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The Anti “Halalification” Crusade of Chinese Netizens

Discussions on the so-called ‘halalification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week.

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Discussions on the so-called ‘halal-ification’ of China have flared up after delivery app Meituan introduced separate boxes for its halal food deliveries this week. Many netizens see the growing prevalence of halal food in China as a threat to a unified society and say that featuring special services for Muslims is discriminatory against non-Muslims.

The “halal-ification” (清真泛化) of food products in China has been a hot issue on Chinese social media over the past two years. Discussions on the spread of halal food in China broke out again this week when food delivery platform Meituan Takeaway (美团外卖) locally introduced a special halal channel and separate delivery boxes for halal food.

What especially provoked online anger was the line used by Meituan to promote its new services, saying it would “make people eat more safely” (Literally: “Using separate boxes for halal food will put your mind at ease.”)

The image of Meituan’s promotional campaign for halal food that went viral on Chinese media: “Make you eat more assured.”

Many netizens said the measure discriminates against non-Muslims. They called on others to boycott Meituan and to delete the app from their phone. In response, the topic ‘Is Meituan Going Bankrupt?’ (#美团今天倒闭了吗#) received over 3.7 million views on Weibo, with thousands of netizens discussing the issue under various hashtags.

 

RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT ISLAMIC DIETARY LAW

“China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws.”

 

In 2016, halal products were already at the center of debate on Chinese social media when officials called for national standards on halal food (definition here).

A popular Weibo imam called Li Haiyang from Henan wrote a post in March titled “Raising Awareness about Islamic Dietary Law” (“关于清真食品立法的几点认识“), in which he discussed the importance of national standards on halal food in China.

Li Haiyang, who is part of China’s Henan Islam Society (河南省伊斯兰教协会), wrote that all Muslims should follow the classic rules and abide by their beliefs, of which Islamic dietary laws are an important part, and that the PRC cannot discriminate against Muslim ethnic groups by refusing to legally protect Muslim halal food.

At the time, the imam’s post was shared over 500 times and besides much support, it also attracted many comments strongly opposing the imam’s views. A typical comment said: “China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws!”

Despite backlash, there are multiple accounts on Weibo dedicated to informing people about halal food, such as ‘China Halal Food Web’ (@中国清真食品网 3100+ fans) or ‘Halal Cuisine Web’ (@清真美食网, 3950 fans).

 

“HALALIFICATION”

“Halalification is not good for national harmony and not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”

 

In Chinese, the word for ‘halal’ is qīngzhēn 清真, which also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim.’ The two characters the word is composed of (清 and 真) literally mean ‘clean’ and ‘pure.’ The various meanings of the Chinese word for ‘halal’ somewhat complicate discussions on the matter.

In the halal food debate on Chinese social media, the term qīngzhēn fànhuà (清真泛化) is often used – a new term that popped up in Chinese media in 2016. It basically means ‘halal-ification’ or ‘halal generalization,’ but because qīngzhēn also means ‘Islamic,’ it can also imply ‘Islamization.’

And that is precisely what is at the heart of the discussion on the spread of halal food on Chinese social media: those who oppose the spread of halal food in the PRC connect the normalization of Islamic dietary laws to an alleged greater societal shift towards Islam. The spread of ‘Islam’ and ‘halal food’ are practically the same things in these discussions through the concept of qingzhen.

Another issue that plays a role is the idea that ‘qingzhen‘ stands for ‘clean and pure’ food. This distinction between halal and non-halal food implies that while the one is clean food, non-halal food is ‘unclean’ and ‘dirty,’ much to the dismay of many net users. Some people suggest that the name of ‘halal food’ should be changed to ‘Muslim food.’

On Baike, Baidu’s Wikipedia-like platform, the page explaining the term qīngzhēn fànhuà 清真泛化 says: “The term [halalification] originally only referred to the scope of the specific diet of [Muslim] ethnic groups, and has now spread to the domains of family life and even social life beyond diet, including things such as halal water, halal tooth paste, and halal paper towels.”

Advertisement in Ningxia public transport for halal paper towels.

