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China’s Celebrity Diplomats: The Online Fan Culture Surrounding Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin

The fan culture surrounding Wang Wenbin comes at a time when China’s ‘diplomat dream team’ already has a steady fanbase on social media.

Manya Koetse




From TikTok fan videos to Weibo super topics – there’s a lively fan culture surrounding China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin. He is not the only ‘celebrity spokesperson’ on Chinese social media. Fans see China’s diplomats as national heroes and online idols.

In December of 2022, Wang Wenbin, top diplomat and the 32nd spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was spotted out and about at Huangshan Mountain by Chinese netizens.

Soon, videos of Wang spread on Weibo and Douyin, where many people expressed excitement about seeing the top diplomat at the popular tourist spot and outside of the usual formal setting.

Wang Wenbing (汪文斌, b. 1971) is the Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department of China. He studied at China’s Foreign Affairs University, majoring in French and economics, and has been working for China’s Foreign Ministry since 1993. Wang previously also took up the post as ambassador in Tunisia from 2018 to 2020.

Wang was in Huangshan, Anhui, to attend a visit of various international VIP guests from the IMF, World Bank, OECD, etc. on the occasion of the Seventh “1 6” Roundtable, which convened in the province of Anhui. Wang Wenbin originally is from Xindu village in Tongcheng, Anhui.

The fact that Wang was spotted in Anhui at that time was noteworthy. It was the first time since Covid that various Chinese officials welcomed and entertained international guests, marking an end to China’s zero-Covid era; and it was all taking place in Wang’s home province, where he is also known as “Anhui’s pride.”

Wang Wenbin, top diplomat and spokesperson for China's MFA, was out and about in Anhui, and many people were happy to see him IRL and posted their videos of him on social media,calling him “the pride of Anhui, the pride of China.”

The 2022 excitement on Chinese social media surrounding the new Wang Wenbin videos went far beyond ‘Anhui’s pride’ alone; it showed the wider popularity of the top official on Chinese social media and signaled a broader trend of Chinese diplomats becoming online celebrities.

From fan videos on Douyin (TikTok) and Bilibili to discussion threads on Zhihu, Chinese diplomats have become idolized on social media over the past few years. Besides all the fan accounts on various Chinese social media platforms, Wang Wenbin also has dedicated ‘super topic’ communities on Weibo, which are forums focused on particular topics or celebrities.

There is the “Wang Wenbin Super Topic” page and also the “Wang Wenbing Exchange” (汪文斌交流) and the Wang Wenbin’s Bin’s Sweets” forum (汪文斌的斌糖). These public online forums contain thousands of posts dedicated to Wang.

One of the supertopic forums on Weibo dedicated to Wang Wenbin.

The Wang Wenbin supertopic pages are all about content featuring Wang in his role as the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, replying to various questions during regular press conferences. Netizens are creative in editing images of Wang, adding quotes or drawings, and they make special fan videos.

Some of these videos have added texts or special effects, showing Wang Wenbin surrounded by sparkles and floating hearts as a sign of affection. Commenters praise Wang for being “so simple, so assertive,” while others complement the diplomat on being so “hard-working,” “concise and comprehensive.”

Wang Wenbin ‘fan art’ on one of the supertopic pages.

There are also those who praise Wang’s looks and expressions, saying his facial features are “handsome,” “cute,” “adorable,” and saying that ‘Uncle Wang’ is just too “cool.”

At a time of growing U.S.-China tensions and recurring international hot issues including China’s stance on the war in Ukraine and the Taiwan question, Wang Wenbin and his immediate colleagues Mao Ning (毛宁) and Hua Chunying (华春莹) are featured more prominently on social media by official media accounts that highlight answers given during the regular Foreign Ministry press conferences, which are held five times per week.

As Wang Wenbin is given greater visibility on Chinese social media by state media accounts, the online fan communities dedicated to Wang grow more lively as they have more material to express their enthusiasm about the Foreign Ministry spokesperson.



Chinese Diplomats Becoming Celebrities


Wang is not the first Chinese top official or diplomat to become an online celebrity. Former Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) previously also became very popular among Chinese netizens.

Zhao rose to popularity in 2020, the year he started his job as the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and many netizens loved him for his “disarming smile” and because of his demeanor, as many joked Zhao often looked like he could not wait to get off work.

