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From Comedy to Controversy: Behind the Li Haoshi Incident

Exploring the dynamics that led to the social storm involving Chinese comedian ‘House’ Li Haoshi.

Manya Koetse

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The Li Haoshi scandal sheds light on a complex interplay of factors, including the working conditions within the Chinese comedy industry, the expectations placed on performers in China’s entertainment realm, and the significant role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in shaping Chinese nationalism. A deep dive by What’s on Weibo.

Humor is no joking matter. While the business of humor can be competitive and challenging no matter where you are in the world, there are some special considerations and implications for working in humor in China.

This week, Chinese comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石), who performs under the name ‘House’, experienced firsthand that there are strict limitations to what can be openly satirized or joked about in China today. When one of his jokes about two stray dogs described them by referencing a famous People’s Liberation Army (PLA) slogan, he found himself at the center of a social media storm. One related hashtag received over 1.1 billion views on social media platform Weibo this week.

The phrases used in the comic skit, with Li saying they came to mind while watching the dogs chasing a squirrel, were: “Forge exemplary conduct, fight to win.” The lines are part of the PLA slogan “Follow the Party! Fight to win! Forge exemplary conduct!” (“听党指挥,能打胜仗,作风优良!”), which was used by Xi Jinping in 2013.

Li Haoshi was not just socially canceled by angry netizens who defended the honor of Chinese soldiers and slammed the comedian for being so unpatriotic, he also saw his career go up in flames. His shows were called off, he was banned from social media, his employer was fined more than $2 million, he was blacklisted under orders of the China Performing Arts Association (CAPA), and he is now under official investigation.

Following the controversy, there were different views on Chinese social media regarding the issue (read more here). Although the majority of commenters argued that the PLA is never to be joked about, some people also lamented that online discussions lacked nuance.

This scandal sheds light on a complex interplay of factors, including the working conditions within the Chinese comedy industry, the expectations placed on performers in the Chinese entertainment world, and the important role played by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in shaping Chinese nationalism.

 

HUMOR AND STAND-UP COMEDY IN CHINA

 

Humor has played a prominent role in Chinese language and culture for centuries, manifested through a diverse array of jokes and humorous texts. Professional comedians, who served to entertain the aristocrats, have been around since as early as 800 BC.

Although humor has always been there, it has not necessarily always been appreciated. Confucianism has played a significant role in devaluing humor in China, as it formally regarded humor and satire as inferior forms of aesthetic expression. Chinese rulers who did not tolerate criticism or dissent also could not appreciate jokes or comics which, in any way, went against their rule and authority (Sullivan & Sullivan 2021, 102; Yue 2008, 403-413).

In the early days of modern China, following the collapse of the Qing dynasty, there was a notable resurgence of various forms of humor and jokes that spanned two decades, including cross-talk (xiàngsheng 相声) and skits (xiǎopǐn 小品). It was during this period that the Mandarin word “yōumò” (幽默) was introduced, derived from the English term “humor.” This term was coined by the renowned Chinese writer and translator Lin Yutang (林语堂), who faced the challenge of finding an exact Chinese translation for the English word (Hsu 2015, 2).

For decades, from the founding of People’s Republic of China to the Anti-Rightists Movement and the Cultural Revolution and beyond, there was not much yōumò around. As described by David Moser (2004), the constraints imposed by the Party and political sensitivities severely limited the content and topics that comedians could explore.

The comparatively relaxed political atmosphere of the post-Mao era gave rise to novel forms of humor and comedy. In subsequent years, influenced by the United States, “stand-up comedy” (tuōkǒuxiù 脱口秀) also gained popularity. Initially originating in small bars or cafes in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, this comedic genre swiftly spread across the nation.

But similar to numerous other performance forms in China, stand-up comedy faces challenges in maintaining its spontaneity and provocative nature. Performers and comedy clubs are required to obtain licenses and gain script approval, while also navigating strict boundaries regarding politically sensitive topics that are strictly off-limits (Sullivan & Sullivan 2021: 102).

This does not mean that stand-up comedy is not thriving in China. On the contrary, the genre has only become more popular over recent years as stand-up comedy performers skillfully navigate the boundaries of what is acceptable by employing different techniques, such as irony, self-deprecation, and surreal humor to offer alternative perspectives within the permitted discourse (see: Chen and Gao 2023). In doing so, Chinese stand-up comedy has evolved beyond its American influences and embraced more traditional Chinese comedic language techniques from xiàngsheng and other performing arts.

In today’s landscape, Chinese comedians face a multitude of boundaries beyond just political ones. Operating within an environment where cultural and commercial factors hold significant sway, it becomes almost inevitable for popular performers to encounter controversy at some point in their careers. Authorities, audiences, sponsors, or companies may take offense at the content of their comedic expressions, adding further complexity to their navigation of these boundaries.

Li Dan, Papi Jiang, and Yang Li previously also faced criticism for their “inappropriate” or “vulgar” jokes.

The online comedian Papi Jiang (Papi酱), for example, saw her videos being taken offline in 2016 for containing “vulgar language and content,” after which she vowed to choose her words more carefully in the future. Female stand-up comedian Yang Li (杨笠), also known as the “punchline queen,” was dismissed as the spokesperson for American tech company Intel in 2021 for her jokes that allegedly insulted men. The popular talk show host and comedian Li Dan (李诞) sparked controversy for promoting female underwear brand Ubras with a slogan that was deemed sexist.

