Mainlaind Chinese drama My Sister (我的姐姐, also known as ‘Sister‘) was just released in theatres and is sparking online discussions on family relations and the role of women in China.
After the hit movie Hi, Mom (你好，李焕英) received praise earlier this year for focusing on the role of mothers within Chinese families, this film zooms in on the role of older sisters.
My Sister, directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), revolves around the story of An Ran, an 18-year-old daughter who is unexpectedly facing the major responsibility for her 6-year-old brother after the tragic loss of their parents. While trying to find her own path in life, she suddenly has to step into the role of caregiver for her younger sibling. But does she want to take on this role?
Actress Zhang Zifeng (张子枫) is playing the main lead in this movie, which touches upon the issue of dealing with traditional family values and personal dreams and ambitions. Sister reveals the difficulties women face within the traditional Chinese-style family structure and the sacrifices they make for their parents, their children, siblings, and their husbands; and how the roles and tasks that are expected of them also clash with their own ideas about happiness and fulfillment.
For An Ran, the relationship with her little brother is troublesome. As a young girl, she had to pretend to be disabled in order to allow her parents to have a second child, preferably a son (under the One Child Policy, families with children with disabilities were allowed to have more children). Now, as a young adult, she once again has to sacrifice her own individual freedom in order to let her brother thrive.
The renowned Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) dedicated a lengthy post to the movie on her Weibo account, where she called the film “fascinating” and “thought-provoking.”
Li suggests that multiple social issues play a role in this film. First, there is the conflict between individual-oriented values and traditional family-oriented ethics. While traditional Chinese ideas about family require An Ran to put her brother first and move personal self-fulfillment to the backseat, An Ran is a young woman who grew up in a rapidly modernizing China where women are more empowered and independent. Why should she sacrifice her personal education and career in order to devote herself to raising her brother?
Another social topic that plays a major role in this film is the deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. An Ran literally had to make herself weaker in order for her brother to be brought into this world – and in doing so limiting the possibilities for her future career, – with these patriarchal practices prioritizing the thriving of sons over the happiness of daughters. An Ran’s anger and resistance show that traditional ideas about male superiority clash with modern-day Chinese society, where profound changes within gender relations are already taking place.
“Sisters do not dislike their little brothers,” one Weibo commenter wrote: “What they dislike is the hidden meaning behind their brother.”
Another female blogger responded: “Within my family, from my grandpa’s generation up to myself, it is actually the women who discriminate against women. I think these are deeply rooted ideas that can’t be changed. Look at my second elder aunt; she had seven children, all girls, and only four were left. The others were given away. However, my grandfather has always been good to me, and has never made me feel any less than the boys. Yet my grandma and my mother sometimes make me doubt about my life.”
Under the hashtag “How to Evaluate the Movie My Sister” (#如何评价电影我的姐姐#), which attracted 150 million views on Weibo, many ask the question of what they would do if they were An Ran. Would you take care of your little brother? Or would you leave his care up to other family members and choose your own path in life?
“If it were me, I’d raise my brother. Although it’s actually the parents’ problem, the little brother is innocent.”
“If it were me, I wouldn’t raise him,” another commenter writes: “Although the little brother is innocent, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my life for him. And it might be a better choice to leave him with other family members than with me.”
These discussions also triggered the hashtag “Should Personal Values Be More Important Than Family Values?” (#个人价值必须高于家庭价值吗#). One top commenter raised the issue of ‘what if this was about a little sister instead of about a little brother,’ again provoking the idea that existing gender roles and the preference over sons play a major part in these discussions.
“These traditions no longer suit this era of a developing society. Let me ask you this question: would the little brother also take care of his sister once she grows old?”
“Personal values should always have priority. If you are not happy yourself, how could you ever take care of your family?”
“I have the perception that the family-oriented concept is deep-rooted. Although there consistently are new values and personal-oriented viewpoints, when it comes to real problems, most people will still be family-oriented.”
One commenter wrote: “What are ‘values’? What is the family in modern-day society? What does it mean to prioritize something? If we don’t first clarify this, the discussion becomes meaningless.”
Meanwhile, all the online discussions on Sister have boosted the film. By now, the movie has already become a box office hit and defeated the American Godzilla vs. Kong.
By Manya Koetse
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Rock ‘n’ Troll Chaos: The Controversy Surrounding Thefts at China’s Central Midi Festival
A theft scandal rocked China’s Midi Festival, which took place in Nanyang this week. Midi, however, blames online trolls for hyping the case.