An online meme culture developed around Zhao, who often repeated certain phrases or expressions during press conferences. Among them was the expression “shìmù yǐdài” (拭目以待), to eagerly wait for something to happen, literally meaning “to wipe one’s eyes and wait” (e.g. he used it in 2022 in the context of China waiting to see if Pelosi would actually dare to visit Taiwan or not). Phrases such as these became widely known and were used in affectionate online jokes about Zhao.

Shìmù yǐdài 拭目以待, to eagerly wait for something to happen, literally “to wipe one’s eyes and wait,” is one of Zhao Lijian’s famous phrases.

Even though Zhao was moved from his position as spokesperson and transferred to the Boundary and Ocean Affairs department earlier in 2023, there are still online communities dedicated to him where new posts with Zhao-related images, gifs, and videos keep flooding in.

Even though Zhao has left his post as spokesperson, the online communities dedicated to him are still lively.

Before Zhao’s rise to fame, China’s MFA spokespeople and other diplomats had already gained an online fanbase. Around 2017, the concept of China’s “diplomat dream team” (外交天团) started to be used more frequently by Chinese media and social media users.

This was around the same time when Hong Lei (洪磊), Geng Shuang (耿爽), Lu Kang (陆慷), and Hua Chunying (华春莹) served as spokespeople for the Foreign Ministry and when their remarks on diplomatic events carried a more assertive and confrontational tone of voice facing heightening tensions with the U.S. over trade, the South China Sea, and human rights.

For example, China Daily ran an article about the “wonderful responses” from China’s diplomat dream team in 2017 (link) and they ran another similar one in 2018 (link).

An early example of China’s “Diplomat Dream Team.” Left: China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, former spokesperson Hong Lei, spokesperson Hua Chunying, diplomat Lu Kang, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang.

But it was not until 2020 when China’s top diplomats and the “spokesperson top team” (发言人天团) really garnered online attention as they were often featured in headlines and created a stir.

Not only was 2020 the year that ‘celebrity diplomat’ Zhao Lijian joined the spokesperson team, it was also a year of complex international developments including the Covid outbreak and worsening diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China driven by ‘eye for an eye’ strategies; one day after the Chinese consulate in Houston was forced to close, China also ordered the American consulate in Chengdu to shut its doors.

In July of 2020, Wang Wenbin joined the ‘top team’ of Chinese diplomats, which was praised online as China’s “strongest diplomatic mission.”

China’s “diplomat top team,” image via Zhihu blogger.

In 2021, the top-level US-China talks in Alaska further contributed to the social media frenzy surrounding China’s diplomatic corps. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, also nicknamed the ‘captain’ of the diplomatic team, traveled to Anchorage with Chinese top diplomat Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) for the tough meeting. Before entering a session of the high-level talks, the diplomats were filmed walking together when Wang asked Yang if he had lunch, with Yang then answering: “Yes, I had instant noodles.”

‘Noodle gate’ blew up on Chinese socials, where many saw the incident as a sign of American inhospitality and rude treatment of the Chinese top diplomats. The incident also added to the popularity of Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi.

There are various reasons why Chinese diplomats and MFA representatives have become particularly popular over the past few years.

Some of the main causes related to the celebrity culture surrounding Chinese modern-day diplomats lies in (1) their new role in China’s (online) media environment, (2) the way they have become an example to ordinary people, and (3) the shift in Chinese diplomacy that has turned them into ‘wolf warrior’ heroes.



Chinese Diplomacy in the Age of Social Media


The growing fame of Chinese diplomats and spokespeople is very much an online phenomenon, and so their surge in popularity goes hand in hand with the rise of (China’s) social media.

The role of social media is crucial in three ways. First, Chinese official accounts and state media use social media as an important channel to spread official propaganda and narratives. Although China’s MFA spokespersons are meant to be the face of China to the world, their role is just important – and perhaps even more weighty – for the audiences at home as symbols of China’s foreign policies.

Second, social media is also increasingly used by Chinese diplomats individually as a platform to voice the stances they represent. In an article titled “China’s Internet Celebrity Diplomats” (2020), Christian Shepherd described how Zhao Lijian used social media to build “a personal brand that is rare for a Foreign Ministry spokesperson” as China’s most high-profile official on Twitter.

