After the success of China’s “Swordsmen” tv series, the new “Good Wife” television drama has turned out to be China’s next big tv hit, scoring record-breaking ratings. This drama of 35 episode, produced by Hunan Satellite TV, tells the story of mother and housewife Han Dayun (played by actress Liu Tao), who struggles with the challenges of family-life and her role as a mother, wife and daughter-in-law.
After marrying the rich and aristocratic Zhao Boxuan, Han Dayun becomes a stay-at-home mother for her daughter and takes care of the household consisting of a dominant mother-in-law, a shrewd sister-in-law and her somewhat foolish husband. Whilst her mother-in-law continuously plagues Dayun for not conceiving a son (the male heir), her husband is having an affair behind her back. Despite her tribulations, Han Dayun maintains her role as the “good wife”- a virtuous, honest, warm and kind woman who will do whatever it takes to save her marriage and keep the family together.
As the ratings for ‘Good Wife’ went sky-high when the final episode was aired in March 2013, discussions on the show dominated Sina Weibo. Topic of discussion: housewife Dayun. Despite being bullied by her family-in-law and badgered by her husband’s mistress, she remains calm, respectful and patient- thereby “setting the example of a good wife” (Sina Weibo 2013). Why are tv dramas such as these so popular in Mainland China? And how can their seemingly old-fashioned topics be explained in the context of a rapidly modernizing China?
TV Drama in China
Over fifty-five years have passed since China aired its very first television drama titled ‘A Mouthful of Pancake’ (Yikou Caibingzi, 1958), a tv show themed around frugality and class struggle that was mainly used as a tool for political education (Zhu et al 2008, 4-5). Much has changed since those days – not only in China’s television system that now holds a mix of national, provincial and local stations, but also in the topics that are discussed in television dramas. Since the 1990s, TV dramas telling the stories of everyday family life have become increasingly popular. They depict the domestic lives of Chinese families and the concerns they face in issues such as marriage, courtship, and show the existing frictions between traditional values and modern developments (Zhu 2008, 3-11). Despite new genres of television shows emerging over the decades, the television drama has remained the most popular item on Chinese television. According to research, “the ‘Chinese viewer’ watches an average of fifty-two minutes of television drama per day”, turning China into the world’s largest consumer of television dramas (Zhu et al 2008, 1; Zhu 2008, 9).
With a myriad of television channels around, does the Chinese government still take note of the content of television shows? The answer is yes. Although Hunan Satellite TV (that airs ‘Good Wife’) is owned by a mixed group of investors, and could therefore said to be “genuinely commercialized”, it is still directly connected to the Provincial Radio TV Bureau that implements the guidelines of the Party (Yong 2010, 660). Producers of a television show have to both take the wishes of the audience (the commercial profits) and the requirements of the government (the guidelines) in account when making a television drama. China arguably still is among “the most controlled media environments in the world” (Schneider 2012, 4).
Commerce and government go hand in hand: “(..) letting commerce into China does not mean taking the state out; the financial base has changed without substantially reducing the state’s regulatory power or its inclination to exercise ideological and moral oversight of the media” (Zhu 2008, 11).
The propagation within TV dramas of married life as the number one priority and as the “ultimate achievement in contemporary Chinese society” is no coincidence (Scheider 2012, 2); policy makers who aim at reviving Confucian traditions can operate through the content of television programs. Especially in times of rapid modernization where traditional views and values are continually under debate, the restoration and confirmation of these values are of great political concern (Li 2011, 335). Chinese TV dramas such as ‘Good Wife’ clearly represent Confucian values, and portray the family as the primary social institution and the key to happiness (Schneider 2012, 2; Zhu 2008, 3).
Confucian Values in ‘Good Wife’
Maintaining hierarchical relations and preserving harmony are key points to Confucianism that that are underlined in the ‘Good Wife’ tv show.
Zhao Boxuan (Dayun's husband) standing behind a picture of his mother, who can be considered the head of the household since his father passed away.
