“I gave 600 yuan [±90 US$] for my friend’s wedding, but my friend only gave me 200 yuan [±30 US$] when I got married.” It is an issue that triggered thousands of comments from Weibo netizens within a few hours after it was posted.
The text was originally posted on a Chongqing local forum, where a woman nicknamed ‘yoyo4444’ told how upset she was when she gave her friend 600 yuan [±90 US$] for her marriage, but only got 200 yuan [±30 US$] from her, and how she gave her 1000 yuan [148 US$] when her baby was born, but only received a fruit basket from that same friend when she had a baby herself.
“Am I thinking about this too much?” the woman asked: “Is it everyone’s own business how much they give?”
In China, it is tradition to give a ‘red envelope’ (红包 hóngbāo), a monetary gift, during big life events such as weddings or the baby’s One Month Party.
In weddings, the money is often used by the newlyweds (or their parents) to pay for the banquet bill.
“How do you feel about your friend giving you a lesser wedding gift than what you gave them?”
The issue was re-posted by various Chinese media accounts on Sina Weibo, with some posting a poll asking netizens: “How do you feel about your friend giving you a lesser wedding gift than what you gave them?”, with the following options:
A. This friend is not kind and honest.
B. Since it is a friend, it shouldn’t matter.
C. Perhaps it can be forgiven.
D. Hard to say.
At the time of writing, a staggering 64% of over 60.000 participants chose option A: if a friend would give them less money than they gave them, they would consider them not kind and not honest.
The issue received much attention on Chinese social media, where it struck a chord with many netizens who had experienced similar issues. “I just got married,” one netizen posted: “And I went through something similar. My friend got married 3 years earlier and I gave her 500 yuan [± 75 US$]. She only gave me 300 yuan [±45 US$] for mine.”
“It has nothing to do with how much money you earn.”
The majority of netizens feel that the exchange of monetary gifts between friends should be equal, no matter their individual financial capacity. “Proper behavior is based on reciprocity,” (“礼尚往来” lǐshàngwǎnglái) is what many netizens say.
Although there are some voices saying that people are not equal in how much they earn and that you cannot expect them to give you the same amount of money they give you, most commenters seem to agree that reciprocating a monetary gift of the same value or more is the right thing to do regardless of one’s financial situation: “If somebody gives you a certain amount, you give them the same amount back. It has nothing to do with how much money you earn. The gift you give is simply what the other person originally gave you.”
“Exchanging gifts is a sensitive issue – it involves expectations.”
On October 17, a journalist from Sina media contacted the original poster of the issue, named ‘Liu Han’ (pseudonym). She told the news site that she was 29 years old and that she was quite close to the friend, with whom she had shared a dorm room during college.
She also stated that the income of her friend was relatively high, and more or less the same as her own income. “I’ve given all of my former dorm mates who I am less close to 300 yuan [±45 US$] per person for their wedding. But she gave me 200 yuan [±30 US$] while I gave her 600 yuan [±90 US$]!”
When afterward her baby gift of 1000 yuan [148 US$] to her friend was returned with a fruit basket, she felt “disillusioned”, according to Sina.
Although Liu Han was planning to distance herself from her friend, she keeps on receiving phone calls and WeChat messages. “When it is about borrowing money, I have no problem with that, but exchanging gifts is a sensitive issue – it involves expectations.”
“The amount you give shows how much you value the relationship.”
According to Chinese sociologist Tan Gangqiang (谭刚强), there is more to ‘red envelope’ giving than just etiquette: “It also is a way of showing you care and wish someone well, and the amount you give shows how you value the relation.”
However, Tan also emphasizes: “You cannot determine the gift someone gives you in return (..), and its value depends on different things, and does not necessarily relate to how someone feels about your relationship. It is not a business transaction.”
“Aha, I see,” one netizen responds to the sociologist’s remarks: “It is clear that he is the ‘I-give-you-200-yuan’ type of person.”
“It’s easy,” another Weibo user remarks: “If you’re not in the financial position to give someone money as a return gift, then just do not spend the money they give you.”
