By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 26, 2007
BEIJING, Jan. 25 -- Always ready to do a good deed, the little cartoon rabbit scooted up with an extinguisher to put out a fire. But when he sprayed the flames, they exploded into a conflagration, burning him to a crisp and leaving only his signature sunglasses intact.
Suicide Rabbit, China's whimsical Everyman, was the fall guy again, victimized this time by rapacious merchants -- seemingly ever-present in this country -- who sold him an extinguisher with chemicals that fed the fire instead of putting it out. It was another telling episode in the life of a long-suffering cartoon character who has captured the imagination of many of China's 137 million Internet users.
Suicide Rabbit, introduced in August by Liu Gang, a 35-year-old cartoonist, has attracted a swiftly increasing audience by portraying with gentle humor the million little abuses suffered by Chinese people as their society endures a bumpy transformation. Hapless but always well intentioned, he has provided a rare opportunity for Chinese young people to see someone poke fun at the small-scale venalities and social ills they encounter every day.
In a country where the censored press and television news hammer audiences with a relentless diet of success stories and new achievements by the Communist Party, Suicide Rabbit has become a sensation for daring to suggest, even faintly through tiptoe satire, that the society created by China's economic boom has its comical drawbacks.
"Oh, Liu's Suicide Rabbit is so vivid, and my favorite is the one with George Bush," commented an online admirer using the alias Small SMS Gao. "Now he is my favorite cartoonist."
Through Suicide Rabbit's adventures on the Web, Liu has mocked President Bush, showing him as a grotesque Statue of Liberty leading a legion of little rabbits toward a smoking Iraq. He also has pooh-poohed Japanese products sold in China, suggesting that cars from Japan collapse in the street. But he has carefully steered clear of China's own leaders or party politics, which are taboo subjects for satire under the strict supervision of official censors.
"I am not interested in politics," Liu said in an interview. "I'm more interested in ordinary people's lives. . . . My work has a very close connection to social themes. I can see Internet users are very aware of China's social ills and social trends."
So the sympathetic little rabbit gets cheated by Japanese cosmetics firms -- their products turn his face black. He gets pushed around by low-level Beijing officials who don't want people to stop spitting because it would cut down on the income they get by imposing fines on spitters. He gets crushed by a giant roller that is destroying pirated DVDs to the cheers of officials nearby. And when he goes to the hospital, his intravenous drip gets diverted through a tube leading to a bottle marked "commission" while a greedy doctor looks on.
But he never runs into one of China's many corrupt party officials or wonders why the country's leaders are unwilling to subject themselves to popular election. Similarly, he plays the role of a woman roughed up during an anti-government demonstration in Taiwan but never of a Chinese farmer fighting riot police after having his land seized and sold to real estate developers.
"There are some topics we can't touch," Liu said in response to a query from an Internet reader.
"This rabbit only eats grains and carrots; he's not offensive," Liu said. "He's kind of like a small, unimportant character in the society. A character like that can gain a lot of sympathy."
Liu, who signs his work "You Shou," or right hand, patterned Suicide Rabbit on a character created by the British cartoonist Andy Riley, author of "The Book of Bunny Suicides." But it was not copying, he stressed, because he changed the rabbit's looks and personality drastically and put him into vastly different situations to attract a Chinese audience.
At first, Liu larded his cartoons with references to ancient Chinese culture and literature. That was a natural for him, since he studied literature and calligraphy at Anhui Normal University before graduating in 1994 and starting his career as a cartoonist.
In his day job, he draws cartoons at a publishing house for a monthly salary that supports his wife and 6-year-old son. Two newspapers publish his work on a weekly basis, he said, and his drawings have been collected and published in four books.
Liu has migrated toward social themes in the Suicide Rabbit cartoons. In particular, he has started emphasizing the frustrations of many Chinese at the money-grasping attitude that has emerged since the country started moving toward a free-market system 25 years ago.
"By reflecting current issues, I get more recognition from young people," he said. "They are the ones who read new things online. They are the ones who like cartoons. They are my target audience."
Liu said he is careful to keep a light touch, balancing entertainment with social commentary, lest his cartoons become too pedantic for youthful readers who bounce from site to site. "Only by doing both can you find a market, and that is why Suicide Rabbit is doing so well," he said.