Journey to the Best: A Journey through Law and Policy for a Flourishing Chinese Animation Industry

By Adela Hurtado

It was Fall 2016, and I was studying law for a semester in Shanghai at the East China University of Political Science and Law (“ECUPL”) when I first became interested in Chinese animation. I had loved China itself since I was a child after reading “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” in the 6th grade. I absolutely loved the novel, and I could not get enough of Chinese literature and culture since then. I then went to New York University, focusing on East Asian Studies and Political Science, and I studied abroad in their Shanghai program in 2013. It was a dream come true.

Another longtime interest of mine was animation. From watching Disney films and researching the artistic techniques as a child to learning about those who made the films, animation was embedded in my life. However, during a night in Shanghai in 2013 I saw the documentary, “The Making of Sleeping Beauty.” I was taken with the beauty of the work behind the scenes. I wondered if it was possible to be more involved in animation, but I wasn’t sure how.

I then attended Fordham University School of Law, and I studied law by day, and animation and photography at night. It was a juggling act, but I loved it. When I heard that Fordham Law also had its own study abroad program in China, I had to go. At ECUPL, I studied Chinese law and business, but I also explored more outside of my classes.

As animation was never far from my mind, I researched what I could and discovered the Shanghai Museum of Animation. I made the long trek to what was then an unfamiliar neighborhood across the Pudong River, walking alone past what was then undeveloped land. When I arrived, I was greeted with three colorful floors of Chinese and international animation history. Full of in-depth, interactive exhibits on Chinese animation, I was fascinated by what I saw. Clips of Chinese animated films played on the walls, while artifacts from early films and biographies of Chinese animation pioneers were all around me.

It was all new to me. I had never seen papercutting or watercolor animations–I didn’t even know these techniques were possible! I wondered why these films were not more well-known. It was there that I first took interest in Chinese animation, and I trekked to the museum twice more before returning to New York.

Upon returning, I studied more Chinese law and published an academic article, “Protecting the Mickey Mouse Ears: Moving Beyond Traditional Campaign-Style Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights in China” in the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. It was my first foray into academic writing.

Off to Peking University to Study Law and Animation?

Since then, I graduated from the law school and worked for a few years both in law and in film. I rose from production assistant to production designer, developed photography projects, and joined local animation groups. I studied animation and animation history at the School of Visual Arts. I also had gotten my first animation job as a 2D animator and storyboard artist for a children’s film and had my works shown in New York, California, and Peru. However, I wanted to integrate China somehow into what I did.

In early 2020, I applied for and was accepted into the Yenching Academy of Peking University, an interdisciplinary Masters in China Studies program. There, I’d be in an intensive two-year program learning about all aspects of China, from law, politics, literature, to art with a group of classmates from around the world. I was over the moon at the thought of not only being accepted but also at increasing my knowledge of China.

As for my master’s thesis project, I knew I wanted to combine my love for animation and my background in law, but I wasn’t sure how. I also received the news that I might have to begin the program remotely. The summer of 2020 in New York City was not an easy one.

Inspiration from a Weibo Discussion on the Chinese Animation Industry

During the uncertainty of the pandemic, an animated television series adaptation of the popular Chinese mobile game Love & Producer premiered. This was big news, especially as the game itself had often made the news for its popularity and importance to female gamers. The long-awaited animated adaption was first announced on July 8, 2019, and it was then produced by Japanese animation studio Maruyama Animation Produce Project Association MAPPA.

After its premiere on July 15, 2020, I followed the reactions. While reviews were overall positive, there was an ongoing, interesting discussion on animation by netizens. The series was popular, seen over 100 million times and counting, yet there were various complaints, coincidentally, on the state of Chinese animation. The animation adaption itself was outsourced to Japan, which in part sparked the discussion. Many Weibo users wondered why China itself did not make this animated series. Among the complaints on Weibo regarding the decision to outsource the animation was a larger discussion on why China could not animate its own animated series to the level of other countries. Weibo users spoke of different domestic studios and their capacities and lamented the state of Chinese animation. I was fascinated by the fact that this discussion was even happening. While we can say these are merely complaints about an animated show, they do speak to a larger question of China’s animation development.

I thought back to my first visit to the Shanghai Museum of Animation, and I wondered more about the Chinese animation industry and how my background in law and policy can possibly help. This turned into my master’s thesis project.