In our 2020 article about this topic, What’s on Weibo found that there was a significant surge in Chinese official accounts arriving on Twitter in 2019 and in early 2020. The first surge of Chinese diplomatic accounts happened in 2019 at the time of the Hong Kong Protests; a second peak in Chinese official accounts joining Twitter took place in the period of January to March 2020 during the international Covid-19 crisis.

At the time of writing, Zhao has over two million followers on Twitter (@zlj517). Zhao Lijian is also active on Weibo (@赵立坚个人微博), where he has over 8 million fans. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying is not active on Weibo, but she has two million followers on Twitter (@Hua Chunying 华春莹).

Wang Wenbin, Geng Shuang, Wang Yi, Hua Cunying, Zhao Lijian.

Third, social media platforms allow for communities to form around Chinese diplomats in a way that would be unthinkable in the pre-social media era.

There has been a lot of attention for celebrities taking on diplomatic roles, but less so for diplomats taking on celebrity roles. Studies about diplomats or politicians becoming internet celebrities often focus on those who are also active on social media themselves, making them more accessible and relatable.

But diplomats such as Wang Wenbin are an exception: Wang Wenbin does not have an official Twitter account, nor is he active on Weibo or any other popular social media platforms. Nevertheless, there are thriving online communities surrounding him that help bridge the divide between the top level diplomat and ordinary people, creating connections between diplomats and Chinese people in novel ways.

In the Chinese social media environment, the fan culture surrounding China’s top diplomats is fuelled by the dynamics of the official propaganda apparatus and state media campaigns disseminating hashtags and videos that underline the main messages of China’s Foreign Ministry. Although it often builds on official media content, the online fan culture itself is non-official and functions in similar ways as other idol fan communities do.



The Person Behind the Diplomat


There is another dimension to the online interaction between netizens and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespersons and diplomats. They are not just being idolized, they are also being humanized.

Besides the more serious patriotic and nationalist videos, it is often the small flaws and funny interactions that go trending on social media and make China’s diplomats more likeable to the audience.

Fans of Wang Wenbin or Zhao Lijian like to create images or videos that highlight the moments in which the diplomats share a quick smile, make a little mistake, or are caught in a situation that is different from their usual role as spokesperson.

It might be as small as a strand of hair sticking out during a speech, a misunderstanding with a journalist, or how Wang Wenbin is fiddling with his translation headset during an international conference. These kind of moments are not highlighted to ridicule the diplomat; on the contrary, netizens treasure these moments in which diplomats become more likable and relatable.

Another way in which netizens like to catch a glimpse of the private person behind the public diplomat is by sharing old photos and getting to know more about them in their younger years.

Wang Wenbin in his younger years.

On Weibo, Bilibili, and Douyin, there are dozens of videos comparing photos of Chinese diplomats, including Wang, in their younger years versus now (e.g. 外交天团年轻的样子).

For many fans, Chinese diplomats also serve as an inspiration. “I love them, they’re my role models,” one Weibo blogger writes, posting photos of diplomats such as Wang Yi, Hua Chunying, Zhao Lijian, Hong Lei, Geng Shuang, and Lu Kang.

For many, Wang Wenbin especially is a role model because of his language skills. Wang speaks several foreign languages including English and French. He previously also attracted attention for sending out new year’s wishes in 11 different languages.

“I really like him because he encourages me to do well in my studies,” one fan account (@是汪叔和赵叔啊) writes.



Wolf Warrior Heroes


The widespread admiration for Chinese diplomats and MFA spokespersons has various social, cultural, and historical reasons, and nationalism also plays a big role in this, as their growing online popularity is accompanied by the rise of so-called “wolf-warrior diplomacy” and the soaring cyber nationalism that comes with it.

The term “wolf warrior diplomacy” (战狼外交) became a buzzword for China’s diplomacy since around 2020 (Dai & Luqiu 2022). It is a reference to the highly successful Chinese blockbusters Wolf Warrior (战狼, 2015) and Wolf Warrior II (战狼2, 2017), and basically means a style of diplomacy that uses a much harsher and more confrontational rhetoric – which poses a contrast to a more restrained and softer tactic in foreign diplomacy.

Hua Chunying and Zhao Lijian were among the most visible wolf warrior diplomats as they were the main MFA spokespersons in early 2020 and were both active on Twitter, where they also actively confronted external criticism of China.

Zhao Lijian also became known for tweeting out a photoshopped image of an Australian soldier murdering a child, alluding to a report on unlawful killings of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops. His controversial post led to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanding an apology from China (read more about this kind of political visuals in our article here).

