It’s no secret that I love “The Smurfs.” When I read that China is making a seriously protectionist push to develop a domestic “comics and animation” industry, I thought of other cartoon politics. You’ve heard the theories — are the Smurfs really communists? Read it here or on China Daily:
So goes the tune that every Chinese child who watched television in the 1980s remembers fondly. Can’t quite recall where this familiar monosyllabic jingle comes from? I’ll give you some hints – they’re blue, they live in mushroom-shaped houses and the majority of them habitually go topless.
It’s the Smurfs – “blue goblins” or “blue sprites,” as they were named in Chinese – I’m talking about. These little creatures, who stand but “three crab apples tall,” brought much joy to me as a child, as they also did for many American children who watched the original English language version airing on NBC from 1981 to 1989.
I can unequivocally say that the Smurfs, who are making a comeback with a 3D Hollywood movie due to come out next year, were my favorite cartoon characters. Many other fictional figures accompanied my childhood. There was Mr Black (Heimaojingzhang), which was made into a movie in China this year; Lulu Flower (Huaxianzi ) and Ikkyu-san (Yixiuge), both imports from Japan; Huluwa (or the Gourd Brothers), super-powered septuplets fighting evil forces and, of course, Transformers.
Yet none of these other animated characters appealed to me as much as the merry band of blue goblins that spent their days in harmony despite being chased by the evil Gargamel. Even as an adult, I remained enamored of the Smurfs, managing to convince two colleagues to paint our faces blue and wear electric blue tights to be Smurfs at the company Halloween party one year and track down, in European antique bookstores, original copies of the Belgian comics, Les Schtroumpfs, which inspired the animated series.
It wasn’t the splashy movie trailers that brought the Smurfs to mind now. Rather, a news article in this paper made me think about them again. This week, I read the headline “Call to foster domestic cartoon industry” (July 11) and learned that China has been making a push to develop a domestic comics and animation industry. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued a circular in 2004 requiring at least 60 percent of cartoons shown on television to be domestically produced. Another missive in 2006 banned foreign cartoons from airing from 5pm to 8pm, later extended to 9pm in 2008. Along with favorable tax incentives, the government is also spending 200 million yuan each year to boost the sector.
That’s a lot of thought – and money – to pour into colorful figures that speak in high-pitched voices. But why? Who really cares whether Chinese children are watching woolly domestic characters, such as Pleasant Goat, or imported ones, such as Astro Boy?
The more I pondered the puzzle the more I realized that people do, in fact, care plenty about messages broadcast to children. In addition to promoting domestic industries and jobs (whether protectionism actually works is another issue), the cartoon policies could serve to ensure that Chinese children are exposed to characters they can better identify with and messages deemed more appropriate than imported ones.
The irony, however, is that while we Chinese may be worrying about foreign cartoons now, foreigners have actually been fretting about them for years. Since the Smurfs became popular in the US three decades ago, Western conspiracy theorists have been complaining about their latent “communist content.”
Sounds bizarre? Consider the “evidence.” The Smurfs lived in a communal village where all the harvest was stored in mushrooms and equitably distributed throughout the year. Each Smurf takes what he or she needs and pitches in what he or she can – that is, in designated roles, such as Painter Smurf or Handy Smurf. The grand antagonist Gargamel is determined to catch the Smurfs, boil them, and turn them into gold, making him a prototype capitalist.
The political analogy carries even further, to the Smurfs’ sartorial sense. That each Smurf dressed in a uniform of white shorts and white cap, with rare pieces of individual flair, is surely an endorsement of conformity. Papa Smurf, the leader of the pack, sports a large white beard, making him resemble Karl Marx, and wears a red cap, which surely means more. Brainy Smurf, the “square” character who comes close to matching Papa Smurf’s intellect, wears spectacles, supposedly giving him a Trotsky-ish air.
This may all seem rather far-fetched and I’ve yet to see decisive proof on the subject. But I will say that in the 1980s, the Smurfs was the only Western cartoon I recall being broadcast on Chinese television. (Incidentally, it was billed as a French cartoon, although the characters were created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo and later animated by the American company Hanna-Barbera Productions.)
So what are we innocent viewers to make of the Smurf controversy? Are the Smurfs communists? And, more importantly, what will be the impact of the cartoon policies?
On the first question, I echo the sentiments of a Chinese netizen who posted this reply on a message board: “Give me a break, it’s just a cartoon. Must we bring politics into everything?”
As for the second issue, I’m a cartoon politics agnostic. I prefer to remember the Smurfs for the happiness they brought me as a child. If China’s cartoon protectionism generates jobs, fosters creativity, and spreads messages about sharing, respect and other good values among children, then so be it. But I couldn’t care less if animated figures shown on television are Chinese or foreign, red or blue, as long as they entertain and educate.