In such a working environment, it is difficult to fathom that the 31-year-old Li Haoshi, who had previously appeared on the immensely popular stand-up comedy competition show “Rock & Roast” Season Four, was unaware that his reference to a PLA slogan would surpass the acceptable boundaries. However, like many comedians, he may simply have been testing the limits.

 

THE POWER OF PERFORMERS

 

Another factor that comes into play when exploring the reasons behind the ‘House’ scandal is the special role attributed to Chinese performers.

Although Chinese performers and renowned names in the cultural industries have always been seen as fulfilling an exemplary role, this notion holds even greater significance in the era of social media, where Chinese performers and celebrities wield tremendous influence in an online environment with over one billion internet users. The rapid growth of online entertainment-focused apps and platforms has also created opportunities for unknown performers to achieve overnight fame.

There have been various studies about celebrities in China. One study from 2019 by Sullivan and Kehoe highlights the complexity of China’s celebrity scene. Because while the industry flourishes, it still operates under strict regulations imposed by both the state and industry stakeholders. Additionally, moral values play a significant role in shaping the industry. Sullivan and Kehoe argue that the state, through media and cultural industries, retains control over the symbolic economy within which celebrities operate (2019, 242).

Channeling public opinion and safeguarding social stability are priorities for Chinese authorities, and the influence of Chinese celebrities is often used to promote Party ideology and policies. While authorities encourage Chinese famous performers to act as positive role models, negative news surrounding the country’s popular stars is often perceived as having a “negative social impact” or a “bad influence on public morale.”

There are some some noteworthy instances that exemplify the significance of moral values and the role of Chinese celebrities as role models. One such example occurred in 2019 when Roy Wang (Wang Yuan 王源), a young Chinese singer and actor widely regarded as one of the country’s most influential teenagers, found himself embroiled in controversy after being caught smoking during a restaurant dinner in Beijing.

The incident surrounding Wang’s smoking quickly ignited a firestorm on Chinese social media. The controversy stemmed from two main factors. Firstly, Beijing had implemented a ban on smoking in all public indoor spaces since 2015, making Wang’s actions a violation of the law by lighting up in a restaurant. Additionally, as an influential teen icon, Wang held the responsibility of being a role model to his numerous fans, amplifying the impact of his behavior.

The idea that China should “raise the bar” for becoming a celebrity was widely propagated in 2021. In that same year, the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA) officially released new guidelines for Chinese performers aimed at promoting adherence to the principles of “social morality.” According to these guidelines, performers could face a permanent ban from their profession if they fail to comply.

The guidelines are meant to “promote the healthy development of the performer industry” and lay out the “practice norms,” which stipulate that performers, among other things, should abide by national laws and regulations, should honor their contracts and comply with copyright laws. But they also stipulate that they should “love the motherland and support the Party’s line and policies” (“热爱祖国,拥护党的路线方针政策”), “persevere in the orientation that literature and art should serve the people and socialism” (“坚持文艺为人民服务、为社会主义服务的方向”), and “actively uphold a positive image” (“积极树立正面形象”).

By joking about the PLA, Li Haoshi violated some of the rules laid out by CAPA. His severe punishment not only demonstrates to the public that Chinese performers/celebrities should abide by the same laws as ordinary citizens – if not be held to even higher moral standards, – it also serves as a cautionary message to other entertainers, urging them not to overstep boundaries and to uphold their responsibility as public figures to positively impact public morale.

 

THE SACRED PLA

 

In addition to Li Haoshi’s position as a stand-up comedian and his role as a performer/celebrity, another significant aspect of this controversy revolves around the status of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in contemporary China. PLA soldiers are revered as the heroic “soldier sons of the people” who display unwavering loyalty to the Party and the nation.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was founded in 1927, with Mao Zedong counted among its founders. It played a crucial role in the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In addition to its core duty of protecting the country and conducting military operations, the PLA is also involved in other tasks such as peacekeeping efforts and disaster relief. However, its primary and most significant role is to serve as the military branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and ensure the CCP’s continued leadership in China. By safeguarding China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity, the PLA carries both a military and symbolic significance.

The PLA plays a major part in Chinese nationalist discourses, while simultaneously also playing a central role in driving nationalism in China. Whether it is the social media spectacle of China’s Taiwan military exercises or ‘100.000 soldier loving girls‘ during the Wuhan floods, the PLA acts as “a bridge between nationalism as an abstract ideological concept and as an everyday concern of the people for the security of their country” (Ji 2004, 248).

Military propaganda, often disseminated online, is important in reinforcing the image of PLA soldiers as guardians of the nation. When four Chinese PLA soldiers were killed during a border clash with Indian troops in 2020, Chinese state media outlets made noteworthy efforts to shape the ways in which the soldiers are to be remembered, blending political and personal elements while lauding their unwavering patriotism. In doing so, they posted their photos along with phrases such as “The place where I stand is China” and “I will defend the motherland with my life.”

Those insulting the PLA can face serious consequences under the “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law” which was introduced in 2018. In 2021, former Economic Observer journalist Qiu Ziming (仇子明), along with two other bloggers, were the first persons to be charged under the new law as they were detained for “insulting” the Chinese soldiers. Qiu, who had 2.4 million fans on his Weibo page, made remarks questioning the number of casualties China said it suffered in the India border clash. He was sentenced to eight months in prison.

