There are many ways to understand Chinese culture, and its movies provide one option. During the last several decades, the mainland Chinese film industry has undergone considerable changes. However, even the most thoughtful researchers are not always able to give a clear explanation of the reasons why the film industry has continued to decline. In the early 1990s, more than 400 movies were produced in Hong Kong annually compared to about 60 projects annually now (Ge, 2017). Society, traditions, and politics have had a serious impact on filmmaking in China. On the one hand, many modern Chinese directors participate in international film festivals, and Chinese movies have won various industry awards, demonstrating their success and professionalism. On the other hand, each decade new challenges and declines can be observed, raising the question of the quality of the films and Chinese cinema overall. Such factors as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, fashion, public consciousness, and international relationships have influenced the development of the film industry in the country. This essay aims to explore past and present achievements and failures of the mainland Chinese film industry from political and social points of view.
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Eras in Chinese Cinema
An analysis can divide the movies and their political backgrounds in China into three main sections. First, there was a period of Chinese animation in the middle of the 20th century when animated cartoons from France were introduced to the Chinese audience and first attracted attention. Within a short period of time, China entered a golden age of animation that focused on culture and mythology instead of political propaganda (Davis, 2018). However, its decline was observed due to the Cultural Revolution from the end of the 1960s until the middle of the 1970s.
The second period reflected the new social and political ambitions of the Chinese population. A result of the revolution was a considerable change in the image of China and the choice of martial arts as a symbol of the county’s strength (Zhouxiang, 2018). Phenomena such as kung fu and wuxia became popular and inspired martial arts cinema as a movement (Teo, 2016). Finally, the processes of globalization, rapid economic development, and industrialization promoted new achievements and improvements in political and social life in China. Competition in the cinema industry reached the global level, and Hollywood turned out to be the main competitor. Socialism and the restriction of political freedoms imposed certain limitations on the movie industry, and it was difficult for Chinese directors to achieve good results and match or surpass the Americans. Nowadays, Chinese cinema remains ambiguous and complex because of the inability to identify the true reasons for successes or explain recent failures.
History of Animation in China
Before the 1950s, there were no signs of animation in the country. The art of animation originated in France and came to China. The first successful attempt to introduce a high-quality animated product was made by the Wan brothers in 1941 (Lamarre, 2017). They directed Princess Iron Fan, which opened the door to later success in the film industry. To make this animated film in three years, 237 artists were engaged, and 350,000 yuan were spent (Marshall, 2017). They worked every day, including Sundays, in a seven-square-meter room where they experimented with shadows, cameras, and pencils (Lent & Xu, 2010). The Japanese invasion influenced the work of the Wan brothers’ team while gaining their freedom provided new inspiration and motivation. The film industry survived in China, and animation was a part of its success. New pioneers, including the cartoonist Te Wei and the painter Jin Xi, demonstrated new approaches and wanted to broaden the scope of the animation industry (Lent & Xu, 2010). They promoted new transformations and continued to master cinema from various perspectives.
A unique characteristic of classical animation was based on the “representative icons from famous paintings or, alternatively, the studio invited influential Chinese painters to reproduce their reputable pieces in animated films” (Chen, 2017, p. 181). In other words, the directors of animated movies turned to already famous classical paintings and narrated stories around them. For example, the works of a famous traditional Chinese painter, Qi Baishi, including representations of flowers, insects, and birds, were used as the basis for many animated movies in terms of the chosen shape, color, and backgrounds (Chen, 2017). The task of Tei Wei was to make Qi Baishi’s watercolor and ink paintings move. Multiple experiments were made in cel animation and the use of cave paintings (Lent & Xu, 2010). The initial steps were successfully taken without including concealed political concepts. The government offered its financial help to animators, but it was believed that little control was present in the industry, and Chinese films were developed in their own independent ways.
However, the situation changed with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed the work and achievements of various studios. These events threw the progress of the Chinese film industry back for several years and suspended its development for about ten years (Chen, 2017). The work of many animators and directors was banned, and people had to leave their usual places of work and move to farms to earn a living (Lent & Xu, 2010). The oppression that was inherent in the Cultural Revolution led to the creation of new propaganda movies that were of low quality. Te Wei made a decision to take a new step and revive animation despite the existing challenges and provocations. This attempt resulted in the creation of new international award-winning ink-and-wash animated films like Feeling from Mountain and Water (Chen, 2017). Animators drew on myths and classical literature to develop educational plots for movies, but new economic reforms made it impossible to retain control of the situation, and the peak of accomplishment was lost by the end of the 1980s (Chen, 2017). It became necessary to satisfy the television market, leading to a neglect of film traditions and standards of quality.
