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Girl is Dumped by Boyfriend for Being Too Fat, Takes Revenge Through Weibo

A girl named Xiaoxiao became trending on Weibo when she posted a public message to her former beau on the social media platform. After her boyfriend broke up with her for being too fat, she underwent liposuction and presented him with a piece of soap made from her removed fat.

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A girl named Xiaoxiao became trending on Weibo when she posted a public message to her former beau on the social media platform. After her boyfriend broke up with her for being too fat, she underwent liposuction and presented him with a piece of soap made from her removed fat.

A young woman from Zhengzhou, Henan Province, posted a picture of herself on her   Weibo account with a text saying: “Yang Xiaolei, do you remember last year’s Spring Festival? Since I cannot go home with you this year, I’ve made a piece of soap from my own fat to give to your mum for washing up. Chinese New Year – the time to surprise those low men who can only judge a book by its cover!”

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The post has been shared over 5400 times and received over 3500 comments in a day.

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‘Xiaoxiao’ also posted before & after pictures:

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She also shared a screenshot with a recent message from her ex-boyfriend, that says:

“Why are you making me look bad on the Internet?! It was already over between us, you didn’t need to go to the hospital to suck out fat and disgust me! Damn, do I judge people solely by their appearances? You didn’t need to disgust my mum, or what? F*ck you b****!”

Underneath, she responds: “You said I was fat. I’m sending your entire family some soap, believe it or not!”

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Although Xiaoxiao’s post got a lot of attention, most netizens do not agree with the girl’s actions. “Sometimes being ugly simply has nothing to do with being fat or not,” one person comments. “Being ugly inside is what being ugly really is,” another netizen says. “From this I can tell he really didn’t dump you because of your looks,” someone else responds.

Whether or not the girl really turned her body fat into soap remains unclear. It technically would be possible to do so. In 2013, Miami artist De La Paz kept the 3 liters of fat that was removed from his body during liposuction, and turned it into soap (source).

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Jason Lan

    March 25, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    I love what she did. Creative and twisted. <3

  2. xfeng

    January 6, 2018 at 7:20 pm

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China Insight

The Legendary Lao Gan Ma: How Chili Sauce Billionaire Tao Huabi Became a ‘Chinese Dream’ Role Model

The story of Lao Gan Ma founder Tao Huabi.

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You might know the chili sauce Lao Gan Ma, a household name in China. But perhaps you’re less familiar with the story behind the sauce and its founder, which has inspired millions of people and has made ‘Old Godmother’ Tao Huabi a notable figure in Chinese contemporary culture today. For many, the successful businesswoman and ‘chili sauce queen’ is an embodiment of the ‘Chinese dream.’

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China (forthcoming), visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

Lao Gan Ma t-shirts, Lao Gan Ma phone covers, Lao Gan Ma bracelets, and even Lao Gan Ma airpod cases – Lao Gan Ma is more fashionable than ever in China today.

The celebrated brand is one of the country’s most well-known chili sauce labels, and it pops up in Chinese media and online culture every single day; not just because of its tasty condiments and other food products, but also because of the company’s remarkable history and evolution.

Besides the popularity of Lao Gan Ma’s crispy chili oil, it is the story of founder Tao Huabi (陶华碧) that plays a crucial role in the brand’s contemporary success. It is her face you see on the recognizable packaging design that has become a household product and is now also famous in many countries outside of China.

The iconic Lao Gan Ma, image via www.szmtzc.com

The brand name ‘Lao Gan Ma’ (老干妈) literally means ‘Old Godmother’ and refers to Tao Huabi herself. She is the creator of the famous chili sauces who has, over time, become the embodiment of the ‘Chinese dream.’ By following her own path and relying on her business instinct, Tao rose from poverty and became one of China’s richest women.

In order to explain why Tao Huabi is such an iconic figure in China today, let’s look at this famous female entrepreneur by highlighting the different stages of her Lao Gan Ma journey.

