The Bubbling Ink Well: Animation and Censorship – Part I

Arthur Han is a 23 year old journalism student at Cardiff University. Originally from Jiangsu province, he’s in Beijing working on a dissertation which looks at animation in China and how it has been affected by censorship. I sat down with him over some Xinjiang jiachang banmianyangrou chuan’r and the semi-alcoholic water known as Yanjing to talk about his project. Arthur had a lot to say, so the conversation jumped around a bit. It has been edited for clarity. 


What was going abroad like for you?

I have been living in China for 21 years, and all I’ve seen, all I’ve heard, all I have been implanted with was, you know, Communism is good, we are all happy, something like that. But to some extent, the Chinese government is really selfish. They care about their own economics. They like to show that they (can do something like provide) humanitarian aid, but I think they are really selfish.

When I went to Britain I saw all these British guys who cared about world peace and the starving children in Africa and the cure for cancer. I thought, you know, I went to the best high school, best university, I thought that I was…not elite, but much more open minded. But it’s not like that. When I went abroad I found I wasn’t open minded at all. So I just want to see more. Experience more.

Did you know before you went abroad that you wanted to study journalism?

I struggled a little bit in choosing subjects when it came to my final year of my graduate studies because I didn’t want to study a language anymore and I just didn’t want to be an interpreter, even though it has a high salary. But, I just don’t want to be a speaker of someone else’s ideas. Maybe I can lead or report the ideas to help people forge their own ideas. What journalism does, my teacher says, is give the voiceless a voice. I think that’s what I want.

Journalism is a sensitive field in China, were your parents happy about your career choice?

Well, every family has its own story. In my family, my parents don’t really force me to do what they want me to do. Because firstly they have little knowledge about education, about what I’m studying. But I’m pretty happy. They encourage me to do what I want. Even though they would give me some advice like “I don’t think it’s really good but if you want it you can have a try.” They don’t know about my idea about being a world journalist but I don’t think they will object. Even though they will worry about me I will prepare myself for it so I think it will be fine. No pain, no gain right? You see the worst, you see the real, you know…many happy things are taking place, many miserable things are taking place, so there should be a tunnel between the two to let them know each other.

Most people don’t think of China when they think of animation. But it wasn’t always like that. What was the high point of Chinese animation and when and why did the form change?

I think it started during the foundation of the Chinese government (1949) with the Shanghai Film Studio, which was a really really famous film and animation producer. They had produced so many very beautiful, very delicate animations with Chinese characters – shuimo, water colors and clay. But at that time, interestingly, the government did not recognize their productions at all. They thought it celebrated feudalism. Before that, animators didn’t worry about money because the government (pre-CCP) was funding them. They didn’t make it for profit or any certain interests.

Then, something happened. First, the Cultural Revolution. The Shanghai Film Studio closed down for several years. After it was re-established it started to do well again and continues to produce good films. Then, there was Reform and Opening. That’s when Japanese animation flooded into the Chinese market, even though Chinese animation actually has a longer history than Japanese animation.

Early Japanese animation was quite bad. It was only used for ideological education during the Second World War. You can see this in how they used Momotarō (Peach Boy). When the characters invade the mountain in the story, it’s actually a metaphor for the Japanese wanting to invade Asia and taking control of the world. There was also Momotarō: Umi no Shinpei, which also indicates that the Japanese wanted to take control of the sea. But it turned out to be a really bad decision.

So, after 1945, what I find really amazing is that a lot of Japanese were really dedicated to improving themselves. I’ll give you one example. The director of Umi no Shinpei, who was quite nationalistic, created another short animation after the war called Sakura. It’s pure Japanese style without any ideology. So you can see some decisiveness to get better, to get rid of the nationalism and militarism.

But it was not until the 1960s that there was the very first…who they call in Japanese the god of animation, Osamu Tezuka. He went to animation school and along with his classmates he saw the failures of the war, the turbulence. In the post war years and after the ningen-sengen a lot of Japanese were lost, they didn’t know where to go. The childhood of people like Osamu was filled with war and they weren’t able to enjoy it. So they wanted to create a very enjoyable and very colorful childhood for the next generation. That was one big motivation for the Japanese animator.

Early on it was hard for them. They lacked funds so they reached out to many different places. Places like Disney and Hollywood and also Hong Kong. In the 1970s Hong Kong’s film industry was really rich because of their kung fu movies. The first big Japanese-Hong Kong co-production was Princess Iron Fan. However, this co-operation came to a halt because they disagreed on the target audience. The Chinese thought animation was for children. But the Japanese thought it wasn’t only for children, but for everybody. Eventually the Japanese idea that the animation market should be open to all age groups won out.