Beginning My Research on Chinese Animation

Chinese animation has had a long history stemming over a century ago. Since then, it has had its ebbs and flows and changes in style. It has had multiple interruptions, but also great strides. It has had many highlights, but also setbacks which have led it to fall behind other animation industries, such as those from the United States and Japan. However, Chinese animation is marked by its innovation in techniques and storytelling, seen in films such as Uproar in Heaven (1961-1964) and Feelings of Mountain and River (1988). 

The Chinese animation industry is working towards a resurgence, and it is also a priority of the government. Recently, the Chinese animation industry has made great progress, with films such as Monkey King: Hero Is Back (2015) and Ne Zha (2019). However, what is also important for Chinese animation is an environment for it to flourish in to sustain and continue this growth.

While the project is still at an early stage, it will use field research to get a more in-depth look into what those in the field of Chinese animation see as the state of Chinese animation and what their challenges are. Then, there will be an examination of both national policies, local policies, and administrative cases across China related to animation. The incorporation of perspectives of those in the legal and business side of Chinese animation will also be crucial. There will also hopefully be a comparison to similarly situated countries who have also developed policies to improve their animation industries. This project wants to help develop steps towards a better environment for Chinese animation so that more great Chinese animated films and shows will be made.

I began my research by reading several works to get a foundation on the subject. For example, I started off with the following: Sean Macdonald’s Animation in China: History, Aesthetics, and Media, a theoretical examination of Chinese animation, linking it to American and Japanese animation, popular culture, and mass media theory. Rolf Giesen’s Chinese Animation: A History and Filmography, 1922-2012 gives a history of Chinese animation by giving summaries and detailed information on many important Chinese animated films and shorts over the span of a hundred years. Daisy Yan Du’s Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation examines China’s early animation from the 1940s to the 1970s, specifically how Chinese animation influenced other countries’ animation industries and how those other countries influenced Chinese animation style. John A. Lent and Xu Ying’s Comics Art in China, an in-depth survey of Chinese animation history from the 19th century forward and over 100 interviews with Chinese artists in the animation and cartoon field. Chinese Independent Animation: Renegotiating Identity in Modern China by Wenwei Zhou examines the not often looked at, but still critically important Chinese independent animation.

I also read articles by scholars such as Michael Keane. Li Lei-Lei’s article, “Understanding Chinese Animation Industry: The Nexus of Media, Geography, and Policy” (2011), examines some of the governmental policies affecting animation in China and their effectiveness.

From these readings, I have learned about the uniqueness of the Chinese animation industry, its history, and how policy has heavily affected it. Further research is needed on the development of the industry along with its policies to gain a better sense of the industry.

Finally, I was invited by Daisy Yan Du to attend the inaugural conference of the Association for Chinese Animation Studies in Spring 2021. There I learned even more about the world of animation in China from top scholars, and it was a wonderful experience. Over the span of several months, the conference held numerous panels and presentations on different areas of the Chinese animation industry. It also featured scholars and animation professionals sharing their experiences, knowledge, and theories on the industry. The materials and knowledge shared will also be used for this project.

Chinese Government Policies on Animation

Unlike what I knew in the United States, animation in China has had a long relationship with the government. The Chinese government has always in some way been supporting the Chinese animation industry. Some of the earliest studios, such as the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, were directly funded by the government and released beautiful films. Whether it was directly funding studios and projects, as it had in the industry’s early history, to establishing plans and policies now, the government has always had a major role to play in the industry’s development.

Within the last twenty years, the government has brought animation to the forefront in its priorities. In 2006, the State Council got the ball rolling on making animation a national priority by passing its “Notice on Some Opinions on the Development of China’s Animation Industry” (国务院办公厅转发财政部等部门关于推动 我国动漫产业发展若干意见的通知­). The document described a developed policy framework on promoting the animation industry.

After charging the Ministry of Culture with the implementation of this, the Ministry of Culture followed up with its 2008 statement, “Some Opinions of the Ministry of Culture on Supporting the Development of China’s Animation Industry” (文化部发布关于扶持我国动漫产业发展的若干意见). That same year, the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Finance, and the State Administration of Taxation promulgated the Trial Measures on the Recognition of Animation and Cartoon Enterprises, which defined animation enterprises and what policy benefits they would receive.

