China Meme Report

Spelunking on the Chinese internet for Nicki Minaj fans

From That’s What Xu Said:

I went spelunking on the Chinese internet today. What started off as an innocuous search for Chinese Nicki Minaj fans quickly turned into a hunt for the ingenious, hilarious, and often slightly insulting nicknames created by Chinese fans for the American pop stars whose names they can’t pronounce.

After an inappropriate amount of time on Weibo and the Chinese equivalent of Yahoo Answers, I present the greatest of my findings:

Nicki Minaj – 麻辣鸡 (má là ji): a slant transliteration of “Minaj”. Means spicy chicken (ma la is a spice combo commonly used in Sichuan cooking).

Taylor Swift – 霉霉 (méi méi): derived from 小霉女 which is itself a pun on “pretty young lady”, but replacing the word for “pretty” (美/mei) with an abbreviated version of “unlucky” (倒霉). Chinese fans gave her the nickname after a string of her singles failed to make it to the top of the Billboard 100.

Justin Bieber – 碧波姐姐 (bī buó jie jie) – Sister “Bi buo”, a hyper-feminine transliteration of Bieber; more commonly 凉凉 (líang líang) which I can’t figure out at all.

Drake – 公鸭 (gōng yā): Literally “male duck”, as in the definition of a “drake”. I laughed out loud when I finally figured this one out.

Kanye West – 侃爷 (kǎn yé): a transliteration of Kanye. In Beijing dialect, this means someone who brags a lot with no actions to follow it up. (I actually love Kanye, but this is still damn good wordplay.)


Chinese video meme hit used for PLA recruitment ad

Excerpted from Quartz’s excellent What China’s 2014 internet memes said about the country’s hopes and fears:

Little Apple. A retro-sounding dance hit by two former Youku stars, the Chopstick Brothers, is China’s version of “Gangnam Style.” The song xiao pingguo, or “Little Apple,” is irreverent, annoyingly catchy, and bizarre, with a politically incorrect music video featuring the two male singers, seemingly naked except for blonde wigs, as they pose as Adam and Eve, scenes from the Korean War, and a young girl’s plastic surgery gone nightmarishly wrong.

The song has inspired homage videos across China and is something of a point of pride for those seeking to exhibit China’s “soft power” influence over pop culture, which has lagged that of its neighbors like Japan’s J-pop or South Korea’s K-pop. The song has even been used as a recruitment video by the People’s Liberation Army:

Read the rest of the article.

How the Umbrella ‘Revolution’ meme hurt the movement in Hong Kong



The ongoing protests for democracy in Hong Kong have been dubbed by many as the “Umbrella Revolution.” But days before the term was created, the dominant internet meme supporting the protests was built around student selfies accompanied by hashtags #HKClassBoycott and #HKStudentStrike. This was in line with what was then a students-only protest. Supporters participated by finding a photo of themselves as a child, often in their student uniform, and posting a picture of it to Instagram and Facebook. Some participants chose to decorate their photos with a yellow ribbon for democracy as well.

“Umbrella Revolution” only appeared in the media after local police forces unleashed a barrage of tear gas and pepper spray on protesters last Sunday. Unarmed citizens defended themselves with nothing but surgical face masks, science-class goggles and ordinary umbrellas. Shortly after the clash, stunning photos of protesters holding up their umbrellas amidst a sea of tear gas spread like wildfire across the internet and the term “Umbrella Revolution” was coined.

Unfortunately, the word “revolution” has extremist connotations that do not help but hinder the protest. To begin with, calling it a revolution is simply inaccurate: people are asking not for overthrow of the Hong Kong government, or of China, but for a more representative government. To add to that, CUHK Professor Wong Hung believes that it gives Beijing the wrong idea and encourages them to crack down on the protesters. Pro-establishment politicians Tam Yiu-chung and Robert Chow have also used the term on TV and in interviews to paint a stereotype of out-of-touch, extremist protesters. In that way, while the visual imagery of the Umbrella Revolution is uplifting for most people, its name has sparked unnecessary controversy and internet memes are to blame.

