Tag Archives: meme


The Human Flesh Searching Chinese explained in Jessi Levine’s Tea Leaf Nation/The Atlantic article

Yang-Dacai

Image from Tea Leaf Nation: Shaanxi Safety Supervision Bureau chief Yang Dacai became suddenly famous, with netizens rushing to caricature him.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed along with citizen reporter, Tufu Wugan aka “The Butcher”,  in Jessi Levine’s What a “Human Flesh Search” Is, And How It’s Changing China.

As the sociologist interviewed for Jessi’s article, we talked  a lot about the social and cultural context of Human Flesh Searching. Since Jessi could only grab a few bites from me, I thought it would be good to post some of the other questions that we discussed as a supplement to Jessi’s great article.

What is human flesh search 人肉搜索?

HFS is an accumulative, collaborative, online search process where people work together anonymously in a grassroots fashion to piece together information on people. The process unfolds outside of institutional structures and is often an attempt to carry out what a functioning legal system usually does – set moral codes, identify law breakers, and bring justice to those who were wronged.

Structurally, HFS exhibits qualities of Reed’s Law: “The Value of a Network Increases Dramatically When People Form Subgroups for Collaborations and Sharing.” And then these subgroups start working together to share information and it becomes exponentially more powerful. More from Wikipedia on HFS.

Do human flesh searches have anything in common with memes? Just like memes, they appear to be fueled by images and netizen expression. What do you think? 

The collaborative architecture of HFS is a lot like memes. It’s hard to pinpoint the origins, both are anonymous, the identity of individuals are not important, and the collective effort is more important than an individual’s contribution. And in China, memes and HFS are tied closely together; memes are the popular culture face of HFS efforts. Often times memes emerge from HFS cases. A good example of My Dad is Li Gang which was first a HFS case and then evolved into a meme when it entered popular discourse.

Who are the flesh searchers? 

Not even the people who rely on HFS know flesh searchers’ identities. The ones I’ve spoken to are everyday white collar males. They hold office jobs and many times have a lot of time on their hands. But many flesh searchers are suspected to be government civil servants.

What are people flesh searching?

Vincent Capone has documented 3 reasons that are useful categories to group flesh searching: netizen vs corruption, netizen vs animal cruelty, human flesh nationalism.

Why are people flesh searching?

There are many different reasons. Rebecca McKinnon has said that Human Flesh Searchers are idealistic. Whenever you have leaderless group activity, you’re going to see a wide range of intentions and actions. Some flesh searches do turn out to be more harmful than helpful and they often end up looking like vigilante behavior. So I agree with Mckinnon to the extent that only some flesh searchers are idealistic.

Not all flesh searchers are doing it for moral righteousness. Moral righteousness implies that they are answering to some higher form of theological belief whether it be a religious god or government. Many searchers are answering to an internal moral compass. Some of them have a very clear goal in mind that is attainable – expose information that is hidden. Many of the people I spoke to didn’t exhibit wild expectations about the outcome of their contribution to Human Flesh Searching. They simply wanted to contribute to their society, to make it better, and they happen to have the skills to help with a case they came across online. Sure, if you want to call that moral righouteouness or idealism, then ok, but I believe it reflects the enormous desire for citizens to participate  in society. In many ways flesh searchers are creating an ad-hoc legal system because they are not satisfied with the existing system. How do you create a ground up civil society when the government discourages it? Well, one of those ways is to do it in the safety of a group anonymously.

But flesh searchers write some pretty crazy stuff – why do they do that?  

You have to take the comments with a grain of salt. In many ways it is the same kind of commentary you find on 4chan boards and Youtube videos – these are people who don’t feel like they have an outlet other than the internet. All of us have multiple identities and like us, many flesh searchers exhibit one identity when they are flesh searching and another identity in another space whether it is offline or online. Often these identities are polar opposites of each other. But most importantly, the anonymous nature of HFS permits people to say things that they would never say IRL.

Are there any movements like Chinese Flesh Search? 

We could try to see this as the Chinese version of Anonymous, but structurally it is very different from Anonymous. Anonymous is more organized and has a much more clear agenda. Anonymous’s issues also cross national boundaries whereas Human Flesh Searchers are concerned with uncovering cases inside China.

