I have a present for you this Christmas evening: A little glimpse on how MLP:FiM is promoted in China.
As its many knock-offs show, MLP:FiM is very popular in China, with small shops selling everything from off-color clay figurines of Princesses Celestia and Luna to almost official-looking play sets of tea parties with Rainbow Dash and Rarity. This fandom does not hesitate to share the knock-offs of the toy line, and to wonder why Hasbro does not crack down on the peddlers more. I have taken many photos of the merchandise on my trip, but very likely others have found these a hundred times over.
Surprisingly, I have found that comparatively little of MLP:FiM merchandise other than toys from China gets shared, especially the books. (This seems to be true of other countries and languages too, but of course, this is an American/Canadian (and therefore English) production.) For a show that emphasizes values and therefore a concept of culture, the lack of analysis of books in other languages is rather surprising. Many of us love the show for both the morals and the way it presents the morals, and while the values it presents are very universal, it is still informed by a Western philosophical tradition (and perhaps even an Anglo-Saxon one, as language does shape thought). To see how the East (or China more specifically) treats the morals of the show and their presentations would be quite enlightening.
I first bought the second book in the series “MLP: Presenting You 18 Good Habits” to help me learn Chinese using stories I was already familiar with, but soon became interested in the way it presented the stories in themselves. I eventually got the whole series.
The covers are elegant and simple: A floral pattern dominated by one color, based off the member of the Mane Six that graces the center.
The series is published by the Tongqu (lit. “childlike”) Publishing Company Ltd., a joint venture of the People’s Post and Telecommunications Publishing House and the Danish publisher Egmont, and apparently only has offices in Beijing. So far as I can tell, this company only has a Chinese distribution. It specializes in children’s books, with IP licenses not only for MLP:FiM but Thomas and Friends, Astro Boy, and various Disney properties, as well as publishing their own original material.
Each book is 120 pages long, containing adaptations of three episodes from the show with a common theme of a class of good habits.
The first one, “Good Habits of Learning,” which appropriately shows Twilight Sparkle in thought, contains “Read It and Weep” (loving to read ardently), “Rarity Investigates!” (observing and reflecting), and “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3” (having right study methods). Second has Pinkie Pie delivering “Good Habits of Living,” and features “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” (eating a healthy diet), “Hurricane Fluttershy” (exercising), and “Flutter Brutter” (taking care of oneself). The third one, with Rainbow Dash reclining casually on a cloud, is (rather ironically) titled “Good Habits of Working,” and comprises “Somepony to Watch Over Me” (working independently), “Sonic Rainboom” (being earnest and down-to-earth), and “Newbie Dash” (developing team awareness). Fourth has the soft-spoken Fluttershy presenting “Good Habits of Speaking,” through the stories of “Luna Eclipsed” (speaking politely), “Putting Your Hoof Down” (learning to say no), and “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” (not taunting others). In the fifth, Rarity dresses three episodes as “Good Habits of Relationships”—“Amending Fences” (valuing friends), “Make New Friends But Keep Discord” (not monopolizing friendship), and “The Gift of the Maud Pie” (empathizing with others). Finally, Applejack brings us “Good Habits of Safety,” gathering “Appleloosa’s Most Wanted” (staying away from dangerous places), “Viva Las Pegasus” (not falling for sweet talk), and “A Friend in Deed” (not doing dangerous games).
The books start with a preface, “Good Habits for Achieving a Good Future,” written by Xue Lei, a National Psychological Consultant, Learning Competency Instructor, and Early Childhood Education Instructor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Psychological Institute (among other things). (I have not been able to find her listed on the CAS website, perhaps because of her status as an instructor.) She is associated with the Faber and Mazlich series of parenting lectures and workshops based on “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk,” which both explains quite a few features about these books and gives it somewhat less of a Chinese slant than I hoped. In the preface, Xue notes that the key to good behavior for “the long prop-up” is not changing bad habits but developing good habits, and that stern lectures tend to backfire. She then goes on to explain the set-up of the book, and concludes with two quotes about cultivating good habits, one from the American psychologist William James, and the other from the Chinese journalist and author of children’s books Ye Shengtao. Curiously, though she describes the stories that follow as “vivid and interesting,” she doesn’t give any explanation of why she chose the stories from MLP:FiM in particular as her vehicle of cultivating good habits. So far as I can tell, however, she has not drawn from other franchises for similar series of books.