After the events of Sunday when non-students also joined the fray, the umbrella very quickly became the dominant visual. By the time I woke up Monday morning, the press, led by the BBC, had already cemented the popularity of #UmbrellaRevolution as the dominant hashtag, and the internet memes followed.




During this time, the term “revolution” was met with some on-the-ground resistance. Given the lack of survey data, I only have anecdotal evidence to support this claim:



To be perfectly clear, #OccupyCentral was and remains the most popular hashtag. But it doesn’t lend itself to a visual treatment the way #UmbrellaRevolution did. Additionally, #UmbrellaMovement itself never took off, at least in English.




Because the umbrella is such an easily drawn, easily shared visual symbol, it quickly made its way across the internet. People who could not make it to the protest, whether if it was because they were abroad or had to stay home to take care of kids, phoned in with illustrations of the so-called “Umbrella Revolution.”




During the earlier part of the week, my colleagues and I at The Civic Beat collected over a hundred umbrella memes before giving up after we realized that hundreds more were to come from a widely-shared Facebook design competition, a Facebook group and at least one Tumblr devoted to the same task. My theory is that these umbrella images became so popular on the internet that they made their way into the protest itself. Most protesters were constantly on their cell phones and, despite rumors, the internet connection was never cut during the protest. So it’s easy to see how symbols and messages on the internet might have influenced what protesters thought.


2014-10-01 23.33.202014-10-02 00.05.37


Unfortunately, the “revolution” moniker also made its way into many umbrella images, as if imposed from above. Protesters may have also noticed that the international press paid attention to the “Umbrella Revolution,” and borrowed the term to spread the word further.


2014-10-03 23.58.47 2014-10-04 03.04.58


This is where internet memes and foreign media headlines of the “Umbrella Revolution” (currently the cover of Time in Asia) clashed with the interests of many protesters, including that of the leading organizations:


2014-10-04 15.54.52


Internet memes and the foreign press may be at fault for coining the “revolution” moniker, but they have also been instrumental in making the movement as successful as it is now. Early on in the protests, internet memes helped build public awareness by allowing people to silently show their support by posting an image or changing their profile picture. (Many profile pictures on Facebook have become variations of the yellow ribbon for democracy.) The foreign press plays an even bigger role, in both creating avenues for public debate as well as fulfilling their role as a watchdog for malpractice. So while the internet public and foreign press have been overwhelmingly-positive influences, it’s also due time for them to reflect on the power they wield.

Edited by Graham Webster and Ada O’Higgins.

Anti-shanzhai memes, copycat gamemakers and Korean popstars

Left: Puzzle & Dragons. Right: Tower of Saviors. Image sources: AppAdvice, USGamer.

Left: Puzzle & Dragons, made in Japan in 2012. Right: Tower of Saviors, made in Hong Kong in 2013. (Image sources: AppAdvice, USGamer.)

This month, South Korean boy band sensation Big Bang arrives in Hong Kong as the newly-minted spokesperson for the local smartphone game, Tower of Saviors (pictured above… on the right). The city is abuzz with the news as Big Bang is extremely popular in Hong Kong and as advertisements are being plastered all over our subway system:


By all accounts, business is good for the makers of Tower of Saviors. Last October, Tech In Asia reported that the smartphone game had passed the 7 million download mark with an average revenue per paying user of US$40. And in March, Pocket Gamer reported that China game publisher Forgame paid over US$ 90 million for a 21% stake in their parent company.

But behind the commercial success is a mob of really, really angry netizens; they believe that Tower of Saviors is a shameless clone of Puzzle & Dragons. In case the image at the top of this article isn’t clear enough, EVCHK has three more examples of the similarities between Japan’s Puzzle & Dragons and Hong Kong’s Tower of Saviors.


Let the anti-shanzhai memes begin

If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying memes over the past few years, it’s the more inventive and humorous the meme, the more powerful it is. And the above song is not only funny, but immaculately produced. The first two lines of the song say:

Shanzhai, shanzhai, why are so many people buying
Be loud, copy quickly, then you can sell big

There are also image memes featuring the founder of the parent company:

Uploaded by Neerhtac to EVCHK.

Translation: “Success depends on shanzhai.” (Uploaded by Neerhtac to EVCHK.)