The city of Nanyang in Henan has been all the talk on Chinese social media over the past few days due to large amounts of personal belongings getting stolen during the Central Midi Festival (中原迷笛音乐节).
The Midi Festival, founded by the Beijing Midi School of Music, is among China’s largest and most influential rock music festivals. Midi has been around for some thirty years, with variations in themes and taking place in different locations.
The most recent edition was held in Nanyang from September 29 to October 2nd. It drew approximately 150,000 visitors who flocked to Henan to have a good time, enjoy the music, dance in the mud, and stay at the camp site throughout the multi-day festival.
The local government had hoped that hosting the festival would help promote the city and make it more popular among young people. To create a positive impression, the entire city, including a remarkable 40,000 volunteers, local authorities, hotels, and transportation companies, dedicated their efforts to ensure the success of the Midi Festival. The mayor even personally welcomed festival-goers at the train station.
However, it seems that some locals had different intentions. They watched the festivities from behind the fences, and then started coming in and entering the camp sites. When they found unattended tents, as the owners were enjoying the music, they started stealing items from inside.
What began as isolated incidents soon escalated. More people joined in, more items were stolen, and the thieves grew bolder, sometimes even stealing from tents while their owners were present and trying to stop them.
There’s a video circulating showing an older lady rummaging through a festivalgoer’s tent while he filmed the scene. The lady casually stated, “I’ll take your camp light, dear,” and informed him of her theft.
Even sponsors and official vendors at the festival site fell victim to theft, as people entered their areas and stole their products and merchandise to resell later. There were reports of chairs and cables being stolen – essential items for a smooth-running festival.
Although security guards and police did intervene when the looting began, they allegedly just sent the thieves away at first without apprehending them. Some festivalgoers claimed to have lost personal items valued at over 10,000 RMB ($1,388).
By now, as the incident has gained national attention via social media, the case is being thorougly researched. The local police have received a total of 73 reports and they have confirmed 65 cases of theft. Some of the thieves have been arrested, and some of the stolen items have been recovered.
It Started with a Rumor
How could the festival looting get so out of control? According to local authorities in Nanyang, the incident began when a short video platform user known as “Wuyu” (无语) posted a video on October 2nd, falsely claiming that all the tents at the festival were available for taking as the event had ended and the premises needed to be cleared.
This rumor soon widely circulated, and prompted nearby villagers to come to the site to see what they could get.
The person behind the “Wuyu” account, identified as Chen Feng (陈峰), has since been identified and was taken into custody by the police.
On October 5, the Midi Festival released a statement on Weibo, reassuring the public that the festival and the local government are working together to try their best and recover all stolen items.
Midi also lashed out against online ‘trolls’ who were hyping up the situation at Midi to smear the festival and the city’s reputation. The festival condemned both the small group of thieves and the larger group of online trolls.
The controversy has generated a lot of anger, not just among visitors and the festival organization staff, but also among local Nanyang authorities who had invested considerable effort into making the festival a success.
The incident has cast a shadow over Midi. In an online poll conducted by Fengmian Redian (@封面热点), a majority of respondents indicated that they would not want to attend the festival after this happened, expressing their disappointment over the looting.
The controversy also reflects badly on Henan, where people already face provincial prejudice. Henan is often characterized as a poor and unrefined province, associated with phone scammers or people who would even steal manhole covers to sell them for scrap metal, causing dangerous situations.
The Midi Festival controversy has perpetuated these stereotypes about the people of Henan, much to the dismay of local residents who have been actively working to challenge and dispel public biases against the province.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Chaos
While many Weibo users come to Nanyang’s defense, there are also those who stress that the local authorities should have taken more steps to improve security around the festival site.
Others, however, do not agree. They argue that the Midi Festival, in Woodstock style, is about chaos, rock ‘n’ roll, and freedom. They think that the festival should not be overly controlled and that people should not blame the organization or local governments for not looking after their stuff.
Festival attendees and dedicated rock music enthusiasts argue that Midi, Nanyang, and the Chinese fans and musicians turned the festival into a great success.
They suggest that the theft incident should not be attributed to them nor reflect badly on China’s thriving music scene; it was simply the result of immoral behavior from a few individuals who failed to grasp the spirit of the event.
Meanwhile, the entire incident has not just triggered anger; it has also become a source of banter and online jokes.