Li Haoshi’s faux-pas is particularly sensitive because the lines used in his joke indirectly made a comparison between PLA soldiers and stray dogs, while also placing words famously used by Xi Jinping in a ridiculous context. Additionally, as highlighted by Chinese bloggers and China Digital Times editor Alexander Boyd, Li’s joke potentially alludes to a scene from the 1956 Chinese war movie Battle on Shangganling Mountain (上甘岭) during the Korean War, where soldiers were depicted chasing after a squirrel. The intention of the scene was allegedly to showcase the kind-hearted nature of the brave soldiers of the Volunteer Army.

Some people believe that Li Haoshi was purposely alluding to that scene with his joke, and in doing so, insulted China’s Korean War ‘martyrs,’ which is illegal under the martyr defamation law. That would be a serious offense. In 2022, former investigative journalist Luo Changping was sentenced to seven months in prison and ordered to make a public apology for insulting Chinese soldiers portrayed in a blockbuster movie about the Korean War.

Whether or not Li intended to make such a connection or put much thought into his joke remains uncertain. However, many netizens are angry with Li for various reasons. Chinese nationalists defend the honor of their hero soldiers, while others blame Li for not respecting the boundaries within which he should operate.

Furthermore, Li’s colleagues, Chinese stand-up comedians, are also upset that he took the risk of making a politically incorrect joke, which has put the entire industry under scrutiny. This incident has created more tension for other performers in an already challenging work environment.

On Chinese social Q&A platform Zhihu, one experienced stand-up comedian performer from Shandong shared his view on the matter, suggesting that Li has brought harm to their industry:

For commercial performances, our lines have to first have to go through a script reading meeting, they will then go through 4-6 open rounds of ‘polishing,’ and then go through the script polishing of the copywriters working for the show. (..) Moreover, the words and phrases we use in our jokes must have a contextual understanding and source. Therefore, there is no way that Li Haoshi was not aware of the history and origin of the sentences he used.

At the same time, all of our jokes in commercial performances require approval. Therefore, Li Haoshi obviously knew that this particular joke wouldn’t pass the approval, so he intentionally didn’t submit it. This is not a case of ignorance, it is simply being malicious.”

Overall, Li Haoshi’s case serves as a warning to others to be cautious with their words, whether used during performances, talk shows, interviews, or online.

Jokes are not to be taken lightly in a media environment where every line carries weight. When humor becomes such a serious matter, it becomes increasingly challenging to stay funny.

By Manya Koetse

References (other online sources hyperlinked in text)

Chen, Dan, and Gengsong Gao. 2023. “The Transgressive Rhetoric of Standup Comedy in China.” Critical Discourse Studies 20 (1): 1-17.

Hsu, Pi-ching. 2015. Feng Menglong’s Treasury of Laughs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Ji, You. 2004. “Nationalism, the Chinese Defence Culture and the People’s Liberation Army.” In: Leong H. Liew and and Shaoguang Wang (eds), Nationalism, Democracy and National Integration in China, pp. 247-268. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Moser, David. 2004. “Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese the Chinese Humor Form of Xiangsheng.” Danwei.org http://www.danwei.org/tv/stifled_laughter_how_the_commu.php, accessed via https://www.academia.edu/5929719/Stifled_Laughter_How_the_Communist_Party_Killed_Chinese_the_Chinese_Humor_Form_of_Xiangsheng [20 May 2023].

Sullivan, Lawrence R. and Nancy Sullivan. 2021. Historical Dictionary of Chinese Culture. New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield

Sullivan, Jonathan, and Séagh Kehoe. 2019. “Truth, Good and Beauty: The Politics of Celebrity in China.” The China Quarterly 237 (March): 241–256.

Yue, Xiao Dong. 2008. “Exploration of Chinese Humor.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 21 (4): 407-421.

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©2023 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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China Arts & Entertainment

Looking Back on the 2024 CMG Spring Festival Gala: Highs, Lows, and Noteworthy Moments

Reflecting on the highs and lows of this year’s China Media Group Spring Festival Gala, the world’s most-watched television program.

Manya Koetse

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The biggest media spectacle of the Chinese New Year is the annual CMG Spring Festival Gala. The entire week, this four-hour extravaganza featuring forty-six performances has dominated social media conversations.

The 42nd edition of The CMG Spring Festival Gala was broadcasted on February 9th, celebrating the start of the Dragon Year. This year, the show reportedly attracted 679 million viewers.

The annual Spring Festival Gala by the state-run China Media Group (CMG) has become an integral part of the Lunar New Year celebrations for Chinese people since its debut in 1983. As the world’s most-watched live-broadcasted entertainment program, the Gala is now aired across dozens of channels, both in China and abroad, both on television and online.

China’s Spring Festival Gala (中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会) is commonly abbreviated to Chūnwǎn (春晚) in Chinese. Over the past week, the Chūnwǎn became a much-discussed topic on Chinese social media and dominated all trending lists during the Chinese New Year’s Eve.

The Gala, which lasts a total of four hours, shows the very best of China’s mainstream entertainment and Party propaganda and is a mix of culture, commerce, and politics. Through music, dance, art, and comedy, the event serves as a significant platform for the Party to disseminate official ideology. It is also a chance to present the nation’s top performers while showcasing digital innovations.

