By James Lee; translated by Nick Stember
(Panel Chair) Honored guests, good afternoon! I am Professor Daisy Du Yan from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where I conduct research in Chinese animation. First, I would like to thank Professor Billy Kee-long So, Chair of the Division of Humanities, and Professor James Lee, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science, for their unstinting support for this conference. I would also like to thank all of the master animators present today, who have taken the time and effort to attend, many of you from so far away. Thank you! I especially want to thank Duan Xiaoxuan for all of her help with organizing in Shanghai, and coordinating so many things. Thank you so much for your help.
The theme we have chosen for this conference is Chinese Animation and (Post)Socialism. There are three academic observations that I would like to make about Chinese animation during the socialist period. First, many scholars treat Chinese films from this period solely as political propaganda, but the vast majority of Chinese animated films were apolitical, at a remove from politics, or even went beyond politics. Secondly, many people believe that there isn’t much artistic value to Chinese films from this period, but in fact during this period Chinese animation reached its historical peak of artistic excellence, a peak that contemporary Chinese animation has never matched. And third, many scholars believe that Chinese films from this period are a kind of folk art, closed off from the rest of the world, but in fact this is the most international period of Chinese animation. Everyone knows who Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige are, because they brought Chinese cinema to the world stage in the mid-1980s. But not everyone knows that as early as the 1950s and 1960s, Chinese animation was already travelling abroad and making a name for itself by winning prizes at international film festivals. So our honored guests today really are the Zhang Yimous and Chen Kaiges of the socialist period.
Now, let us welcome Professor James Lee, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science, to say a few welcoming words for our guests. Please, everyone, welcome Professor Lee!
(James Lee) Thank you, honored guests, for coming to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to be with us here today at this Animators’ Roundtable Forum. Before coming here, I was worried because my own area of expertise is in social science, not humanities. So what could there be for me to say? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are actually at least a few things we can discuss. Because you, our master animators sitting here before us, really represent the transformation in civilization that has taken place on the Chinese mainland over the past 50 years, or, to put it another way, China’s historical transformation over the past 50 years. This so-called “transformation” represents changes in many different directions.
The first time I returned to China in 1973, I wasn’t even half as old as I am now. At that time, I couldn’t even imagine that in 50 years’ time, China would be transformed into a world leader it is today. So your contributions were to Chinese culture, to Chinese civilization, because China today is a world leader. No matter what, your contributions to Chinese culture and Chinese civilization have not only influenced our future, and the prospects of China today, but they have also made a real contribution to the world a whole. The world is becoming more and more internationalized, more globalized. As it does the people of the various countries of world will also become familiar with your contributions. And I think today’s forum is just the beginning, just one part, in the critically important the process of transforming animation and comics from being a small tributary of the humanities to becoming a part of the mainstream. I think this transformation is also one that we couldn’t have imagined a few decades ago. But while we really can’t say if our students will read books or novels in the future, I think we can be certain that they will watch animation and read comics for the rest of their lives. More than just watching and reading, they will follow and take pleasure in them. This is why the transformation in our civilization is so significant. And I’m sure you will discuss the important relationship between civilization and socio-economic development, and how your place has changed from before, and how your discipline’s future has changed.
But for the moment, I want to talk about recent changes here at HKUST, changes that represent a shift in the way we look at education. We are a university of science and technology, an engineering university, after all. Our humanities division, therefore, doesn’t face the same requirements as other universities around the world—that is, to put criticality ahead of creativity. Overseas, there is a very strange phenomenon where they separate theory and practice. Theory is put ahead of practice. The most famous universities in America, whether you look at the Chinese departments, the foreign languages departments, or the English departments, invariably, they’ll have ten or more experts in critical theory, but probably not even one person who writes literature, not one person who writes or draws comics, makes animation, etc. But because we are a science and technology university, our school has a little more freedom in this regard. Seven or eight years ago, we started hiring excellent critical scholars, like Daisy. We were overjoyed to have her join our school, but at the same time we also invited composers, we invited musicians to teach music and authors to teach literature. And thus far our Creative Arts Education program has enrolled over 8,000 undergraduate students, and about 2,000 students in our classes (1700 for music courses, 300 for creative writing courses) every year. It’s a much higher ratio than any science and engineering university in mainland China, and all of these classes are electives, not one of them is a required course. Because we are a science and engineering university, none of our Creative Arts Education courses are required, they are all optional. But even so, every year, about one fifth to one quarter of our students decide to sign up for these classes because they like them.
So from this we can start to understand why this new era of students cherish the contributions that you have made, more so maybe even than the contributions their professors have made! They don’t necessarily like my history class, but they love to take Yan Lianke’s creative writing class, or Bright Sheng’s composing class. In the future, I am convinced that they will be even more interested in animation and comics than they already are. Lots of kids spend their free time drawing comics, or making short animations. So I think our subject today is a very important one. Something that is very unique about animation is the fact that it hasn’t been around very long. So even though many of the founding members have already passed away, in the 1950s and 1960s, during the beginning of New China, you all not only participated, but also contributed. So I think when we talk about what we can learn from studying this period of history, the first thing of course is to talk about the past. But we also can talk about the present, and the future. So I really do want to thank you all so very much.
(Panel Chair) Thank you, Professor Lee, for your wonderful welcome remarks. You’ve inspired us all, I think, and maybe also given us a little pressure too! In the future we’ll all have to think about making some animations, and not just doing academic research!
Nick Stember is a translator and historian of Chinese comics and science fiction. Having completed an MA in Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia with his thesis on the Shanghai Manhua Society, in the fall of 2018 he will be starting a PhD in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, UK.