Economic and political orders influenced the work of Chinese animation dramatically. It was not enough for modern filmmakers to share their traditions and tell an interesting story. It was expected to earn money and defeat competitors from different parts of the world. Therefore, financial benefits guided animators and led them to cooperate with foreign companies. Te Wei explained this approach as a possibility to earn more, but there was “not time to do Chinese animation exploration” (as cited in Lent & Xu, 2010, p. 121). The intention to meet the expectations of the audience is evident in modern animation. For example, given the interest of Chinese President Xi Jinping in soccer and World Cup-related events, a decision was made to create a soccer-related animated film (Yau, 2018). However, due to “narrow-minded and conservative values for children” and “an embarrassment for an adult audience,” a number of negative critiques were released, pointing to the evident failure of the mainland Chinese film industry (Yau, 2018, para. 4). The lack of animation talent, the current market rates for artists, and poor recognition of Chinese traditions have led to animation being of poor quality and unprofitable in the country.
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Martial Arts for the Chinese Mainland Audience
In addition to painting and literature, martial arts such as wuxia and kung fu were factors that affected the content and quality of Chinese movies, as well as the attitudes of the mainland audience. In 1939, Nuxia Hong Hudie emphasized the importance of aggressive and warlike themes for solving the social, economic, and political problems that had brought the country to a critical state (as cited in Zhouxiang, 2018). This was done in an attempt to stabilize the national spirit and explain the role of the martial arts genre:
People are ‘sleeping on firewood and tasting gall’ to build up the strength of the nation. Romantic movies won’t help to inspire the people and will undermine the spirit of the nation. Only wuxia movies can cultivate a sense of courage and build up confidence (as cited in Zhouxiang, 2018, p. 64).
The history of martial arts films began in the 1920s when the Shanghai dynasty was recognized. This was a period when nationalism and the spirit of the nation played an important role. The outcomes of the Second Sino-Japanese War shaped both literature and the film industry (Zhouxiang, 2018). However, responding to continuing doubts and a desire to demonstrate as much craft as possible on the screen, filmmakers combined kung fu and wuxia, which led to the blurring of distinctions between violence and martial arts.
Fantastic movements, tricks, and the work of stunt-masters became popular. Several concerted attempts were made to strengthen wuxia movies, and one tactic was to add more romance to human relationships and artistic fights. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably one of the brightest examples of transnational success in the modern Chinese film industry (Teo, 2016). Although it was released in 2000, it established norms and set standards for movies that prevail even today. Some people do not consider it a true wuxia or martial arts film. However, the choreography, character dialogue, and beauty of Chinese culture helped to promote the idea of symbolism in filmmaking. The elegance of each detail, from a sword to surrounded forests and background music, increased the interest of the audience. The fighters do not lack a code of honor, and they properly demonstrate the value of justice in both war and in human relationships. The film drew the attention of people from different parts of the world, and the international awards it won serve as the best evidence of the movie’s success.
Compared to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, such classic movies as The Red Detachment of Women established the theme of martial arts through discussing individual heroism and social collectivism in the public sphere for citizens of the socialist state. China is far from democratic ideals of freedom and choice, and films are not meant to provoke new conflicts between various interests. However, revolutionary actions and the idea of order can be described in a variety of ways, and Xie Jin, the director of The Red Detachment of Women, tried to combine individualism and collectivism in order to emphasize the power of socialism and the role of personal progress in social life. The story of a girl, her maturation, and readiness to participate in social problem solving and decision-making served as effective propaganda for political ideas and philosophies. The debates over gender inequality and the power of women demonstrated the true goals of socialism compared to nationalism. When the task is set to glorify the state and destroy all exterior and interior threats, such factors as gender, age, or education do not matter, and the wuxia movies of this era showed how artwork with this goal could be created.
Finally, in a discussion of the development of the mainland Chinese film industry, it is necessary to focus on the role of Bruce Lee and the way his art changed the world and people’s perceptions of China. The popularization of martial arts and the shrinking of the gap between western and eastern cultures were two major characteristics of Lee’s work. His strength, speed, and quality of martial arts movement were recognized by audiences of all ages, genders, and races. The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Enter the Dragon showed people that martial arts could be used to find meaning and raise consciousness. Individual heroism was not a sin but a virtue that increased the power and impact of Chinese filmmaking around the globe.
