They might have lived centuries ago, but are still the talk of the day in Chinese books, television shows and online media. They were often beautiful on the outside but cruel on the inside. They were rebels of their time, and would bewitch men with their charms to win more power – some of them changed China’s history because of it. From ten to one: a top 10 of evil power women in China’s history, carefully selected and compiled by What’s on Weibo based on different online Chinese charts and books about ‘evil’ women of China.
(Updated April/2018: Check out our recent video on this topic here).
SECRET ROMANCE & LAVISH SPENDING
10. Lu Xiaoman (陆小曼)
Lu Xiaoman was one of the most famous women in China’s roaring twenties. In her own time, she was considered scandalous: she had an extramarital affair, was then divorced, and led a lavish lifestyle.
Lu was born in an upperclass Shanghai family in 1903 and became known as a beautiful, well-educated and talented woman. She spoke fluent English and was a gifted writer and painter. She became married to the erudite Wang Geng. Within the first years of their marriage, Lu fell in love with one of Wang’s friends named Xu Zhimo, who was one of China’s most famous poets at the time. Zhimo had been married before, but was already divorced in what has been described as China’s “first modern divorce” (Lee 2007, 389).
Lu and the poet soon got tangled up in a complicated love-affair, while Lu was still married to Wang. Eventually, she got divorced herself and remarried to Xu in 1926. Xu soon found out that he could not afford Lu’s lifestyle. She lavishly spend their money on luxury goods, delicacies and extravagant nights out. She rented an expensive apartment and hired 14 servants. Lu’s luxurious lifestyle eventually got Xu in serious financial trouble.
During a fight over their expenses, the two got into a fight and Xu left their home for a trip, during which he died in a plane crash. Because Xu left during an argument, and because he took an old plane since he could not afford a modern one due to Lu’s spending, some argue that it was Lu Xiaoman who actually “killed” her husband (Sina 2014; Hong Lee&Stefanowska 2003, 389-391).
FROM SUPERSTAR TO SUPERTRAITOR
9. Li Xianglan (李香兰)
Li Xianglan was an actress and singer who was loved by the Chinese people for her talent and beauty, but also hated by them for her nationality. She was a Japanese woman who pretended to be Chinese for many years. Yamagachi Yoshiko (her Japanese name) was born in 1920 Manchuria to Japanese parents. As the Sino-Japanese War was on the way, she jumped to superstar status. Being fluent in Mandarin, the Chinese audience did not know she was Japanese.
During these years, she played in seventeen different films, of which some were produced by Japanese studios to create pro-Japanese sentiment in China. When she was later arrested for treason, she had to expose her true nationality in order to avoid punishment.
She initially fled to the US and changed her name to Shirley Yamaguchi, but later settled down in Japan and took on the name Otaka Yoshiko, although she also remained known as Ri Koran (the Japanese pronunciation of her Chinese name).
Throughout her life, Li Xianglan had five different identities. When she passed away in the summer of 2014, many Chinese people still remembered her as a woman who lied about her identity and betrayed China. To know more about Li Xianglan, read ‘Caught Between China & Japan: Superstar Li Xianglan‘.
INCEST & MURDER
8. Wen Jiang (文姜)
Her charm and beauty was praised in the oldest collection of Chinese poetry, the Classic of Poetry (诗经): Wen Jiang. She lived during the 6th century BC as princess of the State of Qi, and became the wife of Duke Huan of Lu (present-day Shandong) with whom she had a son.
Wen Jiang was a politically powerful woman with a dark secret, as she was involved in an ongoing incestuous relationship with her own brother, Duke Xiang. When the affair was exposed, Duxe Xiang threw a big feast for his brother-in-law and got him drunk in the hopes of calming matters down.
The opposite happened, as things got out of hand and Duke Huang was killed on the same night – allegedly by the son of Xiang at his order. Although Wen Jiang initially was supposed to bring her dead husband’s body back to Lu, she ended up staying at the border of Qi and Lu, where her son build her a residence. She stayed there for the rest of her life (Cook 2007, 81).
ADULTERY & INFANTICIDE
7. Zhao Feiyan (趙飛燕)
Zhao Feiyan (c. 32-1 BC) was a beautiful woman of humble origin who was called ‘flying swallow’ (feiyan) because of her ability to dance elegantly like a bird. The ruling emperor of the Han Dynasty, Cheng, became enticed with her. He turned Feiyan one of his mistresses together with her sister Hede.
Feiyan soon became powerful. Emperor Cheng became so attached to her that he got rid of his empress in favor of Feiyan, who now became empress in spite of her low societal background. Although she had taken the place of the first wife, she had one problem: she could not bear a son. She went to extreme measures to try to get pregnant. She started sleeping around with palace slaves in the hopes of getting pregnant.