In a 2022 article titled “Why Have Chinese Diplomats Become So Aggressive?,” author Nien-chung Chang-Liao argues that China’s more aggressive style of diplomacy is not just meant to persuade foreign audiences to accept Chinese narratives in international relations, but could also be viewed as a way to appeal to nationalist attitudes at home, while also demonstrating loyalty to the Party and Xi Jinping – who emphasizes the need for confidence in China’s new era.

The approach seems fruitful: over 70% of respondents to a survey by Global Times allegedly indicated that they thought a ‘wolf-warrior’ style diplomacy improves China’s global image. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying also indicated that she had no issue with the ‘wolf warrior’ label and even embraces it (Chang-liao 2022, 179-181).

While Zhao Lijian was known as the real ‘wolf warrior diplomat,’ Wang Wenbin’s style is perceived as being more “calm,” “scholarly,” and “refined,” even though he he still seen as critical and assertive.

Recently, it was Wang Wenbin who slammed U.S. claims that China might arm Russian troops in the war in Ukraine, saying “it is the United States and not China that is endlessly shipping weapons to the battlefield.” Wang also called the shootdown of the alleged Chinese spy balloon “100 percent hysteria,” and he recently urged the United States to give up its “hegemonic” approaches to international affairs.

For many Wang Wenbin fans, this style of assertive yet ‘refined’ foreign policy strikes a chord, as they support how Wang shapes China’s image abroad: “It’s the perfect interpretation of being a great and elegant great power.”

“Today’s problems are complex and manifold, but Uncle [Wang] is organized and clear and answers with a smile. From beginning to end, I always admire him,” one comment says.

One Weibo blogger writes to Wang: “You’re so busy, you must be tired. I hope you can also take some time to rest. I just wish you all the best.”

Another fan writes: “Uncle, you work so hard, you are not afraid of facing the ‘hail of bullets’ fired at you by foreign media in the blue room, you defend our country, you are our hero!”

By Manya Koetse 


Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our newsletter and get access to our latest articles:


Chang-Liao, Nien-chung. 2022. “Why Have Chinese Diplomats Become So
Aggressive?” Survival, 64:1: 179-190.

Dai, Yaoyao, and Luwei Rose Luqiu. 2022. “Wolf Warriors and Diplomacy in the New Era.” China Review 22 (2): 253-283.

Shepherd, Christian. 2020. “China’s Internet Celebrity Diplomats.” Australian Financial Review, Dec. 10, page 27.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2023 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on Contact at, or follow on Twitter.

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China Insight

The Tragic Story of “Fat Cat”: How a Chinese Gamer’s Suicide Went Viral

The story of ‘Fat Cat’ has become a hot topic in China, sparking widespread sympathy and discussions online.

Manya Koetse



The tragic story behind the recent suicide of a 21-year-old Chinese gamer nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ has become a major topic of discussion on Chinese social media, touching upon broader societal issues from unfair gender dynamics to businesses taking advantage of grieving internet users.

The story of a 21-year-old Chinese gamer from Hunan who committed suicide has gone completely viral on Weibo and beyond this week, generating many discussions.

In late April of this year, the young man nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ (胖猫 Pàng Māo, literally fat or chubby cat), tragically ended his life by jumping into the river near the Chongqing Yangtze River Bridge (重庆长江大桥) following a breakup with his girlfriend. By now, the incident has come to be known as the “Fat Cat Jumping Into the River Incident” (胖猫跳江事件).

News of his suicide soon made its rounds on the internet, and some bloggers started looking into what was behind the story. The man’s sister also spoke out through online channels, and numerous chat records between the young man and his girlfriend emerged online.

One aspect of his story that gained traction in early May is the revelation that the man had invested all his resources into the relationship. Allegedly, he made significant financial sacrifices, giving his girlfriend over 510,000 RMB (approximately 71,000 USD) throughout their relationship, in a time frame of two years.

When his girlfriend ended the relationship, despite all of his efforts, he was devastated and took his own life.

The story was picked up by various Chinese media outlets, and prominent social and political commentator Hu Xijin also wrote a post about Fat Cat, stating the sad story had made him tear up.

As the news spread, it sparked a multitude of hashtags on Weibo, with thousands of netizens pouring out their thoughts and emotions in response to the story.

