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China’s Trending Terminology: Top 25 Buzzwords and Catchphrases of 2023

Which words and phrases made it to Weibo’s top trending lists in 2023? We’ve compiled a top 25 of the most popular and noteworthy buzzwords.

Manya Koetse

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Here are 25 Chinese buzzwords and catchphrases, listed by What’s on Weibo, that reflect social trends and changing times in China in 2023.

At the end of every year, Chinese media outlets usually compile a list of the most noteworthy buzzwords or the words that made the most impact during the year.

The most popular new words and expressions are generally listed by the Chinese linguistics magazine Yǎowén Jiáozì (咬文嚼字), which selects ten noteworthy buzzwords (十大流行语). On social media, Chinese online (state) media always promote the magazine’s selection of the top words and terms of the past year, but there are also other outlets selecting their top words of 2023, which have become a relatively big topic on Weibo over the past month.

In previous years, we’ve also published several articles in which we have listed the most important buzzwords.

◼︎ In 2018: China’s Top Ten Buzz Words & Phrases of 2018
◼︎ In 2019: Top 10 Buzzwords in Chinese Online Media 2019
◼︎ And in 2020: The Top 10 Buzzwords in Chinese Online Media in 2020 (咬文嚼字)
◼︎ And for 2020-2023, we also compiled this big Covid-19 vocabulary list.

If you want to know more about the buzzwords that made it to Chinese (official) media’s lists this year, check out this post by Andrew Methven at Slow Chinese which is a top ten compilation of Chinese buzzwords of 2023 based on these lists.

 

Top 10 Buzzwords by Yǎowén Jiáozì


 

The top 10 by Yǎowén Jiáozì consists of the following words:

1. 新质生产力 (Xīn zhì shēngchǎnlì)

This refers to “new quality productivity,” a term introduced by Xi Jinping this year focusing on a form of production driven by technological innovation as a new engine for China’s economic developmentin the new era. It covers technological innovation, new forms of energy, emerging industries and their interaction and integration, especially progress in digitalization, intelligence and green development.

2. 双向奔赴 (Shuāngxiàng bēnfù)

This means “running towards each other” or “devote efforts from both directions.” The phrase has become frequently used by Chinese netizens in the context of romantic love, meaning both sides are equally involved and putting in all effort to keep the love alive (双向奔赴的爱情).

3. 人工智能大模型 (Réngōng zhìnéng dàmóxíng)

“Large Scale Artificial Intelligence Models,” refering to the series of AI applications that we saw rising this year, including ChatGPT and Ernie Bot.

4. 村超 (Cūn chāo)

This term means “Village Super League,” a soccer event in Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, organized by local villagers. It gained significant attention this year, drawing passionate new fans and showcasing China’s vibrant rural sports scene.

5. 特种兵式旅游 (Tèzhǒng bīngshì lǚyóu)

It means “special forces-style tourism”: special forces travelers have been flooding popular tourist spots across China. Their mission is clear: covering as many places as possible at the lowest cost and within a limited time. While the travel trend has become a social media hype, there are also those criticizing the trend for being superficial and troublesome (read here).

6. 显眼包 (Xiǎnyǎn bāo)

A goof, the life of the party, the class clown; the term “显眼包” in Chinese refers to someone or something that stands out from the crowd or grabs attention. While it previously had a negative meaning, standing out from the group is now also seen as having a goofy, bubbly and enjoyable personality that brings happiness.

7. 搭子 (Dāzǐ)

Dāzǐ translates to “companion,” “buddy,” “mate,” or “partner,” typically referring to someone you hang out with for particular activities who is not your significant other. You can have a “coffee buddy” (咖啡搭子), drinking buddy (酒搭子), or a “travel buddy” (旅游搭子). Chinese media have described the word as reflecting a new social trend among young people who might be single but still find various ways to have a satisfying social life that suits their needs.

8. 多巴胺×× (Duōbā’àn ××)

Dopamine is associated with happy hormones – pleasure and reward in the brain, and “××” indicates it’s being used in various contexts or activities related to pleasure or enjoyment. The term popped up this year in the context of ‘happy hormone fashion’ or ‘dopamine dressing’ (duōbā’àn chuāndā 多巴胺穿搭) the art of wearing colorful clothes to foster a good mood and positive vibes. Now, the use of ‘dopamine xxx’ is also used in other contexts.

9. 情绪价值 (Qíngxù jiàzhí)

This refers to “emotional value,” and is originally used within marketing to refer to the impact of consumers’ emotions on the products and services they purchase. This year, the word became more important as Chinese (young) consumers are shifting from merely ‘buying to use’ to actively participating and immersing themselves in experiences, such as the ‘special forces tourism’ (also in this list), city walks, enjoying Zibo barbecue, or purchasing virtual products that bring some kind of emotional value to them.

10. 质疑××,理解××,成为×× (Zhìyí ××, lǐjiě ××, chéngwéi ××)

This phrase means “question, understand, and become,” popularized because of the Chinese TV series iPartment (爱情公寓, ài qíng gōng yù). Initially, viewers questioned the female lead’s decision to prioritize her career over marriage. However, with time, they began to understand her perspective and realized that romantic love isn’t the sole priority. This pattern can also apply to various other scenarios and settings where initial doubts give way to comprehension and acceptance.

 

Top 25 Buzzwords/Catchphrases by What’s on Weibo


 

Here, we have made a special What’s on Weibo top 25 of top buzzwords and catchphrases of 2023. Most of these words have previously been featured in our premium Weibo Watch newsletter, where we select a word of the week for each issue.