And if that’s not enough, a parody app called Toilet of Plagiarists:

Screenshots of "Toilet of Plagiarists" from the Google Play Store.

Screenshots of “Toilet of Plagiarists” from the Google Play Store.


Netizens make a politician take back his words (and quote Bruce Lee)

During the early rise of Tower of Saviors just over a year ago, Hong Kong legislative councilor Charles Mok was caught lauding its creators in Sky Post for their “work hard play hard” attitude and seizing the opportunity of Puzzle & Dragons’ not releasing a non-Japanese version. Two days later, Charles wrote a lengthy retraction in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, citing Facebook commenters who had pointed out the fallacies of his earlier article; including one who even went as far as to “unfriend” him in anger.

But within these two days, Charles had done his homework. First, there are over 20 Puzzle & Dragons clones, which makes the Tower of Saviors unremarkable in its mimicry. (Though it did disturb him that he publicly supported copycats.) Then, he found out that the Tower of Saviors creators were previously involved with Pencake, a Facebook app company that was banned from Facebook for its unscrupulous business practices.

Charles then quips: “如果不是初犯,就是誠信問題了.” (Translation: if it is not the first offense, then it’s a problem of honesty.)

And he audaciously ends the article with a Bruce Lee quote, “Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” And adds, “I’ve admitted it, will Madhead [the Tower of Saviors parent company]?”


The reality of global apathy and legal challenges

Upright politicians and diehard netizens aside, most people actually don’t care. One of the most common questions asked about the topic is simply: which game is better? And Puzzle & Dragons lost points early by only being released in the US and Japan app stores, which insulted gamers and pushed them into the arms of its clones.

Unfortunately, cloning games is not an uncommon practice; casual gamers are pretty forgiving about it. One recent example was for the breakthrough puzzle game, Threes, which was created in the US; then promptly cloned as 1024 in Beijing; which was in turn cloned and open sourced as 2048 in Italy – much to the dismay of its original creators who had labored on it for over a year.

Giant Bomb compares 1024 with 2048 with Threes.

Giant Bomb compares 1024 with 2048 with Threes.

One of the major underlying problems is that there’s no clear or easy way to “copyright” a game (though it is possible to throw money at the problem in the form of flimsy software patents). As such, it’s usually technically not illegal to clone and sell a game.


The future: cloning games is big business

Only time will tell whether Puzzle & Dragons and Towers of Saviors will succeed over the other, flop entirely as a fad or co-exist in the marketplace. It’s possible that the original’s design will remain superior and “crush” its clones. But it’s also possible that the clone’s significant marketing budget (Korean pop stars, etc.) will allow them to buy out entire markets.

What is already happening is that another Hong Kong-based game publisher, 6waves, is under fire for cloning smartphone games. It’s already lost its case once, and it’s slated to appear in court in San Francisco for another batch of products. Will Tower of Saviors follow a similar fate in the courts one day?

The (Un)Life of Pig: Shanghai River Filled with Pig Bodies

China Meme Report banner

Editor’s note: This article has been reposted with permission from The Civic Beat: World Report.


SHANGHAI– Thousands of pig carcasses, nearly 16,000 as of last count, have been found in Huangpu River, one of the many that supply Shanghai, the bustling, rising megacity and center of commerce for China. The body count, still rising, came from the upriver Jiaxing city, which supplies much of the pork in the country (USA Today). Was it illness that killed the pigs? Bad weather? Poor facilities? The facts are still emerging.

It’s a touchy issue for China, which has faced a number of pollution challenges this year. According to The Guardian, access to clean water is one of the country’s top health hazards. A recent report from UNICEF that they cite notes that nearly 120 million people lack access to clean drinking water.

Looking at dead pigs in the water is understandably not appealing, but how best to keep the story and imagery alive?  True to form, China’s meme makers have responded with dark humor to tell the story.

(Un)Life of Pig

With the soaring popularity of Life of Pi–it’s grossed more in China than in the U.S. (LA Times)–, “Life of Pig” inevitably became a meme.



The meme-scape around the world is filled with Angry Birds references, and China is no different.  Angry Pigs made a natural fit to express outrage at the situation.


Kim Jong Un looking at a pig?


A stunning illustration juxtaposed alongside the original poster.