When Cheng’s other concubines got pregnant, Feiyan forced them into abortions and killed any living children. As a result, the Emperor never had a heir. When Emperor Cheng passed away, Feiyan was arrested and sent to his tomb. This is where she commited suicide (Zhao 2000, 89).
THE REAL MADAME BUTTERFLY
6. Shi Peipu (时佩璞): ‘M. Butterfly’
Although Shi Peipu was not biologically a woman, ‘she’ needs to be on this list because of her incredibly crafty ways and the fact she has cross-dressed as a woman for over two decades.
Shi Peipu was a spy working for the Chinese secret service, and was involved in what has been called one of the “strangest cases in international espionage” (Wadler 2009). For twenty years Shi pretended to be a woman during a love relationship with French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot in order to gather intelligence information from him.
Shi Peipu originally was an opera singer and actor from Kunming, who moved to Beijing in the 1960s. The 26-year-old Shi met Bouriscot there at a Christmas party at the French embassy in 1964, where Shi came dressed as a man. Shi told Bouriscot that he was actually a female opera singer who had been forced by his father to present himself as a man because he desired a son so much. Bouriscot believed it, and their affair took off; a romance that also continued when Bouriscot was stationed abroad.
Shi got Bouriscot entangled in Chinese espionage practices and went to extreme measures to keep the Frenchman close, as ‘she’ even convinced Boursicot that she had become pregnant with his child. Shi adopted a boy and presented him as their alleged child. In 1982, Shi and Bouriscot moved to Paris where they were both arrested a year later. Boursicot attempted suicide when he discovered that Shi was actually a man. He was convicted of espionage and spent six years in prison.
Shi passed away in 2009. The Broadway play ‘M. Butterfly’ by David Hwang was based on this story. It was also turned into a film. About the affair, Boursicot later said: “When I believed it, it was a beautiful story” (KPBS 1993; Leung 2003, 119). Shi’s adopted child, Shi Dudu, lives in Paris and has a family with three sons.
ANYTHING FOR POWER
5. Wu Zetian (武则天): Empress Wu
Wu Zetian (625-705) was an empress during the Tang Dynasty, and become famous for being the first and only female in Chinese history to rule the country as an emperor. She reigned China from 690, when she was 65 years old. Her status as emperor was not the only reason she became a famous historical figure: she was known for being extremely ruthless, going to utmost extremes in order to maintain power.
Wu Zetian was born into a rich family and was well-educated. She was only 13 when she was introduced to Emperor Taizhong. She became his concubine, although she also took a liking to his son Li Zhi. When the Emperor died, the 27-year old Wu then, unconventionally, became a concubine to Li Zhi. She had a baby daughter, but it was soon strangled to death. Wu accused the first wife of Li Zhi of murdering her baby, although it is commonly believed that it was Wu herself who killed it to frame Li Zhi’s first wife. She succeeded; the empress was deposed, and Wu rose in in rank. Her power grew even more when she had a son, who became the new emperor.
When the young man died of a stroke, Wu took over his rule. Some historians believe Wu in fact killed her own son to ascend the throne. She was declared emperor in 690. Wu was known for killing or locking up anybody that stood in her way. She had her own army of secret police to spy on her enemies and eliminate them. She eventually abdicated to let her third son rule. Not long after, she passed away at the age of 80 (Custer; WIWH 1996). The popular 2013 Chinese costume drama Women of the Tang Dynasty is based on the era of Wu Zetian the generations that followed.
KILLING WITH CAKE
4. Empress Wei (韦皇后)
Empress Wei lived around the same as Wu Zetian. You might say Wu Zetian was a role model to Wei, as she tried to emulate her evil ways in order to gain power and influence. She was the wife of Emperor Zhongzong, Wu Zetian’s son, who was sent into exile when his brother was put on the throne. Wei joined her husband in exile. After 705, the emperor reascended the throne. At this time, Wei and the emperor had suffered many hardships while away from
After 705, the emperor reascended the throne. At this time, Wei and the emperor had suffered many hardships while away from court. Now that Wu Zetian had died, the spiteful Wei was determined to get a hold onto power. She began to interfere in state affairs. In order to get what she wanted, she manipulated and mobilized the clique of spies and supporters Wu Zetian had gathered while in power. In this way, Wei got to control the entire court. Her husband had become nothing but a puppet. She soon set out to remove and kill all of her enemies; she framed them with ingenious plots, got them exiled or executed. When her husband saw through her plans, she murdered him with poisonous steamed cakes – his favorite food.