 

1: The Young Tao Huabi: “If I Hadn’t Been Strong, I Would’ve Starved”


 

“There are many successful businesses entrepreneurs who have experienced hardships, but there are few whose starting point was as low as Tao’s.” These are the opening lines of a popular book about Tao Huabi, written by Zhang Nali (张丽娜), telling the story of her life.1

Tao Huabi was born in 1947 in a small village in Meitan County, Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces. She was the eighth daughter in her family (her parents had actually hoped to finally have a son), and her parents struggled to feed and clothe their children, let alone give them proper education. Tao was not taught how to read and write.

The biography about Tao Huabi describes how Tao spent her younger years chopping wood, cooking and farming. The title of the book is If I Hadn’t Been Strong, I Would’ve Starved (我不坚强,就没得饭吃), and it is telling of how Tao’s younger years were all about being hungry and finding ways to keep on going.

Tao Huabi’s biography, written by Zhang Nali. Image via Shanghuibs.

During the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961), Tao dug for wild vegetables and tried various ways to eat plant roots, using whatever she had to try and make the little food they had taste better. This is how poverty and hunger drove the young Tao to make her very first chili sauce. The natural sauce, made from medicinal plants from the mountains and home-grown chili peppers, was loved by the entire family.

When Tao was 20 years old, she married her husband, who worked as an accountant with the local geological team. They had two sons together. But the happy life of the young family did not last long as just a few years into their marriage, Tao’s husband became seriously ill with liver disease.

Tao now found herself in an incredibly difficult situation; she was uneducated, illiterate, and had no official working experience. But she needed to provide income for her family as they had no money to cover her husband’s medical costs and pay for the food and education of their two sons. The 30-yuan monthly income of her husband was nowhere near enough to help the family.

The situation led Tao to head out of the countryside for the first time in her life to go to the city of Guangzhou to find a factory job as a migrant worker. She brought her own homemade chili sauce with her to the faraway city and used it to flavor her steamed buns when she couldn’t afford any other food. She also shared it with her co-workers, who found her chili sauce to be delicious.

Unfortunately, Tao’s efforts could not save her husband’s life. She soon became widowed and, heartbroken, had to return back to Guizhou to take care of her two young boys. Now that she had become the sole caregiver and provider of her family, she started selling rice curd and also set up a street stall selling vegetables at all hours of the day, often working until 4 in the morning.

Her passion for cooking kept following Tao wherever she went. One day, when Tao’s sons were already grown up, she visited a noodle shop after work and complained to the female shop owner that their cold noodles were not authentic enough. After Tao gave the lady her tips and tricks on how to improve the noodles using chili oil, she was offered a job at the noodle stall. The experience at the shop eventually gave Tao the idea to start her own business.

 

2: Inspirational Business Journey: “Selling the Flavor”


 

In 1989, when Tao was 42, she set up her own little “Economical Restaurant” (“实惠饭店”) in the Nanming District of Guiyang, Guizhou. Although she just served simple noodles, she mixed them with her own spicy hot sauce with soybeans. Tao was beloved in the neighborhood, where she became a ‘godmother’ to poor students whom she would always give discounts and some extra food.

With many local students and patrons visiting her little diner, the noodle shop business soon flourished, but not because of her noodles – it was the chili sauce that kept people coming back for more.

Tao Huabi came to understand the popularity of her condiments when customers came in to purchase the sauce by itself, without the noodles. One day, when her sauce had sold out, she found that customers would not even eat her noodles without the chili. When Tao learned that other noodle shops in the neighborhood were all doing good business by using her home-made sauce in their noodles, she finally realized the true potential of her product.

By the early 1990s, more truck drivers passed by Tao’s shop due to the construction of a new highway in the area. Tao took this as a chance to promote her condiments outside the realm of her own neighborhood and started giving out her sauces for free for the truckers to take home. This form of word-of-mouth marketing soon paid off when people from outside the city district came to visit Tao’s shop to buy her chili sauces and other condiments.

