China's on-off relationship with The Simpsons

By Helier Cheung
BBC News

image copyrightRex Features

The first Simpsons' stores in the world are set to open in March in Beijing and Shanghai, according to Chinese media.

The lovable, dysfunctional, yellow-coloured family has been delighting and scandalising fans for the last 26 years, but why has Fox decided to choose China to launch its flagship store? Particularly considering the on-off relationship China has had with the Simpsons.

'What happened to you China, you used to be cool?'

The Simpsons was first screened by some Chinese broadcasters in the early 2000s, but then in 2006 China banned cartoons.

Along with Mickey Mouse it was dropped from peak-time TV, reportedly in an attempt to protect local animators and amid fears about the effect of foreign culture on Chinese children.

However, some commentators suspected that the ban was an attempt to keep the Simpsons off screens given its coverage of controversial topics and its mockery of anything and everything - China included.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIn 2007 Fox opened a real-life Kwik-E-Mart in New York stocked with merchandise to promote The Simpsons Movie

'On this site, in 1989, nothing happened'

The most controversial episode, as far as China is concerned, is one in season 16, where the Simpsons fly to China to help a relative adopt a baby.

This involves the family passing through Tiananmen Square, where they see signs saying: "On this site, in 1989, nothing happened", and later encounter a tank - both references to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Homer also makes fun of Mao Zedong's embalmed body, which he likens to "a little angel who killed 50 million people", and poses as a Buddha to enter an orphanage.

China's authorities were also unlikely to be amused at the show's portrayal of Tibet Town, an area in Chinatown surrounded by barbed wire, or the fact that Lisa Simpson is also known as a supporter of the Free Tibet movement.

'Wow, the fortune cookies here really are more accurate'

Homer Simpson utters those lines in the Goo Goo Gai Pan episode, first aired in the US in 2005. Within a decade, in 2014, the Simpsons were officially back in China, released for streaming on Chinese web portal Sohu after a deal with Fox.

image copyrightSohu
image captionSohu is streaming recent seasons of The Simpsons, as well as The Simpsons Movie, TV specials, and the very first season

They appear to have a dedicated following in China, although the TV series still languishes behind major local productions.

For example, the first episode of season 27 garnered 9.4 million hits on Sohu - a decent number, but far lower than the 51 million that Chinese animation The Legend of Qin V attracted.

'Our differences are only skin deep, but our sames go down to the bone'

A thread on Zhihu, a Chinese Q&A forum, asked why The Simpsons hadn't taken off in China. They also wonder if the Chinese audience just doesn't get the American screwball sense of humour.

One user said: "Most people in China think the Simpsons isn't cool enough - it doesn't have any good looking characters... people would rather watch the latest Chinese productions."

Others pointed out many Chinese viewers would have been offended by the controversial episodes. For many, the Simpsons' brand of satire is simply lost in translation due to both cultural differences, and censorship.

"I didn't understand a lot of the sarcasm until an American friend explained it to me..." another user wrote.

image copyrightWeibo
image captionThe Simpsons now have their own official account on the popular Chinese microblogging network Weibo

Despite this, there are efforts to increase the Simpsons' following in China.

The family have their own feed on microblogging network Weibo, run by a PR company in Shanghai, where administrators share memes and interact with fans.

Dedicated fans have also shared fan art.

image copyrightWeibo
image captionThe Simpsons Weibo feed reposted several examples of fan art, including this Homer tattoo, saying: "The experts are among us"

But even as 20th Century Fox, which owns The Simpsons, is looking into selling more merchandise in an untapped market, it is also starting to grapple with a quintessentially Chinese problem: copyright infringement.

Earlier this month the Simpsons Weibo administrators posted a warning to overenthusiastic fans.

"If you are a Simpsons fan of outstanding artistic talent, then that is definitely admirable. But if over the long term you profit from second-hand creations of the original works of 20th Century Fox's The Simpsons, then please note: that is a serious legal issue," it said.

Additional reporting by Tessa Wong

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