 

A “No-Covid”, Traditional Gala


 

The phrase “There will never be a worse, just worse than last year [中央春晚,没有最烂,只有更烂]” has become a well-known saying among viewers about the Chūnwǎn, as complaining about the show is very much part of the tradition. However, was this year really worse than last year? Not at all.

This 2024 edition was directed by Yu Lei (于蕾), who also directed the 2023 Gala. The 45-year-old female director previously also served as the general scriptwriter and overall designer for the Gala.

Not only was the director the same as last year, but the five main hosts were also exactly the same. They include Ren Luyu (任鲁豫, 1978), the TV host from Henan who has now become one of the most familiar faces on the show; Sa Beining, also known as Benny Sa (撒贝宁, 1976), who is famous for his CCTV work and for hosting the Gala regularly over the past twelve years; Nëghmet Raxman (尼格买提, 1983), a Chinese television host of Uyghur heritage who has hosted the Gala seven times since 2015; Long Yang (龙洋, 1989), a CCTV host from Hunan who presented the Gala for the third time this year; and Ma Fanshu 马凡舒 (1993), who was the youngest and newest host during the 2022 Gala and has been presenting it since.

The choice of director and presenters suggests that continuity and consistency were important for this year’s Chūnwǎn. Although the Gala’s format is always more or less the same, including songs, dances, cross-talk, sketches, traditional opera, martial arts, magic, etc., this year’s Gala stood out for sticking to tradition.

Over the past few years during the pandemic, several elements of the show were altered to adapt to the new situation. From 2021 to 2023, the show was only broadcast from the Beijing Studio and focused less on big spectacular scenes. Since 2020, the battle against Covid has also been a theme in the show. In 2020, the Gala included a segment that was broadcast live from a Wuhan hospital to show how medical staff were spending their Lunar New Year taking care of Covid patients. That was the first time since 1983 for the Gala to include a segment that was not meticulously rehearsed.

From 2021 to 2023, the nation’s battle against Covid was also a theme in songs and other segments, reflecting on the daily lives of ordinary people. In 2021, for example, Jackie Chan sang “Tomorrow Will Be Better” (明天会更好), which addressed the epidemic situation and honored all who joined in the fight against the virus.

However, the theme of Covid played no role at all anymore in this year’s Chūnwǎn, which focused entirely on celebrating the Year of the Dragon, the home, and the nation (龙行龘龘,欣欣家国). Similar to the pre-2020 Gala, this 42nd edition was broadcast not only from the Beijing venue but also included performances in four other locations: Shenyang, Changsha, Xi’an, and Kashgar. Continuity was also seen in the 46 acts of the night, as many familiar faces, such as Sun Nan (孙楠) and Han Hong (韩红), performed during the night.

 

Highlights of the 2024 Gala


 

The xiangsheng (相声) act “Director’s Worries” (“导演的心事”) was the most-watched act of the entire show according to the viewership ratings – this also relates to the time of the broadcasting. Xiangsheng is a traditional Chinese comedic performance that involves a dialogue between two performers, using rich language and many puns. This act was performed by comedians Jin Fei (金霏) and Chen Xi (陈曦). They were also joined by others, turning it into a “group xiangsheng” (群口相声) that humorously portrayed the mental strains faced by Chinese young people and served as a source for parodies and memes on social media.

Watch on Youtube here

 
The Song “Dragon” (龙), performed by famous pop singers Zhang Jie aka Jason Zhang (张杰) and Sun Nan (孙楠) was particularly popular this Gala. The song encompassed the main theme of the Dragon Year, as they sang about how a dragon lies in every Chinese person, representing the spirit and strength of the Chinese nation over the past five thousand years. This song integrated popular entertainment with the essence of the Chinese New Year, cultural heritage, and national pride, making it the perfect anthem for the Spring Festival Gala. One Weibo post by Zhang Jie about his performance received nearly 167,000 comments and over 176,000 shares.

Watch on Youtube here

 
The performance of “Koi Carp” (锦鲤) featuring lead dancer Hua Xiaoyi (华宵一) and the Beijing Dance Academy (北京舞蹈学院) was another standout moment of the Gala. The ‘painting’ dance “Only This Green” (只此青绿) stole the spotlight in 2022, while the ’embroidery’ dance “Splendid” (锦绣) was one of the highlights of the show in 2023. Continuing the tradition of presenting top-notch, artistic dance that merges tradition with technology, the Koi Carp dance had a similar charm, with dancers suspended on spring ropes performing an exquisite aerial dance that made them look like graceful fish underwater.

Watch on Youtube here

 
The creative act “Start Something New” (别开生面) directed by the renowned filmmaker Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) was a highlight in the show for its originality. The act, which combined cooking, dancing, and singing, presented various Lunar New Year customs and food cultures from different regions in China. Besides directing films, Zhang Yimou also has a lot of experience as a creative director of major shows, including the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, the 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony, and the outdoor night show Impression Sanjie Liu.