Each story, after a title page, begins with an introduction of the major characters in the story. Remarkably, the series often varies the description for the same character, highlighting facts about the character that are relevant for the story that follows. For example, in “Read it and Weep,” Twilight Sparkle is noted as often encouraging other ponies to read more books, because “she knows most ponies do not know the historical legends.” For “Amending Fences,” however, her introduction focuses on her not caring much about friendship before coming to Ponyville, and even “Hurricane Fluttershy” describes her as “able to make all sorts of precision instruments.” At times, especially if it involves one-shot characters like Zephyr Breeze or Gladmane, the introductions end up giving away the story that follows, but not enough to completely spoil it.
The stories are written in a colloquial, brisk style, using plenty of common Chinese idioms to add spice and informality. (They editors are particularly fond of using the phrase “bugan-shiruo,” meaning “not to be outdone.”) As one might expect, the stories follow the events in the episodes, but there are some exceptions. These likely are to keep each book at their 120-page limits, but perhaps also is a matter of style. Notably, the cold open from “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3” is mostly omitted, despite its great characterization of Twilight and RD, instead going straight into reading the Wonderbolts history book. The reader does not really understand the significance of the test until RD fails Twilight’s pop quiz. In the adaptation of “Sonic Rainboom,” Twilight does not warn Rarity about the fragility of her wings, and their melting in the sun comes as a genuine surprise to the reader. Foreshadowing and other hints at possible futures thus do not appear to be favored devices. The hyperbole gets toned down too: A few of AJ’s protective measures from “Somepony to Watch Over Me” are skipped, as is Fluttershy’s encounter with the tourist in “Putting Your Hoof Down.” At times, the stories assume the reader is familiar with the show, despite the character descriptions at the beginnings of each—“Viva Las Pegasus” begins with “The Map once again called out…” even though it is the only Map episode to be featured in this series.
The changes are not just limited to omissions. In “Read it and Weep,” Rainbow Dash actually invites Fluttershy and Twilight in when they come to visit her at the hospital, instead of the two knocking and entering themselves. This of course softens the interruption, so the reader is not as attached to RD’s annoyance at being stopped from reading the Daring Do book. The changes and additions are particularly common when necessary to fit the intended good habit. Sometimes these additions and changes are fairly creative and fitting: When, in “Crusaders of the Lost Mark,” Diamond Tiara announces her about-face and gets her father to pay for the playground, she explains that her cutie mark talent is not only about getting other ponies to do what she wants, but even makes a point of the fact that it is a tiara, that she thought it meant she could “dictate to everyone without regard to [their] feelings, even speaking meanly.” This rendition thus emphasizes the flaw of arrogance because of social status more than the actual episode does. (I almost suspect, because it is published by People’s Post and Telecommunications, that it’s Communist Party meddling.) Others are completely shoehorned: For “A Friend in Deed,” the lesson that Pinkie Pie takes from her antics with Cranky is not that everyone has their own way of expressing friendship, but “[to] never do a dangerous game again!” which she even swears on a Pinkie Promise. Earlier, the editors even interpret the Smile Song at the beginning of the episode as not just that she likes seeing everypony smile, but that as long as she can make everypony smile, her friends will let her do whatever she wants, framing her as more careless than the episode would suggest. One shoehorned, but still fun, addition is in “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” where, to make the episode better fit the “healthy eating” theme, the editors add a pony getting a stomachache from drinking the Flim-Flam Brothers’ cider.
The pictures, as expected, come from screenshots of the show, one (sometimes two) per page. More than occasionally, the pictures do not perfectly correspond with the actual text per page, sometimes even omitting key information. Again in “Read it and Weep,” the page where RD starts reading Daring Do in fact has a picture of RD trying to resist reading the book. A picture of RD wearily starting to read does appear on the next page, although the text describes RD’s reactions to be far more exciting. For “Putting Your Hoof Down,” the text mentions Angel Bunny several times, but only one screenshot with him appears, and there the corresponding text doesn’t mention him. Even more puzzling is the omission of Applejack from any screenshot from “Flutter Brutter,” even though she is listed as one of the described characters at the beginning. It seems as though the editors were less concerned about matching the text with the picture and more content to just remind the reader of what she (or he) had seen in the show.
