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China Arts & Entertainment

Ai Wei Wei vs Lego: Chinese Media Respond

An issue involving Lego and Ai Wei Wei has caused controversy this week when the Danish toymaker brand told the Chinese artist that he could not use their bricks for “political work”. Chinese media respond.

Manya Koetse



An issue involving Lego and Ai Wei Wei has caused controversy this week. The Danish toy manufacturer told the Chinese artist that he could not use Lego bricks for “political work”. China’s state news media respond with a remarkable article, telling Chinese dissidents not to overplay their hand.

It was all the talk on Twitter for the past few days: Ai Wei Wei accused Lego of “censorship and discrimination” after they refused to deliver Lego for the upcoming exhibition of his art project in Australia. Lego reportedly said it did not want its bricks used for a political statement.

After the news made its rounds on Twitter and Instagram, thousands of people offered Ai their Lego bricks. The Beijing-based artist has now announced the set-up of Lego collection points in different cities for his upcoming art projects.

Artist and activist Ai Wei Wei (艾未未) is known for controversial art that critiques censorship by the Chinese government. He used Lego for an exhibition in the U.S. last year, that included portraits of activists and dissidents.

oct14_o03_colaiweiwei.jpg__600x0_q85_upscaleAi Wei Wei’s Lego project, portraying 176 different political activists and dissidents. (Image: Smithsonian)

As many Chinese media have reported on the issue (including Guancha, Phoenix News and Sina News), Weibo netizens have also started to comment on it.

Lego China has not addressed the issue on its official Weibo account.


“Ai Wei Wei used Lego for his political work, and in doing so, was cheered on by his Western supporters.”


Lego has a strong presence in China. The brand is popular for multiple reasons. Unlike many China-made toys, that often make headlines for safety hazards, Lego is a safe and trusted brand. It is also popular because of its educational value. In many of China’s one-child-policy families, parents are more than willing to spend money on the best toys for their only child.

The Chinese name of Lego is ‘Legao‘ (乐高), its characters meaning ‘happy heights’.

Chinese state-owned media outlet Global Times has responded to the issue with an “opinion piece” by commentator Shan Renping (单仁平). The same article was also published by Sina News and People’s Daily as a regular news article (link).

“This is an interesting conflict,” the article says: “Ai Wei Wei used Lego for his political work, and in doing so, was cheered on by his Western supporters. But the Lego company, following the general principle of Western multinational corporations, refused to be connected to Ai’s political work. They want to keep their business commercial, and avoid any involvement in political disputes.”


“Chinese people have to get used to these kind of situations.”


The Global Times article describes how Ai Wei Wei used Lego for his portrayal of 176 “political offenders” (政治犯) and “political exiles” (政治流亡者). It mentions how his work also includes the portrait of activist Liu Xiaobo, who is still detained in China, and how Western supporters are sending Lego to the controversial artist to encourage him.

“As China rises, it is developing profitable relations with more and more Western multinational companies, as well as close ties with many governments. They are at the center of China’s foreign relations,” the article says. It continues to explain that China’s relation to the world is complex, as there are different political influences and forces from outside that clash with Chinese principles.

“Lego’s refusal of Ai Wei Wei is an appropriate decision,” the article says: “But there are also companies with more ideological interests, such as Google. Chinese people will have to get used to these kinds of situations in the future, and that they might escalate.”


“When China was poor and weak, the West was not interested in Chinese dissidents. Now that China is rising, they suddenly are.”


The article shows little sympathy for Ai’s supporters: “When China was poor and weak, the West was not interested in Chinese dissidents. Now that China is rising, with more power and good prospects, Chinese dissidents have suddenly won the favour of the West.”

The article warns China’s political activists that they should be careful about what they do. Western governments or companies might cheer them on now, but will not risk their profitable relations with China to support a dissident. “Today’s issue is no breaking point yet,” the article states: “But dissidents should carefully watch changes in the relations between China and the West. They should not overplay their hand, or they could become an “nuisance” to the West. They have to understand that the West enjoys seeing them challenge the Chinese system, but will not necessarily support them if doing so affects its relations with China.”


“How funny to see Global Times writing about ‘dissidents’”


Some Weibo users seem surprised with the sudden seemingly open discussion of Ai’s work, saying: “Apparently, more and more people now know Ai Wei Wei, and Global Times has no other choice than to bring this story and to make everyone think the same about it.”