Playing Games for Love

The main part of this story that is triggering online discussions is how ‘Fat Cat,’ a young man who possessed virtually nothing, managed to provide his girlfriend, who was six years older, with such a significant amount of money – and why he was willing to sacrifice so much in order to do so.

The young man reportedly was able to make money by playing video games, specifically by being a so-called ‘booster’ by playing with others and helping them get to a higher level in multiplayer online battle games.

According to his sister, he started working as a ‘professional’ video gamer as a means of generating money to satisfy his girlfriend, who allegedly always demanded more.

He registered a total of 36 accounts to receive orders to play online games, making 20 yuan per game (about $2.80). Because this consumed all of his time, he barely went out anymore and his social life was dead.

In order to save more money, he tried to keep his own expenses as low as possible, and would only get takeout food for himself for no more than 10 yuan ($1,4). His online avatar was an image of a cat saying “I don’t want to eat vegetables, I want to eat McDonald’s.”

The woman in question who he made so many sacrifices for is named Tan Zhu (谭竹), and she soon became the topic of public scrutiny. In one screenshot of a chat conversation between Tan and her boyfriend that leaked online, she claimed she needed money for various things. The two had agreed to get married later in this year.

Despite of this, she still broke up with him, driving him to jump off the bridge after transferring his remaining 66,000 RMB (9135 USD) to Tan Zhu.

As the story fermented online, Tan Zhu also shared her side of the story. She claimed that she had met ‘Fat Cat’ over two years ago through online gaming and had started a long distance relationship with him. They had actually only met up twice before he moved to Chongqing. She emphasized that financial gain was never a motivating factor in their relationship.

Tan additionally asserted that she had previously repaid 130,000 RMB (18,000 USD) to him and that they had reached a settlement agreement shortly before his tragic death.

Ordering Take-Out to Mourn Fat Cat

– “I hope you rest in peace.”
– “Little fat cat, I hope you’ll be less foolish in your next life.”
– “In your next life, love yourself first.”

These are just a few of the messages left by netizens on notes attached to takeout food deliveries near the Chongqing Yangtze River Bridge.

AI-generated image spread on Chinese social media in connection to the event.

As Fat Cat’s story stirred up significant online discussion, with many expressing sympathy for the young man who rarely indulged in spending on food and drinks, some internet users took the step of ordering McDonalds and other food delivery services to the bridge, where he tragically jumped from, in his honor.

This soon snowballed into more people ordering food and drinks to the bridge, resulting in a constant flow of delivery staff and a pile-up of take-out bags.

Delivery food on the bridge, photo via Weibo.

However, as the food delivery efforts picked up pace, it came to light that some of the deliveries ordered and paid for were either empty or contained something different; certain restaurants, aware of the collective effort to honor the young man, deliberately left the food boxes empty or substituted sodas or tea with tap water.

At least five restaurants were caught not delivering the actual orders. Chinese bubble tea shop ChaPanda was exposed for substituting water for milk tea in their cups. On May 3rd, ChaPanda responded that they had fired the responsible employee.

Another store, the Zhu Xiaoxiao Luosifen (朱小小螺蛳粉), responded on that they had temporarily closed the shop in question to deal with the issue. Chinese fast food chain NewYobo (牛约堡) also acknowledged that at least twenty orders they received were incomplete.

Fast food company Wallace (华莱士) responded to the controversy by stating they had dismissed the employees involved. Mixue Ice Cream & Tea (蜜雪冰城) issued an apology and temporarily closed one of their stores implicated in delivering empty orders.

In the midst of all the controversy, Fat Cat’s sister asked internet users to refrain from ordering take-out food as a means of mourning and honoring her brother.

Nevertheless, take-out food and flowers continued to accumulate near the bridge, prompting local authorities to think of ways of how to deal with this unique method of honoring the deceased gamer.

Gamer Boy Meets Girl

On Chinese social media, this story has also become a topic of debate in the context of gender dynamics and social inequality.

There are some male bloggers who are angry with Tan Zhu, suggesting her behaviour is an example of everything that’s supposedly “wrong” with Chinese women in this day and age.

Others place blame on Fat Cat for believing that he could buy love and maintain a relationship through financial means. This irked some feminist bloggers, who see it as a chauvinistic attitude towards women.