Animation had this cross generational appeal in Japan because the Japanese are so introverted. At this time people were experiencing intense personal crises inside themselves and animation was a release for them. Also during this time, the 1970s, the Japanese were learning a lot from American and European film studios. At first they were only doing low value added things like drawing simple characters and making them move. Eventually, the founders of Studio Ghibli decided to create something bigger. Something with Japanese spirit, with Japanese values.

While all this was taking off in Japan, China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution and there is virtually no animation being produced. My grandparents have told me a lot about this period. People say the Chinese are rude, petty, untrustworthy and will take advantage of you. My grandparents say this all happened because of the Cultural Revolution. General trust in society was completely destroyed.

Fast forward to today, Japanese animation is really popular in China. First because it’s really close, second because we share the same written characters. The first really big hits I can think of were Doraemon and Dragonball. Also Sasae-san, which you can’t say was for kids only. It reflects so much about pre and post-war Japanese life.

Who watched these animations in China? Adults? Children?

Everybody liked it actually.

Did the Chinese audience appreciate the subtleties of Japanese animation? Did they relate to it in a comparable way to the Japanese?

There are many themes in Japanese animation. There’s the mitsugetsu stuff, the really inspiring, courage-and-action filled stuff. When it comes to that kind of animation there may be no relation to real life but it can inspire you anyway and people in China like that stuff. But I think the problem in China now is that there is a disconnection between life and animation unlike in Japan where it reflected real things happening in real people’s lives. Adults in China look at their animation and say “why would I watch that? It’s crap.” They can’t find anything there.

Does censorship have something to do with that?

Exactly. When I was in contact with a professor at the Peking University Institute for Cultural Industries she told me, “come on, I can’t talk about this on camera. I’m not just a researcher, I’ve been involved in the animation industry for over 25 years. We have been suffering censorship for quite a long time. The problem is the system.” You always hear a lot about the system. “I know we work under this system, but I can’t talk about it on camera. Because it jeopardizes my future, my career.” With her long experience, she says it’s definitely censorship that has hindered any development of Chinese animation.

Let’s look at the government film and animation censorship rules. There are 10 rules, each one sentence long. They have to do with not damaging traditional Chinese values and not spreading sexual or violent content to children. But it’s pretty vague. It’s open to interpretation. Actually it’s rubbish. How do you define “traditional Chinese values?” How do you define excessive sexuality or violence? Some animations that have lots of violence will pass censorship, but for some reason others, like Deathnote, are officially banned in China.

Well, if we look at Deathnote, there were stories of Japanese school kids writing down other kids’ deaths and there’s the potential of someone acting on that. In the US some people blame video games for violent behavior. So, is the Chinese government on to something?

Well, these things influence people, but not in a really important way. Some psychologists have suggested that violent video games are actually a good thing because they channel violent behavior into a virtual world rather than have it act out in the real world.

What’s the trend now? Will there be more “serious” animation produced in China in the near future?

I really don’t think so. If you look at the big animation studios, their productions are so…boring! There’s an invisible chain on the production. It can’t do too much. However, if you look at the work of individual freelancers, you can see many creative ideas and people doing what they want.

Also, the Chinese market for animation is still opening. The government can start to see animation as an industry. So, knowing that there is more demand for more creative animation, more entrepreneurial firms may start taking risks in producing something more sensitive, something that may cross the line a little bit. They may try to get around censorship laws simply because the laws are open to interpretation. They can just explain their actions in a way that will follow the law. The Chinese government is realizing the potential of the animation market because it’s so profitable. They’re being more indulgent and investing lots of money in many studios.

What’s the future then?

As long as the Communist Party is in China, as long as animation is regarded as ideological promotion, it can’t just be a free market where ideas that are anti-socialist or that may undermine state interests are allowed. Such productions will never happen in Chinese animation.

What about Frozen? That movie is immensely popular here and kids here, just as I presume everywhere, are singing “Let It Go.” That song is about individualism and going your own way. Why can a movie with a song like that be allowed? Is it because the movie is too childish? Is the message not obvious enough?

Well, the content of this movie is not the main concern. It’s profit. If the Chinese government can make a lot of money from this thing, why not just introduce it? Also, it’s a Hollywood thing. People buy Hollywood. It’s a win-win. Hollywood makes money and the Chinese government makes money. We can twist the interpretation of the laws and explain away any messages we like and we can make more money. That’s it. That individualist message in the song is not the main point of the animation so it can be looked over.

Stay tuned for the rest of the story…

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