Cute characters are driving a new business model for online designers and artists in China.

When Silly Piggy first appeared on the popular WeChat social media app, the sticker became an instant hit, with people sending it more than 30 million times in its first month to express their feelings in text messages.

Stickers like the mischievous cartoon pig and other quirky creatures are all the rage in the world’s second-largest economy, giving the artists behind them a way to make money and win fans – as long as they stay within the bounds of censorship.

The creator of Silly Piggy, River Rui, was able to leave her office job with a design firm and set up as an independent artist thanks to the success of her character. “Silly Piggy is more like how I am in my little world, how I interact with my friends, it’s that Silly Piggy kind of style,” she said.

The pig has many moods: he types furiously at his desk as tears stream down his face. He lays flat on the office floor as his spirit leaves his body. “Basically anyone who has done overtime will have the same feelings as him,” Rui said as she doodled on a scrap of paper in a Shanghai cafe.

Unlike memes and animated GIFs popular outside China, instant messaging stickers are often original creations of local artists who can see their little characters enjoy spectacular popularity among the country’s 847 million mobile internet users and spread offline through commercial licensing deals.

“Friends feel proud of me when people they know share my stickers and they tell them ‘I know the person who made those.’ It’s really flattering and makes me very happy,” Rui said. “It’s like a dream.”

Now more than two-thirds of her income comes from her cartoon pig, through licensing and selling merchandise online, including soft toys and keychains of Silly Piggy.

Chinese artist River Rui sketches images of her ‘Silly Piggy’ online character at a cafe in Shanghai. Photo: Matthew Knight

WeChat also allows people to send money to the artists directly via the application. Some, like Rui, have a loyal following.

Scores of excited fans queued up for Rui’s autograph at a recent fan meeting in a fashionable Shanghai mall with a pop-up Silly Piggy merchandise stall.

“It’s so cute and it reflects how young office workers feel inside,” Yang Hao, 23, a Silly Piggy fan. “Even though it’s grumbling it can still express that in a really lively and vivid way.”

Stickers are also popular in other parts of Asia.

In Japan, the LINE messaging service has launched 4.9 million sets of stickers, including officially-approved cartoon versions of famous characters from Harry Potter to Mickey Mouse.

South Korea’s largest messaging app KakaoTalk introduced its first set of emoticons back in 2011 and now boasts 7,500 sets that generally cost 2,000 won (US$1.70) each.

Still, WeChat stickers are subject to strict censorship such as the online content in Communist-ruled China.

Also, to be approved by the platform, stickers must not violate rules such as harming the nation’s honor, disturbing social order or inciting unlawful assembly and protest, according to WeChat’s regulations.

– AFP