These words are not in order of popularity, but rather in order of appearance throughout the year.

 

#1: FINAL-ROUND PLAYERS


Juésàiquān Xuǎnshǒu (决赛圈选手)

Over three years after the Covid-19 outbreak in China, it became increasingly uncommon to find people who hadn’t tested positive for the virus. After China eased its strict ‘Zero Covid’ measures in December 2022, infections surged across the nation, peaking in January 2023. By late January, over 80% of China’s population had contracted Covid. During the 2023 Spring Festival travel period, individuals wearing full protective gear stood out and attracted attention. During this time, Chinese media and netizens began calling those who remained Covid-free since 2020 the “final-round players” (决赛圈选手), suggesting that they were like finalists in the last round of the ‘avoid getting Covid’ game (read more).

 

#2: WANDERING BALLOON


Liúlàng qìqiú (流浪气球)

The ‘Wandering Balloon’ – liúlàng qìqiú 流浪气球 – emerged as a notable buzzword in February 2023 among Chinese netizens as the so-called ‘balloon incident‘ sparked an international dispute. The incident revolved around the U.S. military shooting down a Chinese balloon off the Carolina coast. While the U.S. labeled it a spy balloon, China contended it was a civilian “airship” (“飞艇”) for weather monitoring that drifted off course due to wind. On Chinese social platforms, this incident linked the balloon to the box-office hit The Wandering Earth II, leading to humorous online discussions. After reports of the balloon being shot down surfaced, some Weibo users playfully mourned the “poor baby balloon,” suggesting it was abruptly brought down without its chance to roam freely. The connection between the balloon incident and the sci-fi film’s popularity wasn’t surprising, given the movie’s enormous popularity and considering its narrative is all about catastrophic events and the future of international society. Read more about the incident and the words used here.

 

#3: BLIND WORSHIP OF FOREIGN GOODS/IDEAS


Chóng Yáng Mèi Wài (崇洋媚外)

This word/expression has come up a lot this year and specifically was used a lot when one incident went absolutely viral. In February of 2023, a Chinese associate professor named Chen Hongyou (陈宏友) stirred major controversy for remarks made during a speech at a school in Hefei, Anhui. According to various blogs and social media posts, Chen basically talked about how mixing races – ‘the further apart partners live, the better’ – would provide better genes for the next generation. He is also said to have suggested that his son, now living in the US with an American wife, would have children with better genes. In the middle of his speech, a student in the audience stormed to the stage and accused the professor of “worshipping foreign things and bowing to foreign powers [崇洋媚外].” This phrase, chóngyáng mèiwài, the popped up in hundreds of online discussions following the incident. Read more about that here.

 

#4: TOXIC TEXTBOOKS


Dú Jiàocái (毒教材)

Over the past few years, school textbooks that are deemed harmful or contain content that is perceived as offensive, unpatriotic, vulgar, or unsightly have received a lot of attention in China. Remember the ugly textbook scandal of 2022? Or the sexual education textbook of 2017? This year, the term ‘toxic textbook’ or ‘poisonous textbook’ – dú jiàocái 毒教材 – went trending on Weibo after famous commentator/writer Sima Nan made a video in which he warned about the return of the toxic textbooks. Issues highlighted include a geography textbook featuring Japan’s Mount Fuji instead of Chinese landmarks, illustrations depicting Japanese families over Chinese ones, maps omitting Taiwan from Chinese territories, and even primary school books with QR codes leading to inappropriate content. Concerned parents are urging authorities to take decisive actions to ensure the quality and appropriateness of school materials.

 

#5: RECOVER FROM COVID


Yángkāng (阳康)

As the worst peak of China’s 2023 Covid outbreak had ended by March of 2023, the word used to say ‘recover from Covid’ became a popular online phrase. This novel word is a combination of 阳 yáng, meaning [to test] ‘positive,’ and the word 康 kāng meaning ‘healthy.’ The word is also a pun based on a character in Jin Yong’s martial novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes, namely 杨康 Yáng Kāng. New language travels fast, and by now, the word has already become ingrained in everyday life. Some hospitals even opened their own “Covid Yangkang Clinics” (新冠阳康门诊) to help patients who are still suffering from symptoms after testing negative.

 

#6: DISCOURSE TRAP


Huàyǔ Xiànjiǎng (话语陷阱)

The “discourse trap” (话语陷阱) came up in relation to the speech made by China’s Foreign Affairs Minister Qin Gang (秦刚) in March of 2023. During his address at the Two Sessions, Qin highlighted how foreign media commonly use the term ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ to describe Chinese foreign relations. Qin argued that this term has become a “discourse trap.” By this, he meant that the phrase has been so deeply embedded in Western discussions about China’s foreign policy that it hinders genuine understanding of the actual dynamics. Qin implied that, contrary to perceptions, Chinese diplomats are the ones who are actually ‘dancing with wolves’ while navigating complex international relations. Interestingly, later in 2023, Qin Gang was suddenly replaced in his role by Wang Yi, the CCP’s most senior foreign affairs official. No official explanation was provided for this unexpected change.

 

#7: CAO CAO FLIPS THE RICE BOWL


Cáo Cāo Gài Fàn (曹操盖饭)

A viral meme originating from the Chinese TV series Three Kingdoms (三国) gained significant traction on Chinese social media in 2023. In a memorable scene from the 2010 series, Cao Cao, a prominent warlord in Chinese history played by actor Chen Jianbin (陈建斌), angrily flips his rice bowl upon receiving news of a surprise attack, only to gather the spilled rice back into the bowl later. This scene featuring an enraged Cao Cao has resurfaced and struck a chord with individuals reluctantly facing reality. Turning into a popular meme, ‘Cao Cao flipping the rice bowl’ (曹操盖饭) became widely employed to convey sentiments of self-inflicted humiliation or the hesitation to undertake certain actions. Read more here.