How does HFS reflect what Chinese society is going through?

Human Flesh Searchers don’t trust the system to adjudicate points of social transgression, so they take it up themselves to do it.

HFS  also speaks to the changing moral landscape in China. For example, the cat killer in Hangzhou triggered questions about animal rights and protection. If this happened in the US the witness would’ve contacted the police or animal protection department and they would’ve contacted the relevant department and there would be documentation and follow up. But in a society that has only recently domesticated dogs and cats, the proper institutional oversight for domesticated animals has yet to emerge. So HFS is an ad hoc system that emerges to fulfill an institutional oversight gap.

What does this have to do with trust?

I’m fascinated by HFS because it shows the resilience of Chinese internet users to develop trust under the most difficult of circumstances. HFS exhibits the highest level of online group undertaking, which means that a lot of  trust is required to accomplish a task. And despite censorship and frequently disappearing websites, people are able to accomplish HFS.

But at the same time it exhibits the low levels of trust in society – people remain anonymous because they fear the consequences of going public, which I answer in more detail in the next question.

A more transparent and accountable China will engender more citizen trust in the government. The intensity of HFS activity could be a proxy barometer for the level of social trust Chinese citizens have in their government. A more open China will not need to rely as much on flesh searchers, whereas a more closed China will rely more on flesh searchers.

Why do flesh searchers remain anonymous? 

There are many different reasons. One of the primary reasons I look at in my work is trust. Many flesh searchers tell me that they don’t reveal their identity online because they fear retribution by the local police, government, or the people they are flesh searching. From their perspective, the risk of being public leaves them too vulnerable. Another reason could be due to pluralistic ignorance, where everyone agrees something is wrong but individuals are scared to speak up because they think they are the only one and group punishment. So instead of speaking up publicly, HFS speak up anonymously.

Hong Kong Citizens’ Online, Memetic Protest

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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.

Real Name Registration One Month Later

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Translation: (left) Real name registration (right) Weibo

Real name registration has come and gone.  The article Tricia and I penned for Wired noted some of the dangers behind the requirements to register one’s real name (it’s quite rigorous – you have to include your identification card):

In a move to exert greater control on citizen speech online, the government is requiring that Sina Weibo and China’s other microblogs register the real names and identification cards of users in several cities. Those who do not register this week in many major cities like Beijing will not be allowed to share or forward posts; after a period of testing, the policy will go into effect nationwide.

Indeed, many of our fears came true.  In a major crackdown a few weeks ago, the Chinese government flexed its muscles by shutting down comments posts.  Then they shut down web sites and conducted a number of arrests.  It’s quite clear the government wanted to send a signal in no uncertain terms that it’s serious about quelling internet commentary. (Whether or not that’s ultimately possible is another story.)

Today, the word “real name registration” (实名制) is blocked.  In its place is at least one code word, “315″, which is short for March 15, the day real name registration kicked in across microblogs, as well as a few code words that are puns off of the original Chinese.

One friend told me that real name registration has turned Sina Weibo into LinkedIn, meaning it’s solely for professional purposes. I’m already seeing evidence that users are toning down their language and saving more critical commentary for other channels.  In China, you have to learn to read between the silent moments, and the silence here is deafening..

One month later, I thought I would share some of the memes I found online as users vented their fears of the coming “shimingzhi”–real name registration–a few weeks before it officially kicked in. The most common image? That of being silenced by a face mask, an already loaded image in a post-SARS China. But you can talk behind a face mask, and I have no doubt netizens will find a way to keep the conversation going.

Rough translation: "Bloggers aren't yet required to register their real name but are already sealed."

A photo of an actual identification card in front of a web site that references the coming real name registration highlights the anxieties of this requirement: your name *and* your official identity are tied in with what you're saying.

"Everyday 315 real name registration is more solid. / 3.15 We demand rights!" The image of a shield references the Great Firewall's official name, The Golden Shield Project.

"Everyday 315 real name registration is more solid. / 3.15 We demand rights!" The image of a shield references the Great Firewall's official name, The Golden Shield Project.

"Real name registraiton... fuck you!"