The pictures are largely unedited, but there is at least once instance where something is added: Princess Luna in front of the spider target game in “Luna Eclipsed," using an obvious vector to make clear that she was the one making the spiders real.
With the exception of “Rarity Investigates,” each story has at least one line that summarizes the moral of the story, highlighted in colored text, a direct commentary to the reader put in a heart-shaped blurb in a screenshot, or both. The blurb commentaries do not always serve the same functions. Some summarize the moral, others make a tangential point, and yet others give direct advice. Some are self-aware that the ponies are not perfect role models: For “Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3,” in the scene where RD blows spitballs at Twilight during her flashcard lesson, the editors give this warning: “Throwing spitballs [lit. marbles] at other people is very dangerous, kids, you cannot imitate it!” One unusual case, from “The Gift of the Maud Pie,” describes the characters’ own thoughts when Maud retrieves the party cannon.
A few are even addressed to the parents rather than the children, such as in “Somepony to Watch Over Me," where, as a caption to Apple Bloom taking care of the chores before Applejack returns, the editors say “Kids are more capable than we imagine. Give kids a free hand to do what they can for the housework.”
From the stories themselves we turn to the more unique aspects of the books. One of the most interesting is a section called “Pony Voices from the Heart" which summarizes in four frames the story from the perspective of one of the characters, often, but not always, from the one who had to learn something from the events. For a show that emphasizes character development, this approach is quite fitting, to further help the reader empathize with the characters and therefore better internalize the message.
Next is the section called “Pony Classroom," which further explains the good habit that the story is supposed to inspire, with three “tricks” each providing a way to develop the habit, and some lines for the child to write down any additional tricks that she can think of. Here the editors are freer to use screenshots out of context, which is usually not a problem but can result in some awkward deliveries. One of the stranger ones, shown to the left, is in the healthy eating tricks after “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000,” where the second one takes a screenshot from “Spice Up Your Life,” where Rarity and Pinkie are trying the Zesty Gourmand-approved cuisine. The caption that follows reads “Don’t be a picky eater, focus on matching meat and vegetables, and eat vegetables, meat, and fruit of all sorts.” Given that “Spice Up Your Life” was an episode about not eating the same things over and over again, it’s a surprise that it wasn’t used as the story. At the same time, it seems very odd for our vegetarian friends to tell us to eat meat. (It is also interesting in itself that Chinese children also are picky about eating meat, when Western parents would just expect their children to eat their fruits and vegetables. Having tried a lot of authentic Chinese cuisine while in China, I suspect it is because in many meat dishes the bones are chopped up and cooked with the meat.)
After that is a section called “Magic Practice Camp,” which presents the kids with a series of hypothetical situations that they are to judge either right or wrong, based on what they have learned. For the ones that are wrong, it further instructs the kids to discuss with their parents what should be done instead. What is particularly notable about this section is that the editors appear to have made a real effort to make the hypotheticals gender neutral—that is, both male and female characters are presented as virtuous and not-so-virtuous about equally. (I qualify this tally, though, because, especially as a non-native speaker, it is difficult to tell which names are male and female, and many Chinese names can be both.) This is interesting because in previous pony storybook publications from Tongqu, the audience was blatantly gendered—one series from 2015 was called “My Little Pony Teaches You to be a Perfect Girl.” Even more interesting is that there is no answer key in the back to accompany the questions. Though nearly all of the hypotheticals are not morally ambiguous, it still shows that the editors are more concerned with getting the children to think and interact with their parents in a dialogue, rather than to come up with the right answer. (Either that or there wasn’t room in the 120-page limit.)
What Xue considers the most important part of the books is the “Good Habit Cultivation Chart,” to encourage children to “progress a little every day.” In this four-week chart, she instructs the reader to make a small goal for oneself to develop the habit just taught, and to color in the cutie mark each day that the goal is met. Interestingly, these pages never vary per habit, always using RD’s cutie mark. I find it cute, though that Applejack always heads the chart, as a sort of watchful eye over the reader to ensure that she (or he) is honest in filling in the marks. But what is most puzzling to me is the application of such a chart to the negative injunctions in the safety book, as not playing dangerous games, avoiding dangerous places, and not believing sweet talk always require someone or something else to provide the temptation to do otherwise. There is no reason to believe that a child will encounter such situations every day, unless the goal is not to put a fork in every electrical socket one sees.