 

#8: REVIVE CHINA BIDEN


Bài Zhèn Huá (拜振华) – “Revive China Biden”

While delivering a speech to the Canadian parliament in March of 2023, U.S. President Biden accidentally said he “applauded China for stepping up.” He then quickly corrected himself and saying he meant to say ‘Canada’ instead of ‘China.’ Because of this slip of the tongue, many Chinese netizens joked that Biden secretly supports China. They referred to him by the nickname “Revive the Country Biden” (Bài Zhènhuá 拜振华), also translatable as ‘Thriving China Biden’. This nickname already circulated online since 2020 and matches with one that was previously given to former President Trump, namely that of “Build the Country Trump” (Chuān Jiànguó 川建国). The idea behind these humorous monikers is that both Trump and Biden are benefitting China by doing a poor job in running the United States and saying things that actually make China stronger (read more).

 

#9: CYBER YINAO


Sàibó Yīnào (赛博医闹)

Yinao (医闹) refers to the social problem of patient-doctor violence and other outbursts of anger against medical staff. A video showing a woman attacking a service robot in a local hospital went viral on Chinese social media and beyond in April of 2023. The incident reportedly took place at a Xuzhou Medical University hospital in Jiangsu, where an angry woman got so frustrated that she started swinging at the robot with a bat. Some netizens called this a form of ‘Cyber Yinao’ (Sàibó Yīnào 赛博医闹). With smart robots becoming a more important part of China’s service industry, from banks to hospitals, we might come across this term more often in the future when patients and their families lash out against the robotic staff members in the medical field.

 

#10: FULL TIME SONS AND DAUGHTERS


Quán Zhí Ér Nǚ (全职儿女)

In 2023, Chinese media outlet Toutiao News (头条新闻) featured the story of Nian An, a young woman who quit her job without securing a new one (also called “naked resignation” luǒcí 裸辞), and who made the decision to temporarily rely on her parents for support. She spent every weekend at her parents’ house, assisting her mother with dinner preparations and providing companionship. In return for her presence, her parents offer her a monthly allowance of 4000 yuan ($570), with the option to request additional funds if needed. Nian An viewed being a “full-time daughter” as a “freelance job full of love” (“充满爱的自由职业”). Nian An’s story led to online discussions about being a “full-time child” (全职儿女), which is different from “living off parents” (啃老). Being a “full-time child” is a transitional stage that allows young people to prepare for graduate school or switching jobs while exchanging their caretaking efforts for financial support from their parents.

 

#11: SECOND POSITIVE


Èr Yáng (二阳)

This buzzword directly translates as “second positive” and was at the top of China’s social media trending lists over the last summer or late spring, when the country was facing a second major Covid wave. The character 二 èr means two or second. The character 阳 yáng means [to test] positive, and is used in the context of testing positive for Covid-19. The meaning of the phrase is “to get COVID for a second time” as many people in China got infected for the second time in the summer of 2023, after most people got their first infection in late 2022.

 

#12: WHITE PEOPLE FOOD


Báirén Fàn (白人饭)

This year, the topic of “white people food” went viral on China’s Little Red Book (Xiaohongshu) app and beyond. The phenomenon stems from Chinese observations of typical white foreigners’ lunches, often comprising raw veggies, boiled eggs, chicken breast, processed meats, and fruits or juices. In contrast, traditional Chinese meals emphasize warm dishes paired with rice or noodles. “White people food” is commonly characterized by its simple ingredients, straightforward preparation methods, and perceived lack of flavor. Some Chinese netizens try out “white people food” out of curiosity, considering eating raw celery or baby carrots as a novel “challenge.” Others choose it because they are willing to trade the taste of food for the convenience of buying ingredients and preparing meals quickly. One user on Xiaohongshu shared, “After reaching the stage where I eat only for survival, I’ve started to appreciate ‘white people food’ because I can prepare it very quickly” (read more here).

 

#13: RESIGNATION CEREMONY


Lízhí Shèngdiǎn (离职盛典)

Hooray, I quit my job! The phenomenon of the “Resignation Ceremony” (lízhí shèngdiǎn 离职盛典 ) emerged as a trend in 2023 where young individuals go to great lengths to celebrate their departure from a job with banners and hotpot dinners. With job security declining, quitting one’s job has become more common in today’s China. This increased frequency has made something that was previously considered somewhat embarrassing more acceptable and natural. Moreover, the prevalence of China’s intense ‘996 work culture’ has fueled the desire among young people to quit their jobs. As a result, the process of resignation has transformed from a secretive and silent departure into a joyous occasion comparable to receiving a promotion.

 

#14: SMALL TOWN UPPER CLASS LADIES


Xiǎozhèn Guìfù (小镇贵妇)

The phenomenon of the “small-town elites” has been popping up more frequently in Chinese online media and on lifestyle app Xiaohongshu throughout 2023. The term “small town upper class ladies” (小镇贵妇) refers to women who reside in small towns and are leading comfortable lives close to their hometowns. They do not need to rush to work early in the morning, don’t struggle with hard jobs, and earn a comfortable living, seemingly without the stresses of urban life. They are envied by urban dwellers, not only because of their financial stability – often thanks to their affluent families – but also because of the free time they have to engage in various activities, such as decorating their homes or doing yoga.

