In my previous blog, I explored some of the opportunities that may develop now that China’s creative industry is gaining a larger presence on the global stage, through the growth of companies such as DJI, who embrace the value of creative thinking in ways historically overlooked by Chinese corporations. This July, Wanda’s AMC Holdings purchased Odeon & UCI Cinemas group; in a ground-breaking turn of events, one of the largest developers in China now owns most of the cinema screens in the world. But what about the creative content that illuminates those screens and stirs the hearts and minds of millions worldwide? Is China able to create cinematic masterpieces as well as formidable business empires?
Before we see a burgeoning creative flow from China, it’s worth considering a big issue that is at the heart of how the country’s businesses view creativity – education. China’s education system has shaped its creative footprint on the world today, and will continue to do so in the future.
The success of China’s education system is well established. The BBC once pondered whether China is in fact “The world’s cleverest country?”. According to the New York Times, a new study credits China with producing students who have some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world. The study also goes on to say, however, that these same students can lose their advantage at university, showing no improvements, and even finding themselves eventually overtaken by peers who are less fixed to a rigorous mode of learning. Critics of the Chinese education system say that it cultivates success due to a strong emphasis on the ‘right answer’ and test preparation. When it comes to drawing parallels for oneself or hypotheses, Chinese students can subsequently perform weaker. The full results of the study are yet to be published by Stanford University next year, at which point there can be in-depth analysis of the findings, but one can’t help but wonder what these assertions mean in relation to creativity in China. The inference is that creativity – from the formative years of Chinese youth and beyond – is not held as a marker of success within the culture. This pattern of thought may be bleeding into the boardroom, which could make a Chinese corporation more comfortable acquiring cinemas than filling them.
Chinese education beats the West in almost every empirical study, but at what cost? I remember being taught to use a slide rule at school, then technology advanced, as it is known to do… the calculator was in and the slide rule was out. In Western schools now, mental arithmetic is still taught at a basic level but technology (iPhones more than calculators these days) eventually takes over. There are undoubtedly negatives to spending less time memorising your times tables, but less time spent on fact-based learning does free more time for creativity and the arts.
In China, mathematics is a great subject to teach, because a hundred questions have a hundred answers. Art lessons are delivered in much the same way; rather than creation, it’s a skill building exercise, based on repetition of the same picture, subject or image. To create or draw something new or abstract is unknown territory. An art student with a blank canvas risks failure or loss of face. The same goes with cinema. To tell a story based on ideas or opinions leaves creatives vulnerable to scrutiny and criticism. It’s unavoidable that censorship laws may have stifled some creative ideas in China, but the problem is deeper. Looking back at the teachings of Confucius and the Hundred Schools of Thought, it’s clear where the pervasive attitude toward learning may have originated. The study developed many great ideas and philosophers, yet was still very focused and controlled, with a tough regime of entrance exams. Greek Philosophy, on which much of the tenets of the Western world are based, valued education for the regimented aspects but, as we see in Plato’s Republic, also placed value on musical and gymnastic education, and their effects on the “malleable” human soul.
Recently, the China British Business Council sought a UK company to assist in the creation of an animated CGI blockbuster movie, with the story and production originating from China. The union may yield great results in terms of bringing in a fresh perspective. The trick to great art is to ‘let go’; give a story wings; allow it to develop; test it; fail it, and re-do it. There is no predetermined formula to develop characters and a storyline, and the Chinese team must be prepared for a floor full of outtakes. Development is something we have experience with in the West and our creative output flourishes in comparison, but this is not to say that we have the ultimate solution . We also do not value creativity as highly as we could; we stifle it in our education curriculum. Ken Robinson highlighted the failures of our own system succinctly in his remarkable Ted Talk: “Do schools kill creativity?”.
“What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” he says. “(…) And we run our companies like this. We stigmatise mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”
It really puts the problem into perspective. It is not East versus West. The China example is just the peak of a very large wave of capitalism and industrialism that most of the world is riding. Robinson believes we are born creative and gradually educated out of that creativity to serve industry. This is seen on a macro scale, with the worldwide emphasis on ‘core’ subjects over the arts, but also on a micro scale. Photographers are now competing with apps; human memory is competing with storage capacity; even the simple art of human interaction and communication is losing out to social media. We are so reliant on machines and ‘right answers’, that approaching the world ‘freehand’ can often be a source of fear, crystallised more clearly in some cultures than others.
Having run a CGI studio for 16 years in China, I have had the fortune to discover talent, sometimes interviewing the candidate with their parents sitting close by. CGI artists tend to be artists first, and ‘techies’ second. I have spent time trying to unlock the fear of failure, developing trust and trying to afford the artists the freedom to create, share their ideas and share their visions. Other studios in China adopted the factory-churn-pile-it-high-sell-it-fast approach, but we held on to the belief that there is room for a CGI studio in China that produces world class work.
Can this happen in other industries, such as architecture, advertising, film production, and product design? If yes, does it mean the Western world will have more competition from a new breed of Chinese emancipated creatives as the years go on? As an industry, China has focused in the past on infrastructure projects, such as real estate investment, and the essentials needed to develop a new economy over the span of 30 or so years. When they let loose creatively however, there is no doubt that magic can happen. You might remember the four Chinese inventions showcased in the opening ceremony of 2008’s Beijing Olympics; the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing. Powerful stuff. Who knows what will be next?
Guy Middleton is the founder and CEO of H4 Group. He established a CGI studio in China in 2000, ‘transforming great designs into works of art.’ Guy retains daily involvement with his studio in China and continues to act as a consultant in the UK on property, particularly buildings that house parts of the creative world.
Clients include: Curzon Cinemas, Ambassador Theatre Group, The Soho Theatre, The Donmar Theatre, The Globe, The Bush, The Royal Festival Hall and The Royal Court Theatre.