Watch on Youtube here

 
The Xi’an special segment “Poem for the Landscape of Chang’an” (山河诗长安) performed by Zhang Ruoyun (张若昀), Tang Shiyi (唐诗逸), Zhu Tiexiong (朱铁雄) PACT (派克特), Yang Li (杨力) and conductor Sun Yifan (孙一凡), was among the most spectacular ones of the night. This was an ode to Xi’an and Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, Li Bai. Filled with lion and dragon performances, opera, rap, dance, and specially arranged music by the Xi’an Symphony Orchestra, the segment included a virtual version of Li Bai joining the spectacle. On social media, netizens praised the performance and posted many gifs of the Chinese actor Zhang Ruoyun together with the virtual version of the classical poet Li Bai.

Watch on Youtube here

 

The ‘Lows’ of the 2024 Gala


 

The various xiaopin (小品, skits) were not very well-received. Over the past few years, the Gala’s dance and song performances have actually become among the most beloved acts – far more popular than the xiaopin, which did not get much positive feedback this year at all. Some people said they just “didn’t get” the humor or that the sketches were just not entertaining enough.

 
The song “Unforgettable Night” (难忘今宵) was the least viewed part of the show according to viewership ratings, and it marked a departure from tradition in a significant way. Since the 1980s, the final song of the Spring Festival Gala has always been “Unforgettable Night,” sung by Li Guyi (李谷一). Li Guyi rose to fame with the song “Homeland Love” (乡恋) during China’s Reform and Opening Up era, and her songs evoke nostalgia for many viewers. She made her first appearance at the Gala in 1983 and became the most frequent performer at the event. Due to her recovery from Covid in the hospital, she was unable to perform at last year’s Chūnwǎn, and her absence from this year’s show was not only a significant disappointment for many but was also seen as the end of an era. Additionally, many people commented that they did not appreciate the new interpretation of the traditional song.

Watch on Youtube here

 
The PLA song “Decisive Victory” (决胜) drew attention from Taiwanese media outlets, highlighting it as a controversial moment of the Gala. The performance of this military song, delivered by artists from the PLA Cultural and Artistic Center, featured soldiers clad in combat gear marching and dancing on stage, while the backdrop displayed images of rockets, tanks, and other war-like scenes. Taiwanese media framed the song within the context of mainland China’s military threats against Taiwan. Some Weibo commentators also interpreted the performance in this light, particularly noting the sequence where singers from Taiwan and mainland China first sang the song “Etiquette” (礼序) together just before the People’s Liberation Army performed the military song. This was seen as a statement of “diplomacy comes before violence” (“先礼后兵”).

Watch on Youtube here

 

The Noteworthy


 

The magic show “Guarding the New Year Together” (守岁共此时) performed by Liu Qian (刘谦) created quite a buzz. During a card trick involving the audience and Gala host Nëghmet Raxman, it seemed like Raxman’s cards didn’t match as intended. Although everyone was supposed to have matching cards, Raxman’s expression revealed that his two cards did not match. This led to much banter online, and Nëghmet Raxman – and his nervous expression – became a trending topic.

Watch on Youtube here

 
The song “Climbing Spring Mountain” (上春山) performed by Wei Chen (魏晨), Wei Daxun (魏大勋), and Bai Jingting (白敬亭) became one of the most discussed acts in the week following the Gala after a rehearsal video was posted online and netizens noticed inconsistencies in the singers’ attire and positions on stage. It was rumored that Bai Jingting may have intentionally vied for a more prominent position to attract more attention on stage, resulting in choreographic asymmetry and some apparent confusion during the song. One important reason why the main rehearsal video triggered controversy is because a tape of the official rehearsal always runs concurrently with the live broadcast, allowing producers to seamlessly switch to the taped version in the event of a problem or disruption without TV audiences noticing. But because Bai changed his outfit, wearing black while the others wore white, and because he did not give up his main spot during the performance, it might have been impossible for producers to switch to a rehearsed version of the song (even though the lip-syncing during the performance was completely out of sync).

Watch on Youtube here

 
● The song “A Friend Like You” (像你这样的朋友) attracted a lot of attention on Weibo and beyond this week as it was performed by the so-called “0713 Super Boys,” including Wang Zhengliang (王铮亮), Chen Chusheng (陈楚生), Allen Su (苏醒), Zhang Yuan (张远), Lu Hu (陆虎), and Wang Yuexin (王栎鑫). In 2022, these once nearly ‘forgotten’ singers made a remarkable comeback through the reality TV hits Welcome to the Mushroom House (欢迎来到蘑菇屋) and Go for Happiness (快乐再出发). They initially gained fame in 2007 after participating in the singing contest Super Boy but gradually faded into obscurity in the years following their initial success. Their gala performance marks their ultimate comeback.

Watch on Youtube here

 
“Belle” (美人) from the French musical Notre Dame de Paris was performed at the Gala in French by various French and Chinese performers, including Angelo Del Vecchio and Liao Changyong. “Who would have ever expected for Notre Dame de Paris to be performed at the Chūnwǎn in French?” one commenter wrote. The Gala provided some subtitles during the song to convey the general idea of the song. Although the Gala usually incorporates an international element, this was the first time for a song to be fully sung in French. The song was presented in the context of China and France celebrating their 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.

Watch on Youtube here

 
● Dilraba Dilmurat (丽热巴) in “Dances of Xinjiang” (舞乐新疆) was praised by commenters as the most beautiful performer of the night. The Chinese actress of Uyghur ethnicity showcased her dancing skills during the Kashgar segment of the evening. Not only was her performance notable for its beauty and grace, but it also garnered attention online due to a video recorded by an audience member showing Dilmurat slipping and falling on her bum during the show, after which she promptly got up and continued. After all, the show must go on!

