A few years ago, I rated on Netflix over 1000 movies with which I was familiar. The top 10 included (in no particular order): Bladerunner, Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna), Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, A Bout de Souffle, Pan’s Labyrinth, Das Leben der Anderen, Casablanca, Metropolis, 2001: a Space Odyssey, Chinatown. (Lord of the Rings was ineligible because I was alert to the inequities of including a trilogy — hexalogy if you insist on including the dreadful Hobbit saga.) Polanski’s Chinatown, of course, is a canonical movie about Los Angeles, not China. In 2021, any such list would have to be significantly revised, because of the recent spectacular surge of creativity in all aspects of the cultural industries in China. A tsunami, rather than a New Wave, that is swamping foreign coasts.
Chinese cultural achievements over the past five thousand years were interrupted by the cataclysmic chasm between 1966 and 1976. This Orwellian “Cultural Revolution” marked a dread era when cultural traditions and individual creativity were deliberately decimated and denigrated. The new de facto Cultural Revolution, therefore, relates to the extraordinary expansion of both demand and supply in the cultural markets since the 1980s.
By every measure, this 21st-century Cultural Revolution has propelled China to the forefront of the global economy. China now accounts for the majority of intellectual property applications, trademarks and industrial designs in the world. WIPO statistics show China is now the world leader in the export of creative goods. Contemporary art and artifacts of great antiquity are all fetching prices that exceed estimates by dizzying multiples. Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize in literature for works where “hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” Authors like Yu Hua have grappled with the complexities of the Cultural Revolution (he was appointed a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.)
For any observer of cultural industries in modern China, there is a certain monotony to the litany of superlatives about the rapid growth and dominance in terms of revenues, numbers of customers, market share of firms and auction houses, and other quantitative measures of Chinese success in the global economy. This, moreover, does not fully capture the influence from direct investment overseas, and cross-country alliances. Hollywood has absorbed over $5 billion in venture capital, acquisitions, and other forms of portfolio and direct investment from China. Wanda Group (whose employees are required to read the Analects of Confucius) bought out AMC, and is now the largest cinema chain operator in the world. The Big Three Internet companies — Tencent (around 800 million subscribers), Baidu and Alibaba — are behemoths in the digital world without frontiers.
Springing Tiger, Virtual Dragon
For anybody who has been paying attention (or viewing bootleg episodes on YouTube), it is clear that this is currently a “golden age” of Chinese film and television (FT). The Usual Suspects for Chinese films in Western markets typically belong to the Wuxia/Xianxia genres, which incorporate martial arts with Chinese mythology and elements of fantasy. The most popular wuxia in the West previously featured a limited number of cross-over actors like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Jacky Chan. A turning point was reached when Ang Lee’s 2000 wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won multiple Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Film.
Movies like Better Days and Still Life are receiving foreign accolades for productions about more contemporary topics that offer a uniquely Asian perspective. The Wandering Earth, a spectacular visualization of interstellar migration (that is rather better than the book by Liu Cixin on which it is based), surpasses 2001: a Space Odyssey, my previous top 10 entry for feature films. Liu, a defender of CPC party policies whose literary work mirrors the political ideology of technological nationalism, received the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society.
Tencent Makes Billions (from Games and Cartoons)
The greatest cultural creativity, in my view, is exhibited by Chinese anime film and television series (FT). Everyone recognizes the quality of Japanese anime, especially Studio Ghibli favourites like the whimsical Kiki’s Delivery Service and the sombre Grave of the Fireflies.
Only 15 years ago, the first 3D CG-animated movie from China, Moebius Strip, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Today, China is the world’s largest producer of television cartoons, and Chinese animation films such as The Legend of Luo Xiaohei and Ne Zha have been setting foreign-revenue records. Chinese animation or donghua combine historical myths, technical brilliance, an eye for detail, and intricate original scripts that result in captivating works of art with unmatched creativity and unique imagination. The quality of these works is attested by their commercial and critical success; for instance, Tientsin Mystic won awards for best visual effects and best direction at the 2018 international FT festival held in New York.
