Over this year’s Easter weekend, one British TV channel endured a barrage of criticism after it decided to air the 1978 animated adaption of the classic novel Watership Down. Parents were quick to complain that the film, featuring warring rabbits, was too violent to be shown pre-watershed. Perhaps in consequence, the co-producers of a forthcoming miniseries – based on the same Richard Adam’s book – have promised it will be less traumatising.
But while this British classic faces a watered down future, in China the leporine protagonist of a violent cartoon has become a point of national pride.
The rabbit in question is the star of an animated series called That Year, That Rabbit, Those Things, which started life in 2011, the Year of the Rabbit. In the cartoon, the rabbit represented China and its people, whilst other nations were represented by more familiar incarnations: America is a bald eagle, and Russia is a bear.
Three years after its debut, the creator of That Rabbit – a formerly unknown cartoonist named Lin Chao – managed to score financing from Hong Kong-based private equity firm Greenwoods Investment to turn the already popular online cartoon into a fully-fledged animated series.
According to 21CN Business Herald, the show has been viewed online over a billion times, and its official page on Baidu’s Tieba (an online forum community) has attracted over 700,000 followers.
Amongst its fans, That Rabbit is fortunate enough to include the Chinese government itself. In 2015 the Communist Youth League, a Party organisation that promotes political interest amongst young people, shared the first episode on its official weibo account, noting: “After watching this cartoon our tears won’t stop running”. These were no doubt tears of pride, because That Rabbit is unapologetically patriotic.
The first episode deals with the events leading to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, flagging the Century of Humiliation (a period of imperialism by Western powers and Japan after the First Opium War), the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Second World War, and finally Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan. Remarkably it does so in just under seven minutes. The episode ends with a Communist bunny walking out of the Forbidden City to a crowd of cheering rabbits. (Later episodes appear to digress into a fictitious battle with the United States.)
Chinese news portal Sixth Tone reports Lin Chao was offered support from the government several times, in exchange for allowing That Rabbit to be incorporated into “official ideological propaganda operations”. But despite being a proud patriot, Lin Chao was wary. “I am, after all, an artist, so I don’t want to get too close to the authorities, but of course I cannot tell them that. The reason I gave them was that in terms of its propaganda value, That Rabbit might work better if it remains unofficial.”
And it seems Lin was right. That Rabbit has morphed from a cartoon, into a mobile game and in April the franchise helped Liu’s company raise another Rmb20 million ($2.99 million) in investment from Bilibili – one of China’s video streaming platforms and sub culture sites.
That said, the cartoon is fortunate not to have been banned on account of its violence (there is a lot of throwing of bricks and Tom-and-Jerry style antics). But any concerns about this type of content seem to have been overshadowed – in the eyes of Chinese censors – by the animation’s unabashed patriotism.
Indeed, with nationalism and Party orthodoxy in the ascendant (see page 19), That Rabbit may have a strong future.
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