Each book ends on three notes: First is a reflective send-off of sorts, headed by these sentences: “The cultivation of good habits requires unremitting persistence. The ponies will always be there for you to cheer you on.” These are followed by a blank space next to one of the Mane Six, so the children can draw or paste a picture of themselves next to them.
Next is a gallery called “Pony Fan Artwork Exhibition,” which celebrates the artistry and creativity of those who love the show (and the books). I am not sure if these children send these pieces of artwork to Hasbro’s China offices or to Tongqu, as the book doesn’t invite them to send their own artwork to any particular place. In any case, some of the artwork is quite impressive for those from three to eleven. One six-year old (not pictured here) created a traditional Chinese shadow puppet of Fluttershy with the help of her teacher. She must have had her stage fright in mind, for she comments “Although Fluttershy is timid and shy, I hope that she can be as happy as I am every day.” Many of these young fans also like writing letters to Princess Celestia of the moral lessons they have learned in real life. Unlike the hypothetical characters, all the fans featured are girls, but it’s hard to find a young boy who is into MLP:FiM anyway, so that’s not a huge problem.
Finally each book provides a paper cutout craft of one of the Mane Six, somewhat boxy but still cute.
Although the editors designed each story to be read on their own, there are some indications that the stories also flow from each other. Most obvious is the order of the books: Learning how to learn is of course fundamental to developing good habits, so that is taught first. The basic needs of living are explored in the second book, followed by the habits of good working, which support the basic needs of living. The higher-level ideas of communication with others and forming relationships come next. The only book that completely bucks the Maslow hierarchy of needs is the last book on safety, which should have come in either between the habits of living and the habits of working, or before the habits of speaking. (To its credit, there is a blurb in “Somepony to Watch Over Me” where the editor advises the reader, as Apple Bloom encounters the swamp chimera, that “safety is most important.”) It is also interesting that “Somepony to Watch Over Me,” the story about working independently, directly follows from “Flutter Brutter,” the story about self-care, as a natural expansion of the idea.
I have already hinted my puzzlement at why “Spice Up Your Life” wasn’t used as the “healthy eating” story. I suspect two things: First, the Flim-Flam Brothers, as symbols of capitalist dishonesty, are easier, safer targets than the voice of authority that Zesty Gourmand brings. Further, Saffron Masala and her father are clearly inspired by Indian culture, and because of the border disputes between China and India, the Chinese are more likely to see India unfavorably than favorably, so having a story featuring them might get some backlash. (I did not see a single Indian restaurant when I was in China. At the same time, I do not know how "Spice Up Your Life" was received there.)
What puzzles me even more is why “Wonderbolts Academy” wasn’t used for the “don’t play dangerous games” lesson instead of “A Friend in Deed.” As I have already said, the editors had to really shoehorn that lesson in. Meanwhile in “Wonderbolts Academy,” not only does Lightning Dust purposely take extreme risks, but RD feels overshadowed by Lightning Dust because of all the risks she takes. It’s hard to interpret the fire in “A Friend in Deed” as anything more than an unhappy accident, and certainly that accident wasn’t morally significant the way that the tornado in “Wonderbolts Academy” was. Perhaps, in light of using “Newbie Dash” for the “teamwork awareness” lesson, the editors found themselves debating whether it was a good idea to show RD retrogressing on her implied awareness in “Wonderbolts Academy” on how the Wonderbolts really should operate. Maybe they thought that RD had too many episodes centered around her at that point. Maybe they just saw “A Friend in Deed” as more fun for the kids. Maybe they also thought that the scenes where Pinkie Pie keeps on waiting for mail from RD to be too distracting from the main story. It puzzles me in any case.
(I should further note, however, that this series is not the only set of pony-themed moral development books that Tongqu has recently published; there is one that focuses on making children feel proud of themselves as unique, and another that seeks to impart a more general “wisdom.”)
While far from perfect, “Presenting You 18 Good Habits” manages to capture a lot of what makes MLP:FiM so appealing to many bronies: the engaging stories, the impact of the morals, the empathy we feel with the characters, and the creativity it inspires. And probably because it was made with the parents in mind, it is no wonder it attracts fans like me, more than many English-language pony publications. (Or, at least, those who know at least a little Chinese.)
Happy Hearth's Warming Everypony!