In order to get what she wanted, she manipulated and mobilized the clique of spies and supporters Wu Zetian had gathered while in power. In this way, Wei got to control the entire court. Her husband had become nothing but a puppet. She soon set out to remove and kill all of her enemies; she framed them with ingenious plots, got them exiled or executed. When her husband saw through her plans, she murdered him with poisonous steamed cakes – his favorite food. Eventually her plans failed as her former sister-in-law jumped to power. Wei was beheaded in 710 (Peterson 2000, 202-206).
Empress Wei played by He Saifei in the 2013 television series Women of the Tang Dynasty (唐宫燕).
RUTHLESS & LAVISH
3. Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后)
Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) is one of China’s most famous empresses, known for her ruthlessness and resilience. She was born into a distinguished family of Manchu lineage and arrived at the Forbidden City as a concubine to Emperor Xianfeng in 1851.
She soon became his favorite, especially after she had given birth to a son. Xianfeng often discussed political matters with Cixi. She became well informed on state affairs and gradually grew more powerful. When Xianfeng died, Cixi did everything she could to gain political power. She ordered the suicide of the emperor’s regents and had her own son Tongzhi crowned as emperor.
She governed the state during his reign and during that of her nephew Guangxu. When he was put on the throne, she ordered him to reclusion in a palace within the Forbidden City, isolating him from the world and leaving him to see nobody but his wife and servants, who were then either put to death or banished. She effectively ruled the Chinese government for 47 years. Cixi was known for squandering money on luxurious banquets and expensive jewelry. At her banquets, she would request to be served 150 different dishes. She drank from a jade cup and ate with golden chopsticks. She was known for putting her own interests ahead of the nation until the end of her rule. At the end of her life, she still held grudges against her nephew Guangxu. She killed him through arsenic poisoning. She died one day later (Hilton 2013; SACU 2001; Spence 1990, 217-218).
The empress in pictures. Right photograph is part of a photo series of the Empress Dowager, 1903-1904. To learn more about these pictures, see this info page about an exhibition themed around them.
MURDER, MANIPULATION & TORTURE
2. Empress Lü Zhi (吕后)
Empress Lü (241–180 BC) was the first woman to become Empress of China. She was the wife of Emperor Liu Bang (Gaozu), founder of the Han Dynasty. Lü was very intelligent and her role was crucial in centralizing her husband’s rule. She became infamous for her cruelty and persistence in gaining ultimate power.
Empress Lü had several aristocratic and influential families killed so that the Emperor (and she herself) would maintain authority. After he died, she turned against his concubines. One of them was Qizi, who was very much loved by the Emperor. Qizi had born the Emperor a son, Ru Yi, who was the new heir of the household; something the Empress was displeased with. She had the young boy poisoned to death, and later turned against his mother. She mutilated Qizi by chopping off her hands and feet, scooping out her eyes, making her deaf and dumb with toxins, and abandoning her in a pigsty.
Up to her dying day, Empress Lü was known to make others suffer so she could have all the power to herself (Yao et al 2010, 64; Peterson 2000, 45-51).
The role of Empress Lü played by Wang Ji in 2011 costume drama The Han Triump (大风歌).
A VERY EVIL, VERY EVIL WOMAN
1. Jiang Qing (江青) or Madame Mao
Jiang Qing (1914-1991) is often pinpointed as one of the most evil women from China’s history because of her role during the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping once called her a “very evil, very evil woman” (很坏很坏的女人). Jiang played an important role during the Mao years as she was married to Mao Zedong and influenced his policies, especially those on art and culture.
She met Mao when she went to Yan’an in 1937. She was an actress in the left-wing theatre, and had been married and divorced twice before. She soon started to live together with Mao. Although Jiang initially kept her distance in political matters, she gradually became more influential and involved during the 1950s. She strengthened Mao’s position (and her own) by making sure that all influential people in the government and work units were loyal to Mao and herself. She removed those who allegedly were not. She soon gathered a group of supporters around her, and focused on the destruction of her enemies.
In 1968, she had the children of her enemy Zhou Enlai tortured and killed. As Mao’s health declined, she grew in influence. Together with Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen and Zhang Chunqiao she formed the Gang of Four. After Mao’s death, the Gang was soon overthrown and accused of “persecuting to death” an estimated 34,800 people during the Cultural Revolution and having “framed and persecuted” 729,511 others during the years they were in power. Jiang maintained that Mao had supported her and that she had only obeyed his will (Spence 1990, 680-681; Kristof 1991). Although Jiang was initially condemned to death, she was later sentenced to life in prison. She committed suicide at the age of 77 in 1991 (Lee 2007, 259-263).
Cook, Constance. 2007. “Wen Jiang, Wife of Duke Huan of Lu,” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E., 81. New York: ME Sharpe.
