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Caught Between China & Japan: Superstar Li Xianglan

Li Xianglan (李香兰) aka Yamaguchi Yoshiko passed away at the age of 94. A rising star during the Sino-Japanese War, she was loved by those who believed she was Chinese and later hated for being Japanese.

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She called China her fatherland and Japan her motherland. Singer and actress Yamaguchi Yoshiko, better known as Li Xianglan (李香兰), has passed away at the age of 94. A rising star during the Sino-Japanese War, she was loved by both Chinese and Japanese audiences. On Sina Weibo, she is commemorated as a star and a traitor – even causing controversy after her death.

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Yamaguchi Yoshiko was born in 1920 to Japanese parents in Manchuria. In accordance with Chinese tradition, she had two Chinese adoptive fathers who gave her the Chinese name Li Xianglan. As the Sino-Japanese War was on the way, Li jumped to superstar status as a singer and actress. She was fluent in Mandarin. The Chinese audience did not know she was Japanese, as Li Xianglan hid her true identity throughout the war. During the 1930s and 1940s, Li was emotionally conflicted by both the Chinese hostile attitude towards the Japanese and the Japanese mistreatment of the Chinese, as she later writes in her autobiography “My Life as Li Xianglan” (Halloran 2004).

During the war years, Li starred in seventeen different films. One of them was the hit film Eternity (1943), that made her and her songs popular throughout China. But she also starred in so-called “Chinese continental friendship films”: films produced by Japanese studios that were screened in China, and that depicted the Japanese in a positive manner. The most famous one is Night in China (1940), where Li plays the role of a Chinese girl that detests the Japanese invaders but ends up falling in love with a Japanese naval captain. Li Xianglan was later criticized for playing in these films, that were considered to be “shameful for the country” (Stephenson 2002, 2).

Scene from ‘Night in China’ (支那の夜), 1940.

By the end of the war, Li Xianglan was arrested as a Chinese national for ‘betrayal of China’s national interests’ because of her roles in Japanese-produced films. She was facing the death penalty for treason against the Chinese government. Because she was officially recorded in the Yamaguchi family register, Li Xianglan (Yamaguchi Yoshiko) could prove her Japanese identity to Chinese authorities. This lead to the dismissal of charges of treason, and her ‘repatriation’ to Japan, a country that was never actually her home (Stephenson 2002, 9). In 1950, she went to the United States to “learn to kiss like they do in Hollywood movies.” She took on the name of Shirley Yamaguchi, befriended Charlie Chapin, and starred in several Hollywood films, such as Japanese War Bride and House of Bamboo. Yamaguchi was later denied access to the United States because of her connections to suspected Communist sympathizers. She returned to Japan and started a career in journalism and politics. She then became known under the name of her husband, Otaka Yoshiko (2002, 10).

Although she was Japanese, she had a good heart. The Chinese people will not forget you“, one netizen says on Sina Weibo. Other microbloggers are less positive: “She was a dwarf [‘倭’ old derogatory for Japanese], and just because she lived in the occupied Northeast for a few years, she changed her name into a Chinese one. She pretended to be a Chinese celebrity. She brainwashed Chinese all the way from the north to the south. It was not until everyone thought she was a traitor after the war that she revealed her dwarf blood. Some people might still commemorate her, but your fu*king candles don’t mean anything.

 

“Li Xianglan brainwashed Chinese people from the North to the South”

 

She was known as Li Xianglan, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, Shirley Yamaguchi, Ri Koran (the Japanese pronunciation of her Chinese name) and Otaka Yoshiko. During her life in politics and journalism, she was involved in the Palestinian issue and reported the Vietnam War. Sino-Japanese relations were an important subject to her. One Weibo netizen honors Li Xianglan by saying: “She is gone with the wind. I hope that one day her fatherland and her motherland will have eternal peace and friendship. It is possible for China and Japan to get along!” Li Xianglan would have been happy to read it. The day that Sino-Japanese relations were officially restored in 1972, she cried. About that moment she said: “I certainly was happy that day. I even think that very day was the “best day of my life”” (Tanaka et al 2004).

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The day that Sino-Japanese Relations were restored was the best day of my life” – Li Xianglan

 

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To listen to one of Li Xianglan’s songs, check out the video below. Don’t forget to close your eyes for a second, hear the vinyl, and you are right back in history. The song below (‘Flowers of Spring’) is sung in Japanese:

 

References:

Halloran, Fumiko. 2004. “My Life as Li Xianglan.” The Japan Society http://www.japansociety.org.uk/29953/my-life-as-li-xianglan/ (Accessed September 14, 2014).