By late 1994, Tao had stopped selling noodles and had turned her little restaurant into a specialty store called ‘Tao’s Guiyang Nanming Food Shop’ (“贵阳南明陶氏风味食品店”), with the chili oil sauce being the number one product.

Two years later, at the age of 49, Tao took the plunge to rent a house in Guiyang, recruited forty workers, and set up her own sauce factory called ‘Old Godmother’: ‘Lao Gan Ma‘ (老干妈). Since the factory initially had no machines, the chili chopping was all done manually. Tao herself, wearing her apron, would also cut chilis at the factory tables together with her workers.

In 1997, the company was officially listed and open for business. Although Tao never had any formal education, she turned out to have a natural talent for managing her flourishing company. Tao’s two sons later also joined the Lao Gan Ma company.

Although the Lao Gan Ma brand became successful almost immediately after its launch, Tao Huabi still struggled for years as a handful of competitors launched fake Lao Gan Ma sauces with similar packaging, and nearly ruined her business. In 2001, when Tao Huabi was 54, the high court in Beijing finally ruled that other similar products could not use the “Lao Gan Ma” name nor imitate her packages. She received 400,000 RMB in compensation ($60,000).

Tao Huabi in her factory, image via Sohu.com.

Lao Gan Ma eventually employed over 2000 factory workers and became the largest producer and seller of chili products in China, reaching a point where the company produced 1.3 million bottles of chili sauce every day. Besides the iconic Fried Chili in Oil and Chili Crisp Sauce, Lao Gan Ma also produces Black Beans Chili Sauce, Tomato Chili Sauce, hot pot soup base, and other condiments.

By now, Tao’s ‘chili empire’ has gone international, as her condiments are sold from the USA to Africa. Tao Huabi once famously said that she does not know all the countries outside of China where Lao Gan Ma is sold, but that she does know that Lao Gan Ma is sold wherever there are Chinese people.

In 2019, Lao Gan Ma was selected as one of the top 100 brands in China, together with other famous national brands such as China Mobile, Huawei, Tik Tok, Tsingtao, and Alibaba.

Lao Gan Ma packaging, image via Taobao.

What is striking about the Lao Gan Ma business model is that it does not follow the usual marketing strategy tactics. The company rarely advertises, there are no celebrity endorsements, no social media accounts or campaigns, the website hasn’t been updated for years, and the Lao Gan Ma packaging has never modernized: it’s been the same old-fashioned logo for decades.

It is a marketing strategy that follows Tao’s no-nonsense line of thinking: if your product is good enough, people will buy it again. “We’re selling the flavor, not the packaging,” Tao herself once said.

 

3: The Old Godmother: “Labor Builds the Chinese Dream”


 

In the eyes of many, Tao Huabi is an embodiment of the ‘Chinese dream.’ A few years ago, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV produced a TV series titled “Labor Builds the Chinese Dream” (劳动铸就中国梦), and one of its episodes featured Tao Huabi, who is now 74 years old.

The main narrative of the documentary is that all people built on a country’s wealth together with each other as a collective goal – not an individual one. The idea of the ‘China Dream’ has been especially ubiquitous in Chinese official media since Xi Jinping became president in 2013. The concept refers to “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” In his first address to the nation in March of 2013, Xi emphasized that in order to realise the “Chinese road”: “(..) we must spread the Chinese spirit, which combines the spirit of the nation with patriotism as the core and the spirit of the time with reform and innovation as the core.”

Tao’s story fits this idea of the Chinese shared ‘road to prosperity’ dream. She started out poor but created her own business in spite of all obstacles. Along the way, she was always prepared to help out others while she herself rarely relied on her network or other people’s money to reach her goals.

Throughout her business journey, Tao has stayed true to her province, earning her the “Miracle of Guizhou” nickname. Despite the many offers she had throughout her career to set up her business elsewhere, she always refused to leave her home base – much to the delight of local government officials who have continuously shown their support for Tao. The businesswoman is a blessing for the province; not just because her brand has become known as a unique ‘product of Guizhou’, but mainly because she offers employment to nearly 5000 staff members, and directly and indirectly generates income for ten-thousands of local farmers.