"Weibo. We will not be silenced."

The two smileys show what you can and can't do with real name registration. The one up top is registered, the one below is not.

There were a few posters repurposed to reflect anxieties about being silenced.

How Memes and Infographics Are Driving the Push for Clean Air

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One netizen's photo post showed the air at different times of the day and week.

One netizen's photo post showed the air at different times of the day and week.

Any foreigner who’s visited a Chinese city notices it right away.  It’s one of the most dominant memories of the main cityscapes I’ve witnessed across China, from Hong Kong to Chonqging to Shanghai to Beijing.  Smog.  And lots of smog.  Smog, smog everywhere and all of it coming into our lungs and in our hair and catching onto our clothes and tongues.  During my time in Beijing, I developed a nasty cough that didn’t go away until I returned to the US.  And I grew up in Los Angeles and Manila, two cities notorious for their smog.

I was shocked to hear many of my Chinese friends dismiss it.  “You’ll get used to it,” they said.  “It’s not so bad,” they’d reassure me.  Meanwhile, my cough kept getting worse, and the apocalyptic skies showed no signs of stopping.  And some just dismissed it all as “fog”, not even realizing that the acrid taste in the air couldn’t possibly be fog.  Those in the know seemed to accept smog as a basic fact of life (just as I had learned to accept smog as a fact of life growing up in Los Angeles).  Others just didn’t seem to be aware it was smog at all.

An infographic explaining the air quality and trends.

An infographic explaining the air quality and trends.

But the tide (or winds, as it were) may be changing, and all for the better.  As the Guardian Environment Network has reported, Beijingers are demanding more than ever for cleaner skies.  Why now?  Part of this is because pollution has been particularly bad, even leading to flight cancellations. But part of it is–you guessed it–Weibo.  So says writer and researcher Ma Jun:

Today people have access to different sources of information and better means to spread it quickly. We can see how fast the public was able to educate themselves about air pollution. Within several months, “PM 2.5” [my link] went from sounding like strange jargon to becoming a household phrase. Through Weibo, people spread information about air pollution, like a chain reaction. Eventually, I think the government decided to respond to this public uproar — it did not want to let anger simply grow.

How did citizens get the data?  Official government statistics typically paint a rosy picture. But the US Embassy has been behind @BeijingAir on Twitter, an alternative report that shows a much grimmer picture.  Since Twitter is blocked in China, though, and the feed is in English, it took a new iPhone app (with share to Weibo function) and the opening of a @BeijingAir Weibo account to get the data into the hands of average Chinese users.  As far as I’m able to glean, these were critical in alerting citizens to the poor quality of their air.

A chart showing air quality across the world, allowing Chinese to see that, compared to the world, their country just isn't safe or healthy in terms of air quality.

A chart showing air quality across the world, allowing Chinese to see that, compared to the world, their country just isn't safe or healthy in terms of air quality.

And so a meme was born.  Not a funny one, but a viral, remixed, and forwarded meme nonetheless.  There are two factors here.  First, is the presence of data and infographics.  Lots of data.  And data organized in a very crisp, unambiguous way.  With the release of clear visual infographics, Chinese citizens could see plainly that the air they’re breathing can’t be dismissed as fog.  You can’t just get used to this stuff.  It’s dangerous and unhealthy.

But what’s also important is that the data set a context that allowed everyone to participate with pictures.  With that context, when users started posting more and more images of pollution in their cities, they started to see their cities again with new eyes.  It’s something that comes naturally to foreigners – most Americans and Europeans, after all, have never seen smog like there is in China – but it’s not something you can necessarily catch if all you’ve known is dirty, polluted skies.  Even now, I don’t notice the smog in LA unless an out-of-towner points it out to me.

And so, with mounting pressure, even Chinese media reported on the smog, and now the government is seeking feedback on how to improve.  Weibo played a role, and so did infographics and photos.

The caption here reads: "Brown Layer," suggesting a layer of pollution and trash just beneath the surface.

The caption here reads: "Brown Layer," suggesting a layer of pollution and trash just beneath the surface.

A screenshot of the Beijing Air iPhone app at work. Users posted screenshots such as this to their Weibo feeds, thus spreading the data around to their networks.