Stephenson, Shelley. 2002. “A Star by Any Other Name: The (After) Lives of Li Xianglan.” Quarterly Review of Film & Video 19: 1-13.

Tanaka Hiroshi, Utsumi Aiko and Onuma Yasuaki. 2004. “Looking Back on My Days as Ri Koran.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus http://www.japanfocus.org/-Onuma-Yasuaki/1571 (Accessed September 14, 2014). 

©2014 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce 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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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Lawrence

    September 14, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    Mooie vrouw, fascinerende achtergrond. Bedankt voor het artikel!

  2. Stanley

    September 15, 2014 at 9:45 am

    According to her book, she called Japan her fatherland and China her motherland as she born to Japanese parents but raised in China.

  3. Rena Inoue

    July 20, 2020 at 7:57 pm

    Li Xianglan wasn’t a dwarf pretending to be Chinese! It’s a misconception that Li Xianglan was purely Nihonjin Japanese. Her mother & father Fumio both loved China and he had 2 Chinese Blood Brothers, General Li Jichun (李際春) and Mayor Pan Yugui (潘毓桂). By Chinese custom for those who became sworn blood brothers, they also became Yoshiko’s “Godfathers” and gave her two Chinese names, Li Xianglan (Li Hsiang-lan) and Pan Shuhua (潘淑華). (“Shu” in Shuhua and “Yoshi” in Yoshiko are same Chinese character).the Yamaguchi family moves into a large 3-story house inside the Li family compound (after Japanese secret police arrest her father for colluding with Chinese rebels in Mukden after an attack) In return, the family cared for the second wife of Li who had bound-feet. Yoshiko has a great affection for this hobbling lady “whose spoken Mandarin sounded like singing” and she “learns Mandarin from her from morning till night”. Yoshiko would also help Madame Li to massage her sore feet. Old General Li treats Yoshiko as though she were his own daughter. With her father Fumio’s blessing and in an elaborate formal ceremony, the Li family adopts Yoshiko and gives her the Chinese name 李香蘭 Lǐ Xiāng Lán 李香蘭 Yoshiko later used the name, Li Xianglan [a perfect stage name because if her real name was used (like if it was *Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga)and assumed the latter name, Pan Shuhua while she was staying with the Pan family in Beijing for 4 years while going to a Chinese Girl high school following her recuperation from tuberculosis), Yoshiko’s father and General Li decide that she will move south, to another powerful family friend Pan, located in central Beijing (Peking) in order to continue her Chinese education there. In order to strengthen her breathing after TB, the doctor recommended voice lessons. Her father initially insisted on traditional Japanese music, but Yoshiko preferred Western music and thus received her initial classical vocal education from an Italian dramatic soprano (Madame Podresov, married into White Russian nobility) introduced by BFF, Lyuba (a Russian-Jewish girl, She later received schooling in Beijing, accommodated by the Pan family. She was a coloratura soprano. So all her childhood & teen years she lived with 2 powerful Chinese Godparents so she was actually more Chinese then Japanese.
    Later after becoming famous, she finally went to Japan, in 1941 for a publicity tour, dressed in a cheongsam and while speaking Japanese with a Mandarin accent, the customs officer asked her upon seeing she had a Japanese passport and a Japanese name: “Don’t you know that we Japanese are the superior people? Aren’t you ashamed to be wearing third-rate Chink clothes and speaking their language as you do? 1st time she was called traitor!