Tao is also a Party member, and she is politically active as, among others, a representative of the Standing Committee of the Guizhou Provincial People’s Congress. She attended the National People’s Congress in Beijing multiple times.

Tao Huabi at the Two Sessions, photo via Sohu.com.

While Lao Gan Ma is one of China’s national brands, Tao Huabi is often also seen as a patriotic entrepreneur. Lao Gan Ma’s condiments are much more expensive outside in foreign countries than in China. While a two-pack of Lao Gan Ma is sold for only 9.9 yuan ($1.5) on Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao, the same pack is sold in the US for 13 up to 18 dollars on the American Amazon: eight to twelve times more expensive than the Chinese price. When asked about the enormous Lao Gan Ma price difference between China and other countries, Tao said: “I’m Chinese. I don’t make money off of Chinese people. I want to sell Lao Gan Ma to foreign countries and make money off of foreigners.”

Lao Gan Ma’s popularity outside of China has risen over the past decade. On Facebook, there is even a public group called “The Lao Gan Ma (老干妈) Appreciation Society,” where the group members (over 4000!) share their love for the brand.

Examples of Tao Huabi featured in fashion and accessories. Tao Huabi as a fashion icon?!

Meanwhile, on Chinese social media platform Weibo, Lao Gan Ma and Tao Huabi’s story often pop up in people’s posts: “Old Godmother is an example that you can still make it in life without any education.”

Perhaps there is no better person to embody the Chinese dream than Tao Huabi, who has experienced life in China from so many different angles. A poor farmer’s daughter, a young struggling widow, a migrant factory worker, a loving mother, a roadside peddler, a business manager, a loyal Party member, and even an unexpected fashion icon – Tao Huabi has seen and been it all. There is one thing she will always be: China’s chili sauce queen.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

1 Zhang Nali 张丽娜. 2019 (2016). Tao Huabi, Founder of Lao Gan Ma: If I Wouldn’t Have Been Strong, I Would’ve Starved [老干妈创始人陶华碧 我不坚强就没得饭吃] (in Chinese). Beijing: Chinese Publishing House. ISBN 978-7-5075-4451-0.

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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Digital Art or Visual Propaganda? China’s New Wave of Online Political Satire

Political, patriotic art mocking Western leaders is welcomed by social media users and propagated by Chinese officials.

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Image by What's on Weibo, highlighting various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

A specific genre of political satire has been gaining popularity on Chinese social media lately, with some images even making international headlines. While political satire mocking Chinese authorities is generally soon taken offline, these online works are brought to the limelight by Chinese official channels. Is it grassroots digital art? Or is it official visual propaganda?

When the parody image ‘The Last G7’ went viral on Chinese social media in June of 2021, it made international headlines for insulting the G7 summit, the West and Christianity, ridiculing ‘double-faced’ Australia, bashing Japan over Fukushima water, and offending India’s COVID19 situation. There was enough satirical symbolism and detail in the image to offend virtually any country that was -implicitly- portrayed in it.

Some media headers suggested the image was created by Chinese state media, others said it was done by ‘Chinese trolls’ or Chinese authorities.

The image was actually created by a Chinese computer graphics illustrator from Beijing who is active on social media, where he also sells his digital art online.

Online political satire in China has been around since the early start of social media in China and is often seen as a form of online activism. In media articles and academic literature focused on online political satire in China, the phenomenon is often discussed within the framework of censorship and dissidence, as a practice of resistance against Chinese authorities. Political satire can exist in many forms, from funny word jokes to catchy songs, from viral gifs to sophisticated cartoons.

Renowned Chinese political cartoon artists such as Badiucao (巴丢草), Hexie Farm (蟹农场), Kuang Biao (邝飚), and Rebel Pepper (变态辣椒) were previously active on Chinese social media platform Weibo, and their accounts were shut down dozens of times before publishing their work within China’s online environment became virtually impossible.

