While Chinese children are glued to foreign cartoon films, two Chinese artists are keen to use an ancient theatrical art form to stimulate the country's "derivative" cartoon industry into producing its own compelling characters and stories.
Shadow play, a folk art the French regard as the earliest form of cinema, originated in China over 2,000 years ago. In a performance that blends painting, sculpture, music, singing and drama, light is cast onto puppets made from leather or paper and moving shadows controlled by players are seen on a screen.
Zhao Shutong, a sculptor in southwest China's Sichuan province with a collection of over 40,000 leather or paper shadow play puppets, said Chinese cartoonists could be inspired by the art form as long as they researched it thoroughly.
"We can find not only various images and characters in the art suitable for cartoons, but also wonderful stories and even original music," Zhao said.
Zhao was echoed by Xu Jiang, dean of the China Academy of Fine Arts based in Hangzhou, capital city of east China's Zhejiang province.
Originality was a key for developing the country's cartoon industry, Xu said. "Only original and creative work will attract the eyes of an audience."
Chinese-made cartoons that currently offer children very similar images and stories to those in Japanese or American productions, were purely derivative, he said.
The art of shadow play was really a valuable resource for China's cartoon industry to learn from, Xu said.
Describing it as the earliest form of animation in China, Xu suggested today's cartoonists seek originality from the ancient art.
"Chinese artists through history have poured so much image-making and story-telling expertise into the ancient art, so why not draw inspiration from it?"
Xu said some successful Chinese cartoon films in the 1980s had drawn inspiration from various ancient Chinese art forms including shadow play.
Xu's academy established an animation department last year and plans to set up a shadow play museum and research center to build up resources of the ancient art for the cartoon industry.
Zhao has decided to donate his puppets to the China Academy of Fine Arts. The collection is big enough to equip 140 shadow play troupes.
Zhao also has a collection of 1,600 hand-written copies of shadow play scenarios, which he regards as a treasure trove for cartoon story ideas.
Currently, China has only five shadow play troupes, which mainly perform abroad. However many foreigners have become interested in the ancient Chinese art, Zhao said. Over 50 countries besides China now have shadow play troupes, which gained their performance skills from China.
Zhao said as an ancient art, shadow play must incorporate modern artistic forms to survive.
Xu said his academy would endeavor to draw inspiration from shadow play and was keen to lure Chinese children away from foreign cartoons with excellent local productions.
(Xinhua News Agency March 9, 2003)