Superfans debate what it is about the animated family that China loves so much

By Li Lin Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-9 19:03:01

Most Chinese fans of The Simpsons are members of the post-80s generation who boast a distinct sense of fashion. Photo: Li Hao/GT

With its bevy of hip bars and restaurants, Sanlitun is a neighborhood that usually sees its busiest hours at night. Not so on May 5, which, from the early morning, saw huge crowds flocking to the basement of Taikoo Li South, the area's commercial heart. Their destination? Beijing's brand new Simpsons Store, a nerd's paradise filled with all manner of souvenirs and knick-knacks dedicated to the long-running animated show. As evidenced by the fans who flooded in on its opening day, it bears a unique distinction - it's not only the first such shop in China, but the first in the world.

After several selfies with the Simpsons sculptures placed outside the store, 29-year-old Xu Jingran rushed inside to try on some of the Simpsons-themed clothes. There were so many people waiting that she had to share the fitting room with another girl every time she went in.

According to Zheng Bo, the chairman of China Brands Group, which partnered with 20th Century Fox to open the store in Beijing, in the 20 days of soft opening that preceded its official launch on May 5, the store racked up sales of more than 800,000 yuan ($122,960).

"Every day we are busy all day long, and the customers queue before the store even opens," said a member of the sales staff surnamed Zhang.

This isn't the first time Fox has cooperated with another company to market Simpsons-themed products. It previously partnered with world-famous brands like LEGO, Uniqlo, Minecraft, Joyrich, A Bathing Ape and Jeremy Scott. And Chinese fans have been among the most enthusiastic buyers.

According to Jeffrey Godsick, the president of Fox Consumer Products, in a report in January, people in Beijing and Shanghai queued for more than three hours to purchase Simpsons-themed products that the company recently released through a collaboration with street fashion brand A Bathing Ape.

"[That's when] we started to notice the interest Chinese people have in The Simpsons," he said, explaining the lead-up to the store's creation. "Soon the Simpsons Store in Shanghai will open, and in more cities [in China] in the future."

Regarded not only as a symbol of US culture but as a beacon of fashion in China, The Simpsons has been seeing growing popularity in the Middle Kingdom, where fans of the show are developing their own opinions on America's most famous animated family. 

Two women take pictures in front of the sculpture near The Simpsons Store. Photo: Li Hao/GT


A girl takes a selfie with a phone case in the store. Photo: Li Hao/GT

The Simpsons' kitchen-sink realism

Simpsons fever may be a new phenomenon in China, but the show itself is no spring chicken. Started in 1990, the cartoon is now in its 27th season, however it was only in 2012 that it was officially introduced to China via online video provider According to Sohu's official website, each episode has attracted an average of 100,000 views, with some even surpassing 500,000.

Fang Pengfei, a 28-year-old IT worker, began to watch The Simpsons shortly after its official introduction to China. After taking in a few episodes from recent seasons, he fell in love with the family and started watching from the first season. He watched all 27 seasons in just two months, and still sometimes reviews his favorite episodes online.

Feng thinks The Simpsons is unique. "It makes you feel the real world, like Friends (1994) did. Every character is not perfect, and you see their shortcomings first, but their charms grow on you as you spend more time with them."

He said in many other American comics and cartoons like Captain America, Iron Man and  Superman, the main characters are mostly heroes who are exceptional both physically and mentally. The Simpsons, however, shows something different.

"Homer, the father, is kind of lazy, irresponsible and child-like, and Bart, the son, is smart and mischievous, which makes me feel [like they are] real," said Fang. "Whether you're in the US or China, we have real people like that all around the world."

Family: a universal topic

Another reason to love The Simpsons, Xu said, is because its stories contain such universal emotions, thanks in large part to its main theme: family. "Family love is something common to all people, with no national boundary," she said.

Xu started watching The Simpsons in 2006, when her mother died from liver cancer. "I can see my mother's image in Marge. She was a good woman, amiable, supportive and good at keeping the house, just like Marge."

Wang Zheng, a Beijing investment manager in his late 20s who's been a loyal fan of The Simpsons since 2008, agrees that the universality of family themes plays a role in The Simpsons' popularity in China, but also thinks there's more to the story.

Not only, he said, do the Simpsons represent a level of prosperity that's attractive to China's middle-class strivers, they embody the kind of classic family unity - a working father, homemaker mother, three kids and two pets - that's attractive to China's only-child generation.

"Those of us from the post-80s generation were mostly the only child at home, which is a pity. I have decided that after I am married, I want two children," Wang said. "I would like a wife like Marge, who is a typical mother and wife for a large family."

As an investment manager, Wang's life is full of stress. "That's why a lot of post-80s love The Simpsons. I want to be Homer - everyone wants to be Homer," he said. "He has a decent job, a good wife, three smart children and does not have to be serious at work or in life at all. He just drinks beer and watches TV; he has almost zero pressure. What a lucky guy."

Foreign fans weigh in

On Zhihu, China's version of Quora, many people post questions about The Simpsons, and most seem to think the show will continue to gain popularity in China, despite the fact that many of its jokes are based on culturally specific references.

"I cannot understand some memes they talk about. Most are about Western culture, customs and politics," said Xu.

David Wilson, a 36-year-old Brit based in Beijing, is a longtime fan of The Simpsons. While he agrees that many references may fly over the heads of Chinese viewers, he doesn't think that precludes them from enjoying it.

"There's definitely going to be some cultural references that won't make sense to the Chinese audience. But The Simpsons is popular in many countries, and it's famous for working on several levels, across all age groups," said Wilson.

And besides, it isn't as if all the references are foreign to Chinese viewers. Xu recalls one episode in which Bart's school asks the students to make paper models as homework, and one of Bart's classmates, Milhouse, hands in a model of China Central Television's new building.

"I laughed out loud when I saw the model, because I used to work near that building, and I was surprised that they knew about it and put it in the story," said Xu. 

All-ages fun preferred by adults

Nonetheless, The Simpsons is not the most popular American animation or TV series in China, and it still has a long way to go, said Yuan Yan, 28, an amateur film reviewer on, a Chinese film, music and book review website.

"The Simpsons is for all ages, and nowadays the younger generation will not be satisfied with such hidden jokes," said Yuan. "In terms of satirical American cartoons, Brickle Berry (2012) and South Park (1997) are more popular."

Brickle Berry, according to Yuan, is nothing but risque jokes for people with "dark interests," and South Park is a rated-R-level animation.

"South Park is far more caustic than The Simpsons," Yuan said. "It focuses on hot issues worldwide and curses them at full blast, and even contains bloody, violent and erotic scenes, which are more attractive to curious teenagers."

She added that The Simpsons, by contrast, is more likely to use coded references and jokes for its satire, which may be more attractive to adults.

Wang missed the opening of the Sanlitun Simpsons Store, but said he plans to go to the store soon. Over the years, Wang has collected a number of Simpsons-themed products from overseas, especially the US, and is looking forward to buying even more at the store.

"My dream has always been to have an authentic Simpsons Store in Beijing and now we do," said Wang. "I feel that I am that much closer to Springfield."  

Newspaper headline: Meeting the Simpsons – once again

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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