These artists are known for drawing cartoons that criticize and mock Chinese leaders, the central government, or their policies. Their work fits the narrative of online political satire being used as a weapon to resist authoritarian rule in spite of the highly censored online climate they exist in (Shao & Liu 2019, 517).

What exactly is political satire? It is “a specific form of criticism that ridicules political figures, events, or phenomenon” (ibid). Visual political satire is especially relevant within the context of Chinese social media because images allow for a creative form of expression, an outlet to critique political events, that is harder to detect by online censors than the use of potentially sensitive words and terms.

But what if political satire does not critique the Chinese party-state at all? What if it actually does not conflict with party ideology, or even suits the narratives that are propagated by Chinese officials?

 

Recent Examples of Chinese Political Satire on Social Media

 

In late December of 2020, a photoshopped image of an Australian soldier murdering a child stirred controversy on social media and beyond. The soldier, who is holding a knife to the throat of a child, is standing on an Australian flag, the shadows of bodies can be discerned lying on the floor. The image – which alluded to the report regarding unlawful killings of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian troops – was shared on Twitter by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. The controversial post led to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanding an apology from China.

The computer graphic by Wuheqilin that was shared on Twitter by a Chinese official.

In January of 2021, around the time of Biden’s inauguration, another satirical work was shared on Twitter by a senior producer of CGTN (@Peijin_Zhang) and others. Like the earlier image, this political satire was also full of details and symbolism. It shows American President Biden holding a bomb in front of a White House background, while Trump is taken away by officers and Kamala Harris is standing by an open grave reserved for Biden – shovel in hand. The text underneath the image says: “What a paradise of freedom, democracy, and sweet air.”

Artwork titled ‘失乐园·末日余晖’ ‘Paradise Lost-Afterglow’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

At the time of the online controversy over the Xinjiang cotton ban by the BCI in March of 2021, another digital illustration titled “Blood Cotton Initiative” made headlines for featuring (BBC) journalists in KKK-style hoods interviewing a scarecrow in a field, cotton-picking slaves in the background.

The image is a response to the allegations of forced labor and human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which various Chinese officials and state media have condemned as being ‘false,’ ‘manipulative,’ and ‘hypocritical’ in light of many western countries’ own human rights records. The image was shared on Twitter by, among others, the official account of China Daily Asia (@Chinadaily_CH) and China Daily Hong Kong (@CDHKedition).

“Blood Cotton Initiative” (血棉花) by Chinese artist Wuheqilin.

In June of 2021, another political satire made headlines, as mentioned earlier in this article. It was the image mocking the G7 members who issued a summit communique that called on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” especially in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong autonomy, and also pushed for a new inquiry into the origin of the Covid-19 virus (link to pdf). The image, which is a parody of The Last Supper mural painting, is titled ‘The Last G7’ (最后的G7).

Image ‘The Last G7’ created by ‘半桶老阿汤’ aka ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup.’

The image shows various animals sitting around the table, supposedly to represent Germany (left), Australia, Japan, Italy, US, UK, Canada, France, and India. Behind them are oxygen tanks, while the elephant on the right (India) is still receiving IV treatment and is not participating in the table talks. The Akita dog (Japan) is serving a green drink from a radioactive tea cattle while the bald eagle in the middle (US) is turning toilet paper into money. The beaver (Canada) is tightly holding on to a Chinese doll – a reference to Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou who has been in Canada ever since she was arrested during a stopover by Canadian police in 2018. On the table, there is a cake with the Chinese flag on it. 

“Through this we can still rule the world,” the words above the image state, while the text on the wall in the image says: “We have freedom and democracy.” State newspaper Global Times shared and explained the political satire in an article on June 13.

