Peppa Pig: China falls for an unlikely UK brand ambassador

Undated handout photo supplied by Peppa Pig World of a poster for Peppa Pig celebrating Chinese New YearImage copyrightPA

She’s unlikely to feature on many lists of the all-time top British cultural icons.

But Peppa Pig – the UK-made children’s cartoon character – is right up there with the best of them, at least in China.

With the series racking up 18 billion online views since its launch here seven years ago, the story of Peppa and her unfeasibly English middle class family is, arguably, doing more for Brand Britain than the Beatles, Manchester United and any of the culinary delights – for which the UK is rightly so renowned – put together.

Pork scratching anyone?

It is then no surprise that, when a Peppa-shaped opportunity came knocking, the British powers that be seized the moment.

After watching an episode in which the precocious piglet and her friends visit the Queen in Buckingham Palace – and encourage her to join them jumping in muddy puddles – two Chinese twins posted a video message online, addressed to none other than Her Royal Majesty.

They too, like Peppa, wanted to visit her in her palace, they said.

And it worked.

Well, sort of.

Dame Barbara Woodward, British Ambassador to ChinaImage copyrightBRITISH EMBASSY CHINA
Image captionDame Barbara Woodward, British ambassador to China, invited the twins to her Beijing residence

The British ambassador to China, Dame Barbara Woodward, posted her own video message in reply.

“Hello Mi Ni and Mi Ai,” she said. “I’m the British ambassador, so I’m the Queen’s representative in China.

“I’d like you to come and visit me in my house in Beijing,” she went on, “and we can perhaps have tea and scones in a British style.”

The post has been viewed more than nine million times in China – a multiple of 10 times more views than anything else Dame Barbara has posted in her entire four years as ambassador.

Dame Barbara Woodward, British ambassador to China, with twins Mi Ni and Mi AiImage copyrightHUW EVANS PICTURE AGENCY
Image captionThe twins might travel to the UK next

And so it was that two slightly bewildered five-year-olds found their way to her residence and munched on scones and chocolate cake, and sat colouring in pictures of Peppa Pig, in front of the assembled media.

“Do you think that the Queen really has muddy puddles in her garden?” I asked them.

They nodded. It is a big garden after all.

The whole experience may not have been quite the same as the real deal, but they have also been promised a trip to the UK where they will, at least, get to see Buckingham Palace.

And the British embassy has launched a competition along with Youku – the online channel with the Chinese rights to Peppa Pig – the young winners of which will also join the twins for the trip.

Peppa Pig tattooImage copyrightYUNTIANZHONG TATTOO
Image captionPeppa Pig tattoos have become the symbol of a certain counter-culture in China

The whole Peppa phenomenon, it must be said, has a bit of a dark side in China.

A couple of years ago, pictures began to appear online of people sporting Peppa Pig tattoos.

She appeared to have become the chosen symbol for a counter-culture known as “shehuiren” – literally “society people”.

Early last year, one popular Chinese streaming site, Douyin, began removing Peppa videos en masse.

The nationalist, Communist Party-controlled tabloid Global Times described Shehuiren as people who are “poorly educated with no stable job” and “unruly slackers roaming around and the antithesis of the young generation the party tries to cultivate”.

Soft power

But Peppa has survived this brush with subversion.

A new Peppa Pig movie – made especially for the Chinese market – is due to be launched this coming Chinese New Year.

It is a collaboration between China’s Alibaba Pictures and Canada’s Entertainment One; although still made in the UK, Peppa Pig is now owned by the Canadian company.

The viral trailer for the film – which artfully grafts the story of Peppa onto seasonal themes of Chinese family and belonging – has received more than 300 million hits to date.

With the need for stronger ties with major economies in a post-Brexit world, I asked the UK ambassador whether she thought that a certain pink pig was proving rather more adept at it than British politicians.

“I wouldn’t put it quite as zero sum as that, to be honest,” Dame Barbara laughs in reply.

There are three components to good UK-China ties, she tells me – a strong government-to-government relationship, a strong business-to-business relationship and a strong people-to-people relationship.

“Peppa Pig is as much a part of the latter as the Royal Family, Wimbledon, the Premier League and all the other things we think of when we think of soft power.”

With cute twins, a great British-made product, and massive Chinese media exposure, she must be wishing all UK-China diplomacy could end so happily.

And pigs, as they say, might fly.

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