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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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How Chinese Netizens Boosted the Buzz for the ‘Creation of the Gods’ Blockbuster
Despite initial low expectation, this Chinese ‘Lord of the Rings’ has now garnered a devoted online community of fans who are helping to boost its success.
Early this week, the Weibo hashtag “Creation of the Gods I Breaks 2 Billion Yuan [US$275M] in Box Office” (#封神第一部票房破20亿#) became a trending topic on Weibo, followed by a hashtag celebrating raking in 2.2 billion [US$302M] on Friday (#封神第一部票房破22亿#), showcasing the remarkable success of Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms (封神第一部：朝歌风云) in both Chinese cinemas and across social media platforms.
Together, the hashtags have amassed an impressive 230 million views to date, underscoring the growing popularity of this summer box office sensation.
Directed by Chinese film director Wuershan (乌尔善), Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms stands as the initial film within the trilogy of the fantasy epic Creation of the Gods, also known as Fengshen Trilogy (封神三部曲).
The mythological epic is considered the most ambitious and expensive production in Chinese film history with a planned budget of 3 billion yuan (approximately US$410 million).
The film, which was officially released on July 20th, achieved its box office milestone 25 days after its release. The success of Creation of the Gods I can largely be attributed to the collaborative efforts of the production team and a dedicated group of fans who volunteered to promote the film online, a phenomenon referred to as zìláishuǐ (自来水).
Zìláishuǐ (自来水) literally means ‘tap water’ but it is a label for those netizens who spontaneously promote a film or artist without getting paid for it.
The three characters, 自来水, are actually an abbreviation of the term 自发而来的网络水军 (zìfāérlái de wǎngluò shuǐjūn: “self-organized internet water army”).
This term has emerged on Chinese social media in recent years, signifying a group of individuals who willingly promote films or television series out of love and admiration. Their actions are driven by personal enthusiasm and passion. Unlike those who are paid to promote something, these ardent fans invest their own time and effort into amplifying the presence of their favorite films or shows.
This concept first gained prominence within the fan community of the film Wolf Warrior (战狼) in 2015. It gained broader recognition with Monkey King: Hero Is Back (西游记之大圣归来) later that same year when zìláishuǐ successfully influenced numerous cinemas to increase showings for the animated movie. Earlier this year, zìláishuǐ once again played a crucial role in boosting the popularity of The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2) upon its release.
Rocky Start for a Multi-Billion-Dollar Film
The origins of the Fengshen Trilogy can be traced back to an initial pinghua (平话) story – which laid the foundation for later written narrative forms in China, – namely King Wu’s Campaign Against [King] Zhou (武王伐纣平话), that emerged sometime between the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, as well as the Investiture of the Gods (封神演义), a novel from the Ming (1368-1644) dynasty.
This captivating narrative delves into the history of the Shang (c. 1600-c. 1046 BC) and Zhou (c. 1046-771 BC) dynasties, intricately weaving together folklore, legends, and a variety of mythical beings and creatures.
Wuershan reportedly came up with the idea for the movie after watching The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and publicly shared his intention to turn the Fengshen story into a film in 2012. The project officially commenced in June 2014.
From February 2017 onwards, a global audition was held to select the lead actors and actresses, who then underwent 6-8 months of specialized training. The filming started on August 2018, and concluded in January 2020.
The narrative of Fengshen holds tremendous popularity in China. Nevertheless, this extensive familiarity might actually present a challenge when it comes to triggering the audience’s interest. Past mythological films produced in China have often left viewers with exceedingly low expectations – or even a lack of expectations altogether – for this genre of Chinese cinema.
The challenges encountered by Wuershan and his team were amplified by the three-year-long pandemic and the investment issues of the film’s primary production company, Beijing Culture. The pandemic introduced uncertainty about the film’s release, while Beijing Culture, the primary investor, faced complications due to its involvement in actress Zheng Shuang’s project. Zheng’s reputation had already taken a significant hit when she was accused of abandoning her two surrogate babies in the US, followed by substantial fines for tax evasion (read more).