 

The Creators Behind the Artwork

 

Recent Chinese political satire images circulating on social media have been labeled as ‘propaganda’ by many commenters on Twitter, who assume the images were originally published by Chinese state media outlets. But although these images were often shared by official (media) accounts, their creators are seemingly unaffiliated with state media.

Chinese social media has seen a surge of (CG) artists dedicated to creating patriotic art and political satire mocking Western powers. At this time, the two most noteworthy names are Wuheqilin and Bantong Laoatang.

 
‘WUHEQILIN’ 乌合麒麟
 

The aforementioned Australian piece and the ‘Blood Cotton Initiative’ image both were created by Wuheqilin (乌合麒麟), a professional computer graphic (CG) artist with over 2.8 million followers on his Weibo account, which he opened in 2009. Wuheqilin’s real name is Fu Yu (付昱, 1988) – a business owner and art director from Harbin.

Although Wuheqilin became especially famous for his controversial Australia image of November 2020, his work was featured by Chinese state media before that time. In June of 2020, Global Times (English version) called him a “Wolf Warrior artist” who “strives to use new art to spread truth and inspire patriotism.”

Wuheqilin published his first political artwork on his social media account in 2019, at the time of the Hong Kong protests. In this work, titled ‘A Pretender God,’ the artist takes a critical stance towards the demonstrators, showing them bowing to a monster-like figure resembling the Statue of Liberty.

‘A Pretender God’ by Wuheqilin.

Another one of Wuheqilin’s recent viral pieces is titled ‘G7’, an old-looking photograph that was a satirical comparison of the G7 foreign ministers to the leaders of the Eight-Nation Alliance that invaded northern China in response to the Boxer rebellion in 1900. This image was also shared and explained by Global Times.

‘G7’ by Wuqihelin.

Wuheqilin clearly focuses on showing the dark side, hypocrisy, and supposedly bad intentions of Western powers in international politics. Noteworthy enough, he often uses English phrases in his work to emphasize his point, which may suggest he also intends for his art to be noticed by media and politicians outside of China.

Although Wuheqilin is most famous for political satire mocking Western powers, he also makes non-satirical patriotic art, such as the piece he dedicated to Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping (袁隆平), China’s ‘Father of Hybrid Rice,’ who passed away in May of 2021.

“I Always Had Two Dreams” “我一直有两个梦想” by Wuheqilin.

Over the past year, Wuheqilin and his work are often praised by Chinese official media outlets. It is often shared by English-language state media, or retweeted by Chinese officials or media accounts that are active on Twitter. Together with the fact that Wuheqilin uses English in his artwork, his work has gained major attention both in- and outside of China.

 
‘HALF BOTTLE OF OLD SOUP’ 半桶老阿汤
 

The creator of ‘The Last G7’ image and the White House image is active on social media under various names. On Weibo, where he has over 39,000 followers, the artist is known as @半桶老阿汤 (Bàntǒng lǎo ā tāng). On Twitter, he has an account under the name ‘Half Bottle Of Old Soup’ (@Half_soup), a direct translation of his nickname. The artist also has a site under the name Henry Yu. His webshop is under the ‘Laoatang’ nickname, which we will use here.

Laoatang is a concept designer and computer graphic artist from Beijing. On his Weibo account, the artist has been sharing artwork by himself and others for years. Like Wuheqilin, he has an online cloud link where people can download artworks for free, but he also has a site where people can support him by buying digital art files for the small price of 10-15 yuan ($1.5-$2.5).

Like Wuheqilin, Laoatang’s artwork is also often focused on mocking the supposed hypocrisy of Western powers regarding international affairs involving China. ‘The Last G7’ was the first work by Half Soup to make (international) headlines, but he previously did many other works in response to political affairs.

His work ‘That’s What U.S. did'(‘这是你们的愚蠢行径,我们不会’) was published at the time when news over the BCI [Better Cotton Initiative] Xinjiang cotton ban over forced labor concerns made waves in China.

