Anywhere you go in China you will be unable to avoid the bombardment of Pleasure Goat and Big Big Wolf merchandise: smartphone cases, USB sticks, sweets, clothing, soft toys, video games, homeware, the lot. The popularity of the Chinese cartoon is en route to parallel that of Hello Kitty and Mickey Mouse, according to Toon Express Group CEO Tony Leung (2012). Such immense popularity must have its origins and reasons, and is even liable to influence the very nature of Chinese culture and society writ large.
Here is some basic information. Pleasant Goat and his friends in the Lamb Clan who live in the Green Green Pastures are in a perpetual struggle for survival against Big Big Wolf and his pack of cronies, including his high-maintenance wife, and he conceives plans to capture and eat them. Pleasant Goat always manages to outwit poor old Wolf’s flawed conspiracies however, with slapstick consequences. The show has produced over 1000 episodes and won a plethora of awards.
So why is the cartoon so popular? Well firstly, it is primetime television broadcast on around 75 different satellite and cable networks across China – between 5 and 8pm state television does not broadcast overseas imported cartoons so there is little else in the way of variety. Cartoons are the most popularly watched children’s television programs in the country and account for approximately 15-20% of total television viewing in many regions (Latham, 2007). Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, it can be argued, has transcended the fragmentation of television audiences in China since the late 1990s when television became less family-centred. It appeals to the young and old alike, as much like The Simpsons, the cartoon contains references and jokes intended for adults; for example, when the issue of widespread forced housing demolitions became a hot-button political issue in China, the show made reference to it by putting the character for “demolish” on a house in the show’s world – reference that would not be understood by kids (Custer, 2010). Another major reason it is so popular perhaps is its less “preachy” nature than most other cartoons, in an era where mainland authorities typically exercise strong censorship of television content; it manages to slip a lot under the radar, subversively depicting substantial amounts of homoeroticism and upfront innuendo (tvtropes.org). An effective method of analysis and a new perspective on the problems inherent in China need to be explored in cartoons, and to some extent this is achieved by Pleasant Goat as it could be seen as abandoning the utilitarianism of the overarching cartoon industry (文艺报, 2013). What is also surprising is that despite the censorship of films such as Back to the Future and Planet of the Apes for their reference to time travel, this cartoon is set in the future – the characters live in the fantasy lunar year 3509.
What is more, many of the cartoon’s characters appeal to values held by modern Chinese families. Despite playing the villain, Big Big Wolf is a likeable rogue because although his devious plans always fall through, he is unwavering in reaching his goal: his catchphrase at the end of every episode is something along the lines of: “Darn goat! I’ll come back for you!”, an admirably unmoveable determinism to feed his entourage that runs parallel to the responsibility of cartoons proposed by China Central television to “advocate social morality and family virtues”. He is also loyal to his martinet wife who likes her fashion (a reflection perhaps of the modern urban Chinese woman) and is extremely harsh to him, hitting him on the head with a frying pan on nearly 10,000 occasions when his plans fail.
However it is this sort of violence that has recently attracted criticism for being too influential on children. Only two months ago two young boys were tied to a tree, placed on a bed of dried leaves and roasted “like lamb kebabs”, in an apparent simulation of one of Big Big Wolf’s stings (Lewis, 2013). The most sinister element of this incident is that not only was the perpetrator himself barely older than his victims, who were left horrendously disfigured, but also allegedly their friend. Parents have criticised the show as Pleasant Goat has been electrocuted 1,755 times and plunged into scalding water 839 times. Perhaps having esteemed protagonists in a cartoon so influential yet so nonchalantly violent is not such an asset to Chinese national culture after all.
Although globally, TV content has become a concern in its potential for negatively influencing the behaviour of children, this may be of particularly worry in China, where primary school students experience tremendous levels stress in the school environment on a daily basis, and many are exposed to physical abuse at home which can lead to psychosomatic symptoms in up to a third of them (Hesketh et al., 2009). Certainly from personal experience of teaching Chinese children of this age, classes starting at 7am and finishing at 9pm, as well as frequent punishments for substandard grades (this being at a supposedly “laid back” summer camp) left many of my students frustrated and in some cases hyperactive and aggressive towards one another. As I have mentioned, the exceptionality of Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf in its emphasis on entertainment over preachy propaganda gives it such popularity and influence that provocative stimuli such as slapstick violence that does not bear grave consequences in the world of Green Green Pastures can be perceived as acceptable to these kids.
That is not to say that the Chinese government ought to clamp down on the budding freedoms of its national cartoon industry; if anything it is a call for a leniency in the pressures faced by young children both at school and at home with a view to reducing their susceptibility to stress disorders which, even if they don’t directly translate as roasting other children like lamb kebabs, can encourage greater levels of empathy and awareness of the effects of aggressive behaviour. The case of the two young boys polarised the Weibosphere on the issue of whether or not Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf were “too violent” (Weibo, 2013) – perhaps a more pertinent question to ask would be whether the social burdens borne by the modern Chinese child can make him or her more vulnerable to the emotional numbness depicted in the art of cartoon violence.
By Sally Jensen
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