The whole idea of the ‘good wife’ actually is an integral part of Chinese tradition, where a clear distinction is made between men and women. While the men are occupied with all things that are “outside” (wai) the family (such as business or official matters), the women assign themselves to all the tasks that count as being “inside” (nei) the family home, such as taking care of the household, children and parents (Wang 2012).
In the scene pictured above, Boxuan (Dayun's husband) sees his wife in the streets while he is on his way to a meeting. He is displeased when he hears she is helping her sister Cui Ping with some business. He says: "Why do you keep yourself busy with Cui Ping- aren't you busy enough with matters inside the house?"
For a married woman it is the family of her husband that counts as her own. The relationship with her mother-in-law is especially vital for her role in the family – some even say that being a ‘good wife’ actually means being a “good daughter-in-law” (2012, 65). This holds true for the narrative of ‘Good Wife’. The protagonist Han Dayun is bullied by her own mother-in-law (whom she refers to as ‘mother’) for not giving her the grandson she desired. Instead, Han Dayun and her husband have a daughter, who also happens to be weak due to a heart condition. Although gender should not matter in present-day Chinese society, Han Dayun understands her mother’s preference for a son.
In the scene above, Dayun is at the hospital with her sister-in-law to convince the nurse to tell their mother that her youngest daughter is pregnant with a son (although this is not the case). The nurse says: "What era are we living in?! Why do you still value the gender difference between boys and girls?" Dayun answers: "I know it is difficult, but for older people it takes time to grasp this whole concept [of gender equality]; it does not change overnight."
Dayun talks to her mother-in-law, saying: "From the moment I married into your family (the Zhao family), I have considered you as my own mother."
While Dayun’s husband makes long hours at work, she takes care of the household. Despite the daily nagging of her ‘mother’ she remains calm, virtuous and obedient. Nothing seems to infuriate the ‘good wife’; even when her family-in-law and her husband’s secret girlfriend make her life into a misery, Dayun maintains balanced and does everything in her power to defend her marriage and preserve the harmony within the family.
By making the ‘good one’ suffer and let her be persecuted by evil, the show highlights traditional Confucian values about good versus evil and right versus wrong (Yan 1999, 269; Li 2011, 337). In the end the ‘evil ones’, who employ dishonesty and corruption to gain profit, end up empty-handed. The evil mistress goes to prison, and her little son is raised by Dayun and the family. The ‘good wife’ conquers all; she wins back her husband, succeeds in getting a son and achieves the ultimate goal: harmonious family life.
Confucius goes Commercial
Despite the great success of ‘Good Wife’, the series did have its fair share of criticism and satire. Many netizens thought the script to be flat, too melodramatic and overdone- the Zhao family did not seem like a ‘real family’ to them (Xuan 2013). Nevertheless, most viewers did appreciate the positive message the drama gave to society- “that family itself is a community, and that family members should help each other out when facing a crisis” (Zhuocai 2013).
TV shows such as ‘Good Wife’ are an embodiment of China’s commercialization, cultural values and the state’s conception of a “harmonious society”; they are a way for Chinese viewers to make sense of the changing cultural environment and new types of societal relations (Li 2011, 327-339). The ‘Good Wife’ TV drama fulfilled all the goals it was produced for: it moved an audience of millions, satisfied government’s requirements and generated commercial revenues – a true happy end.
One Guangzhou commenter says on Sina Weibo: “This mother-in-law in #GoodWife#- what a rigid-minded woman. How can people value the male gender and belittle female so much? I’m happy my mother is not like that. Where does one still find a daughter-in-law like that? (..) People like that are hard to find nowadays. Now that I have seen how their divorce went about [between Han Dayu and Zhao Boxuan], I am afraid to get married. After watching ‘Good Wife’ I am definitely not becoming a housewife.. Television dramas nowadays…”
Weibo user Zou Chun Yan says: “When we finished watching this video, my godfather had tears in his eyes.” Another user, Xiao Juan Juan, comments: “I am somewhat disappointed after watching #GoodWife#. Liu Tao [Han Dayun, the protagonist] doesn’t really go through a transformation throughout the serie. I expected her to show a bit more personality. So being a ‘good wife’ means being maltreated? People like the sister-in-law [of Han Dayun] really do exist, but does forgiveness make them any better? Hong Xiao Ling [who plays the secret girlfriend] is also shameful- why didn’t the production team show a bit more taste? They ruined it all. (..)”