A screenshot of the Beijing Air iPhone app at work. Users posted screenshots such as this to their Weibo feeds, thus spreading the data around to their networks.

A listing of iPhone apps folks can download to get access to Beijing Air data.

Killer apps: a listing of iPhone apps folks can download to get access to Beijing Air data.

Photos such as this help netizens vent their concerns about air quality--and open everyone else's eyes to the air around them.

Photos such as this help netizens vent their concerns about air quality--and open everyone else's eyes to the air around them.

More infographics and data.

More infographics and data, with strong recommendations to don a face mask and not walk outside.

This infographic shows the interactions between city dwellers, farmers and pollution dumping in rivers.

This infographic shows the interactions between city dwellers, farmers and pollution dumping in rivers.

Learn from Lei Feng — The Meme

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One of the original Lei Feng propaganda posters. Image via Wikimedia.

One of the original Lei Feng propaganda posters. Image via Wikimedia.

Lei Feng.  He’s like a 20th century, Chinese Cincinnatus (minus the part about being an emperor), a humble servant of the people.  An early member of the Communist youth corps, Lei joined the People’s Liberation Army and died in his early 20′s when a telephone pole hit him on the head.  It was the 1960′s, in the midst of the Mao era and the launch of the Great Leap Forward, and the propaganda machine picked him up as a self-sacrificing man of the revolution and the party urged citizens to “Learn from Lei Feng.”

In 2011, the party has been trying to revive Lei Feng.  A recent article in the Irish Times looks at the revival:

Now, faced with a moral vacuum left by years of breakneck economic growth at all cost, the Chinese government is keen to mobilise the spirit of Lei Feng to help give a moral dimension to the country’s rise.

“As our society has developed we’ve seen the loss of good faith and distortions in our values,” Luo Shugang of the propaganda department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee told local media.

“To solve these issues, we must look to Lei Feng,” he said.

Naturally, it’s the internet age, and while many are earnestly trying to learn from Lei Feng’s examples, many are not, and they’re quite vocal about it.  Before social media, it would have been difficult to find these voices amidst pro-party posters and slogans. Memes and jokes have spread throughout Sina Weibo mocking Lei Feng and the propaganda machine.  The New York Times has a good overview of the cynicism that can be found on Sina Weibo:

But the party’s efforts to resuscitate the spirit of Lei Feng on the 50th anniversary of his death have exposed the limits of old school propaganda in the age of the Internet. The campaign, which culminated Monday with the annual “Learn From Lei Feng Day,” has provoked a fresh round of public cynicism about a ruling party that is struggling to cultivate a sense of legitimacy.

The familiar lessons about Lei Feng’s feats and thoughtfulness that have inundated newspapers and television have been met by snickers, expressed through essays, cartoons and blog postings that highlight the government’s failure to practice the idealized morality it seeks to propagate.

Lei Feng’s face has been remixed as part of this cynicism. I’m sprinkling in a few images I’ve culled together, but one joke in particular has been circulating pretty widely: “Just call me Lei Feng” (就叫我雷锋吧).  The story of Lei Feng’s selfless devotion and anonymity has been turned into a joke about a one night stand:

She opens her eyes.  Yesterday night she was drunk. She slept on her own bed at her own house.  The man who she met has already put on his clothes and is opening the door to go. She is suddenly sad and she says, “I still don’t know your name.” The man turns his head and laughs softly, “Just call me Lei Feng!”

—The whole country once again rises up to learn the Lei Feng chorus!

她睁开眼,昨夜的醉意已经褪去,床是自己的,家是自己的…陌生男人已经穿好衣服正要开门而去。 她突然有些忧伤,即脱口而出:我还不知道你的名字呢。 男人回头,温柔笑道:就叫我雷锋吧! ——全国再次掀起学雷锋高潮!

“Rising up” is an obvious euphemism, and “chorus” can also mean “orgasm.” And so “Lei Feng” became a joke about a one night stand. Users have been reposting the joke, including any number of just barely safe for work images.   Hence:

And many many others that are certainly not safe for work.

