Fri, Mar 08, 2019 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Romance blended with propaganda in China’s Marx anime

AFP, BEIJING

This frame grab taken on Feb. 25 and released by animation studio Wawayu shows characters from the online cartoon series The Leader — from left, German philosophers Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, and Marx’s wife, Jenny von Westphalen.

Photo: AFP / Wawayu

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is trying a new way to woo younger people, commissioning an anime series whose hero is clean-shaven, slim and a hopeless romantic — Karl Marx.

Called The Leader, the online cartoon series is designed to make Marx more palatable to China’s younger generation, which usually encounters the bearded German philosopher through thick textbooks and classes.

“There is a lot of literary work about Karl Marx, but not as much in a format that young people can accept,” said Zhuo Sina (卓絲娜), one of the scriptwriters behind the online series. “We wanted to fill this gap. We hope more people can have a more positive understanding of and interest in Marx and his biography.”

Created by animation studio Wawayu, but backed by the CCP’s central propaganda department and the state-run Marxism Research and Construction Program Office, the release of The Leader comes as the party ramps up its push for ideological rigor — especially in classrooms and on university campuses.

With its Ferrari-driving elites cashing in on an economic boom that has revolutionized China since the economy was opened to market forces in 1978, Beijing’s allegiance to Marx might seem like an anomaly, but the CCP is still loyal to its ideological forefather, dismissing the apparent contradiction and framing its evolution through a prism of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Students start learning the theories of Marx in junior high school, and civil servants — even journalists in state-run media — have to take mandatory courses in Marxist theory to secure promotions.

Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) also urged party members to cultivate the habit of reading Marxist classics, and regard it as a “way of life” and “spiritual pursuit.”

That also means that the scriptwriters of The Leader have had to compromise some aspects of storytelling for the sake of accuracy, Zhuo said.

“You can’t just write whatever,” she said, explaining that Marxism academics were involved in the whole process of scriptwriting.

She said the story of Marx should not pander to the demands of the entertainment industry, where there is “no way to make very careful and precise, or very accurate descriptions.”

After debuting at the end of January on Bilibili, a video streaming platform popular among young anime, comic and gaming fans in China, the online serial has been streamed more than 5 million times.

The Leader starts with Marx’s university years, where shots of the young philosopher — dressed in a dapper beige blazer — feverishly studying the work of G.F.W. Hegel are spliced between tender moments with Jenny von Westphalen, his wife.

However, the masses have been tough critics — on popular Chinese film and literature Web site Douban, users gave The Leader a two-star rating out of five.

Some criticized the storytelling as “awkward,” while others used more colorful language — one likened the experience of watching the series with “shoving” excrement in their mouth.

University of Amsterdam professor Jeroen de Kloet, who has researched Chinese youth culture and media, said that there was too much talking in the series and not enough scenes that “humanize” Marx.

“It’s the government lecturing young people on what Marxism is about,” De Kloet said.

Still, despite its propaganda bent, the TV series has opened a surprising space for discussion on Marxism and even labor rights in China.

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