 

#15: PURE IDOLS


Nèiyú Chúnyuán (内娱纯元)

They are the ones who are staying “pure” in times of scandal. The “Chunyuan of the entertainment industry” refers to idols in Mainland China who are regarded as flawless and worthy of admiration. The term “内娱” (nèiyú) is a shortened form of “内地娱乐圈” (nèidì yúlèquān), which means the Mainland entertainment industry. Meanwhile, “纯元” (chúnyuán), meaning ‘pure essence,’ symbolizes individuals seen as pure and perfect. In light of the numerous scandals involving idols in mainland China in recent years, including prominent stars like Fan Bingbing (范冰冰), Kris Wu (吴亦凡), or Cai Xukun (蔡徐坤), discussions have emerged around identifying figures who remain untainted by controversy and are still deserving of being cherished as flawless role models.

 

#16: CALLING A RAT A DUCK


Zhǐ Shǔ Wéi Yā (指鼠为鸭)

There is a famous Chinese idiom, zhǐ lù wéi mǎ 指鹿为马, that translates to “calling a deer a horse” (or “calling a stag a horse”), meaning to misrepresent something. The phrase comes from a story about the corrupt eunuch and minister Zhao Gao (赵高) during the Qin Dynasty who brought a deer to the second emperor, presenting it as a “horse.” Fearful to disagree with him, many people followed him and also identified the animal as a horse. In June of 2023, a student found a rat head – teeth and all – inside his school canteen meal and posted about it on social media. As the incident blew up, the school refused to admit any wrongdoing and argued that the student was mistaken, insisting that it was actually duck he found. Reflecting on this peculiar incident (read), the idiom has evolved, with people coining the phrase “calling a rat a duck” (zhǐ shǔ wéi yā 指鼠为鸭) to capture the absurdity of the situation.

 

#17: THE UNKILLABLE SHIJIAZHUANG GUY


Shābùsǐ de Shíjiāzhuāngrén (杀不死的石家庄人)

Shijiazhuang is the capital and most populous city of China’s Hebei Province which has been attempting to rebrand itself as China’s rock ‘n’ roll capital to boost tourism and its local economy. As part of this revamping, the phrase “The Unkillable One from Shijiazhuang” (杀不死的石家庄人) has become a popular term on Chinese social media. Shijiazhuang used “The Unkillable Shijiazhuang” as its slogan to spread positivity, but netizens primarily used it sarcastically. It comes from a song released by the Hebei Communist Youth League in 2022, which serves as a ‘harmonious’ reinterpretation of the renowned 2010 Chinese song “Kill the One from Shijiazhuang” (杀死那个石家庄人) by the Chinese rock band Omnipotent Youth Society. The original song, which delved into the turbulence stemming from widespread job losses, deeply resonated with Chinese youth. The reworked song title and its association with Shijiazhuang’s rebranding as a “Rock N Roll center” led to humorous adaptations online, partly poking fun at the Communist Youth League’s attempt to revise a song that once conveyed hardship into one echoing state propaganda, and showcasing a form of self-deprecating expression among netizens.

 

#18: ANTI RADIATION


Fáng Fúshè (防辐射)

Since Japan began releasing treated radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima power plant into the ocean, various related discussions surged across Chinese social media platforms, making it one of the biggest trending topics of the year. In light of worries over contaminated water, concerned netizens started to actively seeking ways to safeguard themselves against potential radiation risks. The term “anti-radiation” therefore gained significant popularity online and some businesses attempted to profit from these radiation concerns. One Japanese-style restaurant in Shanghai even offered an “anti-radiation” set meal (“防辐射”套餐).

 

#19: HUAXI COINS


Huāxī bì (花西币)

It was one of the biggest controversies in 2023: China’s most famous beauty influencer Li Jiaqi (Lipstick King) suddenly lashed out against a viewer who questioned the price of an eyeliner he was selling during a livestream. Li was promoting Chinese make-up brand Florasis, which is known as Huāxīzǐ (花西子) in China, and some viewers thought 79 yuan ($11) was a bit expensive for a pencil, after which Li rolled his eyes and snapped that viewers should instead ask themselves if they had worked hard enough to deserve a raise. Him saying “what do you mean, expensive?” (“哪里贵了”) instantly became a meme-worthy phrase. The incident sparked a series of memes and discussions, and among them the question of what one can buy with 79 yuan in China today was a big one. While some suggested they could feed an entire family for one day with that money, others said that it would buy their office lunches for a week. This humorous situation gave rise to the term ‘Huaxi Coins’ or ‘Floracash’ (花西币), with netizens playfully using the eyebrow pencil’s price as a new currency unit, where one Huaxi Coin equals 79 yuan. People even started jokingly expressing their earnings in Huaxi Coins, and some proudly mentioned the cost of snacks or meals, saying things like ‘it only cost me a quarter in Floracash for three’ or ‘tonight’s dinner was just half a Huaxi Coin!'”

 

#20: FAR AHEAD


Yáo Yáo Lǐng Xiān (遥遥领先)

During the much-anticipated Huawei launch event in September of 2023, consumer chief Richard Yu unveiled an impressive array of Huawei’s latest products and innovations, such as the latest version of its MatePad Pro (the world’s lightest and thinnest tablet of its kind), a new smart TV, wireless earphones, and he also announced Huawei’s first sedan, the Luxeed S7, promising it would be “superior” to Tesla’s Model S “in every specification.” During his speech, Yu recurringly used the phrase “far ahead”, “遥遥领先” (yáo yáo lǐng xiān), to indicate that Huawei is fully future-proof and far ahead of other companies. As a result, the phrase became popular among Chinese netizens, who started using it for all kinds of things. It did not take long for the phrase to get registered as a trademark by some business owners in Shenzhen who hope it might bring them some profit.