Another netizen called Ajinjin says: “How funny to see Global Times talking about ‘dissidents’ and such – only they can do that.”

Some other netizens express their annoyance with the West: “They say that China doesn’t have human rights and is not free, but do you think yellow and black people have human rights in the US? That they have perfect laws? First look at yourself before you look at another!”


“Don’t abuse children’s toys like this!”


Many Weibo users express their support for Lego’s decision. Netizen Howard Xue says: “Lego does not want their toys, designed for kids, to be used for political purposes by some provocative criminal. Mr. Ai has some famous works (such as a picture of him with his middle finger on Tiananmen, him posing with four naked women, (..) etc.), that are not suitable for children. Let the children be!”. Another user agrees: “Don’t abuse children’s toys like this!”

Other users just think Ai Wei Wei is acting childish, saying: “Ai Wei Wei’s mental age is only six years old.”

Contrary to what Lego intended with its refusal of Ai Wei Wei, the brand has now become associated with political issues anyway. “It became political, as expected,” one netizen says: “Lego, that is your karma for refusing.”

The Ai Wei Wei conflict is unlikely to influence Lego’s sales in China. If it does affect sales in America or Europe, Lego would have no immediate reason to panic: the company still is the world’s best-selling toymaker.

Because of Lego’s growing popularity in China and other countries, it has not been able to meet demands. The company is currently dealing with worldwide Lego shortages.

In the unlikely case of an actual Lego crisis, the Danish company will still have an eager customer waiting for them in Beijing.
Ai Wei Wei, apparently, is not done building yet.

By Manya Koetse

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

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of 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 Contact at, or follow on Twitter.

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China Memes & Viral

When a Scene from a 2010 Chinese TV Drama Goes Viral: The ‘Cao Cao Flips Rice Bowl’ Meme

Cao Cao flipping the rice bowl is another Cao Cao meme that’s widely used to convey internal struggles about facing reality.

Zilan Qian



These days, a viral meme originating from the Chinese TV series Three Kingdoms (三国) has gained significant traction on Chinese social media.

In a memorable scene from the 2010 series, Cao Cao, a prominent warlord in Chinese history played by actor Chen Jianbin (陈建斌), angrily flips his rice bowl upon receiving news of a surprise attack, only to gather the spilled rice back into the bowl later.

This scene featuring an enraged Cao Cao has resurfaced and struck a chord with individuals reluctantly facing reality.

Turning into a popular meme, Cao Cao flipping the rice bowl has become widely employed to convey sentiments of self-inflicted humiliation or the hesitation to undertake certain actions.

The Context of the Scene

The specific scene comes from episode 12 of the Three Kingdoms. Warlord Cao Cao, who is governor of Yan Province, is enjoying his meal when his advisor comes in to inform him about a surprise attack by Chinese military general Lü Bu (吕布), capturing almost the entire province.

The meme of “曹操盖饭.” The term “盖” is often translated as “covering” or “capping.” When combined with 饭 (rice), it forms a noun that refers to a dish where various toppings, such as cooked meat or sauces, cover the rice, similar to a Donburi-style meal.

Upon receiving this alarming report, Cao Cao’s anger flared, and he promptly flipped his rice bowl upside down on the table, an act now commonly referred to as “Cao Cao flips the rice bowl” (曹操盖饭).

Cao Cao’s anger was intertwined with disbelief at Lü Bu’s audacity to execute such a daring attack. Cao Cao’s advisor swiftly clarified that the mastermind behind the attack was Lü Bu’s strategist, Chen Gong (陈宫), who was also renowned as a brilliant strategist during the Three Kingdoms era.

As he grasped the true situation, Cao Cao gradually regained his composure and meticulously gathered the spilled rice back into his bowl – an act now known as “Cao Cao retrieving his bowl of rice” (曹操撤回了一碗饭),- before resuming his meal.

The catchphrase that is used to describe Cao Cao retrieving his rice utilizes the word “chèhuí” (撤回), which means “to recall” or “to retract.” It can be understood as “Cao Cao recalled his bowl of rice,” drawing a parallel to the recall function in WeChat that allows users to retract or cancel a message after it has been sent.

How To Use the Meme

The contrast between the forceful act of flipping the rice bowl and the subsequent unwillingness and silence displayed while putting the scattered rice back into the bowl is a key factor contributing to the meme’s viral nature on the internet.