The Baike page explains that halal products are hyped by companies that are merely seeking to gain profits. It also says that halalification is “not good for national harmony” and “not conducive to the healthy development of Chinese Islam.”

Although there are no official government records of how many people practice Islam within the PRC, it is estimated that there currently are around 23 million Muslims in China, which is less than 2% of the total population. According to Pew Research (2011), because China is so populous, its Muslim population is expected to be the 19th largest in the world in 2030.

 

HALAL WORRIES

“State-financed products should not be religious.”

 

Most Chinese food ordering apps now have a special halal section; Chinese supermarkets provide a wide range of products labeled as ‘halal’ and there are ample halal restaurants in Chinese cities.

But many people on Chinese social media feel that the spread of halal products is going too far. Legal service app Ilvdo (@律兜) published an article on Weibo this week that mentions that many Chinese consumers might buy halal products such as halal ice cream or milk without even knowing it: “You perhaps drank [halal] water and indirectly funded Islam religion – because the companies that have halal certifications have to pay Islamic organizations for them.”

On Weibo, there are some popular accounts of people opposing the spread and normalization of halal food in China. An account named ‘No Halal’ (@清真发言) has over 143.500 followers. The ‘No Halal Web’ (@非清真食品网) account has nearly 90.000 fans. These accounts regularly post about halal products in Chinese shops and restaurants and link it to the spread of Islam religion in China.

The account ‘No Halal Web’ recently posted a photo taken at a Shanghai restaurant that shows a table with a sign saying “Reserved for Halal Customers Only.”

“Table reserved for Halal customers only.”

The ‘No Halal Web’ account wrote: “This already is Muhammed’s Shanghai.” They later stated: “In the Islam world, the demands of Muslims are not as simple as just wanting a mosque, they want their environment to be Islamic/halal.”

Verified net user ‘Leningrad Defender’ (@列宁格勒保卫者, 254465 fans) posted photos of a segregated ‘halal’ checkout counter at a Jingkelong supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area, wondering “is this even legal”?

‘Halal’ checkout counter at a supermarket in Beijing’s Chaoyang area.

A Weibo user named ‘The Eagle of Great Han Dynasty’ (@大汉之鹰001) posted a photo on July 20 showing a bag of infant nutrition from the China Family Planning Association that also has a ‘halal’ label on it. He writes:

“What is the Family Planning Committee doing? Why is this halal? This is Jilin province, are we all Muslims? What is behind this, can the Committee tell the public? This is financed through the state, the public has the right to know!”

Infant product by the Family Planning Committee that is labeled ‘halal.’

Others also responded to the photo, saying: “State-financed products should not be religious.”

 

THE MEITUAN INCIDENT

“Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as an undivided family.”

 

Although there is much opposition to the spread and regulation of halal food in China, the halal food industry also provides many business opportunities for companies who are eager to serve the millions of customers wanting to buy halal.

Popular food delivery platform Meituan faced furious backlash this week when it introduced its special halal food services. The so-called ‘Meituan Incident’ (美团事件) became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and Wechat.

One of the key arguments in the debate is not so much an opposition to halal food in itself, but an opposition to a normalization of ‘halal food’ (with the complicating factor that the Chinese qingzhen also means ‘Islamic’ and ‘clean and pure’), which allegedly discriminates against non-Muslims and increases social polarization. Many netizens said that if there are special boxes for food for Muslims, there should also be special boxes for food for Buddhists, Daoists, atheists, etc.

One well-read blog on Weibo said:

“National identity, in the end, is cultural identity (..). What is needed for the long-term stability of a country is integration [of the people] rather than a division [of the people] – let alone isolation. The national law should [therefore] turn ‘halal food 清真食品’ into ‘Muslim special food 穆斯林专用食品.’ This would make sure that Muslims don’t eat anything they shouldn’t eat, and it also liberates those (..) who aren’t religious. The law could confirm that there is a special kind of food designed for Islamic religious people to eat, instead of asking non-religious people to eat it as well. (..) There are more and more atheists. We should no longer distinguish people by saying he is a Daoist, he is Buddhist, that’s a Muslim or a Christian..in the end we shouldn’t even distinguish people as being Han or Zhuang or Miao or Hui or Manchu. Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as a harmonious and undivided family.”