Pigs and Pigs

Like many animals online, pigs became a meme for a while, where the simple mention of a pig was enough to recall the situation.  It got remixed into a number of images:


Pig fish found in the river…


Artist Meng Changsheng asked if the pigs are a reflection of China, a mirror to the country’s social and environmental woes.


And lucky for Sina Weibo users, a pig icon already exists, allowing anyone to simply post it as a way of drawing attention to the issue and keeping count.  A simple search of [猪头] (“pig head”) reveals many of these messages, buried amidst messages that don’t refer to the incident.

This story is still evolving, and we’re grateful to China Digital Times readers and the China Media Project for collecting some of these images.  What else is out there?  What else have you seen? Contribute your own findings at our Tumblr.

Note from The Civic Beat: While we make every effort to source images, we inevitably fall short. Did you create any of the images above? Please get in touch so we can cite your name with your creation.

Four Thoughts on Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style: Meme-ing as Activism

China Meme Report banner

Until recently, I hadn’t seen Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style remix, but I definitely heard about it.  Everyone on my social media feeds has been talking about, and people have emailed it to me.  I’ve seen hilarious-looking pictures and read the commentary. But I’ve just not been able to sit down and watch it.

Why is that?  It’s not for lack of effort.  Rather, I’ve been doing fieldwork in Uganda these past few weeks, and I don’t have regular access to the internet.  And when I do get online, the connection is rarely fast enough for me to actually download the video.  And that got me thinking about meme’ing as activism.  A few randomly hashed together thoughts that I’ve thrown together in my brief moments with internet access:

1. Even before I saw the Ai Weiwei version, I knew enough about the Gangnam Style phenomenon to appreciate why it’s funny.  I know that the video has been parodied and remixed countless times, so I generally have a sense of how it goes.  I know Ai is probably doing the horse dance and the cowboy dance.  I know he’s probably leaning back in a chair in the opening scene.  I figure there’s a group of people dancing with him.  I know it’s been remixed for political purposes, like in Puerto Rico.  I assume it’ll make me laugh, or at least smile.

The video isn’t actively blocked here in Uganda, but it may as well be.  And if I were in China, I’d have more or less the same experience.  It would be pretty hard (but not impossible) to find the Ai Weiwei video.  On the other hand, Gangnam Style has taken off in China just as it has around the world (including Uganda!).  If you do a short Weibo search for “江南Style”, the Chinese word for “Gangnam Style”, you’ll see remixes and commentary posted every few minutes.  PSY’s music and video are enormously popular, so much so that there’s even a Red Army edition.  And so it doesn’t matter if you can actually see the Ai Weiwei version; you just need to know that it exists, and you can probably guess how it goes. So why is that important?  Because it means you’re probably talking about Ai Weiwei again, which gets me to my second point…

2. Utilizing internet memes, whether creating them yourself or piggybacking off an existing one, is a particularly effective technique against censorship.  Sure, it’s easy to read Ai’s antics as mere attention-getting, but attention is precisely what the Chinese government doesn’t want him to get.  In the past, when the government wanted to silence someone, it could simply his or her name from the news media.  In the age of the internet, they try to do the same thing with keyword search algorithms and active human censors.  It seems like it should work, until, in some cases, it leads to exactly the kind of backfire that the Streisand Effect predicts.

To be sure, the video has been blocked on certain channels.  But as of writing this post, I’ve found that it is still viewable within the Chinese web (as pictured above). And yet even if every single instance of the video could be successfully blocked (not too hard: videos aren’t uploaded quite as quickly as Weibo posts), you’d still see pictures floating around, or, at the very least, quips and commentary.  Indeed, drawing from Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory, it would be difficult to block searches for and posts about Ai Weiwei’s Gangnam Style video without also blocking other Gangnam Style videos and therefore upsetting the apolitical social media users who are simply posting innocuous videos.  And so Ai Weiwei’s parody video–and stories about the video–live on.

Memes are the antithesis of censorship and silence.  Despite the government’s best efforts to delete Ai Weiwei’s name within China, all you have to do is think about him wearing sunglasses and doing the horse dance, and suddenly he’s back in your consciousness.  This is something I’ve written about previously: memes are loud, unforgettable and viral, and they’re effective in both censored and free speech contexts.