 

#21: SPECIAL FORCES TRAVEL


Tèzhǒngbīngshì Lǚyóu (特种兵式旅游)

Fun, fast, frugal travel was all the rage in this ‘post-lockdown’ year. As people could go out to travel again, so-called ‘special forces travelers’ flooded popular tourist spots across China. Their mission: covering as many places as possible at the lowest cost and within a limited time frame. On social media, young travelers shared their strict schedules of arriving in a certain place and then climbing mountains in the morning, doing city tours during the day, and participating in a local cuisine cooking class at night before taking off again and save on hotel money by taking a night bus to the next destination. While the travel trend became a social media hype, there were also those criticizing the trend for being superficial.

 

#22: REVERSE CONSUMPTION


Fǎnxiàng Xiāofèi (反向消费)

This year, especially during the online shopping festival season, the concept of Chinese consumers engaging in ‘reverse spending’ or ‘reverse consumption’ – also known as ‘rational consumption,’ – became a hot topic. ‘Reverse consumption’ is a recent trend that is especially popular among Chinese young people, and that is all about pursuing sustainable and cost-effective products instead of focusing on consuming for the sake of buying brands or spending money. The trend does not necessarily suggest a focus on cheap products, but rather a refusal to celebrate consumerism and overpay for products that lack value for the price. Some Weibo users view this trend as a reaction to the constant shopping festivals and the pressure on young people to keep buying more in the thriving Chinese e-commerce market, leading to increased luxury consumption. As consumer attitudes gradually begin to change, young people no longer simply believe that “expensive means good,” and are now being more rational in their shopping behavior that is more about ‘value for money.’

 

#23: TOXIC FANGIRLING


Rǔmàshì Zhuīxīng (辱骂式追星)

In China’s ever-evolving fan culture, the phenomenon of ‘rǔmà shì zhuīxīng‘ (辱骂式追星, lit: ‘abusive-style celebrity admiration’) or ‘toxically fangirling’ has become a trend this year. This term refers to a rather extreme way for fans to engage with their their idols. When pleased, they express intense love and support for their idols, but they can turn into abusive trolls targeting their idols when dissatisfied. This shift from love to aggression can be triggered by small things, like an unflattering photo or an unsatisfactory performance. Initially viewed as a departure from blind loyalty, this fan behavior has now turned somewhat toxic. Netizens interpret this ‘toxic fangirling’ phenomenon half ironically, half seriously, suggesting its origin may be rooted in the collective childhood trauma of Chinese fangirls.

 

#24: SUBJECT THREE DANCE


Kēmù Sān Tiàowǔ (科目三跳舞)

‘Subject Three’ has become a buzzword on Chinese social media in 2023 in connection with a viral dance, the Subject Three Dance (科目三舞蹈). From Douyin to Bilibili, the dance is super popular online and is performed by various people, from online influencers to virtual vloggers. The dance has become especially big since the renowned Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao allowed its staff to perform this viral dance for diners upon request, leading to amusing and occasionally awkward situations. The term ‘Subject Three’ allegedly first gained traction in 2022 or early 2023 following a video showcasing the jubilant atmosphere of a Guangxi wedding. Subsequently, ‘Guangxi Subject Three’ (广西科目三) became a popular joke. Although traditionally associated with the third part of a driver’s license exam, people playfully suggested that Guangxi locals undergo three significant “exams” in their lifetime: one for singing folk songs, one for mastering the art of slurping rice noodles, and the third for dancing (“广西人一生中会经历三场考试,科目一唱山歌,科目二嗦米粉,科目三跳舞”). By now, the dance has transcended its original context of Guangxi weddings and Haidilao staff dances, as it’s turned into a true social media hype where people create and share videos of themselves and others performing the Subject Three Dance, which is characterized by playful and exaggerated movements accompanied by the background music of “江湖一笑” (Jianghu Smile), making it entertaining, humorous, and, most of all, meme-worthy. .

 

#25: RAT-LIKE HANDSOME


Shǔxì Shuàigē (鼠系帅哥)

The term “Rat-Type Handsome Guy” (鼠系帅哥) has actually been around for some time, but attracted more attention on Chinese social media recently. The word is part of a group of other terms to describe popular aesthetics of famous men with features resembling animals. In 2022, for example, the “Monkey-Type Handsomes” (猴系帅哥) were especially popular. The term was used to describe the kind of Chinese celebrities who were undeniably handsome and also showed some resemblance to monkeys due to their strong brow ridges, narrow and long face, thin upper lip, and prominent T-zone. When categorizing handsome men in China’s entertainment industry into animal-types, from monkeys to snakes, from dogs to birds, it is not always only about facial features but also about a certain air or vibe (氛围感) that surrounds an idol. A loyal and cute dog-like vibe, a calm and strong ox-like feeling, or a sharp and sexy cat-like character. This year, the ‘rat-like’ handsome men have been more in vogue. They have small eyes, a pointed jaw and a small mouth. Although not all actors who are rat-like are deemed handsome, those that are handsome are all the more rare – and popular.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Ruixin Zhang, Zilan Qian, and Miranda Barnes

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Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. 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 hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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While the public initially supported ‘Grandma Xu’ and criticized the Benz driver from Baoding, the narrative took an unexpected turn.

