The “tower stands empty”: Q Park as a microcosm of China’s faltering animation industry

Q Park in Qingdao,  Shandong province was meant to be a flashy new shot-in-the-arm industrial hub for the animation industry in China. But today the front page of the Qingdao Daily laments the sorry state of Q Park with a reference to a line from an ancient poem entitled Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼) by the eighth century Tang Dynasty poet Cui Hao (崔颢). The poem reads “The people of former days have all mounted yellow cranes and gone away, now all that’s left in this place is the empty Yellow Crane Tower”. With a sense of infinite sadness, the line denotes that the past will never return, the good days are gone forever.

Where hundreds of animators used to throng about using the latest technology, this Yellow Crane Tower of Q Park now stands as a stark microcosm of China’s faltering animation industry that is still searching desperately to wean itself off government subsidies as it struggles to give expression to its own unique style.

“The Yellow Crane Tower stands empty”: Once a hive of animation industry activity, Q Park in Qingdao is now a shadow of its former self

After carrying out a series of interviews at the Qingdao International Animation and Game Industrial Park (or just Q Park) in the city, the Qingdao Daily (青岛日报) was thoroughly demoralized by the state of affairs they observed there. Three years ago there were teams of hundreds of people working on original animated drama series at the park, and the place was slated as a hub for the kind of home-grown Haute Route (high road) animation (高路动画) that would make China’s animation industry compete with the best in the world (note Haute Route is also a type of skiing route in Europe).

Yet as the Qingdao Daily reports mournfully, of the four big types of animation technology that was originally set up at Q Park, only one now remains. Of Haute Route Animation there’s no sign at all; much of the mirror ink digital design technology (灵镜数码) was in 2010 already moved out to Beijing; and the use of four dimensional technology was abandoned when production of the animated drama series was terminated. The only technology that’s sort of still happening at Q Park is animation using crystal quartz.

One series that was produced in Shandong with Haute Route animation is indicative of the flagging fortunes of Q Park. Western Adventures (西域历险记) was a 52-episode series with a total running time of 572 minutes, released in 2011. Costing 13 million yuan, the series involved 252 animators over a period of three years. Although it was the first three-dimensional animated film to be made wholly in Shandong, the film bombed spectacularly, making a loss of 10 million yuan. You can see a brief bit of the film here on Youku. Would you pay to see that?

The fate of Western Adventures is nothing out of the ordinary apparently, as the animation industry in China has come to be associated with the phrase “Make one, lose one” (做一部,赔一部). The Qingdao Daily quotes data from the “Chinese Culture Brand Development Report (中国文化品牌发展报告), released in 2012, showing that 85% of domestic animation companies are operating at a loss. The three animation companies in Qingdao, as the newspaper laments, “are just an embarrassing microcosm of the state of China’s animation industry.”

Why then is China’s animation industry in such decline? From speaking to industry insiders, Qingdao Daily found that most animation companies in China simply don’t make enough profit from selling series to television channels, and cannot exist without a substantial government subsidy. The general manager of one of the animation companies at Q Park put it thus:

If a mother spoils her child all the time, it won’t grow up properly. The animation companies in China don’t have a clear business model. They are just waiting attentively for the government subsidy, then they cut costs as much as possible and compete fiercely for the attention of television channels. But the government subsidy is an important part of their income.

And not only this, as the Qindgao Daily continues, the government subsidies for original animation companies have created perverse incentives by linking the subsidy amount to the number of minutes a company’s animation is displayed on television.

According to the same general manager quoted above, the reason why China has not yet excelled at its own original animation is because it has not yet figured out exactly what such a thing would look like. Instead, Chinese animation has so far only imitated animation from Japan and the US. What is needed, she concludes, is for China to engage in more exploration to find its own style.

Yet clearly the current system of overbearing government patronage is not working, as the fallen star of Q Park testifies.


Links and sources
Qingdao Daily (青岛日报): 为什么会“人去楼空”?

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