Want to Watch?
Are you curious about China’s popular television programmes and want to take a peek? You can find scenes of practically all top-TV shows online. Check out my overview of the China’s 2013 top 15 TV drama’s here: Overview of China’s 2013 Popular TV Drama’s.
– by Manya Koetse
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Li Li. 2011. “The Television Play, Melodramatic Imagination and Envisioning the ‘Harmonious Society’ in Post-1989 China.” Journal of Contemporary China 20(69): 327-341.
Schneider, Florian. 2012. Visual Political Communication in Popular Chinese Television Series. Leiden/Boston: Koninklijke Brill NV.
Sina Weibo 2013. ‘#贤妻#’ [#GoodWife#]. Sina Weibo, March 25. Accessed March 25, 2013. http://huati.weibo.com/28839?from=501&order=time.
Wang Fengxian. 2012. “The “Good Wife and Wise Mother” as a Social Discourse of Gender.” Chinese Studies in History 45(4): 58-69.
Xuan Shao Qiang. 2013. “‘‘贤妻’引频繁吐槽 [‘Good Wife’ receives frequent mockery]” China News, March 7. Accessed March 25, 2013. http://www.chinanews.com/yl/2013/03-07/4624073.shtml.
Yan Haiping. 1999. “Urbanizing Woman and her Sisters: the Ethics of Gender in Chinese Television Dramas.” Theatre Research International 24(3): 268-275.
Yong Zhong. 2010.”Relations between Chinese Television and the Capital Market: Three Case Studies.” Media Culture Society 32(4): 649-668.
Zhang, Yan Bing and Jake Harwood. 2002. “Television Viewing and Perceptions of Traditional Chinese Values Among Chinese College Students.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 46(2): 245-264.
Zhuocai. 2013. “电视剧《贤妻》收官刘涛诠释完美女性 [The final part of TV Drama ‘Good Wife’- Liu Tao performs the perfect woman]. ” Qianlong, March 25. Accessed March 25, 2013. http://firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zhu Ying. 2008. Television in Post-Reform China: Serial Dramas, Confucian Leadership and the Global Television Market. New York: Routledge.
Zhu Ying, Michael Kane & Ruoyun Bai. 2008. “Introduction”. In TV Drama in China, Ying Zhu, Michael Keane & Ruoyun Bai (eds), 1-19. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
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Binging and Purging as Online Trend: From China’s “Big Stomach Stars” to “Vomit Bars”
China’s ‘Big Stomach Stars’ are all the rage – but is it really just harmless entertainment?
Unlike previous rising Chinese social media stars such as Papi Jiang, the 26-year-old Mimi from Chongqing did not become an online celebrity because of her comic skills or acting talent, nor for her singing voice or dance moves. Mimi Zhang became famous for eating 8 lb (4 kg) of rice in one sitting, during an eating challenge in 2016.
By now, Mimi is one of China’s most successful ‘Eating Broadcasting’ hosts. Also called ‘Big Stomach Star Eating Livestream’ (大胃王吃播) or ‘Livestream Eating Vlogging’ (吃播女博主) in China, it is an online video genre in which hosts will consume extremely large amounts of food.
In South Korea, it is known as the ‘mukbang‘ phenomenon, and the craze started there some years earlier, peaking in 2016. ‘Eating Broadcasting’ stars such as Kinoshita Yuka (video) and BJ The Diva (video) already had their moments of fame on the internet in South Korea, Japan, and beyond, but the genre only recently has become a real hype on Chinese social media.
Binging on Camera
Looking at the number of views and subscribers from YouTube to Twitch, or on platforms such as Kuaishou or Douyin, the ‘Eating Broadcasting’ genre obviously has millions of fans worldwide.
This online movement is innocuous in many ways. According to experts, people enjoy watching others eat because they feel a social connection, or want to stimulate their own appetite – it is one of the reasons why the craze is also dubbed ‘social eating.’