Manya Koetse

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Following the rapid spread of a video capturing a man and woman involved in a road rage incident, Chinese netizens named and shamed them. But when the situation turned out to be different than it seemed, the focus of the story shifted, emphasizing the responsibility of the so-called ‘melon-eating masses’ actively participating in these kind of hyped-up incidents.

A Baoding license plate with the number 冀F8656Z briefly became China’s most talked-about car tag this week following a road rage incident that was captured on camera (see video). The incident involved the passenger of a black Mercedez-Benz, who went viral on Chinese social media for smashing the hood of another car at a ferry terminal in Zhanjiang. The altercation was triggered by a dispute over line-cutting.

The incident occurred on the afternoon of January 29 at Zhanjiang’s Xuwen Port, where vehicles were queuing up in the car and coach ticket lane. When a Mercedes-Benz Vito attempted to cut into the line, a white Chery car – with an older woman in the passenger seat – refused to yield. In response, the alleged Mercedes owner (male) and another passenger (female) angrily exited their vehicle and scolded the white car’s driver and passenger, as well as slamming their hood and seemingly causing damage to the car.

Meanwhile, the black Mercedes, apparently driven by a third individual, proceeded to cut in line and eventually drove off after the passengers got back in.

The 71-year-old lady in the white car who recorded the incident, Ms Xu or Granny Xu (徐老太), just so happened to have a relatively large social media following on a Douyin account run by her daughter (五莲徐八月). When she posted the video of the incident online, her 500,000 followers (now 800,000) came into action to name and shame the couple who insulted and intimidated her. As a result, the license plate, clearly visible in the footage, became a top trending search query.

This phenomenon, wherein netizens unite to research and expose information about individuals involved in controversial incidents, is also known as the “Human Flesh Search Engine” (人肉搜索) in Chinese (read more).

On January 30, the story started gaining massive attention on Chinese social media and online media sites. What mostly angered people was not just the arrogant and aggressive behavior of the Benz passengers, but also the fact that they acted so rude and entitled toward an elderly lady.

It came out that the aggressive man, the 40-year-old Mr. Wang, is a teacher at Hebei Agricultural University, and people started targeting their anger towards the Agricultural University, the city of Baoding, and even Hebei province as a whole.

The couple triggered China’s meme machine and popped up in various funny edited images.

“Do not cut in line” bumper stickers showing the Benz guy from Baoding.

They even appeared on some online merchandise, namely on bumper stickers warning others not to cut in line.

 
Another Point of View
 

While the public initially supported ‘Grandma Xu’ and criticized the Benz driver from Baoding, the narrative took an unexpected turn. Because in the midst of this controversy, dashcam footage from the Mercedes Benz also surfaced online, along with other images showing the scene from different angles.

This footage offered an alternative perspective, revealing that the Benz driver was attempting a zipper-style merge into the lane but was intentionally blocked by the white car, with the passenger filming the confrontation.

Later on, the surveillance video from the Xuwen Port was also released (video). That 7-minute video showed the entire conflict from the start, and although it showed that the Mercedes driver was at fault for cutting in line and damaging Xu’s car, it also showed that the Chery car was not without fault.

The new information caused a shift in public opinion as people started to think the Ms Xu purposely misrepresented the situation by omitting her role in the traffic altercation. It also became evident that, contrary to initial assumptions, Ms. Xu was not the driver of the white sedan at all; instead, a younger male was behind the wheel.

Bird’s eye view images of Xuwen Port also revealed that in lane 7, where the altercation occurred, all cars eventually merge in a zipper-style pattern.

As a result, both the Benz driver and the elderly lady now faced public condemnation – one for traffic misconduct, the other for distorting the truth on social media.

 
The Role of the Melon Eaters
 

As online discussions about the entire incident are still unfolding, there’s been a change in what people focus on regarding this story.

Initially, the rude and agressive Benz guy and his female companion, a meme-worthy couple, were the main topic of conversation. Then, as people started realizing the role played by the so-called ‘granny’ influencer – who edited and posted the footage in such a way that made her seem like the mere victim, – they were angry at her.

Ultimately, however, some commentators and bloggers noted that it is actually the so-called ‘melon eating masses’ who are responsible for making this story go viral and choosing sides without knowing all the facts. The Chinese term is chīguā qúnzhòng (吃瓜群众), translated as melon-eating masses or peanut gallery, referring to the netizens who are enjoying the spectacle as it unfolds, sharing details or opinions with limited knowledge.

While the story is still simmering online, the the Xuwen County Public Security Bureau has imposed a 10-day administrative detention and a fine of 500 yuan ($70) on Mr Wang for his actions of smashing the hood of the car. Ms Xu reportedly is getting her car fixed, renewing the entire hood of the dented sedan.

The original video that sparked all the controversy has since been removed from Ms Xu’s Douyin account.

In the end, the story has a negative impact on both Wang and Xu, which will probably haunt them for some time to come. The only one benefiting is the seller of ‘please don’t cut in line’ bumper stickers, which have since become a viral success.

Regardless of all disagreements regarding this incident, there’s one thing virtually everyone agrees with, especially during this busy Chinese New Year travel season: bad traffic etiquette and cutting in line is not cool, and resorting to aggression and vandalism is never the solution.

By Manya Koetse

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China Insight

A Snowball Effect: How Cold Harbin Became the Hottest Place in China

Part of Harbin’s enormous success can be attributed to a snowball effect, but the hype is also the result of a well-coordinated campaign.