A main, recurring idea in these discussions is that young Chinese men such as Fat Cat, who are at the low end of the social ladder, are actually particularly vulnerable in a fiercely competitive society. Here, a gender imbalance and surplus of unmarried men make it easier for women to potentially exploit those desperate for companionship.

The story of Fat Cat brings back memories of ‘Mo Cha Official,’ a not-so-famous blogger who gained posthumous fame in 2021 when details of his unhappy life surfaced online.

Likewise, the tragic tale of WePhone founder Su Xiangmao (苏享茂) resurfaces. In 2017, the 37-year-old IT entrepreneur from Beijing took his own life, leaving behind a note alleging blackmail by his 29-year-old ex-wife, who demanded 10 million RMB (±1.5 million USD) (read story).

Another aspect of this viral story that is mentioned by netizens is how it gained so much attention during the Chinese May holidays, coinciding with the tragic news of the southern China highway collapse in Guangdong. That major incident resulted in the deaths of at least 48 people, and triggered questions over road safety and flawed construction designs. Some speculate that the prominence given to the Fat Cat story on trending topic lists may have been a deliberate attempt to divert attention away from this incident.

‘Fat Cat’ was cremated. His family stated their intention to take necessary legal steps to recover the money from his former girlfriend, but Tan Zhu reportedly already reached an agreement with the father and settled the case. Nevertheless, the case continues to generate discussions online, with some people wondering: “Is it over yet? Can we talk about something different now?”

Fat Cat images projected in Times Square

However, given that images of the ‘Fat Cat’ avatar have even appeared in Times Square in New York by now (Chinese internet users projected it on one of the big LED screens), it’s likely that this story will be remembered and talked about for some time to come.


On May 20, local authorities issued a lengthy report to clarify the timeline of events and details surrounding the death of “Fat Cat,” which had attracted significant attention across China.

The report concluded that there was no fraud involved and that “Fat Cat” and his girlfriend were in a genuine relationship. Tan did not deceive “Fat Cat” for money; the transfers were voluntary. Furthermore, Tan returned most of the money to his parents.

The gamer’s sister is reportedly still being investigated for potentially infringing on Tan’s privacy by disclosing numerous private details to the public.

In the end, one thing is clear in this gamer’s tragic story, which is that there are no winners.

By Manya Koetse

– With contributions by Miranda Barnes and Ruixin Zhang

Independently reporting China trends for over a decade. Like what we do? Support us and get the story behind the hashtag by subscribing:

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

A Brew of Controversy: Lu Xun and LELECHA’s ‘Smoky’ Oolong Tea

Chinese tea brand LELECHA faced backlash for using the iconic literary figure Lu Xun to promote their “Smoky Oolong” milk tea, sparking controversy over the exploitation of his legacy.

Manya Koetse



It seemed like such a good idea. For this year’s World Book Day, Chinese tea brand LELECHA (乐乐茶) put a spotlight on Lu Xun (鲁迅, 1881-1936), one of the most celebrated Chinese authors the 20th century and turned him into the the ‘brand ambassador’ of their special new “Smoky Oolong” (烟腔乌龙) milk tea.

LELECHA is a Chinese chain specializing in new-style tea beverages, including bubble tea and fruit tea. It debuted in Shanghai in 2016, and since then, it has expanded rapidly, opening dozens of new stores not only in Shanghai but also in other major cities across China.

Starting on April 23, not only did the LELECHA ‘Smoky Oolong” paper cups feature Lu Xun’s portrait, but also other promotional materials by LELECHA, such as menus and paper bags, accompanied by the slogan: “Old Smoky Oolong, New Youth” (“老烟腔,新青年”). The marketing campaign was a joint collaboration between LELECHA and publishing house Yilin Press.

Lu Xun featured on LELECHA products, image via Netease.

The slogan “Old Smoky Oolong, New Youth” is a play on the Chinese magazine ‘New Youth’ or ‘La Jeunesse’ (新青年), the influential literary magazine in which Lu’s famous short story, “Diary of a Madman,” was published in 1918.

The design of the tea featuring Lu Xun’s image, its colors, and painting style also pay homage to the era in which Lu Xun rose to prominence.

Lu Xun (pen name of Zhou Shuren) was a leading figure within China’s May Fourth Movement. The May Fourth Movement (1915-24) is also referred to as the Chinese Enlightenment or the Chinese Renaissance. It was the cultural revolution brought about by the political demonstrations on the fourth of May 1919 when citizens and students in Beijing paraded the streets to protest decisions made at the post-World War I Versailles Conference and called for the destruction of traditional culture[1].

