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China’s Young Marx Anime Sparks Philosophical Debate, Criticism, and Gay Fan-Fiction

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The Leader, a seven-episode animated series about the life of Karl Marx, premiered on popular streaming sites Bilibili and Youku at the end of January, timed to coincide with the beginning of Chinese students’ Spring Festival holiday.

In the three episodes that have aired so far, the animated Karl Marx — as well as his lifelong friend, financial supporter, and co-author, Friedrich Engels —  are depicted as young, handsome boys, pretty much the opposite of the bearded elders we usually see in politics textbooks. Marx’s wife and friend since his teenage years, Jenny von Westphalen, is also given a glow up on the series, portrayed in princess-like dresses.

With Mongolian pop singer A Yun Ga and rap crew NZBZ on board for the show’s theme songs, The Leader seems to be aimed at Generation Z’s attention span. The show is evidently designed to introduce the core historical and philosophical tenets of Marxism — one of the fundamental theories underpinning today’s Socialism with Chinese Characteristics — to young viewers in a more familiar way.

Besides some early complaints about the show’s not-that-great image quality, what do Chinese teenagers think of the Communist Youth League-backed anime so far?

At this writing, 422,000 students follow The Leader on Bilibili, where the show has racked up 4.45 million views. Middle school and high school students from all over China have left bullet comments to “check in” while watching:

Certain key quotes are approvingly highlighted with multiple repetitions in the comments:

“Pursuing truth is humans’ right and freedom!” — Marx

Quite a few serious, philosophical elaborations can be found among the over 110,000 bullet comments covering Bilibili’s stream of the show:

Subtitle: “Is this the essay that studies the difference in natural philosophy between Democritus and Epicurus?”

Light blue bullet comments: “Democritus thinks that nature is composed of atoms of different kinds and shapes, and that when people die, their ‘soul atoms’ vanish. Epicurus [believes] in Aponia [the absence of pain], and that humans cease to exist at the moment death comes.”

Many of the comments are “corrections” and disagreements with the show’s scripted dialogue, written by knowledgeable liberal arts students. Keep in mind that many high school and college students have read — or even memorized — textbooks on history, geography, philosophy, and Marxist economics and political science in preparation for the famously difficult National College Entrance Examination, or gaokao.

Viewers with backgrounds in other fields, such as the hard sciences, have taken to the bullet comments to express confusion at the show’s lengthy bits of philosophical discourse:

“As a science student I don’t understand what they’re saying at all.”

“Is this human language?”

Some viewers don’t bother trying to understand the obscure speech at all, focusing instead on more relatable plot elements, like Jenny and Karl’s romance:

“True love is not about equal social status or anything material, but a match in the spirit.”

Overall, the most exciting moment so far might have been when Friedrich Engels first meets Marx:

“THE Man!”

“Mr. Engels!”

“This is love!”

Some comments insinuating a homosexual relationship between the young Marx and Engels — a Chinese variant on Japanese yaoi or Boys Love (BL) fan-fiction — were met with a critical backlash, all within the crowded space of Bilibili’s bullet commentary. One commenter claims to have reported other comments relating to a Marx-Engels romance, writing: “Those kind of comments are slander against these great thinkers!”

Under each episode on Bilibili, the platform provides a few questions from the show, prompting viewers to respond and win prizes. On microblogging platform Weibo, 100 first-prize winners of a raffle organized by the show’s official account won — unsurprisingly — a copy of The Communist Manifesto. But the second prize, which went to only five lucky winners, was a Huawei Mate 20 — the Chinese smartphone maker’s flagship model, which retails for about 1,000USD.

Other elements of the show’s roll-out feel more like capitalism than Communism. Only paying Bilibili and Youku subscribers can currently view the show’s fourth episode — everyone else has to wait until next Monday for it to become available to non-paying viewers. We have no idea how Mr. Marx would feel about this, but users are certainly not happy. One commenter hits the nail on the head:

“The bourgeoisie can watch it first, and the proletariat just steps aside.”

The Leader is definitely a creative attempt at educating future comrades, but it might need higher production quality and dialogue that doesn’t sound like the textbooks students have already been forced to recite a hundred times if it really wants to reach its target audience.

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van

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