The blog, that was viewed over 88.000 times, received much backing from its readers. One person wrote: “As there is now a national resistance against Islamization and religious segregation, how could the Meituan incident not cause anger amongst the people?”

It is not the first time that the separation of facilities/services for Muslims versus non-Muslims triggers online discussions in China. In September last year, the introduction of special “Muslim-only” shower cabins at a Chinese university also provoked anger about alleged “Muslim privilege.”

 

TRIVIAL MATTER OR SOCIAL SHIFT

“Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next?”

 

On Thursday, Meituan Takeaway officially responded to the controversy through Sina Weibo, saying that the promotion of halal delivery boxes was a local and unofficial activity by one of its agents in Gansu province. It also said it would strengthen supervision of its agents and their promotional material.

But not all netizens believed Meituan’s explanation. One person said: “I am located in Inner Mongolia, and your Meituan [here] also promotes the two separate delivery boxes.”

Other netizens also posted photos of Meituan’s food delivery rival Eleme also using special “Halal only” delivery boxes.

Image of food delivery box that says “special use for halal food.”

Among all the negative reactions and the resistance against the spread of halal food, there are netizens who praise halal food for being tasty and who do not get what all the fuss is about. A female netizen from Beijing wrote:

“Why are so many brain-dead people opposing Muslims these days? How does Meituan’s separation of halal food hinder you? What do you care if your yogurt is halal? If you don’t want to eat it, don’t eat it. There are plenty of people who will. Use your brain for a bit. Not all Muslims are extremists; just as not all people from the Northeast are criminals.”

But there are many who think Meituan’s separate boxes are no issue to disregard. One young female writer says:

“(..) Under the current national policy of protecting ethnic minorities, Muslims enjoy special privileges in the name of national unity. If this continues for a long time, the inequality inevitably will spread to other domains of society. Today it is about separate boxes for food; tomorrow it might be about separate seating areas in restaurants. And what’s next? Segregated neighborhoods? Trains? Airplanes? It might seem like a trivial matter, but if you ignore this, then those who are privileged now will go on and get greater privileges. The distancing of Muslims will only grow. I’m not saying this to alarm you. It’s self-evident that unequal benefits and the privilege of an ethnic group will eventually create conflicts between the people.”

Amidst all ideological arguments, there are also those who say it is all about the money. In the article published by Ilvdo, the author says about the Meituan incident: “Why do the boxes need to be separated? Because in general, Muslims feel that what we eat is “dirty” … but the product increase cost is shared by all the customers – so not only does it make us feel “dirty”, we also spend more money.”

They later say: “What we want is national unity, not religious solidarity. (..) You have your freedom of religion, which app I use is my freedom. Separate boxes and other special services will ultimately be reflected in the costs, and I do not want to pay religious tax. Luckily I have the freedom to delete this app and stop using it.”

By Manya Koetse

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bruce Humes

    July 24, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    This post on “halalification” is indeed fascinating. It does offer some real insight into what Chinese society is talking about these days.

    Reading it, one almost forgets that this is Chinese social media. There are various arguments, pro and con, and the way they are presented, it sounds fairly “balanced,” like something you’d read on Twitter in the West. “Let one hundred flowers bloom,” as Mao Zedong famously said in the 50s — before cracking down on anyone expressing unPC attitudes, and persecuting and even jailing hundreds of thousands of those “blossoms.”

    The issue here is that the columnist fails to point out to readers how significant it is that “halalification” is being openly discussed, and not banned, by the authorities. Based on my experience, almost any critical comments related to one of China’s ethnic minorities is highly sensitive and likely to be scrubbed almost immediately.

    Therefore, an important yet unexplored story here is: Why are the authorities allowing this topic to be discussed openly? Does this indicate their neutrality regarding this phenomenon? Or are they subtly using social media to critique this contemporary aspect of Muslim culture? And how long will they allow such a sensitive topic to be freely discussed before they — inevitably — begin to censor such entries?

    In the future, I look forward to Ms. Koetse alerting readers to such aspects of “media management,” and her efforts to “decode” these signals.