Watch the full performance on Youtube here

Want to know more about the previous editions of the Spring Festival Gala? Also check out our articles below:

– 2023: Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala
– 2023: Top 5: The Highlights of China’s 2023 CGM Spring Festival Gala
– 2023: Watching ‘Chunwan’: Liveblog CMG Spring Festival Gala
– 2022: Chunwan 2022: The CMG Spring Festival Gala Liveblog by What’s on Weibo
– 2021: Spring Festival Gala Draws Criticism for Gendered Jokes
– 2021: The Chunwan Liveblog: Watching the 2021 CMG Spring Festival Gala
– 2020: CCTV New Year’s Gala 2020
– 2019: The CCTV Spring Festival Gala 2019 Live Blog
– 2018: About the CCTV Spring Festival Gala’s ‘Racist’ Africa Comedy Sketch
– 2018: CCTV Spring Festival Gala 2018 (Live Blog)
– 2017: The Best and the Worst of CCTV New Year’s Gala 2017
– 2017: CCTV New Year’s Gala 2017 Live Blog
– 2016: CCTV’s New Year’s Gala 2016 Liveblog

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

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China Arts & Entertainment

Top 9 Chinese Movies to Watch This Spring Festival Holiday

Lunar New Year lineup: These are the 9 Chinese films competing at the Spring Festival box office.

Manya Koetse

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Over the past decade, China’s domestic film industry has experienced explosive growth, both in terms of production and box office revenue.

When it comes to the latter, the Spring Festival is the most important time of the year for box office success. Especially over the past few years, there has been more media focus on the Spring Festival season as the peak season for top domestic films.

During the Chinese Spring Festival, along with the National Day Holiday, movies tend to earn around 32.3% more on average. Sci-fi and action films are the most successful, followed by comedies (Li et al 2022, 128). Last year, the Spring Festival box office revenues accounted for about 12.3 percent of the yearly total.

Notable films in the Spring Festival lineup of 2023 included Zhang Yimou’s Full River Red (满红红), the sequal to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (流浪地球2), espionage suspense movie Hidden Blade (无名), sports drama Ping Pong: The Triumph (中国乒乓之绝地反击), the comedy Five Hundred Miles (交换人生), animation feature Boonie Bears: Guardian Code (熊出没), and Tian Xiaopeng’s Deep Sea animation film.

Especially the first two movies, Full River Red and Wandering Earth 2, became box office hits, earning a respective RMB4.55 billion ($633 million) and RMB4.03 billion ($561 million).

This year, there are nine big box office movies during the eight-day Chinese New Year’s holiday, and virtually all of them have recently also trended on Chinese social media. Here, we will list all nine of them and what you need to know about them.

 

1. YOLO 热辣滚烫

  • Title: Chinese title: 热辣滚烫 Rèlà Gǔntàng, ‘Sizzling Hot‘; English title: YOLO
  • Premiere: February 10, 2024
  • Genre: Comedy/Sports Drama
  • Runtime: 129 minutes
  • Directed by: Jia Ling (贾玲), who previously also directed the 2021 Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英) movie.
  • Screenplay by: Sun Jibin (孙集斌), who also did the screenplay for Hi, Mom. The film is based on the Japanese 2014 movie 100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Hyakuen no Koi).
  • Starring: Jia Ling (贾玲), Jia Yinlei (雷佳音), Zhang Xiaofei (张小斐), Yang Zi (杨紫), Sha Yi (沙溢).
  • About: YOLO (热辣滚烫), which will hit Chinese theaters on February 10, tells the story of Le Ying (乐莹), who has withdrawn from social life and isolated herself at home ever since graduation. Trying to get her life back on track, Le Ying meets a boxing coach. The meeting proves to be just the beginning of a new journey in life filled with unforeseen challenges.
  • Trending: Chinese actress and director Jia Ling (贾玲) went trending on Weibo on the day she announced this upcoming movie because of her remarkable weight loss transformation; she lost a staggering 100 pounds (50 kg) for her role in this film.

 

 

2. Pegasus 2 飞驰人生2

  • Title: Chinese title: 飞驰人生2 Fēichí Rénshēng 2, ‘High-speed Life 2‘; English title: Pegasus 2
  • Premiere: February 10, 2024
  • Genre: Comedy/Sports Drama
  • Runtime: 121 minutes
  • Directed by: Han Han (韩寒)
  • Screenplay by: Han Han (韩寒).
  • Starring: Shen Teng (沈腾), Fan Chengcheng (范丞丞), Yin Zheng (尹正), Zhang Benyu (张本煜), Sun Yizhou (孙艺洲).
  • About: This is the sequal to Pegasus (2019), the 2019 Spring Festival blockbuster about passionate rally driver Zhang Chi (张驰, played by Shen Tang), who had to step away from racing due to a ban for illegal street racing. But he never gave up on his dream. Now, he’s gearing up for a major comeback, facing new competition. Based on the experiences of Han Han, a talented writer and professional rally driver, and his admiration for racer Xu Lang, Pegasus 2 continues this tale of determination and passion. Zhang Chi, now a driving school instructor, gets a chance to return to the track when offered sponsorship from a car factory to compete in a high-profile racing rally with a team he must assemble.
  • Trending: Pegasus 2 is a much-anticipated movie among Chinese netizens, mainly because of the all-star cast including celebrated actor Shen Teng and young idol Fan Chengcheng. The movie’s January 29 promo event in Beijing also went trending when Fan Chengcheng posted a photo together with the cast members. This post was shared over a million times, receiving more than 100,000 comments.