Custer, Charles. “Wu Zetian, China’s Only Female Emperor.” Chinese Culture http://chineseculture.about.com/od/historyofchina/fl/Wu-Zetian.htm (Accessed Dec 8, 2014).
Hilton, Isabel. 2013. “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang – review.” The Guardian, 25 Oct http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/25/empress-dowager-cixi-jung-chang-review (Accessed November 19, 2014).
KPBS. 1993. “Theatre Preview M. Butterfly at North Coast Reportory Theatre.” KPBS On Air Magazine, August www.patteproductions.com/Previews/Archive/prev93/oa930800.htm (Accessed December 5, 2014).
Kristof, Nikolas. 1991. “Suicide of Jiang Qing, Mao’s Widow, Is Reported.” New York Times, 5 June http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/05/obituaries/suicide-of-jiang-qing-mao-s-widow-is-reported.html (Accessed December 5, 2014).
Lee, Lily Xiao Hong and A.D. Stefanowska (eds). 2003. Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Women. The Twentieth Century: 1912-2000. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
Lee, Lily Xiao Hong. 2007. “Lu Xiaoman.” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E.,389-392. New York: ME Sharpe.
–. 2003. “Jiang Qing.” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds). 2003. Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Women. The Twentieth Century: 1912-2000, 259-263. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
Leung Li, Siu. 2003. Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Peterson, Barbara Bennett (ed). 2000. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
SACU. 2001. “The Life of Empress Cixi.” Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding http://www.sacu.org/cixi.html (Accessed December 5, 2014).
Sina 2014. “花钱太多：徐志摩养不活陆小曼.” Sina News, 3 July http://history.sina.com.cn/bk/mgs/2014-07-03/163294573.shtml (Accessed December 5, 2014).
Spence, Jonathan. 1990. The Search for Modern China. Norton&Company: New York.
Wadler, Joyce. 2009. “Shi Pei Pu, Singer, Spy and ‘M. Butterfly,’ Dies at 70.” New York Times, 9 June http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/02/world/asia/02shi.html (Accessed Dec 9, 2014).
WIWH (Women in World History). 1996. “Empress Wu Zetian.” Women in World History www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine6.html (Accessed December 4, 2014).
Yao Dan et al. 2010. Chinese Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zhao Xiaoming. 2000. “Zhao Feiyan.” In Barbara Bennett Peterson (ed), Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century, 87-89. New York: M.E. Sharpe.
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Why Trump Has Two Different Names in Chinese
Why does ‘Trump’ have multiple names in Chinese?
First published , updated version published March 7, 2019
Donald Trump has two most commonly used different names in Chinese. In Mandarin*, they are Tèlǎngpǔ (特朗普) and Chuānpǔ (川普). Both names have been used by Chinese mainstream media and netizens for years.
*(Due to the scope of this article, we’ll just use the Mandarin pinyin here.)
In the Chinese translation of Donald Trump’s autobiography The Art of the Deal (1987), the ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ transliteration is used, whereas the translation of the George Ross book Trump-Style Negotiations (2008) uses ‘Chuānpǔ’ as the Chinese name for Trump.
Considering that Trump is making headlines every day, more people are wondering why Trump has two Chinese names, and which one is the correct name to use. There are even discussions about the topic on Chinese social media.
Why are foreign names translated?
Why are non-Chinese names actually translated into Chinese at all? With English and Chinese being such vastly different languages with entirely different phonetics and script, the majority of Chinese people will find it hard to pronounce a foreign name that is written in English.
Writing foreign names or terms in Chinese script has a long history and practical reasons which won’t be further elaborated on here. At present, aside from being standardized, it does not just help Chinese speakers to pronounce these words, it also makes it easier to remember them. Most Chinese names usually consist of two or three characters; the first character is the surname, and the last character(s) is the given name.
Translating a name to better adapt to the culture in which it is used does not only happen with English names in China; you often see the same happening with Chinese names in foreign countries.
In that case, the first character (surname) is moved to the back, and the given name changed into an English one. Alibaba’s Ma Yun, for example, has become globally known as ‘Jack Ma.’ Film star Zhao Wei is called ‘Vicky Zhao’, Tencent’s Ma Huateng is known as ‘Pony Ma,’ and the popular actress Lin Yun is called ‘Jelly Lin.’
The right way to translate a foreign name in Chinese
There are multiple ways to translate a foreign name to Chinese. Most commonly, a name is translated into Chinese characters that are phonetically similar to the original name, without necessarily being very meaningful. The transliteration of ‘Hillary’ (Clinton), for example, is ‘Xīlālǐ’ (希拉里). ‘Bush’ is translated as ‘Bùshí’ (布什).