But it’s important to note that the propaganda has been in many successful, as I’ve also encountered a number of sincere-sounding posts about Lei Feng.  This is a good example of a political meme that goes both ways, promoted by the party and then remixed by cynics and supporters alike.  I don’t understand all the jokes or the cultural nuances, but here are just a few:

Lei Feng re-imagined as the logo for Sina Weibo.

Lei Feng re-imagined as the logo for Sina Weibo.

 

A small animated GIF bouncing around (literally).

A small animated GIF bouncing around (literally).

The super hero theme emerged as well, re-envisioning Lei Feng as a superman-like character flying around:

The words say that Lei Feng is China's first hero.

The words say that Lei Feng is China's first hero.

And of course, not all images are critical in and of themselves:

"Study Lei Feng's good example."

"Study Lei Feng's good example."

Locusts and Pandas and Bears… 哦麦 (o mai)!

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Those of us following China have noticed the increasing tensions between Hong Kong and mainlanders.  More and more mainland women have been crossing the border into Hong Kong to have babies, where their children can expect to receive better healthcare and a coveted Hong Kong passport, which offers more freedoms and privileges.  Hong Kong citizens on the other hand are protesting vociferously that mainlanders are taking jobs and resources without contributing their fair share.

“Locusts,” they’re calling them.  It’s a slur meant to conjure up the image of buzzing, swarming locusts coming in and eating up everyone’s resources.  Sound familiar?  As a Californian, I can’t help but notice the striking resemblance to issues of immigration in the United States, as states like Arizona and Alabama enact stricter rules against illegal immigration.

It ain’t easy being a memeologist, especially when working in a medium that’s not my native tongue.  On Twitter, I can easily scan through dozens of tweets in a few seconds but on different Chinese social media, I have to be more strategic.  Part of my strategy is knowing when memes will pop up.   As soon as I heard about the locusts incident, I knew it would be a meme.  What tipped me off?

  • It was sparking strong emotions across the country. No doubt, calling an entire group of people “locusts” will provoke anger and frustration.  And since a site like Sina Weibo often serves as a space for letting off steam,
  • But there are lots of issues people get frustrated about. What this issue has is very strong imagery.  From the protests in Hong Kong to the image of pregnant mainland women shuffling across the border to locusts, it’s rich with imagery.
  • The most important part, however, is that there’s an animal involved. Locusts. We all know what they look like, and they can easily be turned into a meme.  I’ll talk more about this later.

And so, of course, I knew a meme was afoot.  What did I find?  Locusts, and lots of them.  A full page ad, shown above, appeared in Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s newspapers, and it began circulating on the internet.  Here’s the translation from the Wall St. Journal: “Hong Kong people, we have endured enough in silence. Are you willing for Hong Kong to spend one million Hong Kong dollars every 18 minutes to raise children born to mainland parents?”

The ad, according to the Journal, was the work of one man who organized an online campaign to raise 100,000 Hong Kong dollars (12,900 USD).  It was a watershed moment in a series of anxiety-ridden images that began popping up in papers and online.

I first noticed this, showing a swarm of “mainland pregnant women” crossing Luohu Bridge, which connects Hong Kong with the mainland city of Shenzhen:

And then this:

And this, showing a man dropping a temporary residency permit and proudly brandishing a permanent residency permit:

These comics reflect the fears of Hong Kong residents, who perceive mainlanders as swarming their land and taking money and passports with them while giving birth to their locust children.  We don’t often see such baldly racist or classist comics in the US anymore, but a recent one comes to mind.  In Michigan, congressional candidate Pete Hoekstra gained notoriety for airing a baldly racist ad in the Superbowl with a pan-Asian woman in a bad accent claiming she’s stealing American jobs.  Sites like Funny or Die panned it immediately, with one parody featuring actress Ali Wong giggling like Chun Li in Street Fighter.

Likewise, mainlanders took the classist, fear-mongering advertisement into their own hands.  They took the original ad and distributed a blank version:

It was quickly remixed.  A lot.  I came across dozens and dozens of hacked, remixed ads, some being retweeted almost 100,000 times.  Here are a few.