 

 

3. Article 20 第二十条

Image via Weibo.

  • Title: Chinese title: 第二十条 Dì èrshí tiáo; English title: Article 20
  • Premiere: February 10, 2024
  • Genre: Comedy/Family Drama
  • Runtime: 141 minutes
  • Directed by: Zhang Yimou (张艺谋)
  • Screenplay by: Li Meng (李萌).
  • Starring: Lei Jiayin (雷佳音), Ma Li (马丽), Zhao Liying (赵丽颖), Gao Ye (高叶), Liu Yaowen (刘耀文)
  • About: Zhang Yimou’s Article 20 tells the story of prosecutor Han Ming (韩明, Lei Jiayin) who is facing a particularly difficult legal case at work, while navigating complicated situations at home, especially after his son got into a fight with the son of the school leader. As Han Ming strives to balance work and family responsibilities, he courageously fights for fairness and justice in his own way.
  • Trending: As one of China’s most prolific film directors, Zhang Yimou’s work always gets a lot of attention on Chinese social media. This time, some of the Weibo hashtags related to this movie received millions or even billions of views. Especially the young celebrity and teen idol Liu Yaowen (2005) is receiving attention for starring in this film as Han Ming’s son Han Yuchen who beats up the school director’s son and then refuses to apologise. Some online polls asking netizens which movie they’re most excited to see this Spring Festival (投票:你春节打算看哪部电影) also indicate that Article 20 is one of the most anticipated movies on this list.

 

 

4. The Movie Emperor 红毯先生

  • Title: Chinese title: 红毯先生 Hóngtǎn Xiānshēng, ‘Mr. Red Carpet’; English title: The Movie Emperor
  • Premiere: February 10, 2024
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Runtime: 127 minutes
  • Directed by: Zhu Hao (宁浩)
  • Screenplay by: Liu Xiaodan (刘晓丹), Wang Ang (王昂)
  • Starring: Andy Lau (刘德华), Pal Sinn Lap-man (单立文), Rima Zeidan (瑞玛·席丹), Yu Weiguo (余伟国), and Ning Hao (宁浩).
  • About: Andy Lau plays the main character in this film, a renowned Hong Kong film star who is preparing for a major comeback in a rural-themed film. To prepare for his role as a peasant farmer in the 1960s, he immerses himself in rural life in China, which leads to all kinds of bizarre situations that satirically reflect on the present-day entertainment industry.
  • Trending: The Movie Emperor is perhaps among the more serious comedies in this list, as it has a deeper message about the dynamics of the entertainment industry and present-day society. With a career spanning over four decades, there’s perhaps no other actor who’d be more suited to play this character than Andy Lau, and many commenters are looking forward to see him in this role.

 

 

5. Viva La Vida 我们一起摇太阳

Image via Yule 360.

  • Title: Chinese title: 我们一起摇太阳 Wǒmen Yìqǐ Yáo Tàiyáng, ‘Shake the Sun Together’; English title: Viva La Vida
  • Premiere: February 10, 2024
  • Genre: Romantic comedy-drama
  • Runtime: 129 minutes
  • Directed by: Han Yan (韩延)
  • Screenplay by: Han Yan (韩延), Li Liangwen (李亮文), Wang Xiaoyi (王小艾), Yang Fuzhi (杨富芝)
  • Starring: Peng Yuchang (彭昱畅), Li Gengxi aka Teresa Li (李庚希), Xu Fan (徐帆), Gao Yalin (高亚麟), Liu Dan (刘丹).
  • About: This movie is the third and final movie in the director Han Yan’s “Life Trilogy” of of uplifting films centered around the theme of battling cancer. It follows the successes of the previous hits, Go Away Mr. Tumor and A Little Red Flower, released in 2015 and 2020 respectively. The narrative focuses on the romance between a girl suffering from kidney dysfunction (Teresa Li) and a boy afflicted with a brain tumor (Peng Yuchang). Despite their contrasting personalities, they find unity in their shared struggles with illness, embarking on a journey that celebrates the essence of life.
  • Trending: These days, movie production teams are doing all they can to go trending on social media to increase the hype surrounding their films. In light of their promotional activities, actor Peng Yuchang went to Tianjin to join the ‘diving grandpa’s’ (#彭昱畅和天津大爷一块跳水#). This is a group of elderly swimmers who went viral in 2023 because of their daring dives into the river from the Stone Lion Forest Bridge (狮子林桥). People joked about Peng swimming in the cold river, saying they had “never seen a male lead work so hard to promote their film.”