Another option is to choose a name purely based on meaning rather than phonetics. One example is Elvis Presley, who is called ‘Cat King’ (Māo Wáng 猫王) in Chinese, which stays close to his nickname “The Hillbilly Cat.”
The best option when translating a foreign name into Chinese, however, is to make sure it stays close to its original pronunciation while also using elegant characters. In other words; it is nice when a name’s translation makes sense both phonetically and semantically. Marilyn Monroe’s last name in Chinese is Mènglù (梦露), for example, which sounds like ‘Monroe’ and has the characters for ‘Dream Dew’ – a perfect transliteration for such a dreamy actress.
Even when the characters used for a foreign name in Chinese are not necessarily intended to convey a certain meaning, it is important that they do not have any negative connotations. Nobody wants a character in their name associated with divorce, disease or death – it is believed to bring bad luck.
Another thing is that it is considered helpful for foreign names in Chinese is to maintain a ‘foreign flavor’ to it, to make it clear that the name is actually a transliteration. To give an example raised in this Nikkei article: President Reagan’s name is generally translated as Lǐgēn 里根 in Chinese – the characters being somewhat uncommon for a Chinese name.
The same name could also be written with the characters 李根, very common for a Chinese name, but then it would be difficult to know whether a media report is talking about Reagan the President or just a local Chinese person by the same name. Transliterations of foreign names, therefore, are often easily recognizable as foreign names on purpose.
Trump, Tèlǎngpǔ, and Chuānpǔ
In the case of Trump, his Chinese names are mainly chosen for phonetic reasons, with different sources using different characters. Part of the challenge in deciding the right Chinese translation for his name, is the fact that Chinese does not have consonant cluster ‘tr’ as one sound.
The Chinese-language Nikkei newspaper dedicated an op-ed written by Chinese scholar Ke Long (柯隆) to the matter, who argues that although it may all seem trivial, it is actually quite confusing and unpractical for president Trump to have more than one name in Chinese.
The Chinese media in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and most overseas Chinese-language media, refer to Trump as ‘Chuānpǔ’ (川普).* According to the World Journal, the biggest Chinese-language newspaper in the US, it is the only proper way to translate this name, yet most Chinese state media and Chinese-language UK media (such as BBC) all use ‘Tèlǎngpǔ.’
* (The Chinese version of The New York Times 纽约时报中文版 is an exception, as ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ 特朗普 is generally also used in this publication.)
Author Ke Long explains that Chinese translations of foreign names try to stay as close as possible to the pronunciation of a name in its original language. This is why the name of the city ‘Paris’ is pronounced ‘Bālí’ (巴黎) in Mandarin Chinese, staying close to the French pronunciation, and ‘Amsterdam’ being ‘Āmǔsītèdān’ (阿姆斯特丹), which follows the city’s Dutch pronunciation.
If the British would pronounce ‘Trump’ as ‘te-lan-pu,’ then it would thus perhaps be more understandable why media such as the BBC would write Tèlǎngpǔ. But they don’t pronounce it like that, Ke Long argues, saying that the use of ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ thus does not make sense, and is actually closer to the Japanese way of writing Trump’s name (‘トランプ’: to-ra-n-pu).
More so, the author writes, it does not make sense for Chinese media to take over the British transliteration of the Trump name. Considering Trump is American, Chinese media should follow the translations made by American media. He also notes that if it would be about the Prime Minister of Britain, the Chinese transliteration should follow the one used by the media in the UK.
Although the Nikkei author seems to advocate for a singular use of ‘Chuānpǔ’ by all media, no Chinese media are necessarily ‘wrong’ in their transliteration of the name Trump. The ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ 特朗普 translation follows the example of outlets such as the BBC, while Chuānpǔ 川普 follows that of other media.
Some Chinese bloggers argue that Chuānpǔ 川普 is the best way to write Trump’s name, because the first character, that actually means ‘river,’ is commonly used in Chinese, making the name sound more ‘natural’ and easy to pronounce than ‘Tèlǎngpǔ.’ Moreover, they argue that the Mandarin ‘chuan’ sound is more appropriate to convey the pronunciation of ‘tr’ than the ‘te-lang’ way.
In the end, the reason why Trump has two names most commonly used in Chinese is just a matter of media, with various mainstream outlets adopting different names since Trump first made headlines, and without there being any clear consensus on which Chinese name to use across all these different Chinese-language media platforms around the world.
Chuángpù and Chuángpò?
On Chinese social media, President Trump even has more than two names. There are also netizens referring to him as 床鋪, 闯破 or 床破 (Chuángpù/Chuángpò); these are all transliterations that contain strange or negative characters, making the name unrefined and harsh-sounding on purpose to make the name ‘Trump’ look and sound bad.