3. Some have commented on how overly simple the video is, but in my view, the simplicity makes it accessible. After seeing the video, I have to agree with Molly Sauter (as quoted in Ethan Zuckerman’s post) that it has a twinge of sadness.  Short clips of Ai and fellow artist-activist Zuoxiao Zuzhou in handcuffs and a brief appearance by Zhao Zhao, who’s also been subject to scrutiny, add a measure of gravity.  But surely Ai Weiwei and his studio with all its resources and talents could have created a video with more of a narrative arc, with more production value, something a little more jocular.  And yet they didn’t.

The way I see it, the simplicity of the video sends a message to viewers: you can do this too.  And that’s important. In the aftermath of Ai’s arrest, we saw how his deceptively simple works–the Studies in Perspective, the obscene jumping Grass Mud Horse pun, and the sunflower seeds–became repurposed and owned by a variety of netizens.  The Chinese web and beyond were filled with middle fingers, grass mud horses and sunflower seeds as an act of online memetic protest.  Ai’s other works require vast teams of artisans and administrators to execute and a handful of jargon-loving curators and writers to interpret.  But the Gangnam Style video?  Nothing that’s too far out of reach: all you need is a basic video camera, some editing software, and a few friends who want to dance.

4. But I’m also seeing that many internet memes have another important feature helpful for activists: they’re absurd.  In a recent blog post about the Ai Weiwei remix, Ethan Zuckerman wrote: “As Freud once said, sometimes a grown man doing a horsie dance is just a grown man doing a horsie dance.”  It’s an absurd image, but in the face of an absurd, totalitarian system that would disappear a man for 81 days, never officially acknowledge it upon his release, and then subject him to trumped up charges, travel restrictions and constant surveillance… absurdity is sometimes the only response.

But this is a random assemblage of thoughts in the midst of fieldwork in other areas (including looking at Ugandan memes!).  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What do you think?  Am I reading too much into this, or is there something to the meme’ing of activism that Ai Weiwei (and Pussy Riot and Daniel Maree and others) is pushing forward?

Hong Kong Citizens’ Online, Memetic Protest

China Meme Report banner

Like pretty much anyone else paying attention to the story, I was stunned to see the images of protests in Hong Kong, with people of all ages donning black to rail against Beijing’s plan to enact national education.  Hong Kongers deemed it brainwashing, a paternalistic move from Beijing to inculcate the special territory into its ways.  The sheer scale of the protests led to Beijing agreeing not to mandate national education.

But while citizens took to the streets, they also took to the web.  “Brainwash” may have been blocked on Sina Weibo, but “wear black” wasn’t, nor was “oppose national education.”  And if you searched for these terms and others, you’d find images like this:

These are pretty normal scenes of protest, but they have a strong online component too:

And in addition to crossing arms, the simple act of wearing black has become a visual strategy in itself, as protesters have encouraged each other to wear black to oppose national education.

The graphic refers specifically to “brainwashing”.

But like any good meme, this one also has more comic/cartoonish manifestations.  Here are a few favorites:

“Oppose brainwashing”

As soon as I heard it, I knew the “wear black” strategy made some sense: like wearing blue jeans to support gay rights, wearing black is a normally-apolitical gesture imbued with new meaning that forces dialogue (Hong Kong-based designer See-Ming Lee suggested to me that it might resemble Disney Gay Day more). This is particularly true in fashionable Hong Kong, where the smart set prefer chic black, just like New Yorkers.  But the symbol and imagery of black continued to grow till it was a sea of black shirts and black pants.  Add to that the gesture of crossing one’s arms, and you have the perfect political meme: a simple, personal gesture with easy-to-find materials.  It works as much in grand gatherings as it does in casual snaps posted onto Weibo.

Faux subway stickers that show the role of graphic design in both offline and online world contexts. The red image on the right takes subway design vernacular and says “Be careful of brainwashing”. The blue/white image on the left says: “Beware of pickpocketing”. The “thief” is stealing the word “freedom.” Photo by Jason Li.