For many, the genre is simply entertaining; hosts often eat unconventional dishes, they are descriptive with taste, play around with their expressions, take on challenges, talk, and make funny sounds while eating.
But what if ‘social eating’ becomes ‘binge eating’? How harmless is the genre if it shows skinny women eating excessive amounts of food, inadvertently promoting unhealthy eating habits and unrealistic standards?
Along with Mimi Zhang, ‘Big Stomach Mini'(@大胃mini) is one other among many Chinese livestreamers that has achieved online stardom by eating large amounts of food. The 24-year-old reportedly is 1,70 m. tall and only weights 47 kilograms (103lbs), yet recently managed to eat a staggering 17 kg (35 pounds) of meat (video).
More and more, netizens are starting to connect these live-streamers to a habit of purging. Ongoing rumors suggest a supposed connection between binge streaming and vomiting.
Recently, various accounts claimed that Mimi Zhang used to have an account (using the name ‘Little Mi 360’ 小密360) on an online forum where people, mainly women, encourage each other to binge and purge.
China’s “Vomit Bar” (催吐吧) Community
China’s so-called “Vomit Bars” (催吐吧), online forums focused on binging and purging, have formed a hidden community on Chinese internet for years.
The phenomenon already came to light in 2012, and started to receive news media attention within China in 2015 and 2016. Most of the bigger online forums got shut down in 2017, however, after rumors circulated that a member of a ‘Vomit Bar’ had reached such a low weight that her organs failed and she passed away.
Nevertheless, the online community consists of thousands of people, mainly women aged 14-40. A previously well-known forum on Baidu (now shutdown) had around 50,000 members called ‘rabbits’ (兔子) and over 5,5 million posts.
Since then, there are still some scattered forums, and a special Android app called ‘Meet Like Rabbits’ (相识于吐), where users can share their experiences and tips on message boards. On WeChat’s group chats, members of the community have more freedom to talk in private with less risk of being shut down.
Members of the online ‘purging community’ are called ‘rabbits’ since the Chinese word for rabbit, tuzi (兔子), sounds similar to the word for ‘purging’ (tu 吐), and also because they eat all day, just like rabbits.
The main goal of these online forums is to share tips and tricks on how to lose weight by purging, while still binging on food. People also post photos of their binges or body, and share their hopes and fears in losing weight. “The way it is now, I could maintain a weight of around 46 kilograms,” one ‘rabbit’ writes: “I think it’s fat. My heart is filled with panic. I can only vomit.”
Newcomers ask others about best ways to vomit, and some people who say they’ve been binging and purging for years share experiences about their painful stomach and tooth decay.
Doctor Ma Yongchun (马永春) from Zhejiang Tongde Hospital since long has been warning people that these kind of online forums are harmful. She told iFeng news that the so-called ‘rabbits’ get caught up in a vicious cycle of binging and purging, and in doing so are developing serious eating disorders that can become life-threatening.
Eating Disorders in China
The Chinese ‘rabbit’ community could perhaps be compared to the Western ‘pro-ana‘ phenomenon, an online movement where people promote the behavior related to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.
But there is one major difference; the ‘pro-ana’ community is connected to the term ‘anorexia’, suggesting that users of such forums are somewhat aware their behaviors are a sign of an actual eating disorder.
In these Chinese online communities, however, there seems to be a lesser acknowledgment that the cycle of binging and purging is one that belongs in the realm of a psychological disorder. Although people do complain that they feel they can no longer stop their irregular eating pattern, they talk more about their stomach aches and ulcers than they actually talk about suffering from an eating disorder.
This perhaps relates to the fact that there is little general awareness about eating disorders (ED) in China. Although there are no official statistics on the occurrence of bulimia, anorexia, or other ED in China, previous studies have found levels similar to Western countries (Tong et al 2014).
What various studies over the past years have also established is that there are major differences between Western countries and China in how eating disorders manifest themselves, suggesting they are not culture-bound but culture-reactive (Getz 2014, 749; Pike & Dunne 2015).