    • Avatar

      Jie

      September 7, 2017 at 10:59 am

      According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, “” search results are not shown.
      Sorry, the sticker has been deleted
      Sorry, you do not have permission to view the content.

      Huh.

      Do you really understand China?

  2. Avatar

    The other

    July 25, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    This article demonstrates why Westerners are so wrong in assuming that China is an ethno (Han supremacist) state. They’re actually riffing off a stereotype of East Asians as an extremely racist people, without bothering to learn the facts.

  3. Avatar

    Jane

    July 25, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Sigh.. I would never think that a standard halal certificate will make such a ruckus. Moslems only eat halal foods, just like vegetarians only eat non meat foods. Why would it then expand into segregation in other parts of life? Look at Singapore, it’s a secular country but we’d still get to know which food is halal, which isn’t. The PRC government need to do something, so the problem will be solved once and for all. Either it’s allowed to do so, or just ban it nation wide. I really feel like it’s funny how the majority of people who are non Moslems would feel discriminated against; I didn’t know minorities are capable of discriminating against more powerful majorities

  4. Avatar

    Joey

    July 26, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Halal food is the only food I trusted in China, especially from street vendors.

  5. Avatar

    Funtik-fuf

    July 31, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    the problem is not with the food here — it’s with the presenting of it. of course, halal food deserves to be cooked and sold everywhere in this world, same as all the other types of food, but when people start segregating the society then you know something’s very wrong with it. it is totally okay for any diet to have its own cafe, but different tables, delivery boxes and checkout counters are clear evidence of the separation. it seems like people who demand separate tables to eat don’t want to be associated with or be equaled to other people. which is not good.

  6. Avatar

    SpeakTheTruth

    August 11, 2017 at 8:53 am

    So Chinese people in China can’t even protect the Chinese culture of eating pork?

  7. Avatar

    Always Worried German

    September 2, 2017 at 4:32 pm

    Ha! The Mohammedans are doing the same thing they started about 10 years ago in Europe. Be very careful, China, or you’ll end up like us.

  8. Avatar

    jixiang

    January 7, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    “Only when we as the Chinese people integrate together, can our country be unified as an undivided family.”

    Right, only when everyone speaks the same, thinks the same and eats the same can China be a happy family.

    Sigh.

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Backgrounder

Why Trump Has Two Different Names in Chinese

Why does ‘Trump’ have multiple names in Chinese?

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First published , updated version published March 7, 2019

It is confusing even for Chinese netizens and journalists: why does Donald Trump have multiple names in Chinese? And which is the right one to use? What’s on Weibo explains.

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.”

– By Manya Koetse
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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.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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Backgrounder

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?

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The Chinese animation industry is a hot topic these days. With China’s rising power and growing influence on global markets, its animation industry is lagging behind and still seems to have limited appeal for audiences inside and outside of mainland China. But there might be big changes on the horizon for the industry. Will the golden days of Chinese animation return? A short overview of the development of the Chinese animation market by What’s on Weibo.

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 King of Football turned out to be a flop at the box offices (image via PTT新聞).

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.

Three Wan brothers, with in the middle Wan Laiming, on the right Guchan, and Chaochen on the left (image via vmovier.com).

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).

From the ‘Conceited General.’

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).

Japanese animations, such as Astro Boy, started getting more and more popular in mainland China since the early 1990s. (Image via Variety).

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.

White Snake movie poster

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

 

References:

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].

1“用优秀的作品鼓舞人,是文化战线的重要任务”
*” 当年的动画片和电影几乎部部经典!现在的基本上都不能看了。。”
*”那时候的动画片都很中国”

Other relevant links:
http://www.p5w.net/news/cjxw/201812/t20181219_2237399.htm
http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2019-01/03/c_1123941747.htm
http://www.xinhuanet.com/ent/2019-02/03/c_1124081879.htm
http://www.chinanews.com/cul/2018/05-12/8512351.shtml
http://media.people.com.cn/n1/2019/0125/c40606-30590294.html
Spotted a mistake, typo, or want to add something? Please let us know through email.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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