Although the filming concluded, the movie’s release date was pushed back, prompting concerns about the film’s quality and noticeably dampening the expectations and excitement among Chinese netizens. In June 2023, the announcement of the film’s official release date also failed to generate significant attention or interest among netizens.
At the early stages of promoting the film, the movie’s marketing team adopted a strategy in which they mostly highlighted the young, good-looking, and muscular actors starring in the film. But this approach made some netizens believe that the film had to rely on such visuals to attract audiences because its overall quality was just not up to par.
Based on data from the Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan, Creation of the Gods I garnered a modest box office earnings of slightly over 49 million yuan (US$6.7M) on its opening day, positioning it in the eighth spot among other films that were launched around the same time. This outcome was not just quite disappointing for a project that had received a substantial investment of 3 billion yuan – it was actually pretty disastrous.
Captivating the Hearts of Moviegoers
In spite of its tumultuous production journey and initial cautious response from Chinese moviegoers, as the film continued to be screened in theaters, an increasing number of netizens began to develop a genuine fondness and admiration for Creation of the Gods I.
1: New Portrayal of Su Daji
The presentation of the storyline, especially the reinterpretation of the renowned character Su Daji (苏妲己), garnered praise from moviegoers.
In the original story of Investiture of the Gods, Su Daji was held responsible for the downfall of the Shang Dynasty due to her seduction of Yin Shou (殷寿), the King of the Shang Dynasty. This fateful enticement ultimately metamorphosed him into a ruthless ruler, leading to the demise of the dynasty.
Within China, an ingrained idiomatic expression places responsibility on women for unfortunate occurrences, known as “a beauty that brings disaster” (红颜祸水), and Su Daji has long been emblematic of this notion. However, Wuershan and his screenwriting team chose to diverge from this perspective in the film. Instead, the movie portrays Su Daji as a manifestation of Yin Shou’s ambitious nature. It underscores that Su Daji wasn’t the catalyst for the dynasty’s downfall; rather, Yin Shou himself was responsible for his own downfall.
Although not everyone agrees with this new portrayal of Su Daji, the controversy around the character’s representation has brought greater attention to the film.
2: Fresh Faces in China’s Cinema
Another factor contributing to Creation of the Gods I‘s success in capturing the affection of early moviegoers is the commitment exhibited by both the younger and more seasoned actors and actresses, whether in leading roles or supporting positions.
The majority of actors and actresses who assumed key roles in the film were newcomers to the entertainment industry, introduced through a global audition process. This extensive search encompassed around 15,000 individuals worldwide, culminating in the selection of over 30 participants for a specialized training camp.
Within this training program, they underwent instruction in martial arts, equestrianism, archery, drumming, ancient qin music, and a variety of cultural courses, including pre-Qin history and etiquette. These courses were devised based on the Six Arts: rites (礼), music (乐), archery (射), chariotry or equestrianism (御), calligraphy (书), and mathematics (数). These arts formed the core of education in ancient Chinese culture and were required to be mastered by students during the Zhou dynasty.
3: Costume & Set Design
The production team’s meticulous attention to detail in the costumes and set designs further increased the film’s popularity.
For example, the production team built an entire forest system ecosystem reminiscent of Tibet’s Linzhi and Motuo forests, all within a 10,000-square-meter studio in Qingdao. This was partly due to the protective status of Tibet’s forests, rendering filming scenes involving horse riding impossible. The set allegedly was so lifelike, that many butterflies and insects were attracted to the forest after it was completed.
Similar stories also includes the construction of the main set, the Longde Hall (龙德殿) which was built up by a set design team consisting of 1,500 workers, with 800 of them specializing in wood carving.
After learning all these stories behind the movie, many Chinese netizens have come to believe that the film is not as bad as initially thought. They attributed its underperformance at the box office not to its quality but to an inadequate promotional strategy and execution. In response, many have rallied to support the film.
