the West interested in the burgeoning Chinese media market.

Animation is one of several key industries getting a lot of support from the Govern-ment. The event was part of that support and the context was set by the Govern-ment announcement in Sept 06 banning non Chinese animation from TV from the hours of 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The symposium focused a lot on the fundamental question of just what is Chinese animation and initially, I thought that was sort of trivial. After all, what is American, British or German animation?

But the more I listened and learned, the more I realized that animation could have a completely different role in such a distinctly different society, based on its unique demographics, culture and history.

For audiences in the West, animation is fun, light, entertaining and basically frivo-lous. Television animation in particular is primarily generated by creators, who these days tend to exhibit an offbeat, ironic or satiric view of society and wind up working for major networks.

But in China, this pipeline from wiseass show creator to big-media distribution com-pany simply does not exist. China takes its cultural heritage very seriously; as a re-sult, animation is considered a ‘higher’ art form than in the West, and is thus bur-dened with greater expectations.

Complicating this is China’s One Child program, which to date seems to be a success. I met only one person in China who had a brother or sister. Not surprisingly, a nation of only children has a different family dynamic than what we take for granted here.

As a result of this population control policy, families dote extensively on the upbring-ing of their kids. Couple that with the Asian emphasis on education, hard work, ad-vancement and cultural development, and you have the most important emerging country on the planet populated with kids whose parents are not nearly as inclined as Western parents to let them sit in front of a TV set all afternoon.

This is important to keep in mind as China is in the midst of an era of openness. Its history has been described as successive periods of being open and then closed to the outside. In all my conversations there, everyone was eager to talk about the rest of the world.

They should, as their animation industry – much like the society at large – has a his-tory of stops and starts. It flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly with animated shorts and a few very well-produced features, primarily produced at the Shanghai Animation Studio. Then the Cultural Revolution came along (’66-’76) and turned eve-rything upside down. With millions struggling just to survive, animation was obvi-ously not a priority.

There was a second ‘Golden Age’ of Chinese animation that began after the Cultural Revolution in ’78, which lasted about ten years. But then television broadcasting started to become widely available in China, and cheap Japanese and Korean ani-mated programs flooded the airwaves, derailing nascent local animation production efforts.

As the 1980s dawned and China began to slowly open its economy, new market forces meant that the Shanghai Animation Studio had to make an increasing propor-tion of their income from commercial work, which at the time was most often pro-duced in L.A., Tokyo and Seoul.

Because of this there seems to be both a nostalgia for the pre-commercial ‘Golden Age’ and a resistance to the influx non-Chinese produced animation, specifically that from Japan. (That’s another story.)

This ‘anima-xenophobia’ seems to be partially a vestige of recent closed eras and also a result of an unstated sense of cultural weakness. The question, ‘What is Chi-nese animation?’ is indicative of some kind of industry-wide identity crisis. The Chi-nese animation industry has anxiety that opening their doors to international media will bulldoze its animation culture.

You might be thinking what I was thinking – I kept wanting to tell my Chinese coun-terparts, ‘Guys, don’t sweat it, these are only CARTOONS! A 5,000-year old culture is not going to be tripped up by the Kids Next Door!” But while it’s easy for me to say, it’s also clear why it might be harder for them to accept.

Richard Winkler is executive producer and partner in the New York based animation and mixed media production company Curious Pictures. You can contact him at

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