  4. Rena Inoue

    July 20, 2020 at 8:23 pm

    Xinglan had already had her 1933 ‘coming out’ concert at the Yamato Hotel, been chosen by the Fengtian Radio Station as the only girl capable of singing and communicating in several languages, and was rapidly learning the art of singing while accompanied by live bands on the radio. The name by which she became known all across Manchuria was Li Xianglan [a perfect stage name because if her real name was used (like if it was *Stefani Germanotta] she would not have become known at all [just like *Lady Gaga became known by all].
    Xianglan was indeed a very special person to have accomplished all this by the age of 14.
    On the subject of changing one’s name when entering ‘show business’ (or the Showa Business as one wit has called it): is there any need to mention here all the Hollywood actors with names such as Issur Danielovitch, who found the name of Kirk Douglas to be much easier on the ears of his intended audience? I don’t see anyone throwing rocks at Mr. Danielovitch (or anyone else who has done the same thing) for the crime of masquerading as someone else. Shall we mention all the famous Hollywood actors of one race (such as Anthony Quinn) who successfully passed as other races (and managed to keep their real race a secret for many years)? And while we are in this territory, what about the propaganda films of Hollywood that have had both overt and covert political and social agendas? Let’s not be hypocrites.
    Yoshiko recalls her May 1934 train-trip from Mukden to Beijing; her father bought her a ticket at the Mukden Station and says “You’ll be living as a Chinese person from now on, so get used to it.” Of course, she thought he would be travelling with her, but due to some business foul-up of some kind, she found herself travelling all alone! She recounts the harrowing night-journey by train from Fengtian to Beijing, a distance of 470 miles: a lone 14yr old girl in the ‘hard-seats’ (the common-folk section), pretending to be Chinese due to the anti-Japanese sentiment, in the midst of pouring rain, lightning, howling wind, and worries about being robbed or attacked by bandits or guerrillas. Yoshiko tells about a harrowing slow crossing over a long railroad bridge barely higher than the flooded river below. Oh, and she was hiding a large bundle of money in her clothes for her father which she was afraid would be confiscated along the way – she was totally terrified!
    No Japanese would take such a long trip through bandit territory unless they were military men, and here was this little sparrow of a girl, at one point hiding in the train’s bathroom from the Conductor. The ‘hard seat’ section of the train was filled with Chinese farmer people, chickens, other animals, and the stench of urine was thick in the air. Talk about having to grow up fast and think on your feet!
    The Pan family adopts Xianglan in 1934 and names her Pan Shuhua (the name she uses while attending high school). To give some idea of the size of the Pan compound, there are several large house residences surrounding a central courtyard/garden area, and Yoshiko mentions how easy it was to lose one’s way and get lost. There are about 100 people either working for or part of the family, including wives, relatives, servants, concubines, plus 2 armed guards with fixed bayonets at the gate entrance. Xianglan, at first she leads a lonely life and is forced to totally immerse herself in Mandarin. She is befriended by two of her adoptive sisters, and they all attend school and take various lessons together. She attends the Beijing Yijiao Girls School 北京 一角 中学 (a Chinese mission school mainly attended by rich ‘pillars of society’ girls). This school must have been located inside the Inner City
    Mr. Pan, born Chinese, is another ‘cross-cultural’ person, having attended Japan’s Waseda University, and he is by no means the only example of such people who due to circumstance, traveled easily between and understood both cultures. In the case of Pan Yugui, he was skillful enough to rise to very powerful positions in Northeastern China while working (some would say collaborating) with the Japanese (and was able to avoid execution after the war because of various ‘good-works’ he accomplished for Chinese people as well).She writes travelogue-style descriptions of the famous Imperial City and Forbidden City, spending many a pleasant time visiting there, sometimes while riding horses (she and her adoptive sisters were taking equestrian lessons). Most of the time she was practicing her Mandarin, She must have fantasized about being a royal Chinese princess during such horse-rides because she seems to know and love each structure of note inside the Forbidden City.While living with the Pan family, Yoshiko recounts some interesting every-day experiences. She frequently awoke to “performances by the pipe ensemble of the pigeons of Picai Hutong.” As the sun would rise [no, the phrase she uses is “as the eastern sky began to light up”] in the morning, a large formation of pigeons would soar into the sky; little pipes made of bamboo were tied to the birds feet and would whistle when the birds swooped and soared, providing a natural ‘alarm clock’ as the day dawned for the Hutong residents. Only the ancient Chinese could’ve thought of harnessing pigeons in flight to provide a “pipe ensemble” which made such a delightful sound!

    The bathing situation of the Pan family was less than ideal: although they had modern western fixtures such as bathtubs, there was no running water, so washing had to be done the old-fashioned way, which involved basins of warm-water. For full baths, the whole family would spend a whole pleasurable day at a large public bathhouse, followed by a luxurious meal at a fine restaurant, complete with music provided by an er’hu (Chinese violin) player.

    Along with Pan Shuhua’s duties as Mr. Pan’s helper/secretary, she had other chores to perform, one of which was preparing opium for Mr. Pan and his guests. This involved heating a portion of thick brownish syrup in a small ivory bowl, congealing it on a long needle, and then reheating it to create a nice ‘smoke’ which was then inhaled from a long opium pipe. When Yoshiko grew older and “looked back on her Beijing years”, she was “surprised that such important people like Pan had turned into habitual abusers of opium.”

    I’m sure she made use of such experiences when it came time to make her famous “Eternity” film whose plotline revolves around the pernicious effects of opium, and indeed, one of her most famous songs is called the “Quitting Opium Song.”