Because EDs are (1) traditionally conceptualized as a “Western mental health issue,” because (2) there is a social stigma attached to mental health issues in general in Chinese society, because (3) there is little general awareness on EDs, because (4) there is a lack in Chinese healthcare facilities specialized in EDs, and because of (5) various cultural factors (e.g. a very strong food culture), Chinese patients are more prone to talk about their problems in the form of somatic symptoms such as an extreme (dis)taste for food or abdominal problems, than in the form of a psychological problem (Getz 2014, 746-750).
Recently, Chinese media slowly seem to be promoting more awareness on eating disorders. The American video “I became Anorexic for Instagram” has gone viral on Chinese social media over the past month, as it was posted by various state media channels on Weibo.
Among thousands of reactions, many said: “It seems that this kind of disease doesn’t occur much in China – we have too many tasty food!” Others said: “I want to lose weight too – I want an eating disorder like this!”
But there are also more and more people who are tying the rise of China’s online unhealthy eating trends to more serious issues. “These girls who eat so much [on camera] do not just have big stomachs, they actually puke in order to eat so much. I don’t find it entertaining to watch them anymore,” one netizen (@有兔劳劳) says.
“I now find it sad to watch these ‘big stomach stars’ (大胃王),” another person says: “They definitely vomit – it’s impossible for one person’s stomach to hold so much food.”
“What’s up with all these ‘big stomach stars’ recently? It’s not something they were born with, or something they were trained in doing; they are like those ‘rabbits’ and it is a disease, it’s bulimic. I don’t want to support them anymore by watching how they harm themselves,” another commenter writes.
Meanwhile, China’s binge-eating online stars seem to be unaffected by the online rumors that connect them to unhealthy trends and eating disorders.
For some commenters, there is no issue at all: “She just has a great appetite.”
Are you suffering from an eating disorder and need help? For information on eating disorders and how to help if you are worried about someone, Beat (UK) or ANAD (US) has advice for sufferers, friends and family.
References (online references linked to in text)
Getz, M.J. 2014. “The Myth of Chinese Barbies: Eating Disorders in China including Hong Kong.” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 21: 746-754.
Pike, Kathleen M., and Patricia E. Dunne. 2015. “The Rise of Eating Disorders in Asia: a Review.” Journal of Eating Disorders 3:33. Available online https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-015-0070-2 [17.1.18].
Tong, J., Miao, S., Wang, J. et al. 2014. “A Two-stage Epidemiologic Study on Prevalence of Eating Disorders in Female University Students in Wuhan, China.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 49(3): 499-505.
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Netizens or Not? About Chinese Online Communities & Use of the Term ‘Netizen’
The term ‘netizens’, referring to Chinese internet users, is both loved and hated.
It has been an issue of debate for years; the use of the word ‘netizen’ in English-language media – especially when referring to Chinese internet users.
At What’s on Weibo, it is a word we use in pretty much every article we post. Online media in China is our focus, and how ‘netizens’ deal with social media and trending topics is at the heart of this website.
But many people have had enough of the word ‘netizen.’ Already in 2013, Matt Schiavenza at The Atlantic wrote that the term was “once useful as a way to describe China’s internet users,” but that it is now “meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading.”
Schiavenza argues that “netizens” is mainly used for Chinese internet users who are politically active or outspoken, while there is a huge number of Chinese people who are non-political in their online behavior.
The term has also been discussed among people on Reddit, where some call it a “stupid journalism” term.
At the conclusion of the recent Chinese Internet Research Conference at Leiden University, the term was also briefly discussed in the context of ‘online communities,’ with some scholars deeming the word inappropriate to refer to Chinese internet users – also suggesting that speaking of Chinese “online communities” in itself was problematic to begin with.
One discussion participant suggested that words such as ‘community’ or ‘netizen’ are labels used by outsiders in the academic world or in foreign media, rather than Chinese describing themselves that way – saying it is problematic because it is “our label, not theirs.”
Is this really true? What’s behind the term ‘netizens’? Should Chinese internet users be described with other terms than ‘netizens’? For what reasons?
