Animation Plus: Research on Transformation and Upgrading of China’s Animation Industry was published a year ago by the Social Science Academic Press, and has received a telling ZERO reviews on Amazon China. That, I would suggest, is palpably part of the problem – despite its immense leaps in recent years, people find it hard to get invested, emotionally or otherwise, in Chinese animation, including the Chinese themselves. Author Zhang Huiling has a background in both journalism and broadcast media, and has approached China’s underperforming industry armed with charts, facts and figures. But despite her diligent and extremely useful compilation of data, is anyone paying attention?
Her study is packed with admirably hard information, detailing the recent history of Chinese animation, as well as some intriguing elements of its statistical composition, including episode counts, genre percentages and studio locations. She deals with China largely as a sealed system, large enough to create winning franchises without recourse to foreign sales, although this is precisely why Chinese animation so rarely exports well.
To a certain extent, Zhang is both rediscovering the wheel and pretending she can’t see the cart. Much of her book is an extended argument about the crucial role of intellectual property – what the Japanese call contents – in forming a firm foundation for exploitation in multiple media, including animation. But in doing so, she runs right into the middle of a political minefield in which Chinese animation refuses to discuss the existence of Japanese competitors. Japanese animation, as noted on this blog on multiple occasions is not only a vital patron of the Chinese arts, but also a rival worth watching. Zhang acknowledges this with a final chapter devoted to the successes of Toei Animation in Tokyo, but one can’t help but wonder if the timidity with which she raises this topic undermines her own argument. It’s not her fault if “Japan” is a dirty word in modern Chinese academic discourse, but an understanding of Japan’s success is vital for seeing both where the Chinese animation industry may have gone wrong, and indeed where it has the potential to do right.
An intriguing section of her book breaks down animation around the world, suggesting that certain territories have fundamentally different production and finance trees for their cartoon production. I’m not sure I agree with her flowcharts all the time – the Japanese one, for example, contains a solecism that has not been true for fifty years – but it is fascinating to see how Zhang the external observer explains the functions of the “American”, the “British”, the “Canadian” or, say, the “German” system. Zhang delivers in spades her subtitle’s promise of “research on transformation” of China’s animation industry, but I am not persuaded that her conclusions say anything that hasn’t been said before regarding its “upgrade”. As suggested by Rolf Giesen, among many others, the fundamental issue facing Chinese animation is not something that can be solved with financial voodoo or marketing magic. It requires an overhaul at the very foundations, arguably nothing to do with Chinese animation at all, but lodged more squarely in the creation of the intellectual property itself. For as long as the Chinese animation industry is dominated by bean-counters, managers, and political meddling in content, it will never create the kind of intellectual property to support the sort of world-beating franchise that Zhang demands. Her book, however, is a treasure trove of useful information that other researchers will be sure to draw upon.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.