Online and Offline

The big question is, why such an online flurry?  In mainland China, the memetic spread of images of discontent/dissent makes sense: lacking the freer speech and public assembly opportunities of more democratic nations, citizens take to the internet to express their concerns.  Since both mainlanders and Hong Kong citizens use Sina Weibo, the culture of memes in the Chinese-speaking internet hops across political/regional boundaries.  This explains why I’ve seen the crossing arms gesture amongst users in the mainland, and why sunflower seeds, the symbol originating from a Beijing artist, also has resonance in Hong Kong.  In other words, the Chinese-speaking internet loves its memes.

But the broader point to understand here is that the “meme’ing” of protest/dissent reflects just how intertwined internet life and offline life have become.  While public assembly on the streets of the city is often crucial–just look at the sheer scale of the crowd–, so is public assembly on the streets of our online city.  And in the Chinese-speaking internet, the city of cities is Sina Weibo, where netizens gather at every hour of the day to converse, share and debate in a national public forum. As I explored in my recent look at the Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng memes, the particular form of public assembly on the internet is much more visual and reliant on basic art and design skills.  This is how you show scale in an online environment–text alone is rarely enough–, and it’s a trend we’ve seen now in Hong Kong (Anti-Brainwash), Moscow (Pussy Riot), New York (Travyon Martin), Beijing (Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng) and elsewhere.  As we see more protests involving the internet generation in the Chinese-speaking world and beyond, we should expect to see more and more of this.

China’s “Fat Police Officer” Terrorizes Everything [TLN]

China Meme Report banner

Today we’re pleased to announce a new partnership with Tea Leaf Nation, a new web site dedicated to pulling insights from China’s lively microblogsphere.  Their team, scattered around the world, have shared some amazing insights, offering translations, context and images, all with a touch of quirky humor.  I had the pleasure of working with TLN’s founder, David Wertime, at the Personal Democracy Forum, where we presented on a panel together.  Given our common research interests, we thought it would be great to join forces.

So what can you expect?  We’ll be cross posting each others’ work on occasion, as relevant for our readership.  Behind the scenes, we’ll also be more actively sharing news and data with each other, to keep each other abreast of our findings in China’s vast internet.    And we’ll be linking much more often to each other’s content.

That said, I’m pleased to launch this partnership with a guest post from Tea Leaf Nation’s Liz Carter, who looked at the Shifang cop, who got memed into the most unexpected places….

Remember the Pepper-Spray Cop meme? Now, China’s got its own version.

Liu Bo terrorizes protesters in Shifang

Police and protesters faced off in Shifang earlier this week, and pictures taken by locals caught many of the police in the act of beating people. One police officer in particular has become the subject of a “human flesh search”–the Chinese term for a coordinated effort by netizens to discover as much information as possible about someone. His name is Liu Bo, but netizens have taken to calling him the fat police officer.


Barely a week has since passed, but Liu has already been spotted in Chinese social media chasing after Olympic sprinter Liu Xiang, practicing kung fu in a Jackie Chan movie, and showing off his moves on a soccer field. We can only guess where he may turn up next. Thanks to Weibo user @半杯浓茶 for collecting the below images.

In Defense of Memes Defending Themselves

China Meme Report banner

My talk at the Personal Democracy Forum at NYU’s Kimmel Center

My talk at ROFLCon III at MIT

Political memes have been on my mind as of late. It started with ROFLCon at MIT and moved on to more discussions, Skype chats and journal entries. And I’ve just returned from the Personal Democracy Forum at NYU. Been a bit of a whirlwind as I travel around the country but seeing as I’ve lived on the east coast for so long, it was really nice to catch up with friends and see that side of the country again.

These two conferences couldn’t seem more different, looking from the outside. Just look at their respective web sites. ROFLCon, i.e., Rolling-On-the-Floor-Laughing Convention, is well known for being wacky and fun, even amidst the hallowed halls of academia. I met meme superstars like Antoine Dodson of “Hide Yo Wife” fame and Bear of “Double Rainbow” fame. By contrast, the Personal Democracy Forum’s superstar attendees included senator Ron Wyden and Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of the United States.