‘That’s What U.S. Did’ by 半桶老阿汤

The image is part of a computer graphic video that shows black slaves working in American cotton fields while singing ‘My Lord Sunshine Sunrise.’ The next scene shows how one black man is held at gunpoint by a white hooded figure, a scarecrow with a BCI logo showing in the foreground. The words “That’s what U.S. Did, Not Us!” come up while two black figures can be seen hanging from the gallows.

In a different style, Laoatang has also created various other political satire illustrations. One from June 2021 is called ‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’). It shows members of the WHO research team standing in front of the American army biochemical lab at Fort Detrick which is closed and guarded by Biden. In the background, there’s the scenery of a happy and open Wuhan city.

‘Investigate Thoroughly! Except Here’ (‘彻查!除了这儿’) by 半桶老阿汤 / Half Bottle of Old Soup

The illustration is a response to U.S. calls for a thorough investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in China, while a possible link between the Fort Detrick institute and the COVID19 pandemic are allegedly ignored. This image was also shared by the Communist Youth League on social media.

 
OTHERS & INTERTEXTUALITY
 

Online creators such as Wuheqilin and Laoatang move in certain Chinese social media circles of artists producing work in similar genres who share each other’s work and comment on it. At times, there is also some kind of intertextuality or connection between these artworks.

A good example of this intertextuality is the work by the artist who is active on Weibo under the name ‘钢铁时代2011’ (Gangtie Shidai 2011). In December of 2020, they published the artwork below that reflects on the international commotion involving the Australian soldier image by Wuheqilin, which was tweeted out by Chinese official Zhao Lijian.

“Damn it, they know what we’ve done” by @钢铁时代2011 [Gangtie Shidai 2011].

The image shows artist Wuheqilin holding up one of his artworks relating to the alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, while Zhao Lijian is holding up the other image by Wuheqilin. In the front, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is depicted turning his back to the images, with the sentence: “Damn it, they know what we’ve done.”

During the controversy over the BCI ban on Xinjiang cotton, there was also an outpour of online (unofficial) political art. Beijing illustrator Yang Quan @插画杨权 (1990) is also among those creating online political/patriotic art. He published an image titled “Cotton is Soft, but China is Strong.”

‘Cotton is Soft, But China is Strong’, by @插画杨权.

The dog has the letters “H” and “M” coming from his bloody mouth, referring to fashion chain H&M which was one of the major Western brands publishing a statement regarding the ban on Xinjiang cotton (read more here). Again, as in most of the recent works produced by the artists in this genre, the message of the image is reinforced through a text in English, suggesting the work is also meant for an international audience to understand.

 

In Between Censorship and Propaganda

 

Propaganda is part of Chinese media, and a ‘new’ kind of propaganda has been part of Chinese social media propaganda efforts over the past few years (also see here, here, here, here).

But separated from those mainstream, more centralized propaganda efforts, the artists mentioned in this article are part of a ‘new wave’ of political satire on Chinese social media because:

– They are independent artists and/or not officially part of state media outlets or the CCP Propaganda Bureau.
– Their style is very different from official (online) propaganda posters and imagery.
– Their works are labeled as ‘art’ and have definite artworks qualities; they are unique, are made with skill and technique, and are filled with symbolism and detail.
– Their works are praised and welcomed by state media outlets and/or government officials, as these are shared and propagated through multiple official channels.
– These artists and their creations are widely celebrated and praised by Chinese social media users.

The phenomenon of artists who are unrelated to official agencies creating political art that is then used as a tool for propaganda is not unique in the history of Chinese propaganda or that of other countries, but it is very noteworthy in the context of the short history of social media in China, where political satire is often targeted at Chinese government officials and policies and therefore censored.

Perhaps you could say it is not surprising at all that the political satire we see most in Chinese social media today is directed at foreign leaders and Western powers, since any images mocking the Chinese government would be censored immediately.

But to solely interpret these political images through this one-dimensional view would not do justice to the artwork, the artists, nor to the art aficionados, since there are several influences at play within the creation of this genre.