This one advocates for poor Big Big Wolf, who hasn’t had a chance to eat the sheep after some 600 episodes of Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, China’s most popular homegrown cartoon.  Like Wile E. Coyote, the wolf never eats the goat, and the advertisement says he’s endured enough.  “The wolf also deserves the dignity of being a wolf!” it proclaims:

Most of the memes are more serious and they reflect deep-seated fears.  This one asks: “Do you intend for your city to always be neglected? Yangjiang people have endured enough!”  Yangjiang is a district in Guangdong province, the province adjacent to Hong Kong.  It makes claims like “Because you always think about a life in Hong Kong, you’ve neglected the benefits of welfare policies for raising children in Yangjiang” and “Because you always say culture is reviving, you neglect the extensive knowledge and deep scholarship of Yangjiang.”  Time to let go of mother’s breast and give Yangjiang a chance.  Interestingly, one little sentence in English says, “Never give up, City Yangjiang.”

Or this: “Do you intend to let your children study medicine?”  It advocates for a 5-10 fold increase in wages for doctors and a cap of 40 work hours per week:

“I’ve had enough of the counterattack from Hong Kong’s pregnant women!”:

“Do you intend for 90% of China’s officials children and families to migrate abroad?” this one explains.  It calls for officials to announce the properties they hold:

This one calls for residents of Jiangmen in Guangdong to advocate for bootleg-free television:

This one worries over the difficulty of finding “Old Friend Noodles,” a delicacy in Nanning that appears to be harder to find on the streets:

This one advocates for tourists to Zhanjiang to respect the city’s natural graces.  Zhanjiang has recently become a tourist boon for seafood and ocean viewing, being just across from Hainan, which China is trying to turn into its own version of Hawaii:

This one expresses concern over the invasion of outsiders into Foshan:

There are so many many more, with cultural references I don’t necessarily understand but which clearly struck a nerve with locals.  The locusts meme reveals a host of cultural and regional identities and anxieties, especially in southern provinces with close cultural and economic ties to Hong Kong.  It became a perfect tool for venting, and so many reflect the changing dynamics of different cities and provinces as China urbanizes.

But the locusts also reveal a universal truth about memes: animals are catchy.  I wrote about the Grass Mud Horse meme.  Bear bile has become a hot topic, as Jin Ge explored in a past post, and bear imagery has popped up in protests.  I’ll be writing more about the Pandaman meme that Global Voices explored so well.  And then, of course, we have locusts.

Just like lolcats and lolruses, advice dog and o rly owl, animals make amazing meme material.  In the west, animals are funny and cute.  In a place like China, cutesy, non-political animal memes certainly exist.  But as  the internet is the one place people have to publicly discuss political topics, animals often come with an extra bite.  In my next Meme Report, I’ll look at the Pandaman phenomenon and what it suggests about memes in China.

A Curated History of the Grass Mud Horse Song

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As I thought about how to kick off the China Meme Report, I was overwhelmed.  The Chinese internet is huge–some 500 million people are logging on each day, and nearly half of those are using microblogs. As in Twitter, Chinese microblogs like Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo are feeding grounds of some amazing memes.

Fortunately, my interests in memes are pretty focused.  I love the silly, funny memes of both the English-speaking and Chinese-speaking internets, but I’m particularly drawn to memes that effect social and political change.  An internet meme that effects change?  You mean a political meme?

Think about the Casually Pepper Spraying Everything Cop meme that popped up in response to #occupy UC Davis.  Everyone in the West remembers that meme because it was so unique–it was a crazy, silly explosion of internet remix culture targeted at a very gross violation of human rights.  As Xeni Jardin wrote, it was “Photoshop justice”, as the lulz culture of the internet struck back against the perceived incongruity of the officer’s actions.

Political memes can have real effects: the police officer and his chief were placed on administrative leave, and at least one U.S. Representative called for an investigation. (Of course, the memes existed within a broader discourse, but they certainly provided fuel.)

China’s Politically-Minded LOLCat

I’ve been fascinated by Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory ever since I read about it.  You should read the full post, but the gist of it is this: social media that are effective for sharing pictures of cute cats are also effective for spreading political messages.  He cites the “brave and noble LOLCat” as the cute cat par excellence, which has spread and continues to be funny for years.

