To Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, where prime minister Wen Jiabao had some words of complaint for animation students.
“Your work is meaningful. You should play a leading role in bringing Chinese culture to the world,” he told students at Jiangtong Animation. “Let Chinese children watch more of their own history and own country’s animation.” But this was meant less in praise than in criticism. After spending time with a grandson we shall call Wen Junior, the prime minister was shocked to discover that the boy preferred Japanese imports to China’s homegrown animation.
“He always watches Ultraman,” complained Wen. “He should watch more Chinese cartoons.”
Wen says this like it’s the animators’ fault. I fully believe the Culture Ministry’s statement that there are 200,000 animators at work in China today. It’s just that a big chunk of them are working on The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or take your pick. And while that’s great for Chinese industry and keeps people in employment, it doesn’t automatically translate to a rich local creative culture.
The Chinese animation industry, according to its Deputy Culture Minister, produces 41 hours of content a week, a number that appears to even top the output of Japan, which was 35 hours per week at its 2006 height, and is probably more like 20 hours a week today. But statistics are never the whole story. In many cases, those cartoons are being counted twice. When the Japanese broadcast a cartoon (let’s call it Schoolgirl Milky Crisis) on TV Tokyo, that’s 25 minutes of animation claimed on the Japanese figures. But if the same show is a Chinese co-production, and broadcast in China as Exemplary Scholar Heroines of Dairy Production Problem-Solving, then those same minutes will also go on the Chinese slate. Meanwhile, Chinese in-betweeners and colourists doing the dogwork on a bunch of Japanese or American serials, will be surely registering that as even more “Chinese” hours. None of that is going to help them make the Greatest Chinese Cartoon of All Time, although one day it might help pay for it.
Moreover, discussion of media in China often suffers from significant vagueness in definitions. There is often an infuriating unwillingness to distinguish between movies and TV shows, or pirates and legal imports, which in turn leads to woolly thinking and bizarre non-facts. Shows are “banned” that are not actually available. Fan-bases develop for titles that haven’t been sold. We can see this at work here, as well. Wen Jiabao’s thoughts are certainly relevant, but Ultraman isn’t a cartoon at all. There was, true enough, an Ultraman anime, but it’s difficult to imagine that Wen Junior is watching a cartoon that’s older than he is. Although if he is, and he still prefers it to homegrown product, then Chinese animation is in even bigger trouble than Wen Jiabao thinks. But if, as I suspect, his complaint was correctly translated but perhaps misinterpreted, and Junior really was watching a recent live-action Ultraman TV show, then Wen is being awfully unfair on China’s creatives by comparing apples and oranges. The cost of live-action TV is an order of magnitude above the cost of animation. He’s asking them to make an impossible leap.
(This article first appeared in NEO 64, 2009)