But in reality, both two-day conferences shared a deep concern with safeguarding and securing the future of the free internet, a concern that I think has come more and more to the fore in the past year. After living in China, I saw firsthand the consequences of a not-free internet. My co-panelist at the Personal Democracy Forum, Michael Anti, became famous after his blog was deleted. And blog deletion is just one technique to keep the internet under control.

The Grass Mud Horse Song, one of the most sophisticated political memes in China

I’ve obviously discussed China’s internet quite a bit these past few months, and I blog about it regularly, but during a lunch with the Tumblr Fellows at the Personal Democracy Forum, I was asked something new: Now that I’ve been observing meme culture in both China and the US, what’s the memescape like stateside? And that’s when I started to realized what it is about memes that makes them important.

I may be shooting myself in the foot here (I’m just waiting for someone to come up with an ancient Roman analogy), but creatures like the LOLCat and the Grass Mud Horse are born on the internet. We could even say they’re of the internet. I recently stumbled across a Victorian artist’s rendition of the year 2000, and he pretty much nailed it–video chat, email, voicemail. That’s because much of the internet has analogues in the, er, analog world that are reflected in their names. E-mail, internet forums, the world wide web, web log. Tom Standage wrote a brilliant exploration the very blog-like virality of Martin Luther’s 99 Theses.

Image via

But what Villemard, that Victorian artist, didn’t predict was the noble LOLCat. How could he? Certainly, America’s Funniest Home Videos presaged the rise of YouTube’s mockery and self-mockery, and I often call memes the street of the censored web. The idea of a meme isn’t a new one, either. But who could honestly have predicted, before the internet took root, that a llama would stand as a symbol for internet freedom, or that a wacky video of a man raving about two rainbows could get over 30 million views?

And so it seems fitting to me that meme culture has become one of the most powerful tools against internet censorship in China (and, as I’m starting to note, around the world). Meme culture is the least understood by those who don’t use the internet. But culture is the right word here–like any cultural practice, the practice of sharing, remixing and laughing at memes seems completely odd to outsiders but totally natural to insiders.

The library destruction scene in Agora

Emperor Qin’s attack on a calligraphy-loving culture–and how calligraphy became a defense.

And as that culture is threatened, so do its proponents fight to preserve it. I think about that scene from Agora, about Hypatia and the Library of Alexandria. And then there’s the famous calligraphy scene from Hero, about Emperor Qin’s takeover of the rest of China. These scenes were no doubt dramatized, but part of what made them effective beyond simple depictions of destruction is that they show how people strive desperately to preserve their culture.

The good news? While scrolls and calligraphy can hardly do battle with knives and arrows, memes pack a little more punch. The relentlessness and breadth of China’s internet censorship techniques is well known. But so is the relentlessness and breadth of meme culture. The stickiness of memes, the way they inspire remixes and co-creation, their utter refusal to die–that’s a powerful tool against censorship. As I’ve witnessed in China, once a political meme sets hold in netizens’ minds, it just won’t go away. It will surface and resurface and resurface again, with dark humor that makes the serious issues a little easier to discuss.

I wish I had the prescience of that Victorian artist. I’m not good at predicting the future, but I suspect that the freedom fighters of cyberspace will come galloping in on LOLCats and grass mud horses, ready to defend our right to share silly pictures online.

And, as a bonus, here’s my interview with Nick Clark Judd at TechPresident on some of the mechanics of Chinese meme culture and language. Want to read more about Chinese memes? Be sure to follow the China Meme Report here at 88 Bar and check out my writing page for more of my writing on China’s political and social memescape.

Chinese Weibos: The Meme Behind the Titanic 3D Censorship Hoax

China Meme Report banner

Titanic 3D is out.  Yes, we all know this, the world over.  The film is expected to make hundreds of millions in China alone.

But it will be missing the nudity scene.  I remember watching the Colbert Report and seeing James Cameron report that the reason it was cut was because censors feared that Chinese men might reach out their hands and disturb viewers in front of them.  Here’s the report from Offbeat China, and the message they translated:

“Considering the vivid 3D effects, we fear that viewers may reach out their hands for a touch and thus interrupt other people’s viewing. To avoid potential conflicts between viewers and out of consideration of building a harmonious ethical social environment, we’ve decided to cut off the nudity scenes,” according to an official at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

It seemed absurd, but I accepted it as fact.  I’ve certainly heard stranger pronouncements from Chinese officials.  And yet, I saw in the Global Times that this might be a hoax:

Analysts Monday called on authorities to create the Chinese mainland’s own film-rating system, after an online joke concerning the removal of nude scenes in Titanic 3D entertained many fans, critics and media outlets.