 

 

6. Boonie Bears: Time Twist 熊出没:逆转时空

Image via Moonlight Media

  • Title: Chinese title: 熊出没:逆转时空 Xióng Chūmò: Nìzhǔan Shíkōng; English title: Boonie Bears: Time Twist
  • Premiere: February 10, 2024
  • Genre: Comedy sci-fi animation
  • Runtime: 108 minutes
  • Directed by: Lin Huida (林汇达)
  • Screenplay by: Xu Yun (徐芸), Wan Qin (万秦), Jiang Lin (蒋琳)
  • Starring: Tan Xiao (谭笑), Zhang Bingjun (张秉君), Zhang Wei (张伟), Zhang Ming (张茗)
  • About: This latest film from the Boonie Bears universe revolves around the stressed-out white-collar worker Vick (光头强), who has left his small town and forest job for a career in the big city. However, his absence has some far-reaching consequences. When he accompanies his boss on a work trip, he embarks on an adventure through time and space, that’s all about exploring life goals and finding self-fulfillment.
  • Trending: While this film may not be among the top trending movies this Spring Festival season, it’s still a beloved choice for both Boonie Bears fans and parents who want to take their kids to the movies this holiday. This is also a special Boonie Bears year, as it marks both the 12th anniversary of the Chinese “Boonie Bears” cartoon franchise and the 10th anniversary of the first feature film, “Boonie Bears: To the Rescue” (熊出没之夺宝熊兵).

 

 

7. Ba Jie 八戒之天蓬下界

Image via Xigua.

  • Title: Chinese title: 八戒之天蓬下界 Bājiè zhī Tiānpéng Xiàjiè; English title: Article 20
  • Premiere: February 10, 2024
  • Genre: Animated fantasy adventure
  • Runtime: 88 minutes
  • Directed by: He Ranhao (何冉昊)
  • Screenplay by: Li Meng (李萌).
  • Starring: Zhang Lei (张磊), Ji Guanlin (季冠霖), Zhao Mingzhou (赵明洲), Gao Zengzhi (高增志), Ma Dehua (马德华)
  • About: This is the first animated film in China about Ba Jie, a renowned character from the 16th-century novel Journey to the West (西游记) who is known for being part human and part pig – as well as being lazy and gluttonous. Presented as a quintessentially Chinese animation film, Ba Jie is not just a contemporary adaptation of a Chinese classic, it also embraces a style and color palette that builds on Chinese tradition. Originally announced for release in 2021 for 2022, coinciding with the Year of the Pig, the movie was then rescheduled for 2023, and now is finally making its premiere in the Year of the Dragon. Ma Dehua (马德华), who played Ba Jie in the famous 1986 “Journey to the West” TV series is also a voice actor in this film.
  • Trending: The fact that this film was delayed and is already three years old by the time it hits cinemas does not exactly add to its appeal. Many people feel like they’ve seen the film posters again and again, and that its momentum has already passed.

 

 

8. Broken Mission 破战

Image via QQ.

  • Title: Chinese title: 破战 Pò Zhàn, ‘Break War’; English title: Broken Mission
  • Premiere: February 16, 2024
  • Genre: Drama / Action / Suspense
  • Runtime: 86 minutes
  • Directed by: Peng Fa aka Danny Pang (彭发)
  • Screenplay by: Peng Fa (彭发)
  • Starring: Wu Zhenyu (吴镇宇), Simon Yam (任达华), Cheng Yuanyuan (程媛媛), Tang Wenlong (唐文龙), Liu Yingyi (刘颖仪).
  • About: Although this movie won’t hit cinemas until February 16, it’s still considered a Spring Festival movie. Set in Hong Kong, this action-packed film revolves around the confrontation between the local police team and a criminal committing crimes in service to his “Savior.” The filming already started in 2019, and because of the big delay – partly due to many revisions in the script – the movie seems to have lost some of its relevance.
  • Trending: Together with Ba Jie, Broken Mission is among the least popular movies in this list. There have also been very few promotional activities surrounding the premiere. In an online poll asking netizens which movies they anticipated most, these two received the least votes. YOLO and Article 20 received the most votes. Given its lack of popularity, some netizens propose that the movie should bypass cinemas entirely and go directly to online streaming services instead.

 

 

9. Huang Pi: God of Wealth Cat 黄貔:天降财神猫

Image via Weibo.

  • Title: Chinese title: 黄貔:天降财神猫 Huáng Pí: Tiānjiàng cáishén māo; English title: Huang Pi / God of Wealth Cat or God of Money
  • Premiere: February 10, 2024
  • Genre: Animation/Comedy
  • Runtime: 82 minutes
  • Directed by: Bai Ding (白丁) and Guan Yang (关杨)
  • Starring: Li Meng (李盟), Yan Nan (闫楠), Wang Zi (王梓), Yang Tianxiang (杨天翔), Liu Yike (刘依可).
  • About: Inspired by Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven, this Mandarin-Cantonese bilingual animated movie revolves around Huang Pi, who is transformed into a cat by the Four Heavenly Kings after causing trouble in the Heavenly Palace. In order to repay the kindness of the God of wealth who rescues him, Huang Pi descents to the mortal world with his five incarnations. Here, he faces various challenges, one of which involves being mistaken for a stray cat by a pet hospital owner.
  • Trending: The ‘lucky cat’ theme and Chinese artistic influences makes this movie a suitable one for the Spring Festival, with many people and animation fans anticipating its premiere.

 

By Manya Koetse

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References

Li, Xuefei, Hua Lu, Chengzhong Wu. 2022. “The Destiny of Movies’ Box Office Performance in China: An Expectation–Evaluation Model.” The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society 52(2): 117-135.

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