Manya Koetse

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There is one topic that has been dominating Chinese social media recently: Harbin and its remarkable influx of tourists. How can the buzz surrounding this frosty city be explained?

The new year has just started and Harbin already seems to be the hit of 2024. The capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province, which is famous for its Ice and Snow Festival and Russian heritage, has been dominating trending topics on Chinese social media from late December well into this second week of January.

Every day recently, there’s another hashtag about Harbin that is hitting the hot charts on Chinese social media platforms Weibo, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu. Whether it is about Harbin travel, food, or funny memes, there seems to be an endless stream of stories and topics coming from the city in China’s northeast.

The sudden hype surrounding Harbin is similar to that of Zibo in 2023. The Shandong city, known for its local BBQ culture, became all the rage in spring of last year for its joyful atmosphere and post-pandemic celebratory mood.

Is Harbin the ‘Zibo’ of this 2023-2024 winter season? How come the historical city became such a social media phenomenon?

 
Harbin’s Hottest Festival
 

This year marks the 40th edition of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节), which is the largest ice and snow festival in the world. The official opening ceremony on January 5th not only celebrated the milestone of the 40th edition but also highlighted Harbin’s role as the host city for the 2025 Asian Winter Games. This will also be the first festival after the end of China’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy (the event was previously still held but kept much smaller).

Harbin winters are tough, with temperatures plummeting to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) or even colder. The idea for a Harbin ice festival first emerged in the late 1950s, when local officials wanted to cheer up the city and its residents in the dark and gloomy winter days.

They therefore introduced a winter festival centered around the idea of ice lanterns, of which the history goes back to the fisherman on the Songhua River using candles inside frozen blocks to give light on long winter nights. The festival was successful from the start; nearly 250,000 people participated in the 1963 edition (Dewar et al 2001, 524).

First edition of the Snow and Ice Festival in 1963.

After the Cultural Revolution put a halt to the festivities in 1966, local authorities reviewed the festival again in 1984, and revived it as an event to boost the local economy. About a decade later, it had already become one of the biggest of its kind globally, with its ice sculpting competitions and snow sculpture parks, including thousands of ice structures and spectacular lantern venues.

This 2023-2024 season turns out to be another important moment for Harbin and its ice festival. In November of 2023, the city launched a press conference in which they stressed the importance of strengthening the city’s position as an (international) leader in the field of ice and snow tourism in this post-pandemic era and fully focus on turning the season into a “people’s festival” and a “people’s event” (“使冰雪季和冰雪节真正成为人民的节日、百姓的盛会”).

From string quartets to hot air balloons, Harbin is going all out to entertain and impress visitors this year, and all the efforts are paying off.

More than two million people are expected to visit Harbin for this year’s festival, including its ‘Ice and Snow World’ (哈尔滨冰雪大世界) which opened on 18 December and will run until late February. This amusement park is a major attraction within the larger festival, and this 25th edition, with its 810,000-square-meter, is the largest-ever held.

In a time when Chinese domestic travelers are exploring their own country in new ways, from Special Force travel style to show-inspired journeys, the latest buzz surrounding Harbin is something that many simply do not want to miss out on, causing the coldest city to become one of the hottest destinations of the moment.

 
Turning Bad Publicity into Something Positive
 

On December 18, Harbin officially opened its Ice and Snow World to the public, welcoming thousands of visitors. This is also when the city and its festival first started trending on social media, but not necessarily in a good way.

Visitors initially complained that despite making reservations, they had to wait in lines at the entrance for hours, and that the time slot reservation system (分时预约) – introduced in Covid days – actually made things more difficult rather than facilitating a smoother crowd management process.

People also complained when Ice and Snow World issued a notice that they couldn’t accommodate more than 40,000 people and had already reached their limit during the early afternoon, therefore halting further ticket sales on the 18th. The 40,000 people limit seemed strange to many, who commented that other events and venues across China, such as Shanghai Disneyland, could welcome much more visitors.

People who had been waiting in line for hours starting shouting that they wanted their money back, and that incident went viral online as the “ticket refund incident” (#哈尔滨退票事件#, 170 million views on Weibo).

Not only did these incidents generate more public attention for the events taking place in Harbin, Snow World’s response also became a hot topic as they soon issued an apology, swiftly canceled the time slot reservation system, gave ticket refunds, and introduced a ‘first come first served’ system (#冰雪大世界取消预约制#, #哈尔滨冰雪大世界致歉#, 370 million views).

A side effect of this incident and how it was handled was that a so-called “underdog effect” became visible on social media, where many people started defending Harbin and Snow World. Supporters questioned whether visitors would similarly express frustration while waiting in lines at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

One Weibo blogger (@刘成春) wrote: “Please do not dismiss Harbin’s Ice and Snow World just because of some minor shortcomings. A group of simple, honest, hardworking people have spent days on end creating these sculptures with ice taken from the Songhua River at temperatures below minus 20. They’ve been making so much efforts, and Harbin just wants to present these works as gifts and the city’s signature to the people (..) Please don’t discredit the only snow and ice landmark of Northeast China.”

After the incident, this sentiment echoed widely on Chinese social media, where many believed in Harbin’s genuine efforts to make its snow and ice season a success, recognizing the sincerity and goodwill of those involved. The idea that Harbin really deserves to shine this season was further strengthened because of videos emerging on social media of previous Covid years, when the smaller festival looked empty and staff still worked hard to try and entertain the few visitors that were there.

 
Southern Little Potato Hype
 

On New Year’s Eve, videos showing celebrations in Harbin rapidly gained traction online, showing that Harbin was doing everything it could to entertain and create a welcoming atmosphere for its visitors.

