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Confucius goes Commercial – China’s TV Hit ‘Good Wife’

Big hit drama ‘Good Wife’ (贤妻/Xianqi) is a much-discussed topic on Sina Weibo: the traditional housewife is a hot item in modern-day China. Confucius Goes Commercial.

Manya Koetse

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A great number of trending topics on Weibo focus on China’s most-liked television dramas. Big hit drama ‘Good Wife’ (贤妻/Xianqi) is a much-discussed topic on Sina Weibo: the traditional housewife is a hot item in modern-day China.

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.

whatson paintingZhao 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).

stayhomeIn 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.

changecomesslowIn 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."
whatson schoonmoedergesprekDayun 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.

hot tv dramas marchChina's top-watched drama's of early 2013:
 'Good Wife' is number one. 

 

Weibo Commenters

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. (..)”

 

whatson confucian ideal

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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References

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://life.qianlong.com/36311/2013/03/25/7144@8586128.htm.

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.

 

©2013 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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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Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

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Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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Backgrounder

More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

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Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

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