In the east, the rat stands at the head of the Chinese zodiac: a symbol of spirituality and intelligence. But the West has its own rodent in charge: Mickey, head of the House of Mouse.
Mickey Mouse, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, has long had a cultural impact on China – and nowhere more so than Shanghai. Ever since the city was opened to the outside world as a trading port in 1843, it has been a cultural hub for all comers. As the West came to the East, Disney wasn’t far behind.
In January 1932, pictorial magazine The Young Companion, an iconic documenter of the glamour of old Shanghai, published a story headlined ‘Mickey Mouse: America’s Most Famous Star’. The feature was all about the cartoon star and Walt Disney Studios (in one of the illustrations, Mickey and Pluto are reading The Young Companion together). The characters soon became stars in Shanghai, pushing animation to the fore.
The runaway success of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 inspired a 1940 live-action Chinese remake, now sadly lost to time. And a year later saw the debut of China’s first full-length animated movie, Princess Iron Fan, based on Chinese classic Journey to the West – but owing a clear debt to Disney. These productions cultivated a group of outstanding animators and producers in Shanghai, sowing the seeds for the development of China’s own pop culture as it opened the door to the world in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Disneyland was always a pilgrimage site for Chinese tourists travelling abroad. But in 2016, the Chinese mainland’s first Disneyland Park opened in Shanghai. At the opening ceremony, Mickey appeared in a Chinese costume, a localised version of an evergreen character. In its first year of operation, the park greeted a record 10 million tourists. One of the attractions is the ‘Garden of the Twelve Friends’, which takes its inspiration from the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. Aladdin’s Abu appears as the Monkey; Pluto is the Dog; Mushu of Mulan is the Dragon. As for the Rat – that honour doesn’t go to Mickey, but to Ratatouille’s Remy the cooking rat.
But the cultural transfer isn’t all one-way anymore. In 2018 Chinese-Canadian animator Domee Shi won an Academy Award for her Disney Pixar short film Bao, about a Chinese immigrant mother terrified of her son leaving home. We’re no longer watching Chinese remakes of Snow White; but rather original animation with Chinese characteristics.