Some Henan natives are not exactly helping to promote their home province. One widely-shared comment referred to the Henan bank protests, stating: “If even the money we deposit in the bank can disappear, it’s no surprise that things can go missing at a music festival.”
with contributions by Miranda Barnes
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Three Reasons Why Lipstick King’s ‘Eyebrow Pencil Gate’ Has Blown Up
From beauty guru to betrayal: why one livestream moment is shaking China’s internet.
Li Jiaqi, also known as Austin Li the ‘Lipstick King,’ has become the focus of intense media attention in China over the past days.
The controversy began when the popular beauty influencer responded with apparent annoyance to a viewer’s comment about the high price of an eyebrow pencil. As a result, his fans began unfollowing him, netizens started scolding him, Chinese state criticized him, and the memes started flooding in.
Li Jiaqi’s tearful apology did not fix anything.
China's famous make-up influencer #LiJiaqi is in hot water due to an e-commerce livestream he did on Sunday. When viewers complained about an eyebrow pencil being too expensive (79 RMB/$10.9), he got annoyed, insisting that the product was not expensive at all. Translated video: pic.twitter.com/JDKGMKovDX
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) September 11, 2023
The incident may seem minor at first glance. Li was merely promoting Florasis brand (花西子) eyebrow pencils, and some viewers expressed their opinion that the pencils, priced at 79 yuan ($11), had become more expensive.
In response, Li displayed irritation, questioning, “Expensive how?” He went on to suggest that viewers should also reflect on their own efforts and whether they were working hard enough to get a salary increase.
But there is more to this incident than just an $11 pencil and an unsympathetic response.
#1 The King Who Forgot the People Who Crowned Him
The initial reaction of netizens to Li Jiaqi’s remarks during the September 10th livestream was characterized by a strong sense of anger and disappointment.
Although celebrities often face scrutiny when displaying signs of arrogance after their rise to fame, the position of Li Jiaqi in the wanghong (internet celebrity) scene has been especially unique. He initially worked as a beauty consultant for L’Oreal within a shopping mall before embarking on his livestreaming career through Alibaba’s Taobao platform.
In a time when consumers have access to thousands of makeup products across various price ranges, Li Jiaqi established himself as a trusted cosmetics expert. People relied on his expertise to recommend the right products at the right prices, and his practice of personally applying and showcasing various lipstick colors made him all the more popular. He soon garnered millions of online fans who started calling him the Lipstick King.
By 2018, he had already amassed a significant fortune of 10 million yuan ($1.53 million). Fast forward three years, and his wealth had ballooned to an astonishing 18.5 billion yuan ($2.5 billion).
Despite his growing wealth, Li continued to enjoy the support of his fans, who appreciated his honest assessments of products during live testing sessions. He was known for candidly informing viewers when a product wasn’t worth buying, and the story of his humble beginnings as a shop assistant played a major role in why people trusted him and wanted him to succeed.
However, his recent change in tone, where he no longer seemed considerate of viewers who might find an $11 brow pencil to be expensive, suggests that he may have lost touch with his own customer base. Some individuals perceive this shift as a form of actual “betrayal” (背叛), as if a close friend has turned their back on them.
One cartoon shared on social media shows Li Jiaqi, with mouse ears, as he initially begs his online viewers for money. However, as he becomes more prosperous, the cartoon portrays him gradually growing arrogant and eventually scolding those who helped him rise to fame.
Many people accuse Li of being insincere, suggesting that he revealed his true colors during that short livestream moment. This is also one of the reasons why most commenters say they do not believe his tears during his apology video.
“He betrayed China’s working class,” one popular vlog suggested.
#2 Internet Celebrity Crossing the Lines
Another reason why the incident involving Li Jiaqi is causing such a storm is related to the media context in which Chinese (internet) celebrities operate and what is expected of them.
Whether you are an actor, singer, comedian, or a famous livestreamer/e-commerce influencer, Chinese celebrities and performers are seen as fulfilling an exemplary role in society, serving the people and the nation (Jeffrey & Xu 2023). This is why, as explained in the 2019 research report by Jonathan Sullivan and Séagh Kehoe, moral components play such a significant role in Chinese celebrity culture.
In today’s age of social media, the role of celebrities in society has evolved to become even more significant as they have a vast reach and profound influence that extends to countless people and industries.
Their powerful influence makes celebrities important tools for authorities to convey messages that align with their goals – and definitely not contradict them. Through the media and cultural industries, the state can exert a certain level of control within the symbolic economy in which celebrities operate, as discussed by Sullivan and Kehoe in their 2019 work (p. 242).