Cooperation with Hollywood
Economic and political changes played a role in the development and progress of the Chinese film industry. Globalization opened new doors to Chinese cinema and increased box office profits from $6.5 billion in 2016 to $8.6 billion in 2017 (Frater as cited in Davis, 2018). Due to a constantly changing number of moviegoers, the cinema culture continues to develop, with more than 50,000 movie screens open in 2017 (Barnes as cited in Davis, 2017). On the other hand, new opportunities and options are becoming available to filmmakers. It is possible to compare the achievements of different countries in the same field and consider projects with various financial contexts. However, the factor of competition cannot be ignored, and China, just as any other region, has to work diligently to attain its best achievements and demonstrate the highest quality of shooting, plot, and stunt performance. In the discussion of the history of animation, it was already mentioned that some directors and crew members support foreign cooperation because of the possibility of higher earnings. Hollywood and its worldwide impact should be mentioned.
For a long time, the Chinese government did not want to interfere with the film industry in the country. At the same time, it was important to the government that foreign films and cooperation projects would not have a negative impact on Chinese culture and society. A Western model of society had already spread in many European and Asian countries, but China was able to preserve its positive image in the global arena (Song, 2018). Therefore, self-conscious state policies were developed to make sure that Chinese movies promoted healthy cultural beliefs and social order. Even Hollywood filmmakers had to delete scenes that could question the interests of the state (Song, 2018). Globalization was seen as a potential threat to the domestic film industry, and the government has adopted certain cultural policies in order to support local cultures and protect the employment of native citizens. Chinese cinema is out of contention when it comes to comparing box office numbers with results from the United States (Hays, 2013). Even in China, there are many American movies like Transformers or The Matrix that have gained people’s attention.
However, due to its rapid economic development, China has wanted to obtain the best results, including in the film industry. Foreign cooperation with Hollywood was an inevitable development in the history of the industry. After a short period of time, it was evident that “Hollywood-style feature-length movies became the global prototype for narrative films,” so “Chinese film pioneers began to experiment with long features in the early 1920s” (Zhu & Nakajima, 2010, p.20). Capital and human resources were brought together in order to adequately make use of foreign technologies. Cooperation with Hollywood and the imitation of its approach were easy to predict. As a result, many Chinese movies turned out to be dry and lacked compelling content or cultural significance. People were disappointed with the quality of the film industry and wanted to see more edification and respect for their history and culture. Therefore, it was expected that Chinese movie pioneers would reduce their imitativeness and begin using their intimate relationships with Hollywood for more than learning (Song, 2018). Certain recommendations and examples were followed in China, but it was necessary to control the spread of Hollywood movies in the country.
The government set the policy goal of protecting film in China. One of the decisions made between the 1950s and the 1960s was to promote political but not economic concepts and to keep the impact of Hollywood and the West far from Chinese cinema (Zhu & Nakajima, 2010). Over the next several decades, both declines and new rises of cinematic traditions could be observed in the country. Contemporary social issues show that certain transformations are occurring in the industry. The idea of taking as much as possible from different cultures, including Hollywood, was rejected, and three major directions, including commercial movies, art films, and propaganda movies, were established (Hays, 2013). Modern Chinese directors have already stopped hunting American-style success but have found it necessary to use Hollywood management tools for their own purposes and to optimize their ratings. One of the most recent examples, Dying to Survive, illustrates the recent improvements and demonstrates the possibility of focusing on important issues without breaking cultural norms and expectations. It is hard for directors to develop projects that correspond to their desires and visions due to the existing political control and biases, but new attempts will be made.
In general, the history and development of cinema in China deserve greater attention and recognition. It is not always possible to focus on the progress in one field when other industries and occupations are under thorough governmental control. Multiple political and economic biases cannot be ignored, but Chinese directors have demonstrated their passion and self-confidence during different eras of the country’s social and economic development. External and internal aspects have played an important role, and Hollywood turned out to be a significant factor in the Chinese film industry. Despite a number of mistakes and unnecessary attempts at imitation, Chinese movies have improved considerably during recent decades, showing the high level of professionalism of Chinese directors and actors, as well as the cultural and historical impact of the country.
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