“It is fake, and it is a joke from a student who is going to graduate,” the original poster of the message explained Saturday on his Sina blog.

The message claimed the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) had cut nude scenes from Titanic 3D for fear that the viewers would reach out and disturb other viewers.

I dismissed this briefly, as the story was coming from Chinese state media–of course they would deny something that’s embarrassing to a state agency.  In general, if a fact is denied, that’s a good sign that it might be true.

Discovering the Hoax

But then I saw the story repeated in other sources, like the Hong Kong-based Weibo Today:

And Western media finally caught the hoax too, with reports from The Hollywood Reporter and Gawker, though not till after the false report had already been disseminated.  The original story had always been intended and understood as a hoax, until it started spreading without the crucial “fake news” hashtag the original poster claims to have placed.  Offbeat China offered a good analysis of the joke turned into fact.  Their insight is particularly helpful, as their original post played a role in launching the story into the English-speaking world.

The joke was made so popular that I, myself, find it hard to believe that it was fabricated. But fake is fake, truth is truth. It is fake and it is from an evil joke by a lonely loser who soon will graduate from college.

The idea of fabricating fake news as satire and entertainment came from an American satire news organization The Onion. If you want to get a quick idea of their style, I recommend you to watch a 2008 movie The Onion Movie. Personally, I became familiar with such culture thanks to a non-popular Web figure “Huang Bo Ma” (his Renren, Douban and Weibo). Here are also some of his fake news works, many of which used to be very popular on the Internet (one, two, three).

People will notice that all fake news works are tagged as #Monologue# to distinguish from authentic news.  When I wrote the “fear of touch” joke, considering people’s unfamiliarity with the culture of The Onion, I changed the tag into #fake news# so that it won’t be seen as true. I posted the joke on my Renren album and my Sina Weibo account. Due to my small number of fans on Sina Weibo, the joke was soon buried. But the screenshot on Renren became viral. The iron[y] was, the joke became a hit exactly because the #fake news# tag was lost in people’s constant re-posting.

Losing Context: When Satirical Humor Crosses Cultures

It reminds me of when Beijing Evening News reported an Onion story as fact.  They misunderstood the context, and though everyone in the West knows “Onion” means satire, a casual viewer might not.

This is the power of a meme.  It picks up, it spreads, it’s remixed.  But then the original context is lost.  As the original blogger noted, his “fake news” hashtag disappeared after a while, and it was just an out of context story.  And although those who create the meme are in on the joke, those standing outside have no clue.  Indeed, anyone who knows anything about China’s social media sphere knows that everything has to be taken with a grain of salt; this SARFT joke was a way of poking fun at an opaque government agency that censored material without stating why.

The “truth” amplifies.  And in this case, like Chinese whispers (or Chinese Weibos, as it were), it travels through the grapevine and becomes something else.  The story also happened to fit stereotypes of China–that the men are sexually repressed, that the government is heavyhanded and nonsensical–, so it flew around Western media.  It seemed true enough (sound familiar?).  The next thing we know, the director himself is stating a joke as fact on national television.

Translation: (top) What women remember from Titanic (bottom) What men remember from Titanic.

The Meme (Inadvertently) Became a Form of Advocacy

But the more remarkable thing is what the Global Times says we should learn from this.  Remember that the Times is a state newspaper:

Raymond Zhou, a film critic, told the Global Times that many viewers have been used to unexplained deletions by SARFT, so it is no wonder that quite a number of people believed the fake information on Titanic 3D.

“SARFT is treating all the viewers as children when evaluating the content of movies,” Zhou said, adding that “subjective” evaluation standards had in fact led to unnecessary cuts of some scenes, as well as leaving in some scenes inappropriate for minors.

“We need objective and transparent standards, which should be specific on what scenes could be kept or not for viewers of different ages,” he said.

Ironically, the satirical representation of government transparency might just turn into a real demand.