In 2012, the Ministry of Culture developed the first five-year-plan specifically for animation, the “Cultural Industry Development Plan” (“十二五”时期国家动漫产业发展规划) and a second one was developed in 2017 (文化部关于印发《文化部“十三五”时期文化产业发展规划》的通知). Government bodies also regularly post notices and reports on how the industry is doing. Local governments also have established a variety of policies, from animation contract templates to measures supporting the industry in general. These governments also support numerous animation festivals across the country. As one can see, there is effort on all fronts towards promoting the animation industry.

Part of this project will be to compile these policies along with administrative and legal cases and examine the most relevant ones. While the project is at an early stage now, it plans to examine the most integral policies’ evolution, missing pieces, and their effectiveness. The project will hopefully focus on not only policies coming from the national bodies, but the relevant policies of several cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Suzhou.

Perspectives from Those in the Chinese Animation Field

As laws and policies are an important aspect to the reality of the Chinese animation industry, what also matters is how this reality is experienced by those affected. I wanted to get a better sense of what those in the animation field in China felt, what they want to achieve, and any insights as how things could improve. I aim to incorporate these voices into the project.

I have begun conducting interviews. So far, I have interviewed five animation professionals working in different cities in China, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. They work at mobile gaming companies, film studios, and in television broadcasting. They are also at different stages of their careers, from just a few months of working experience to having worked in the industry for decades. I asked about their focus in animation, their careers, their aspirations, and what they think could be improved.

The conversations have been illuminating. In speaking with them, I have learned what daily life is like for them in the field, how they came into the field, and their dreams. I’ve also learned on how the Chinese animation industry is improving and about some gaps that still need to be filled for further improvement.

Initial Findings

Based on these interviews multiple themes emerged regarding the Chinese animation industry:

  1. Lack of Revenue Streams for Sustainable Growth
  2. Lack of Talent in Key Areas
  3. Scattered and Underdeveloped Pipeline
  4. Copyright Issues
  5. Looking to the Past for Material
  6. Optimism for the Chinese Animation Industry

While there are still substantial obstacles facing Chinese animation, the industry has been improving, and there is hope for more improvement. With more interviews and research, areas that need improvement and where policy can help will become clearer.

I hope to keep having these conversations with people in different areas of the animation field, whether it be the art, business, and legal side. Hopefully, I will be at the Peking University campus in Beijing in the fall, where I’ll continue to interview those in the field and make studio visits.

In addition, I hope to bring in the perspectives of animators and artists from other countries that are also developing their animation industries, such as Latin America. These countries also have policies in place to support their growing animation industries, so they would make a useful comparison on which policies have worked more effectively than others.

There has not been a similarly focused study on this subject before, specifically on how law and policy can help the Chinese animation industry. It is uncharted territory, but it is much needed to better help animation in China and possibly in other countries that are also developing their own animation industries. I am still early in my research, and I have a long way to go, but my hope is to contribute, even in a small way, to the creation of more beautiful animated films in China and around the world (Fig 1).

Fig 1: “A Journey through Law and Policy for a Flourishing Chinese Animation Industry,” MA thesis, by Adela Hurtado, forthcoming 

Thank you to everyone who has helped so far with this project. For anyone wanting to contribute to the project in some way, have any advice, or who would like to talk, feel free to email me at amh581@nyu.edu. Any insight is appreciated!

Bio:

Adela Hurtado is an animator, photographer, and lawyer based in New York City. She was born in Miami Beach, Florida to Peruvian immigrant parents. She earned her B.A. from New York University and J.D. from Fordham University School of Law. She studied abroad at East China Normal University and East China University of Political Science and Law and was also chosen as a delegate for Peking University’s Yenching Global Symposium in 2019.  

As a lawyer, she worked on public interest issues with non-profits, governments, and the United Nations. As an artist, she has developed multiple photography projects in China and Peru, designed for live action films, and storyboarded and animated for animated films. Projects she’s worked on have screened at multiple festivals and have been exhibited at galleries in New York City and most recently at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.

Adela is currently working on films and attending classes as part of her Masters in China Studies program at the Yenching Academy of Peking University, where she is focusing on the Chinese animation industry, law, and policy. Her dream is to create warm memories through animation, and you can see more of her work at www.adelahurtado.com.

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