In a recent post on my blog, I made a suggested addition to Zuckerman’s theory.  On the heavily censored world of the Chinese internet, memes are often the only way to get a message out there.  The very nature of a meme–absurd, obscure humor; frequently remixed; stickiness–makes it almost impossible to censor by both human beings and computers (both of which Chinese social media sites leverage frequently).  So while the Cute Cat Theory suggests a distinction between cute cats and activist messages, what I often see China’s internet is that the meme is the message.  In other words, the cute cat is a form of activism.

The creme de la creme (meme de la meme?) of political memes in the Chinese internet is, paws down, the noble Grass Mud Horse.  Pronounced “cao ni ma” in Mandarin (草泥马), it sounds an awful lot like another “cao ni ma” (操你妈), a an extremely vulgar slur against one’s mother and a popular insult hurled by Beijing cab drivers.  Modeled after an alpaca lama, the Grass Mud Horse is the most noble of the Chinese internet’s ten mythical creatutes, and it engages in constant battle with the evil river crab.  For “river crab”, pronounced he xie (河蟹) sounds an awful lot like another he xie, meaning “harmony” (和谐), as in the “harmonious” censored internet that exists behind the Great Firewall.

Like the LOLCat, the Grass Mud Horse has amazing staying power.  Its song was profiled by Rebecca MacKinnon and mainstream media like the New York Times and CNN as long ago as 2009, but it is alive and well with breathtaking variety.  Oiwan Lam for Global Voices looked at the amazing discourse within China.  Three years later, in China today, I’ve seen them on tattoos and cars, in stores, and of course online, where even casual pictures of llamas are referred to as Grass Mud Horses.  If not ubiquitous, it certainly feels like it.

For a while, people were talking about a supposed Grass Mud Horse toy coming with McDonald's Happy Meals.

For a while, people were talking about a supposed Grass Mud Horse toy coming with McDonald's Happy Meals.

The Grass Mud Horse Song: Remixed and Remixed and Remixed

The Grass Mud Horse has many manifestations, but my absolute favorite is the Grass Mud Horse Song, which makes a fabulous introduction to the world of China’s internet memes.   It’s an asburd children’s song (adapted from the Chinese Smurfs theme song) that tells the tale of these beasts in the mythical desert of Ma Le Desert.  (The Ma Le Desert, naturally, is a play on words referring to your mother’s most delicate bits.)  And then along come the river crabs, whom the horses must do battle with for freedom.

Recently, Ai Weiwei  posted a video of himself singing along, bringing the song  to prominence once more in the West.  He sang in response to his followers’ request, after so many people turned up to donate money to support his tax case.  But it was only the latest in the remixed, participatory world of China’s political memes, which have a unique character.

On Ethan’s suggestion, I plan to blog weekly on issues around China’s memes, and some of the amazing catches I’ve made while exploring social media sites (though I focus most on Sina Weibo, where most memes amplify).   I’ve created a system, which I’ve dubbed the “meme net”, for catching the most interesting ones before they disappear into the ether, a real risk in an internet where posts and videos mysteriously vanish in a matter of minutes if they’re deemed too sensitive or become too popular and incendiary.

But there’s time for more theorizing and explaining later.  Without further ado, I present to you a small sample of the breathaking variety of manifestations of the Grass Mud Horse Song.  Keep in mind that while I’m often embedding YouTube videos for convenience for Western readers, these videos also exist wthin the Chinese Internet.  In fact, if you starting typing in “Grass Mud Horse” on Youku, China’s YouTube-like service, the first suggested search is for this song.  And no wonder: it’s been played and forwarded tens of thousands of times.

This, as far as I’ve been able to glean, is the original Grass Mud Horse Song.  YouTube user skippybentley has done a fine job of adding translations and explanations of what you’re hearing.  The  subtitles are a common convention in China, where different people speak different dialects but read the same common language, but they also help show Mandarin speakers the different puns going on.  Plus, it’s easier to sing along, karaoke-style (this is important–it makes the song catchier and easier to remix later).