These visitors have also become part of the buzz surrounding Harbin this season, mainly the emergence of the so-called “Southern Little Potatoes” (南方小土豆 nánfāng xiǎo tǔdòu). This term refers to the increasing influx of tourists from China’s warmer southern regions who are making their way to the snow-blanketed north.

The term “Southern Little Potatoes” humorously describes these southern tourists, especially women, who are frequently spotted sporting light-colored down jackets and hats. Their short height, distinct travel attire makes them stand out among the typically taller and darker-dressed locals in northeastern cities, leading to the playful potato comparison by northerners.

One of the ‘Southern Little Potatoes’ memes (via 21jingji.com).

As “Southern Little Potatoes” became a trending term online, southern tourists also started using it to make fun of themselves and it came to be used to highlight the warm and sometimes funny exchanges between the north and south.

The “Southern Little Potatoes,” who are not used to not used to ice, snow, and extremely cold weather, are also known to get into tricky situations, needing locals to help them out. On January 9, one tourist from the south went viral for stepping out of the train as he quickly wanted to experience licking a metal pole in freezing temperatures. The moment his tongue got stuck, the train staff kindly helped him get unstuck.

For locals, these silly southern tourists are a great business opportunity. One street seller started offering a supervised metal pole licking experience: you can lick a small metal pole for 5 yuan ($0.70), a bigger one for 10 ($1.40), and the tallest one for 15 ($2) (photo below).

Metal pole licking experience.

The Southern Little Potato trend has set off the online meme machine, as well as sparked a small local economy. Some Harbin taxi drivers, for example, promote themselves as being designated “little potato drivers” to serve their ‘friends from the south.’ Street sellers selling ‘little potato’ plush toy keychains for 15 yuan became all the hype.

Little Potato merchandise sold in the streets of Harbin (via 21jingji.com).

You could say that this general trend has also strengthened ties between the north and south. In Chinese, Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn 哈尔滨) is now affectionately shortened to ‘Ěrbīn‘ by visitors and netizens, with the dropping of the ‘Ha’ reflecting a more casual, friendly familiarity with the city.

 
A Snowball Effect
 

Although part of Harbin’s enormous (online) success can be attributed to a snowball effect that began after December 19/20, with people showing their appreciation for the city and joining the hype, the attention on social media was also a result of a well-coordinated campaign.

As described by Chinese media outlet The Paper (澎湃新闻), Heilongjiang Province’s Cultural and Tourism Department Party Secretary and Director He Jing (何晶) recently stated in an interview: “This year’s popularity [of Harbin] isn’t accidental; we’ve been preparing for a year.” He explained how, since early 2023, they started focusing on new media and social media strategies to promote Heilongjiang and Harbin in multiple ways.

For this season, Harbin Snow World made sure there were several online influencers and celebrities promoting the festivities, such as Chinese influencers Kiki (陈洁Kiki) and Barbin (Barbin.ili芭比) or Olympic champion speed skaters Fan Kexin (范可新), Zhang Hong (张虹), and Zhang Yuting (张雨婷). There are also various brand collaborations, such as with Tencent and its Game for Peace (和平精英). Local official media channels and big state media accounts also collaborate with Harbin in posting a lot of promotional videos related to festivities.

This year, Harbin also introduced all kinds of activities and venues to increase their appeal. The ice-made terracotta warriors, for example, or the hot pot restaurant housed within an ice structure, where even the tables are sculpted from ice. These are just some of the many ‘must-experience’ attractions in Harbin that have garnered attention on Chinese social media (#哈尔滨把火锅玩出了本地特色#).

There is also a 20-meter high snowman wearing a red hat, that has come to serve as a must-go photo opportunity for visitors. The local tourism ambassador, the Exploring Pinguin (淘学企鹅), with its cute appearance and orange backpack, is also one of those things that further adds to the appeal of Harbin and its Snow World.

Local authorities, including the tourism department, also pulled out all the stops to ensure visitors felt welcome and accommodated. They made sure local hotels and other business maintained fair prices despite the surge in tourists and to increase the focus on customer service.

They also made sure to listen to (online) feedback and quickly act on complaints. For example, after so many tourists from the south arrived at Harbin Airport and had to change into warmer clothing in the chilly central hall, they increased the number of airport dressing rooms, equipped with seats, mirrors, and carpets. This kind of attention to detail and drive to serve visitors is a strategy that has greatly contributed to Harbin’s current success.

You now see that the combined efforts of local authorities and businesses in Harbin, both online and offline, have cultivated a unique festive atmosphere. This atmosphere is contagious; it motivates locals to actively contribute to maintain the standards while also encouraging visitors to actively promote the city. This leads to new groups of visitors getting enthusiastic to travel to Harbin.

While this success is partly orchestrated, with authorities and state media being key players, there is also that ‘special something’ — a kind of genuine charm, sincerity, relatability, and likability — which is much harder to schedule through strategies. It’s an organic ingredient that is a major part of the buzz. In this way, Zibo and Harbin are very much alike.

Despite some criticisms about prioritizing short-term fame and social media hype for Chinese tourist destinations, it seems that Harbin’s success will be long lasting. As some social media users say: “I can’t make it this year, but I definitely will go to Harbin for the next season. I’ve never even seen snow in my life.”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Ruixin Zhang and Miranda Barnes

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References

Dewar, Keith, Denny Meyer, and Wen Mei Li. 2001. “Harbin, Lanterns of Ice, Sculptures of Snow.” Tourism Management 22 (5): 523-532.

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