Zilaishui to the Rescue
Lately, a big group of fresh enthusiasts for Creation of the Gods have come together on Chinese social media and are growing rapidly as a community of ‘Fengshen zìláishuǐ‘ (封神自来水): voluntary and passionate supporters and promoters of the Fengshen Trilogy.
Shui Mu Ding (@水木丁), a Chinese columnist and writer, who is also a member of the ‘Fengshen zìláishuǐ,’ shared her emotions after observing the film’s first-day box office results: “Picture yourself strolling along the beach and stumbling upon a beached whale. You may not have the power to help it, but would you just turn around and leave? It seems impossible to let go.”
She then wrote an article and published it on WeChat and Weibo, recommending this film to her readers and followers. Some people questioned if she was paid for it, but she said she did this “simply because I want to.”
Simultaneously, other members of the ‘Fengshen zìláishuǐ‘ community are also contributing to broaden the film’s impact through various approaches.
For example, they use the content of the film to create memes on social media.
They also cleverly “hijack” ongoing trending topics linked to the actors involved in the film, even when these subjects weren’t directly linked to the film itself. By employing a clickbait approach or crafting posts reminiscent of gossip news narratives, their ultimate goal is to persuade netizens who viewed this hashtag to learn more about the film and, ideally, entice them to go to the cinemas to see the movie.
Then there are those people sharing their experiences after viewing the movie in the cinema and posting them on different social platforms. Some fans even choose to watch the film in theaters twice, three times or even more, pondering over details and sharing their discoveries online, to showcase their support for the film.
Embracing a New Era in the Industrialization of China’s Film Industry
Among the many reviews shared by Fengshen zìláishuǐ, the credits list at the end of the film, just before the bonus scene, keep poppping up. This extensive roster of names, scrolling across the screen for about three minutes, shows the immense scale of this challenging project, resonating deeply with many moviegoers and sparking discussions on the industrialization of Chinese films.
As highlighted in prior interviews, director Wuershan possesses a clear vision for enhancing and refining Chinese film production. His ideas encompass streamlining film production processes by genre, implementing structured and methodical approaches to oversee every facet of filmmaking, and seamlessly integrating cutting-edge technologies.
These principles have been seamlessly woven into the production of the Fengshen Trilogy, setting new standards for the industrialization of China’s film realm.
For instance, prior to actual filming, Wuershan conducted multiple animation previews and rehearsals, aligning his team with his creative vision and mitigating potential losses arising from miscommunication. This approach not only trimmed shooting and editing expenses but also facilitated meticulous planning of the shooting schedule.
Given the film’s extensive utilization of visual effects and reliance on blue screen technology, director of photography Wang Yu (王昱) and his team devised an ingenious technique to craft an expansive screen. They ingeniously repurposed excavator buckets into blue panels, collaborating with the excavator team to erect the blue screen as needed. Through precise control of various angles, they erected a sprawling screen wall.
In another instance of production innovation aimed at standardizing filming procedures, the production team veered away from conventional boxed meals and fast food, instead establishing an actual “Fengshen Canteen” to cater to their workforce of 8000 members, strictly following China’s food safety regulations.
In his quest to explore new ways to improve China’s movie industry industrialization, Wuershan joins the ranks of other directors such as Guo Fan (郭帆) (The Wandering Earth 2) or Chen Sicheng (陈思诚) (Lost In The Stars). They’re all dedicated to innovating film processes across various genres by melding Hollywood knowledge with their own filmmaking expertise to bolster China’s film industry. Guo Fan also visited the set of Fengshen Trilogy to learn from the filming process.
This idealism and drive to improve China’s film industry at large has also resonated with Fengshen zìláishuǐ, futher motivating them to continue their efforts in promoting high quality Chinese films like Creation of The Gods
For now, some fans are already concerned about how their beloved “domestically produced masterpiece” will perform in the international market. But most zìláishuǐ are still busy to promote the movie on Chinese social media and further helping to grow its box office numbers, paving the way for the release of the first and second films of the trilogy during the upcoming summer vacations in China – next year and the year after. If all goes well, we’ll know what they’ll do next summer.
Edited for clarity by Manya Koetse.
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