Animaniacs: Understanding China’s Nostalgia-Fueled Cartoon Craze
A remake of a beloved childhood cartoon aired in China this week, eliciting varied reactions and a wave of nostalgia among netizens.
First broadcast in the mid-’90s, the original “Haier Brothers” cartoon stars two adorably animated boys who traverse the globe in search of adventure, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they’re wearing what might conservatively be described as swim trunks. In the revamp, however, the two tykes don space suits as they seek extraterrestrial encounters — and this departure from convention hasn’t gone over well with netizens who remember the first show.
“This is so ugly! I prefer the original characters,” commented one user on microblogging platform Weibo. “I grew up watching you — are you trying to damage my childhood?” wrote another.
Apart from TVs and computer screens, many Chinese people often find the two brothers on their refrigerators and air conditioning units: Haier is also a major manufacturer of home appliances and electronics. Headquartered in coastal Qingdao — a city whose rich German heritage is still evident in its beer and architecture — Haier modeled the blond-haired, fair-skinned brother after an archetypal German child, and the dark-haired, dark-skinned brother as an average Chinese boy. The series was conceived as a marketing move and helped Haier become a household name.
Fans affectionately dubbed the pint-sized heroes the “Underpants Brothers,” and jokingly call Haier appliances the world’s most expensive cartoon-related merchandise.
In the 1990s cartoon, the two brothers go all over the world combating natural disasters and escaping from sticky situations — navigating through a maelstrom in the Norwegian Sea, fending off grizzly bears in Alaska, getting surrounded by crocodiles in the Amazon, and struggling to make fire in the frozen Arctic, to name a few. While the original cartoon had a strong focus on nature, geography, and the social sciences, the new version will incorporate elements of cosmology and popular science.
During the ’80s and ’90s, China saw many successful animated imports from countries like the U.S. and Japan — but domestic cartoons also carved out their own niches and loyal fan followings. Here are a few of the classic Chinese cartoons that remain fondly remembered today by millennials.
Popularly known as “Huluwa” in Chinese, this cartoon series first broadcast in 1986 pits seven child heroes against an evil snake-spirit and her husband. In one episode, the snake-lady captures the old farmer who bred the boys from a calabash vine — and thus “Free my grandfather!” became a war cry in the kids’ ensuing efforts to rescue the old man.
Each Calabash Brother has a signature color from the polychromatic spectrum, and each has special strengths and weaknesses. The red brother, for example, is uncannily strong, but also hot-headed and reckless. The orange brother, meanwhile, has heightened hearing and the gift of clairvoyance.
In recent years, “snake-spirit face” has found its way into pop culture as a derogatory term for people who undergo cosmetic surgery to narrow their jawline, thin their eyebrows, and enlarge their eyes — a look some believe makes them appear similar to the snake-spirit villain in “Calabash Brothers.”
Black Cat Detective
Despite lasting just five episodes, this 1984 cartoon was a huge hit. The motorcycle-riding feline hero, along with his fellow cat police officers, has but one mission: to protect the forest.
“Your ears are like antennas, listening for all suspicious sounds,” chants the opening theme. “Your sharpened claws and teeth, patrolling everywhere. You’ve brought us peace of mind. Ahaa, black cat detective!”
As for why the beloved show came to such an abrupt end, the director, Dai Tielang, said in a 2012 interview with state media that Shanghai Animation Film Studio, which produced the show, had asked him to retire. Dai is now 88.
Shuke and Beita
The stars of this 13-episode cartoon — two intelligent mice named Shuke and Beita — are the brainchildren of contemporary Chinese fairy tale writer Zheng Yuanjie. Contrary to Chinese proverbs, which tend to disparage mice, the 1989 cartoon portrays them as compassionate, kind, and helpful. The cats on the show, on the other hand, are mostly mean-spirited bullies. In fact, the animal dynamics aren’t far removed from the slapstick duo “Tom and Jerry.”
Shuke and Beita meet after going through traumatic experiences involving toys and a cat, respectively. Together, they educate other mice not to steal, and even establish an airline to continue their good deeds. The episodes are distinctly didactic in nature.
In one episode, the two mouse-pals are caught by a cat who accuses them of being thieves. “He must be a thief because he’s a mouse,” the cat says to his owner. “Nonsense!” the child replies. “Everyone is equal under the law. You’re so law-illiterate! Do you have any evidence showing that he’s a thief?”
The cartoon also takes on problems that could happen anywhere in Chinese society. For example, Shuke discovers that a dishonest ice cream parlor is using contaminated eggs and artificial sweetener instead of sugar — and knowing too much gets him in trouble with management.
In April of this year, the writer Zheng’s son announced that the show would be remade in cooperation with internet giant Tencent. This news, too, sparked concerns that the revamp wouldn’t have the same magic as the original of nearly 30 years ago.
Big-Headed Son and Small-Headed Dad
This 1995 cartoon centers around one family: A man with a small head, his white-aproned wife, and their large-headed son. “A pair of good friends, happy dad and son!” chirps the opening theme. Curiously, when the father-son pair are in high spirits, they blow off steam by butting heads like mountain goats, laughing all the while.
The big-headed son is a master of sajiao, or histrionic tantrums, but he’s also curious, inquisitive, and considerate toward others. The father, meanwhile, indulges his son’s antics and resists his nagging wife with seemingly infinite patience. In short, they’re the perfect stereotype of a one-child Chinese family.
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A photo collage shows images from various animated television programs. From @海尔兄弟 on Weibo)