    While with the Pan family, Yoshiko conveys an interesting exchange with her adoptive mother concerning her ‘Japanese habits’.

    One day Madame Pan takes her aside and gives her some advice: “First, stop smiling so much when there is nothing to smile about! (the Japanese custom is for a woman to smile constantly in order to be polite and ‘charming’). The Chinese call this “selling one’s smile” and it is looked upon with contempt. Second, stop bowing so much! “it’s all right to nod your head slightly, but stop making such deep bows as the Japanese do. We regard that as servile behavior.” Yoshiko takes this advice to heart, and says that her later experiences in Europe and the United States confirmed people’s mannerisms were similar to those of China.
    The interesting thing about the above is that it shows how Madame Pan takes genuine care of her adopted daughter, and it gives us an insight into a very human situation.

    This is yet another example of how Yoshiko came to prefer Chinese over Japanese social mores; the Japanese were constricting, filled with various duties which had to be honored, whereas the Chinese were more free and easy. Take the example of simply laughing at something one finds funny: the Japanese girl will ‘politely’ cover her mouth, whereas the Chinese will more often laugh out loud as western people do.

    However, this did cause some problems when Yoshiko would return home to visit her parents and her Japanese mother Aiko would bemoan how “the big city life had corrupted” her Japanese etiquette. It’s here we get some insight into how difficult a task it was for Yoshiko to actually ‘become Chinese’, because it meant ‘losing her Japanese character’, and of course the reverse was true also. This would not have been any great problem if both her “parents” (ie, Japan and China) had not been at war with one another.

  5. Rena Inoue

    July 21, 2020 at 6:09 pm

    In the 1950s, she established her acting career as Shirley Yamaguchi in Hollywood and on Broadway (in the short-lived musical “Shangri-La”) in the US. She married Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi in 1951. Yamaguchi was Japanese, but as someone who had grown up in China, she felt torn between two identities/ nations and later wrote she felt attracted to Noguchi as someone else who was torn between two identities. They divorced in 1956. Weibo critics don’t seem to know that She revived the Li Hsiang-lan name and appeared in several Chinese language films made in Hong Kong. Some of her 1950s Chinese films were destroyed in a studio fire and have not been seen since their initial releases. Her Mandarin hit songs from this period include “Three Years” (三年), “Plum Blossom” (梅花), “Childhood Times” (小時候), “Only You” (只有你), and “Heart Song” (心曲 – a cover of “Eternally”).

  6. Grace Wong-Pak

    July 23, 2020 at 7:44 pm

    Actually Li Xianglan thought of China as her Mother since she was born and , 3rd generation in 遼陽;Liáoyáng, Manchuria and raised in Shenyang (沈阳).
    She learned Mandarin as a small child from her father who taught Mandarin & Chinese culture to Japanese workers. She then went to a Chinese school.

    She was adopted by 2 powerful Chinese families who she lived with her childhood with General Li Jichun (李際春) who named her Li Xianglan. After the age of 13 she lived with Pan Yugui (潘毓桂) who named her Pan Shuhua (潘淑華). (“Shu”(淑) in Shuhua (淑華) and “Yoshi”(淑) in Yoshiko ( 淑子) are written with the same Chinese character) (the name she uses while attending Beijing Yijiao Girls Prep High School (北京 一角 中学) (college level classes) in Peking ( 北京)! Madame Pan also taught her how to be more Chinese so her classmates wouldn’t bully her for being Japanese. Anti-Japanese was so high that her father ordered her to come back but she refused. Also wanted her to learn traditional Japanese music but also refused. preferred to learn modern jazz/ Mandopop music. So she was more Chinese then Japanese horrifying her Japanese mother as acting unladylike. She felt like a foreigner in Japan after WW2 cuz she never before lived in Japan. Maybe why later in life, she became an outspoken journalist supporting women refugees worldwide like the Palestinians. Yasir Arafat gave her the Palestinian name “Jamila Yamaguchi”and was in Cambodia & Vietnam wearing a Áo dài during the Vietnam war as anti-war. She also interviewed Fusako Shinenobu the leader of the Red Army. (while in Hollywood late 50’s, was refused entry back to the US for having Communist friends). She returned to Japan and after retiring from the world of film in 1958, she appeared as a hostess and anchorwoman on TV talk shows. As a result of her marriage to the Japanese diplomat Hiroshi Ōtaka, she lived for a while in Burma (modern Myanmar) And also ran for office in Japan’s Diet supporting peace between her mother (China) and Japan (father) & supporting redress & apology to the Asian comfort women used by Japanese soldiers WW2 and was vice president to the Asian Woman’s Fund. Visited Beijing China as LDP’s North Korean delegate, 1975 and visited China & Manchuria on environmental issues, 1979.

