BEIJING - US cultural icon Mickey Mouse landed in the symbolic heart of the Chinese state Tuesday, as an exhibition opened in Tiananmen Square just steps from Communist leader Mao Zedong's mausoleum.
In the National Museum of China, which fronts the vast plaza where protestors demanded democracy in 1989, visitors were greeted with scenes from Steamboat Willie, the 1928 film considered the debut of Disney's most enduring character.
The museum's long-term exhibits include large socialist realist paintings of key moments in Mao's life and the history of Communist China.
Some patrons felt the show's title "Drawn From Life: The Art of Disney Animation Studios" had little to do with their own experiences.
"These films reflect American values and the morals they espouse are very different from what cartoons in China teach us," said animation student Ling Kewen, 25.
Modern Chinese cartoons are animated copies of ancient tales with little or no changes to the story to appeal to younger audiences, she said, while US animation encouraged creativity, courage and love.
"But these values are also somewhat universal now, because of American cultural imperialism," said her friend, Ouyang Lihai, 24, in front of a series of drawings from the 1930s.
Despite strict censorship and quotas on showing foreign films in China, American cartoon blockbusters are typically allowed to be screened.
Disney's Big Hero 6 pulled in US$83.5 million (S$112 million) in the country earlier this year, more than any other market outside the US
The exhibit also highlighted the work of Tyrus Wong, a Chinese-born animator who was lead artist for the Disney classic Bambi.
The cartoon deer shared the museum with a permanent exhibit on Chinese history called "The Road of Rejuvenation."
According to a panel, that exhibit "demonstrates the glorious but long course of achieving national happiness and prosperity and fully reveals how the people chose Marxism, the Communist Party of China [and] socialism."
The museum has attracted controversy in the past. In 2011 a statue of Chinese thinker Confucius appeared and then quickly disappeared from the museum's grounds.
At the time the appearance of the 7.9-meter (26-foot) tall effigy was seen as a sign the ancient philosopher was back in favour after his teachings were suppressed for decades during Mao's campaigns to denounce backward ways.
But the statue was relocated a few months later and many speculated politics were at play.