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China's Toon Army takes on the foreign devils

Young artists are hitting back, reports Teresa Poole in Peking
Nie Shuer is an accident-prone 13-year-old from Song Dynasty times whose speciality is flooring Black Society baddies, despite her petite stature. But little Shuer's most important role at the moment is at the vanguard of a new army of Chinese characters who have grouped to do battle against even tougher adversaries. It is Cartoon Wars time in China, and homegrown Chinese cartoon heroes are being groomed to take on foreign devils such as Donald Duck, Popeye, Robot Cat and Beautiful Girl Warrior.

The tiny martial arts prodigy is the latest addition to the new Peking Cartoons monthly comic book. Her colleagues include "Handsome Boy" (who cheats in the singing competition but still wins the prettiest girl's heart), "A Friend from Afar" (a country girl experiencing the city's delights, including karaoke, for the first time), and "Chinese Ghost Woman" who protects young scholars from evil spirits.

This new generation of cartoon characters will need all the skills of a qigong master in attacking the opposition. In China's bookshops and on TV it is foreign cartoon characters - mostly American, Japanese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong - who have captured the hearts of Chinese children and teenagers.

"Foreign cartoons are full of imagination, but Chinese domestic cartoons always tell old stories of thousands of years ago and are not thrilling at all," said 14-year-old Han Zaixin. His favourites were Japanese and Taiwanese imports, which are reprinted with mainland script. Jiao Feng, 11, said he liked best the 37-episode Japanese cartoon book, Little Football Player. "There are no Chinese cartoon books about football," he said.

Last year the Chinese authorities decided to change this sorry situation. They launched the "five, one five, five" project to revitalise the local cartoon industry - five new magazines (of which Peking Cartoons is the biggest), 15 cartoon book series, and five regional bases for cartoon development, which will also cover film and TV.

"Our aim is to create our own Chinese cartoon images," said Kou Xiaowei, head of the books department at China's Press and Publications Administration. An answer to Donald Duck, perhaps? "We want to create a character which is known by every Chinese in the country, but of course it takes time," he said.

Yu Hong is chief editor of Peking Cartoons magazine, which started last October and now has a print run of 100,000. "The market is so large, so it does not matter if some foreign books come in. But the Chinese ones should be the main pillar in the market," she said.

Ms Yu's biggest challenge was finding cartoon artists. She trawled through schools and art colleges and unearthed about 200 young candidates. "The younger the artist, the more popular," she said. "Twenty four is old for this group."

Flicking through the magazine, however, little Shuer is an exception among a group of characters who mostly have Western or Japanese features. "It is because the young artists have read too many Western cartoon books and seen too many Western cartoon films," said Ms Yu. "We are making efforts to change their styles." Many taught themselves skills by copying Western and Japanese cartoons, she added. "These artists are all quite young, not mature enough. After a few years, they will draw things based on China."

Training courses for artists will be held under "five, one five, five". Mr Kou said: "Most of the new characters lack originality. I believe that after some practice and after training the artists, the images with Chinese characteristics will increase in number."

There are rules about the contents of the cartoons: no sex, superstition, anti-government sentiments or subjects deemed harmful to youngsters. Inevitably, there is also some tension between commercial imperatives and propaganda values.

So far, four of the planned 15 comic books have been selected: Brilliant Brain and Clever Boy; a 360-part series, China's 5,000 years of Historical Stories; China Juvenile Talents; and the environmentally friendly Earth Protection War.

So pleased was Li Peng, the Prime Minister, with China Juvenile Talents that he wrote to the publishing house. One of President Jiang Zemin's favourites was a television cartoon film, The Hero is Born Among the Juveniles. But only time will tell if Mr Li's cartoon preferences manage to wean a younger audience off foreign alternatives.