This control over celebrities’ actions became particularly evident in the case of Li Jiaqi in 2022, following the ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件). This incident unfolded during one of his livestreams when Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced a chocolate cake in the shape of a tank, with an assistant in the back mentioning something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”). This livestream took place on June 3rd, on the night before the 33rd anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen protests.
While Li Jiaqi did not directly touch upon a politically sensitive issue with his controversial livestream, his actions were perceived as a disregard for customer loyalty and displayed an arrogance inconsistent with socialist core values. This behavior garnered criticism in a recent post by the state media outlet CCTV.
Other state media outlets and official channels have joined in responding to the issue, amplifying the narrative of a conflict between the ‘common people’ and the ‘arrogant influencer.’
#3 Striking a Wrong Chord in Challenging Times
Lastly, Li Jiaqi’s controversial livestream moment also became especially big due to the specific words he said about people needing to reflect on their own work efforts if they cannot afford a $11 eyebrow pencil.
Various online discussions and some media, including CNN, are tying the backlash to young unemployment, tepid consumer spending, and the ongoing economic challenges faced by workers in China.
Since recent years, the term nèijuǎn (‘involution’, 内卷) has gained prominence when discussing the frustrations experienced by many young people in China. It serves as a concept to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class who often find themselves stuck in a “rat race”; a highly competitive education and work environment, where everyone is continually intensifying their efforts to outperform one another, leading to this catch 22 situation where everyone appears to be caught in an unending cycle of exertion without substantial progress (read more here).
Weibo commenters note that, given China’s current employment situation and wage levels, hard work is not necessarily awarded with higher income. This context makes Li Jiaqi’s comments seem even more unnecessary and disconnected from the realities faced by his customers. One Shanghai surgeon responded to Li’s comments, saying that the fact that his salary has not increased over the last few year certainly is not because he is not working hard enough (#上海胸外科医生回应李佳琦言论#).
Some observers also recognize that Li, as an e-commerce professional, is, in a way, trapped in the same cycle of “inversion” where brands are continuously driving prices down to such low levels that consumers perceive it as the new normal. However, this pricing strategy may not be sustainable in the long run. (Ironically, some brands currently profiting from the controversy by promoting their own 79 yuan deals, suggesting their deal is much better than Li’s. Among them is the domestic brand Bee & Flower 蜂花, which is offering special skin care products sets for 79 yuan in light of the controversy.)
Many discussions therefore also revolve around the question of whether 79 yuan or $11 can be considered expensive for an eyebrow pencil, and opinions are divided. Some argue that people pay much more for skincare products, while others point out that if you were to weigh the actual quantity of pencil color, its price would surpass that of gold.
The incident has sparked discussions about the significance of 79 yuan in today’s times, under the hashtag “What is 79 yuan to normal people” (#79元对于普通人来说意味着什么#).
People have shared their perspectives, highlighting what this amount means in their daily lives. For some, it represents an entire day’s worth of home-cooked meals for a family. It exceeds the daily wages of certain workers, like street cleaners. Others equate it to the cost of 15 office lunches.
Amid all these discussions, it also becomes clear that many people are trying to live a frugal live in a time when their wages are not increasing, and that Li’s comments are just one reason to vent their frustrations about the situation they are in, In those regards, Li’s remarks really come at a wrong time, especially coming from a billionaire.
Will Li be able to continue his career after this?
Some are suggesting that it is time for Li to take some rest, speculating that Li’s behavior might stem from burn-out and mental issues. Others think that Li’s hardcore fans will remain loyal to their e-commerce idol.
For now, Li Jiaqi must tread carefully. He has already lost 1.3 million followers on his Weibo account. What’s even more challenging than regaining those one million followers is rebuilding the trust of his viewers.
Update: On September 19, the Florasis/Huaxizi brand finally apologized for its late response to the controversy, and the brand stated that the controversy provided an opportunity for them to listen to “the voice of their consumers.” Their decision to release a statement seemed fruitful: they gained 20,000 new followers in a night.
By Manya Koetse
with contributions by Miranda Barnes
Jeffreys, Elaine, and Jian Xu. 2023. “Governing China’s Celebrities.” Australian Institute of International Affairs, 18 May https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/governing-chinas-celebrities/ [12 Sep 2023].
Sullivan, Jonathan, and Séagh Kehoe. 2019. “Truth, Good and Beauty: The Politics of Celebrity in China.” The China Quarterly 237 (March): 241–256.
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