Although there have been online discussions on the right transliteration for the name Trump, it is unlikely that there will be one official Chinese name for the US President in the near future. Xinhua News, China’s official state-run press agency, has consistently been using Tèlǎngpǔ 特朗普 for years, and will probably continue to use it.
Many netizens simply use both versions of his name in one post to avoid confusion, and some news reports have even started using both names in its headlines (image below).
Despite the somewhat confusing situation at hand, there are also those who do not seem to mind at all. “Who cares if it is Tèlǎngpǔ or Chuānpǔ anyway?” one netizen says: “In this day and age, we all know who it is we are talking about.”
This article first appeared in 2017 and has been republished with various corrections:
– The first version did not properly convey the argument made by author Ke Long in his Nikkei piece, which is more clearly laid out in this version.
– This version has added some extra information coming from sources after 2017.
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The Chinese Animation Dream: Making Made-in-China ‘Donghua’ Great Again
The Chinese animation industry is a much-discussed topic in the media and on Weibo. Will China’s ‘donghua’ make a comeback?
The Chinese animated movie White Snake (白蛇:缘起), produced by Light Chaser Animation and Warner Bros, has been under the spotlight since its release on January 11. The fantasy animation, that has raked in 300 million yuan (±$44 million) at the box office, has triggered discussions in the media on the status quo and future of China’s animation industry.
Although China is seeing a steady release of domestic animated films and series, there is still much room for improvement. Not only are many ‘donghua’ (动画) still lacking when it comes to quality and script, but the Chinese animation market is also facing fierce competition from the American and Japanese markets.
‘JAPANESE CULTURAL INVASION’
“Making China’s own animated heroes become examples for the Chinese youth”
A recent Foreign Policy article by Tanner Greer discusses the great popularity of Japanese manga (comics) and anime (cartoons) in the People’s Republic of China. The influence of Japanese popular culture in China is not necessarily appreciated by the Chinese government, which is concerned with maintaining a certain control over matters of cultural dissemination.
Since Japanese comics and films began to gain popularity in China in the early 1990s, there have been various developments that have shown the government’s dislike of the ‘Japanese cultural invasion’ in the country. To counter the impact of foreign animation/cartoon products, the authorities not only attempted to curb the inflow of these products but also to promote the production of its own China-made animations, that should reflect the ideals of the Party.
As early as 1995, President Jiang Zemin wrote a letter to the Shanghai Animation Film Studio (上海美术电影制片厂), writing that “inspiring people through excellent work is an important task of the cultural front,”1 and expressing his wishes that, “under the guidance of the Party’s literary and artistic principles, animation art workers will continue to release ideological, artistic and enjoyable art products, providing more and better spiritual sustenance for the youth and for children, making China’s own animated heroes become friends and examples for the [Chinese] youth” (1995; Saito 2017, 141).
Twenty-four year later, China’s animation industry has seen enormous growth but is still not as well-received by the Chinese public as Jiang had probably hoped for. Meanwhile, the demand for Japanese and other foreign products is still going strong: the animated movies that are in the top 3 of highest box office successes in mainland China are all foreign productions.
The 2018 Chinese animation The King of Football (足球王者) took approximately 60 million yuan ($8.8 million) to make, but became a commercial flop, raking in less than 1.8 million yuan ($267,000) at the box office (Yau 2018).
The new animation White Snake is doing much better than the 2018 Football flop, and has made some Chinese state media note that the overall quality of domestically produced animation is steadily getting better, especially over the past few years. Yet, critics also note that despite several successes since 2015, the Chinese animation has yet to come out of its “low point” (China Daily Culture 2019).
GOLDEN AGE OF CHINESE ANIMATION
“Chinese films should be based on real Chinese traditions and stories”
If the current era marks a certain ‘low point’ in Chinese animation, then when was its ‘high’ performing time? The first so-called “golden age” of Chinese animation actually occurred in the 1957-1965 era. Long before that, in the 1920s, China’s renowned Wan brothers produced their first animated short, inspired by the success of Disney and the Fleischer brothers (Chen 2017, 175; Lent & Ying 2013, 20-22). It led to the production of China’s first fully-animated film Blood Money (血钱) in 1932.
The Nanjing-born Wan brothers (萬氏兄弟) are the twins Wan Laiming and Guchan (1900), Wan Chaochen (1906), and Wan Dihuan (1907), who are generally credited with starting Chinese animation. The first three names are the brothers who later joined the renowned Shanghai Animation Film Studio that was led by cartoonist Te Wei (特伟, 1915).
Te Wei is one of the major names in the Chinese School of Animation; he previously headed the Northeast Film Studio, that was founded in 1949.