Behind the Word ‘Netizen’
The word ‘netizen’ was first coined in 1984 and popularized with the spread of the internet during the 1990s. The word is a blend of the words ‘internet’ and ‘citizen,’ and is (or was) generally used to either refer to people who use the internet, or more specifically, to refer to people who participate in online discussions or belong to ‘online communities’ (Johnson 2013).
The term is also often attributed to net theoretician Michael Hauben, who used it in his 1997 work to define people who “actively contribute toward the development of the Internet” and for a “citizen who used the Internet as a way of participating in political society.”
Already in 2012,Time Magazine elected the term as one of the words that should be banished, suggesting it had become archaic since its launch in the 1980s.
But when looking at the more recent use of the word ‘netizens’ in academia and foreign media, the term is anything but dead. It does seem to be applied far more often to Asian online contexts, e.g. Chinese or Korean online users, than it is used to describe internet users in Europe or America.
It is often used, for example, to talk about online fans of the K-pop industry or users of the Sina Weibo platform – suggesting that there has been a shift in the use of ‘netizens’ from the 1980s or 1990s to describe any internet user, to more specifically describing those (often Chinese) internet users that are part of a specific online circle.
From Netizen to Wangmin
One reason why ‘netizen’ is used in the Chinese case specifically, is because Chinese media and social media users use the word ‘wǎngmín’ (网民) very frequently.
Wangmin (网民) literally means ‘net-people’ or ‘net-citizens’ (thus literally: ‘netizens’), and is the generally accepted term to designate internet users in China. The term was described by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in 2013 as “Chinese residents who are six or older and have used the Internet at least once in the past six months” (Shen 2013).
The CNNIC has used the term wangmin officially since 1997, the year of its founding, when its first ‘China Wangmin Survey’ (中国网民调查) came out – the same year that Michael Hauben theorized and politicized the word.
The Chinese term wangmin seems to lack the more political implications of the term ‘netizen’ in English in Western countries, which has come to imply that an internet user is politically involved in online issues. Chinese fans of certain music genres or TV series are hardly politically involved in online causes, yet they are still wangmin.
There are (political) implications to the term wangmin on another level, though; in Chinese media, the term is mostly connected to nations. For example; one can speak of ‘American netizens’ (全美网民), ‘Canadian netizens’ (加拿大网民) or ‘Chinese netizens’ (中国网民,国内网民).
There are also instances in which the term is applied to platforms rather than nations. Some Chinese media have used the term ‘Sina Weibo netizens’ (新浪微博网民), for example.
Netizens versus Netizens
So what does this all mean? Firstly, it means that the use of ‘wangmin’ or ‘netizens’ in the Chinese context is not the same as the way the term ‘netizens’ has come to be used in the English-language Western context.
It also means that the term is not archaic at all. After all, who can claim a word is ‘outdated’ or ‘old-fashioned’ when it is practically being used at all hours of the day on Chinese internet and in Chinese media today? Even though it has been used since 1997, it has proved to be anything but a word trend: wangmin has become a part of normal Chinese vocabulary.
Third, claiming that it is a “stupid journalist term” or “our label, not theirs” also does not do just to the word; in the Chinese context, the term is used far beyond journalism, and more importantly; it is used by Chinese organizations and individuals to describe Chinese internet users, meaning it is not merely a term that is used by non-Chinese to describe Chinese online populations.
One thing that stands out when talking about ‘netizens’, no matter in what context, is that it is tied to the idea of an ‘online community.’ Much has been researched and said about what constitutes an online community, but for the scope of this article, we could say that it minimally requires some sense of a shared collective identity or some pursue of a shared purpose (Massa 2017, 961).
In the case of China’s online environment, online communities are built in two ways.
In one way, it is constructed at the state level to “define wangmin within the nation-state boundary,” as Yiping Shen (2015) writes in Public Discourses of Contemporary China.
This is, amongst others, very visible in state reports or state media that define “Chinese netizens” (中国网民) in the same way in which citizens are legally recognized subjects of a nation or state, meaning citizens of the PRC. In this way, all of China’s 772 + million internet users are part of this group of ‘netizens’ and have to follow to guidelines the government lays out for Chinese netizens.