Netizens have creatively applied Cao Cao’s meme in various situations to express their own internal struggles or a sense of self-inflicted humiliation they experience (自己打自己脸).

For instance, the meme effectively captures the feelings of both white-collar workers and students who utilize the “Cao Cao flips the rice bowl” meme on Fridays. On this day, they express their frustration with the demanding work week and their eagerness to leave their tasks behind.

However, the arrival of Monday brings a sense of reality as they realize the necessity of returning to the office or school. The “Cao Cao retrieves his bowl of rice” meme is then employed to represent the unavoidable resumption of their daily routines.

In this regard, the meme is somewhat comparable to the English “F*ck This Job, *Goes to Work*” meme (link).

“Not Possible, Absolutely Not Possible”

It is not the first time for Three Kingdom‘s Cao Cao to achieve viral status through memes.

Prior to the emergence of the ‘Cao Cao flips/retrieves the rice’ meme, Cao Cao was already well-known for another meme phrase: “Not possible, absolutely not possible” (“不可能,绝对不可能”).

This meme originated from a scene where Cao Cao received news of Liu Bei’s rebellion, immediately after confidently asserting that Liu Bei, another major warlord, would never betray him.

“Not possible, absolutely not possible”

The meme captures the essence of self-deception and the unwillingness to accept the truth. Similar to the current popular meme, this meme is often used to depict situations where someone unintentionally exposes their own flaws or contradicts their previous statements, symbolizing a self-inflicted “slap in the face.”

Read more of our articles about memes in China here.

By Zilan Qian

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China Celebs

Fandom Meets Matrimony: Sea of Brides at Roy Wang’s Concert as Female Fans Show Up in Wedding Gowns

After showing up as brides at Roy Wang’s concert, some female fans attempted to return their gowns within the store’s 7-day ‘No Questions Asked Return Policy’.

Manya Koetse



A recent concert by Chinese celebrity Roy Wang (Wang Yuan 王源) has become a hot topic on Chinese social media as female fans attending the show collectively decided to wear wedding dresses to express their love for the singer.

Born in 2000, Roy Wang is best known as a member of the hugely popular TFboys idol group that debuted in 2013, but his solo career has also been thriving for years. Wang is an award-winning musician, who is now among China’s most influential young celebrities. On Weibo, he has nearly 85 million followers.

The sight of so many fans coming to Wang’s Chongqing concert wearing wedding dresses was already remarkable, but it garnered even greater attention when it turned out that some of the women’s boyfriends were so upset over their girlfriends wearing a wedding dress for another man that they ended the relationship because of it.

On Douyin (China’s TikTok), the related discussion made it to the top 5 trending daily topics list.

Female fans partying in their wedding dress. Photo posted on Weibo.

The story gained further traction when reports emerged that some female fans who had recently purchased wedding dresses for the concert attempted to return them to the store the next day, taking advantage of the store’s policy that allows returns within seven days without requiring a specific reason (7天无理由退货).

“I already wondered why business was suddenly booming,” one Chongqing wedding gown seller wrote on social media, complaining how the return policy was being abused by some of Roy Wang’s fans.

Others saw the fact that they wore the wedding dress to the concert as a unique selling point, and tried to resell their gowns online for more than the original price, claiming that the dress still had “a hint of the concert’s aroma.”

Scene of the concert.

Commenters bombarded these women with negative comments, as the topic also drew wider discussions on how far some fans are willing to go to show their love for their idols.

Some social media users expressed that a wedding dress has a symbolical or even sacred function, and that tying the concept of fandom to matrimony is inappropriate. They condemned the women for showing up to the concert as brides.

Given that many of the commenters criticizing the women were male, there were also feminist voices that condemned these men for their pettiness and chauvinistic attitudes. One comment stood out: “There will always be men whose ego is bruised when women they don’t even know won’t wear a wedding dress and save their chastity for them. Thanks to Roy Wang’s concert, I once again realize the diversity of species.”

In an online poll asking people “Can women only wear a wedding dress once in their lives” (#女生一生只能穿一次婚纱吗#) the majority of people replied that they should just wear whatever they like.

“My first thought is that this is romantic,” one popular entertainment blogging account (@娱大蜀黍) wrote: “My second thought is that it’s actually quite moving. In the midst of their youth, they are writing a passionate chapter for themselves. They will treasure it as a beautiful memory later on in life. They do what they love and they’re not bothering anyone. It’s perfectly fine.”

By Manya Koetse & Miranda Barnes

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