> Digital Art & Nationalism

There are many young artists in China today who are patriotic and nationalistic, and who use art as a way to express their political views. They do so in various ways, through personal websites, social media, cloud downloads, etc, providing an alternative to official, controlled media sources. Propaganda sometimes becomes art, and art sometimes becomes propaganda. These dynamics do not automatically turn these artists into ‘Chinese trolls,’ as some foreign media labeled them.

Artists such as Wuheqilin or the aforementioned artist named Yang Quan all belong to the post-80 generation. In this current, post-Mao generation, you find a “fourth generation” of nationalism, as described by Peter Hays Gries in China’s New Nationalism. This nationalism is very much alive in China’s online environment, and it is fused with anti-western sentiment that partly builds on the “one hundred years of humiliation” of China at the hands of the West (Zhang 2012, 2). Although this generation, that grew up amid China’s rapid economic growth, did not directly experience the past humiliations upon which their nationalist narratives are constructed, this history remains central to understandings of Chinese national identity and its place in the world today (Wang 2-11).

As pointed out by Tao Zheng (2012), the articulation and promotion of nationalist views by individuals and groups independent of the state have been a significant part of Chinese online culture for many years, with several online movements and campaigns focusing on pointing out “western arrogance and prejudice.” The current wave of political digital art is just another form of expression of this type of “cyber nationalism.”

> Building Communities

Another reason why it would be too crude to simply label China’s recent online political satire as ‘propaganda’ is because it has emerged from a dynamic digital environment where netizens engage in a participatory activity of creating, sharing, commenting, recreating, connecting, etc. – and it is through these practices that the artworks become meaningful.

In ‘The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China’ by Guobin Yang and Min Jiang (2015), the authors argue that the sharing and circulation of online political satire in China is a “networked social practice” that is actually more important than the meaning and significance of the content itself. It is a grassroots political expression that, in their mode of unofficial network operation, could be seen as “popular mobilizations against power” (216). Yang and Jiang also emphasize the social function of political satire, where the reception is just as relevant as the production.

> A Fine Line

In the end, the question of whether these works are grassroots digital artworks or official propaganda pieces is perhaps not one of either/or: they are both. They saw the light as digital artworks and then became tools within a framework of official propaganda once they were praised, shared, and used by Chinese state media and officials to project their own strategies.

The creators of these artworks, however, walk a fine line. When their artworks no longer suit the strategic interests propagated by official channels, they are still at risk of being censored within the highly controlled digital environment they operate in. In that case, their online influence, magnified by official actors, could actually be held against them.

For now, artists such as Wuheqilin are thriving on Chinese social media. In his last post, Wuheqilin drew his own conclusion about the current state of China’s online environment, writing:

For the public intellectuals and those with vested interests who once held on to the power of speech, these are perhaps the darkest times, because their “decade-long campaign for Enlightenment has been lost.” But for ordinary Chinese netizens, for those who love this country and believe in it, we have unprecedented confidence, creativity, and cohesion. These are the best of times, and we are marching towards the brightest future.”

 

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan)

With special thanks to Piervittorio Milizia.

References

Gries, Peter Hays. 2004. China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy. Berkely and London: University of California Press.

Shao Li, Liu Dongshu. 2019. “The Road to Cynicism: The Political Consequences of Online Satire Exposure in China.” Political Studies 67(2): 517-536.

Yang, Guobin and Min Jiang. 2015. “The Networked Practice of Online Political Satire in China: Between Ritual and Resistance.” The International Communication Gazette 77(3): 215-231.

Zhang, Tao. 2012. “Anti-CNN and ‘April Youth’: Anti-Western Sentiment in Youth-oriented Chinese Online Media.” In Hernandez, L. (ed.), China and the West: Encounters with the other in Culture, Arts, Politics and Everyday Life,
Cambridge Scholars, 1-16.

Zheng Wang. 2012. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Featured image created by What’s on Weibo, highlighting and using parts of various digital artworks by @乌合麒麟, @半桶老阿汤.

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