In another way, it is used among Chinese companies and internet users to define themselves, either in the way the state has intended it, or at a smaller online community level. And these communities exist everywhere, from small-scale to large-scale, some existing for a long time, some being short-lived; from the long-standing Rage Comics community to temporary groups and Human Flesh Search Engines, to flourishing BBS or WeChat groups.
A platform such as Sina Weibo also clearly defines itself as a ‘community’ (社区), with its ‘Weibo Community Management’ (新浪微博社区管理) being an important part of the site in setting out guidelines for its members.
Wangyou: Chinese Online Friends
So what options are there for future references to Chinese internet users? Should we just stick to ‘netizens’? Would it more appropriate to use the original Chinese term ‘wangmin,’ or should we perhaps use another widespread term, namely that of ‘wǎngyǒu’?
Besides Chinese internet users defining themselves as wangmin, the word wangyou (网友), literally ‘web friend’, is also often used among netizens to define the members of their online ‘community’ (e.g. Weibo) or Chinese internet users at large.
Jessica Sun (孙慧), linguist and co-founder of the Dutch website Chinatalk, explains that ‘wangyou’ or ‘webfriends’ initially was meant to define those people one knew from cyberspace, when internet just gained traction in China.
Once China’s online population grew bigger, the idea of wangyou also grew to include more people. “It could also refer to a larger group of people who share the same interests or attitudes, instead of just friends,” Sun explains.
Sun compares the use of wangyou to the Chinese word for ‘friend’, pengyou (朋友), which is often used to sound more intimate, although the person addressed is not necessarily really considered a ‘friend.’
According to Sun’s analysis, wangmin (netizen) and wangyou (webfriend) are generally interchangeable, although there are some subtle differences. Sun has some remarks explaining the difference between the two terms:
1. In many cases, wangmin could also be a wangyou, but not the other way around. Wangyou can be used to show a more emotional attachment or personal relation, as in ‘my webfriends’ (我的网友). One can not say ‘my netizens’ (我的网民).
2. While wangyou is more intimate, wangmin is more neutral, and is therefore mainly used by news outlets.
3. The use of the term wangmin or wangyou depends on the attitude of the person who uses it towards a specific person/event, depending on the ‘community’ they are in or the stance they have towards a particular incident.
For example, when Chinese media report about wangyou doing something or being angered about something, it often means this author/publication is siding with these ‘webfriends’.
The headline featured above (“As policeman bravely sacrifices his life, [some] webfriends are angered about these details“) is a story about a policeman who died on duty while trying to protect pedestrians from an out-of-control car. When some online commenters said that it was the policeman’s job to protect the people, suggesting his death was part of his duty, many other commenters were angered with these comments. By featuring the ‘webfriends’ term in this headline, the publication shows it sides with those ‘webfriends’ who mourn the policeman’s death and who are angered about insensitive comments relating to his death.
Another story, headline above (“Shenyang policeman dies on duty, two netizens detained over insulting comments“), is about another policeman dying on duty due to an attack by a suspect, with two web users commenting that the person attacking the police was a “hero” for doing so. The headline states that “two netizens insulting [police] have been detained” – in such a case, the media report shows a distance towards the commenters – ‘webfriends’ would surely not be used to refer to them.
All in all, it is clear that words such as netizen or wangyou, although they might sound outdated in an English-language context, are anything but outdated in the Chinese context.
Nearly five years after The Atlantic posted its anti-‘netizen’ article, claiming the word “meaningless, inaccurate, and misleading,” recent uses of the term and its ubiquity in (Chinese) media show that it was perhaps the author’s perspective that was flawed, rather than the term itself.
For the time to come, Chinese ‘netizens’ are here to stay.
We’d like to hear your stance! How do you feel about ‘netizens,’ or would you rather see a more frequent use of the original wangmin term? Fill out the poll below:
With contribution from Jessica Sun at Chinatalk.
Hauben, Michael and Ronda Hauben. 1997. Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet. Computer Society Press: Los Alamitos, CA.
Jones, Paul Anthony. 2013. Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words.
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