In this historical context, Lu Xun emerged as a significant cultural figure, renowned for his critical and enlightened perspectives on Chinese society.

To this day, Lu Xun remains a highly respected figure. In the post-Mao era, some critics felt that Lu Xun was actually revered a bit too much, and called for efforts to ‘demystify’ him. In 1979, for example, writer Mao Dun called for a halt to the movement to turn Lu Xun into “a god-like figure”[2].

Perhaps LELECHA’s marketing team figured they could not go wrong by creating a milk tea product around China’s beloved Lu Xun. But for various reasons, the marketing campaign backfired, landing LELECHA in hot water. The topic went trending on Chinese social media, where many criticized the tea company.

Commodification of ‘Marxist’ Lu Xun

The first issue with LELECHA’s Lu Xun campaign is a legal one. It seems the tea chain used Lu Xun’s portrait without permission. Zhou Lingfei, Lu Xun’s great-grandson and president of the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation, quickly demanded an end to the unauthorized use of Lu Xun’s image on tea cups and other merchandise. He even hired a law firm to take legal action against the campaign.

Others noted that the image of Lu Xun that was used by LELECHA resembled a famous painting of Lu Xun by Yang Zhiguang (杨之光), potentially also infringing on Yang’s copyright.

But there are more reasons why people online are upset about the Lu Xun x LELECHA marketing campaign. One is how the use of the word “smoky” is seen as disrespectful towards Lu Xun. Lu Xun was known for his heavy smoking, which ultimately contributed to his early death.

It’s also ironic that Lu Xun, widely seen as a Marxist, is being used as a ‘brand ambassador’ for a commercial tea brand. This exploits Lu Xun’s image for profit, turning his legacy into a commodity with the ‘smoky oolong’ tea and related merchandise.

“Such blatant commercialization of Lu Xun, is there no bottom limit anymore?”, one Weibo user wrote. Another person commented: “If Lu Xun were still alive and knew he had become a tool for capitalists to make money, he’d probably scold you in an article. ”

On April 29, LELECHA finally issued an apology to Lu Xun’s relatives and the Lu Xun Cultural Foundation for neglecting the legal aspects of their marketing campaign. They claimed it was meant to promote reading among China’s youth. All Lu Xun materials have now been removed from LELECHA’s stores.

Statement by LELECHA.

On Chinese social media, where the hot tea became a hot potato, opinions on the issue are divided. While many netizens think it is unacceptable to infringe on Lu Xun’s portrait rights like that, there are others who appreciate the merchandise.

The LELECHA controversy is similar to another issue that went trending in late 2023, when the well-known Chinese tea chain HeyTea (喜茶) collaborated with the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum to release a special ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ (佛喜) latte tea series adorned with Buddha images on the cups, along with other merchandise such as stickers and magnets. The series featured three customized “Buddha’s Happiness” cups modeled on the “Speechless Bodhisattva” (无语菩萨), which soon became popular among netizens.

The HeyTea Buddha latte series, including merchandise, was pulled from shelves just three days after its launch.

However, the ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ success came to an abrupt halt when the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Shenzhen intervened, citing regulations that prohibit commercial promotion of religion. HeyTea wasted no time challenging the objections made by the Bureau and promptly removed the tea series and all related merchandise from its stores, just three days after its initial launch.

Following the Happy Buddha and Lu Xun milk tea controversies, Chinese tea brands are bound to be more careful in the future when it comes to their collaborative marketing campaigns and whether or not they’re crossing any boundaries.

Some people couldn’t care less if they don’t launch another campaign at all. One Weibo user wrote: “Every day there’s a new collaboration here, another one there, but I’d just prefer a simple cup of tea.”

By Manya Koetse

[1]Schoppa, Keith. 2000. The Columbia Guide to Modern Chinese History. New York: Columbia UP, 159.

[2]Zhong, Xueping. 2010. “Who Is Afraid Of Lu Xun? The Politics Of ‘Debates About Lu Xun’ (鲁迅论争lu Xun Lun Zheng) And The Question Of His Legacy In Post-Revolution China.” In Culture and Social Transformations in Reform Era China, 257–284, 262.

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