The “Year of the Pig” Meets Its Pig of the Year

viewing chinese culture through an unlikely lens

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

As the lunar calendar signals the Chinese New Year, China celebrates the beginning of the “Year of the Pig” with an unlikely guest—the British cartoon character “Peppa Pig.” The surprising runaway viral hit of Peppa’s movie trailer focuses attention on traditional New Year’s practices and long-held cultural beliefs in China.

Chinese new years lantern.

A trailer for Peppa’s new film Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year debuted on January 17, 2019. The five-minute trailer is called “What Is Peppa?” It focuses on an older man in rural China seeking a gift for his faraway grandson for the Chinese New Year. They speak on the phone, but the grandfather’s phone breaks mid-sentence. He asks his neighbors for help identifying Peppa so he can be ready when his descendants visit from the city. Meanwhile, he prepares traditional fare and decorations for the holiday. Since its debut, the abstract movie trailer has garnered over a billion views on Weibo, a Chinese social media website. Peppa Pig may be new to current-day China, but we can understand why her trailer is so popular if we look deeper into Chinese culture.

Chinese New Year Means Home for the Holidays

Chinese New Year also celebrates the end of winter, which earns the holiday its alias—the Spring Festival. The Chinese celebrate this holiday more than any other of the year. “There is a major feast on New Year’s Eve, and the sound of firecrackers fills the air throughout the night,” Dr. Mark Berkson, Professor of Religion at Hamline University, said. “On New Year’s Day, children will receive money in red envelopes—red being a lucky color—from older relatives. This is a time of year for cleaning house and giving gifts.”

It’s also the only time of year when many working Chinese have the opportunity to return home and visit their parents and grandparents. Much like in the West, going home for the holidays makes for a big ordeal in China. The Peppa Pig cartoon and Chinese society both emphasize family. In fact, even Peppa’s ad removes the emphasis from the product. Instead, it focuses on family and tradition. Peppa gives the grandfather the chance to bond with his grandson. The commercial also entreats respect of the family elder in a heartfelt way. Ancestral respect permeates many aspects of Chinese culture.

“In most Chinese homes, there is an altar with tablets representing the ancestors along with paintings or photographs of the ancestors,” Dr. Berkson said. “Each year during the Qing Ming Festival, Ancestors’ Day or Grave Sweeping Day, Chinese families visit ancestral graves to clean and maintain them. This day, which falls in early April, is a national holiday in much of the Chinese world.”

Balance and Harmony in Chinese Philosophy

The yin yang may be China’s most famous symbol. “The natural world can essentially be understood through the ceaseless interplay of these two fundamental forces,” Dr. Berkson said. “Yang is associated with light, sun, day, heat, heaven, and male. Yin is associated with dark, moon, night, cold, earth, and female. It is important that yin and yang not be seen as static opposites, but rather as dynamic complements.”

Surprisingly, the “What is Peppa?” trailer suggests yin and yang very dynamically. The contrast of rural and urban permeates the setting—and plays a larger role than you might think. “Despite its remarkable rate of urbanization and modernization over the last century, China remains a primarily agricultural society,” Dr. Berkson said. “Chinese values, practices, and understandings of the cosmos arose out of that foundation. The emphasis on natural cycles and the importance of nature itself, as well as an emphasis on the family and cooperative labor, have been part of Chinese culture from the earliest periods.”

The trailer also displays the relationship between old and young—or old and new. Finally, we see the grandfather rushing to impress and please his descendants. Usually, respecting parents and grandparents takes center stage.

Peppa Pig may have found a surprising home thousands of miles away, in China, but she seems to have found it just in time. The Year of the Pig and her involvement in it both encourage our education of China’s rich history and culture.

Dr. Mark Berkson contributed to this article. Dr. Berkson is a Professor of Religion at Hamline University. He earned a B.A. from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, an M.A. from Stanford University in East Asian Studies, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Religious Studies and Humanities.