Once famous Chinese ink painting animation faces extinction

Updated: 2011-09-07
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A scene from ink-wash painting animation Baby Tadpoles Look For Their Mother
Qian Jiajun is a name practically unknown in China. But he was back in the news last month after the cartoonist died, aged 95. His passing aroused public attention at the sad fate of what was once a unique movie genre in China: ink-wash painting animation.

Qian was once regarded as one of the most important founders of the animation industry, due to works such as Why are the Crows Black?, A Deer with Nine Colors and Baby Tadpoles Look For Their Mother. He created the earliest award-winning cartoons which added traditional ink-wash painting into the production.

In 1955, he and his team in Shanghai produced Crows, China’s first color animation, which won an award at the eighth Venice Children’s Film Festival in 1956, although labeled with the cautionary tag “Soviet Union-style."

Afterwards, industry pioneers, including Qian, began to explore their own way of making Chinese animation, leading to typical images and patterns originating from Peking Opera found in classics like The Proud General (1956). Qian worked as art director for the 30-minute film, recognized as China’s earliest attempt at making animation in its own style. Soon, many artists and technicians joined the new team trying to combine ink wash with animation.

Xu Jingda, a young man at the time who later found fame with Three Monks (1980), thought that, since people could print the works of famed artist Qi Baishi –whose Eagle Standing on Pine Tree with Four-Character Couplet in Seal Script recently set a record for contemporary Chinese art at auction when it sold for 425.5 million yuan ($ 65 million) – on wash basin, why couldn’t they produce them in cartoon form?

Xu invited Duan Xiaoxuan, a photographer, and Qian Jiajun, a leading technician at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (SAFS), to realize his bold idea. After the first clip, featuring a frog jumping from a lotus leaf, was successfully produced, the entire studio was mobilized.

Three months later, they completed the 15-minute Baby Tadpoles, hence opening a new chapter in animation: the birth of the first ink-wash film.

Among those participating were some of China’s top painters, such as Li Keran and Huang Yongyu. Li donated many of his buffalo paintings to SAFS and in 1963, the studio created China’s second ink-wash-style animation, The Cowboy’s Flute, about a young cowboy, his extraordinary flute-playing ability and his faithful water buffalo.
It won another international award at the Odense International Film Festival in 1979 and attracted visitors from Japan in 1981, who wanted to learn their methods.

But by the 1990s, state-owned film studios had lost their central government funding. Studios were urged to present cheap television series and ink washing productions were seen as costly and unnecessary. Techniques that had once been identified as state secrets were used to shoot commercial advertising.

In 2008, millions were struck by a nostalgic advert promoting China Central Television, reminding them of a cartoon style last seen in their childhood. Many expressed their regret that there were no more new works in this genre.

Some optimistic industry insiders believe that, as computers can now produce special effects, ink wash can revive. But a major shortage of talents will hinder its development, Qiao Fengtian, a PhD animation major at the Communications University of China, told Chinanews.com.

Qiao said previous generations produced artist-filmmakers, who could write and depict Chinese painting in a creative, vivid way. Nowadays, such all-round talents are in extremely short supply.

At the same time, what talent pool exists is drastically shrinking; artists retire, some changed jobs to make a living while there are very few artists working as apprentices in the genre.

The result? Unless the government reinstates funding for this intangible cultural heritage, it may cease to exist in traditional form. 
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