Although the Wan brothers were initially inspired by American animation, along with German and Russian styles, they soon focused on finding a more Chinese-oriented style in their work. In a 1936 interview, the brothers stated that Chinese films should be based on “real Chinese traditions and stories,” and should also be “educational” besides entertaining (Lent & Ying 2013, 22-23). Focusing more on Chinese artistic traditions was also something that was encouraged by Te Wei.
The Shanghai Animation Film studio started doing just that, and creators began committing themselves to learn from classical Chinese literature, paintings, and art, to build on truly Chinese animation canon that would incorporate a certain ‘national identity.’ For their 1956 24-minute animation The Conceited General (骄傲的将军), they even invited opera teachers to their work studio to learn from their Peking Opera movements and apply it to their animated characters (Chen 2017, 185; Lent & Ying 2013, 25-26).
The first color animation Why Crows Are Black (乌鸦为什么是黑的, 1956) became the first Chinese animation to be recognized internationally at the 1956 Venice Film Festival. The 1960 success of Where is Momma (小蝌蚪找妈妈) was followed by others, with the 1961/1964 Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫) winning multiple awards, becoming one of China’s most-praised animation classics.
During the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China’s animation industry suffered a huge blow and its first boom was halted. Starting from 1977 to the mid-1980s, a “second wave” of success followed, with new films that also carried that distinct style of Chinese animation; works such as the 1980s Three Monks (三个和尚) and the 1988 Feeling from Mountain and Water (山水情) are some example success stories within this second ‘golden age’ (Chen 2017).
In a 2001 interview, Te Wei stated that there were multiple factors at play that contributed to the success of Chinese animation over the 1960-1980 period. The animation creators at the time, for example, were not pressured for deadlines and had unlimited creative time. There were enough financial resources to fund the studio (state support), little government control, a prosperous production system, and there were multiple generations of animators working together at the studio (Lent & Ying 2013, 27).
LOSING THE MAGIC TOUCH
“You can see Disney in it. But at least they tried”
So what happened to the golden days of Chinese animation? After the Mao era, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping famously initiated China’s Reform and Opening, starting the process which transformed the country and also had drastic consequences for China’s creative industries.
Following the emergence of the market economy, creators of Chinese animation had to focus more on the commercial value of their works. But while concentrating on consumer-based commerce, they also still had to make sure their productions were politically correct and in line with the (censorship) guidelines.
Starting from the 1990s, Chinese animation was officially defined as an “industry” and became a focus in the development of the national economy, with the government paying close attention (Chen 2017, 158; Wu 2017).
As described by John Lent and Xu Ying, animation studios started to struggle to support themselves and sped up productions to satisfy the rising domestic TV market, while also becoming “workstations” for overseas clients (2013, 27).
Although the number of productions went up, the high production pressure affected creativity and the artistic quality of Chinese animation.
Meanwhile, the market came to be dominated by imported, sometimes pirated, foreign animations. Astro Boy, Doraemon, Chibi Maruko-chan and other Japanese popular culture became more influential among Chinese youth in the 1990s. This also changed viewers’ preferences and aesthetic standards, and many Chinese animations adopted more Japanese or American styles in their creations (Ho 2018, 167; Liu 2007, 29).
With the rise of the internet in China, the inflow of (pirated) animations and cartoons from outside of China, and their major impact, began to become much harder to combat.
Some films, such as the 1999 Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯) by Shanghai Animation Film Studio still succeeded in becoming a high-quality commercial success, although Chinese cartoonist Te Wei did note: “You can see Disney in it. But at least they tried” (Lent & Ying 2017).
THE RISE OF CHINA’S ANIMATION?
“Chinese animations keep on getting better and better, and it makes me feel proud”
For the past few years, especially since the propagated concept of the ‘Chinese Dream’ has popularized within Chinese society, an idea that focuses on ‘national rejuvenation,’ the ‘comeback’ of Chinese animation has become a much-discussed topic in state media and on social media.
The main idea disseminated by state media and government, is that Chinese donghua (动画, animation) should be developed with specific Chinese characteristics, should not blindly follow its (foreign) competitors, and should propagate Chinese culture and socialist values. The slogan “Revive the Country’s Creativity” (振兴国创) is repeated in dozens of these articles.
Some media claim that Chinese animation is no longer at its low point now, but has reached a stage of “adolescence” (Xinhua 2019). This resonates with earlier government articles proposing that China should become “an internationally strong animation country” by 2023 (GWP 2008).
There are many ways in which a ‘healthy development’ of China’s animation market is now promoted. Since 2010, animation companies in China enjoy certain tax benefits, there have been national award for the best animations since 2011, and since long there have been measures stipulating that a certain percentage of broadcasted animations must be China-made (Saito 2017).