My personal favourites include Zhen Hun Jie (Rakshasa Street), Tunshi Xingkong (Swallowed Star), and Quan Zhi Gao Shou (The King’s Avatar). China has the world’s largest market for online gaming, with about 740 million gamers (double the entire population of the United States), and Tencent publishes more games than any other global competitor. This mass popularity of gaming and esports among both men and women generates complementary synergies with films, television, and anime series. The King’s Avatar encourages binge viewing, as it is based on a thrilling series of online gaming competitions, devious strategies, machinations by guilds, and quirky humorous asides. The artwork is especially riveting, combining traditional Chinese water ink techniques with puppetry and computer-generated imagery.
The Cultural Revolution is Being Televised
Revolutions do not have to be ponderous or pedantic. Princess Agents logged more than 40 billion views on Chinese streaming sites, and the first episode has been viewed over 38 million times on YouTube by riveted fans from around the world. The whimsical xianxia epic, Eternal Love/ Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, is one of the most popular dramas in China, and was nominated for best television series in the 2017 Macau International Television Festival. Official broadcasts around the globe range from Peru to Malaysia, but Croton Media has offered free access for their 16 million viewers on YouTube (Huace Croton’s female president, Zhao YiFang, became the first Chinese to receive the MIPTV Medal of Honor at Cannes in 2017.)
For me, the breathtaking television series Ever Night is vastly superior to Game of Thrones from conception to execution and scope of imagination, and best illustrates the creative heights of the current Cultural Revolution. And no, this is not just my bias, the series has accumulated an impressive number of awards, including Best TV Series at the Canada China International Film Festival.
Each episode reminds us: “In the ancient world lies a prophecy: Upon the arrival of Ever Night, the world will be thrown into Chaos.” The series is filmed in breathtaking panoramic locations, ranging from arid wind-swept deserts, to bleak craggy snow-covered mountains, and ancient stone aqueducts reflected in still emerald waters. The two seasons of this big-budget Tencent production totals over 103 episodes (by now I have learned to count to 1000 in Chinese, and can inform you that 103 is yī bǎi líng sān). Each of these episodes would rival any feature film in dazzling cinematography, direction, acting, epic battle sequences, and an addictive original soundtrack.
The credits are accompanied by Jane Zhang’s plaintive rendition of “Old Chang’an,” melding a modern jazzy delivery with the timbre of ancient Chinese instruments.
You, who have forgotten time, look a little lost
You’re in front of me, but you seem far away
Time speeds by, take things easy, life is unchanging
Let me try to change the ending, though I can succeed for only a short while
Don’t think too much or apologize, losers just treat the winners
Better not to meet, rather than cry when we part
“Resistance is Futile, You will be Assimilated”?
There’s no longer much need for the CPC to fund rural re-education drives. In China’s pollution-ridden, post-industrial cities, nostalgia for classic historical traditions and rural living are ironically satisfied via technologically-adept online vlogs. Li ZiQi’s bucolic idylls of independent self-sufficiency are created with a team of media assistants. Like Martha Stewart, she seems fiendishly adept in traditional techniques for everything from building a bamboo fence and pickling plums to papermaking, and whipping up Instagrammable five-course meals over a wood stove.
The utopian setting is a rural village in Sichuan province, with heavily-laden fruit trees and fish-filled streams, mountains that can be foraged for edibles, and rambling roses intertwined with vivid sunflowers and budding cucumber vines. One of her videos on snacks for Spring festival has attracted over 98 million views, and she holds the Guinness World Record for the highest number of subscribers (16 million and counting) for a Chinese language channel on YouTube. Fans of the simple life are lining up to purchase from her online store such items as an ice-stone teacup for $50.
Far from copying the West, cultural goods in present-day China integrate the rich experiences of past millennia, while pushing the boundaries of technological and visionary frontiers. This openness of the new Cultural Revolution to the influence of history even extends to the old Cultural Revolution. A friend who now lives in Beijing recommended Awakening Age, a series depicting the struggles of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s. It was “hailed by viewers for successfully showing the depth of the CPC’s history and spirit,” and has induced among young viewers a sense of national pride for the heroism and sacrifices of China’s “revolutionary martyrs.” When a free market economist like myself agrees that this is a compelling and moving saga, it should alert you to the blurred lines between inspiration and manipulation, and the soft power of excellence in the creative arts.