• Andrew Collins

Internet Popular Culture in China: 2014 Highlights

2014 has been, without question, a year of China dominating the news. From food scandals to terrorism, corruption trials to technology IPOs, banking to protests, China’s media exposure would be the stuff of any C-list celebrity’s dreams.

And yet, on many levels, China remains a mystery to most. Sure, we’ve heard of Weibo and WeChat, we know Alibaba made a ton of money in its IPO, but who are the people behind the platforms? What are they sharing? How are they using the Internet? Though clones of blocked social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Youtube, give China’s Internet landscape a bizarre, twilight zone-esque quality of eerily familiar, China is a whole ‘nother animal, and we can’t afford to forget it. As the world’s most populous country and just recently, largest economy, China is influential, with even minor domestic policies potentially profoundly impacting on the rest of the world.

So, on-the-ground here at the Mailman HQ in Shanghai, we’ve studied China’s Internet platforms, social media, memes, and users to create an overview of China’s Internet pop culture. You can read the original here, but we’ll highlight the top what #BroketheInternet in China during 2014.

Themes

As in the west, China’s Internet gives insight into the collective beliefs, anxieties, and overall zeitgeist of modern, young citizens. And with over 630 million Internet users in China, there’s a lot going on. Weibo is still indisputably where the most content goes viral, but Baidu’s online forums, WeChat, and online video sites are all platforms that people find and share things.

We’ve found that many of the popular topics revolve around three major themes: social causes, wealth, and changing cultural values. Social media allows people to air and spread (albeit heavily monitored) societal issues. Images and posts around problems such as poverty, illness, animal abuse, natural disasters, etc. not only provide a way for people to learn, but also connect to others facing are struggling against similar issues. As many have disposable income for the first time, the splashy ways China’s nouveau riche, or tuhao, have spent it, often go viral. The infamous Guo Meimei, a Kim Kardashian of sorts, shot to Internet stardom with a scandal and images of her expensive lifestyle. Changes in social norms have many unsure of their identity, place, and their values and become a focal point for discussion.

These themes are expressed in a variety of ways- posts and images are the most common- but Chinese netizens have displayed a particular penchant for photoshop and autotuning news clips, with memes like “Little Fatty” and “100 Kuai” spawning hundreds of user-generated versions.

China’s Internet Language

Due to the tonal nature of the language, Chinese has many similar sounding words. As a result, memes relating to wordplay, sometimes for fun, sometimes for censorship evasion, are very popular. The most famous example of this is the cao ni ma, which can refer to an alpaca-like animal or simply, “fuck your mom.” He xie can mean river crab, but is usually used to mean “harmonize,” a euphemism the government uses for censorship in the spirit of creating a “harmonious society.” And like in the west, China has developed its own “netspeak.” While there’s no urban dictionary, plenty of slang phrases parents definitely wouldn’t understand abound, like diao si, or “loser,” which is used often as a self-description, somewhat ironically, as someone who doesn’t fit in.

Crossover

Of course, some topics are universally popular. Netizens spend a lot of time talking about international news, like the Ferguson riots, or on video streaming websites watching entertainment, including many western TV shows. Sherlock, or “Curly Fu” as he’s nicknamed in China (because of his hair and a pun on his name), is particularly popular. Not only have several Sherlock themed cafes opened in China, but the show’s protagonists are also bizarrely the subject of gay erotica fan fiction…written mostly by women. Stampedes are practically a given (understandable) when David Beckham is in town, and even the ALS ice bucket challenge crossed over into Chinese social media, with many tech CEOs posting their videos.

This year was also a time of reverse crossovers- from China to the west. China’s successful (mostly) moon rover launch put China among only three nations that have landed on the moon. A humorous Weibo account under sent moon rover updates and was even the recipient of Chinese questions, hopes, and dreams for the future. 2014 also marked the first time a Chinese video successfully transitioned. The Chopstick Brothers megahit, “Little Apple,” was arguably the song of the year in China, with everybody, including the Chinese army, uploading a video of the dance. The song even won an award at the American Music Awards- a first, for China.

What Does the Future Hold?

Though China’s Internet and technology are finally starting to come into their own, the future is not completely rosy; this past year has also seen increasingly strict media, Internet, and entertainment laws. Laws governing rumors, spreading information, puns, and even western TV shows online have been announced and enforced, with shows like The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, and The Good Wife, banned this year. But to be fair, with worries over the Sony cyberhacking, Google‘s struggle in Europe, and the issue with net neutrality in America, China isn’t the only nation reviewing their policies around the Internet.  Although it might take some time before China finds itself online and internationally, the same can be said for all of us, no matter where we’re from.

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