A noteworthy animation that was released in 2018 is The Leader (领风者), a web series that focuses on the live and work of Karl Marx, commemorating the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.
The idea that was promoted with the release of The Leader was that promoting Chinese ‘mainstream values’ could also have a broad audience appeal, “as it can also be thrilling and attractive” (Global Times 2018).
The ‘rejuvenation’ of Chinese animation is not just a cultural and ideological project, there are economic motives at stake too; China’s animation industry is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Some media predict that 2019 might be a pivotal year for China’s animation. The successes of the 2015 Monkey King: Hero is Back (西游记之大圣归来), the 2016 Big Fish and Begonia (大鱼海棠) and the current White Snake film, might been strong indications that Chinese audiences are ready for more high-quality domestically produced animations that are based on classic literary works or historical themes, and incorporate Chinese traditional culture or socialist values.
The Legend of Nezha (哪吒之魔童降世), Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), and Phoenix (凤凰) are some of the much anticipated made-in-China animated movies to come out this year.
On Weibo, Chinese animations are a daily hot topic, and so is their overall development. The phrase “I support made-in-China animations” frequently pops up, but so do the questions (“when will our animations rise?”) and the criticism.
“They are in the stage of imitating and exaggerating to keep up with international standards,” some say: “But their scripts are still unclear and somewhat embarrassing.”
“The dialogues are still their main problem,” others say. Many people on social media express this idea of ‘China-made animations’ being of a certain low quality, although there are also many who say their views have changed after seeing White Snake in the cinema.
Some commenters write that “Chinese animations keep on getting better and better, and it makes me feel proud.” This idea of a strong Chinese animation market also triggers patriotic reactions elsewhere on Weibo.
Many netizens, however, still allege that the animations made during the “golden years” of China’s 1960s to 1980s were simply the best. “In those years, the animations they produced were just all classics. Nowadays, I can’t even bear to watch anymore.”
Others agree, writing: “They were just so Chinese.”
By Manya Koetse
CGW Central Government Web Portal. 2008. “文化部发布关于扶持我国动漫产业发展的若干意见.” Gov.cn http://www.gov.cn/gzdt/2008-08/19/content_1075077.htm [2.10.19].
Chen, Shaoping. 2017. “Industrial transformation in Chinese animation cinema (1995–2015).” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 15(2): 157-174.
Chen, Yuanyuan. 2017. “Old or New Art> Rethinking Classical Animation.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 11 (2): 175-188.
China Culture Daily 中国文化报. 2019. “[国产动画2018：正在蓬勃生长 期待“冲破天际”]. People’s Daily, January 8. http://ent.people.com.cn/n1/2019/0108/c1012-30509797.html [1.26.19].
Jiang Zemin. 1995. “为少儿提供更多更好的精神食粮 [Providing the youth with more and better spiritual sustenance].” 中国共产党新闻 [News of the Communist Party of China], August 28. http://dangshi.people.com.cn/GB/242358/242773/242777/17735177.html [Jan 25 2019].
Global Times. 2018. “Nation to release first animation on Karl Marx.” Global Times 19 Dec http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1132690.shtml [10.2.19].
Greer, Tanner. 2019. “Super Patriotic Anime Youth Wars!” Foreign Policy, January 23. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/23/super-patriotic-anime-youth-wars-china-japan-pop-culture/ [Jan 25 2019].
Ho, Wai-Chung. 2018. Culture, Music Education, and the Chinese Dream in Mainland China. Singapore: Springer.
Lent, John A. and Xu Ying. 2013. “Chinese Animation: An historical and contemporary analysis.” Journal of Asian Pacific Communication 23(1): 19-40.
– 2017. Comics Art in China. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Liu, Qing Fang. 2007. “When Chinese Animations meet GLobalization.” Master Thesis, Cultural Economics and Cultural Entrepreneurship, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Saito, Asako P. 2017. “Moe and Internet Memes: The Resistance and Accommodation of Japanese Popular Culture in China.” Cultural Studies Review 23(1), 136-150.
Yau, Elaine. 2018. “Why Chinese animated films do so badly in China compared to Western ones.” South China Morning Post, October 17. https://www.scmp.com/culture/film-tv/article/2168973/why-chinese-animated-films-do-so-badly-china-compared-western-ones
Wu, Weihua. 2017. Chinese Animation, Creative Industries, and Digital Culture. London: Routledge.
Xinhua. 2019. “不再低幼 国漫进入“青春期”.” Xinhua Feb 3rd http://www.xinhuanet.com/ent/2019-02/03/c_1124081879.htm [10.2.19].
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