But wait, there’s more.  This is the rap/R&B version, which paints the tale of the Grass Mud Horse and Ma Le Gebi in epic fashion, where milk flows and beautiful women skillfully sing and dance of the Grass Mud Horse tribe.  Once again, skippybentley has provided helpful translation of the song’s wordplay and meaning.

In London, activists fighting for a free Tibet played on the smurf theme by advocating for “Serf Emancipation”.  They dressed up as smurfs while dancing to the song of the Grass Mud Horse.  It’s important and characteristic of many of China’s political memes–these memes leap off the internet and into the offline world, whether as Grass Mud Horse plush dolls or, in this case, as an absurdist protest outside the Chinese Embassy.

While not a song, this “documentary” on the Grass Mud Horse tells the story of the Grass Mud Horse Song in a more narrative format–complete with an epic O Fortuna soundtrack as the Grass Mud Horses attempt to access more information on censored material like the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Here’s a high school student singing the song.

Tom the Cat.

A CGI version.

A more choral, “soybean” version.

A Western college student’s reinterpretation of the tale, told in the form of a Grass Mud Horse attempting to enter a library for information.

And, of course, Ai Weiwei’s version, sung along with his iPad for good measure and then, oddly enough, censored.

So what’s the point?  Why does the Grass Mud Horse matter?  The meme is prototypical of the dark humor in China’s best political memes: subversive, punny, catchy, remixed to death, making them virtually impossible to censor.  It’s just one of many memes, but it’s the most iconic, and it’s still going strong.  Knowing how the Grass Mud Horse works helps us understand how other political memes work in China.

What Chinese Government Ban On Lady Gaga? Her Chinese fans are alive and kickin’ it

The Chinese cultural monitors over the summer enforced something that few other countries have done: ban Lady Gaga. Whereas Lebanon banned Lady Gaga as a threat to Christianity, China has blacklisted Gaga as a threat to “national cultural security.”  But once again, the citizens of China continue to out wit the censors in their covert ways to reclaim culture, this time in the form of an elderly choir performing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance on national television during mid-autumn festival, one of the most high television viewing periods all year. Their rendition was called Fashionable Old folks (Lao Lai Qiao Gaga 老来俏 Gaga). The elderly choir not only performed the song  in the local Hunan Changsha dialect, they also wrote new lyrics.

One of the performers has become so popular that people outside China are making TV shirts with her face on it. Chinese internet researcher, Pheona Chen, tells us a bit about how this was started:

“After being posted on Youtube by @mishenic on Sep 13, 2011, the video by now almost reached 1 million views. Viewers have noted the dramatic performance of one of the choir members towards the end of the video who is wearing a red shirt. Her fans have made  a special T-shirt with her face on it.”

But the odd things is that Pheona points out that the video was not popular in China:

“What’s interesting about this show is that although it became popular in Western countries, Chinese viewers didn’t seem to pay much attention to the video. While the video has been played more than 900,000 times and commented on more than 1300 times on Youtube, it has only been played 4,269 times and commented 1 time on Tudou - one of China’s largest video sharing platforms (statistics as of Nov 22, 2011).”

Perhaps the reason why it didn’t become popular is because of Pheona’s explanation about the meaning of “gaga” in the local Hunan Changsha dialect:

“…one important thing to know is that “gaga,” in Changsha dialect, means grandmother. So the lyrics and the whole performance makes sense in terms of what “Gaga” means to people who speak Changsha dialect. Therefore, not all Chinese people would understand the whole context of this video because most people speak Mandarin in the PutongHua dialect. So only Chinese people who speak a dialect that refers to the word “Gaga” as grandmother could appreciate the lyrics, the setting, and the local references.”

After reading Pheona’s translation of the lyrics, it seems that understanding that “gaga” means grandmother would be important, otherwise the new lyrics which are about family and longing  just don’t make sense!

I personally think this performance is brilliant. It reflects the tensions between parents and their children once they have grown up. The lyrics speak to elderly people’s concern in China that they will be left alone and no one, not each their daughters or sons, will have time for them. Perhaps the Cultural of Ministry will reconsider censoring Lady Gaga after seeing this heart moving  performance. I mean even Lebanon lifted its ban!

Read Pheona’s translation of the new lyrics here.