  7. Grace Pak

    August 2, 2020 at 12:51 am

    Has China decided to ‘rehabilitate’ the legacy of Li Xiang Lan?
    The Communist Party of China and Ministry of Defense of the People’s Republic of China websites both published her life story in five parts.

    The China International Women’s Film Festival in June 2016 at Shenyang Railway Station prominently featured a documentary film on her life by the Taiwanese film-director Chen Meijuin.

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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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Backgrounder

The Concept of ‘Involution’ (Nèijuǎn) on Chinese Social Media

Nèijuǎn (involution) has become a commonly used term on Chinese social media, but what is it?

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Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited an ongoing debate about the problem of ‘involution’ in Chinese society today.

A scene from the Chinese TV drama A Love for Dilemma (“小舍得”) has reignited online discussions on the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution,” which was also a top buzzword in China in 2020.

A Love for Dilemma is a 2021 TV drama directed by Zhang Xiaobo (张晓波), who also worked on other hit series including Nothing But Thirty. This season’s popular TV drama A Love for Dilemma is themed around family, parenting, and China’s competitive education system.

In the series, two stepsisters compete against each other over the school results of their children. The family’s ‘grandpa’, played by famous actor Zhang Guoli (张国立), tries to create harmony around the dinner table between his daughter and stepdaughter, but the rivalry between the two and how they raise their children intensifies nevertheless.

Scene from A Love for Dilemma.

While stepsister Tian Yulan urges her little son to work hard in school and focus on his grades so that he can go to the best high school and university, sister Nan Li places more emphasis on the general development of her children and wants them to enjoy their childhood. Both mothers, however, question their own choices when facing challenges with how their children perform at school.

The specific scene that has ignited current discussions is a dialogue between the husbands of the sisters, who sit outside to talk about the education system and how it sometimes feels like everyone is in a theatre watching a show together until one person stands up from their seat. This makes it necessary for other members of the audience to also stand up, until everybody is standing.

The dialogue continues, with the two talking about how it does not stop at the people standing up. Because then there are those who will take it a step further and will stand on their seats to rise above the others. And then there are even those who will grab a ladder to stand higher than the rest. But they are still watching the same show and their situation has actually not changed at all – except for the fact that everybody is now more uncomfortable than they were before.

Many netizens found it striking how this dialogue explains how the term ‘involution’ is used in China nowadays. After the show aired, the hashtag “How to commonly explain involution” (#如何通俗解释内卷#) became a trending topic in the week of April 19, receiving 260 million views in a few days.

 
What Is ‘Involution’?
 

As explained by Jialing Xie in this top buzzword article on What’s on Weibo, involution describes the economic situation in which as the population grows, per capita wealth decreases. Since recently, this word has come to be used to represent the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking.

The term ‘involution’ and how it is used today comes from a work by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz titled Agricultural Involution – The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia (1963). In this work, Geertz explores the agricultural dynamics in Indonesia during the colonial period’s Cultivation System, where a radical economic dualism existed within the country: a foreign, Dutch economy and a native, Indonesian economy (p. 61-62).

Geertz describes how the Javanese faced a deepening demographic dilemma as they saw a rapidly growing population but a static economy, while the Dutch, who organized Javanese land and labor, were only growing in wealth (69-70). Agricultural involution is the “ultimately self-defeating process” that emerged in Indonesia when the ever-growing population was absorbed in high labor-intensive wet-rice cultivation without any changing patterns and without any progress (80-81).

When Geertz used the term ‘involution’ to describe the dynamics in Indonesia, he built on the work of another American anthropologist, namely Alexander Goldenweiser, who also used the term to describe “those culture patterns which, after having reached what would seem to be a definitive form, nonetheless fail either to stabilize or transform themselves into a new pattern but rather continue to develop by becoming internally more complicated” (Geertz 1963, 81).

 
The Involution Concept in the Chinese Context
 

The popular use of the Chinese translation of ‘involution’, nèijuǎn 内卷, started to receive attention in Chinese media in 2020. It is deviating from the original use of the term and is meant to explain the social dynamics of China’s growing middle class.

As suggested in the article “‘Involution’: The Anxieties of Our Time Summed Up in One Word” by Zhou Minxi (CGTN), the popularity of the term comes from “a prevalent sense of being stuck in an ever so draining rat race where everyone loses.”

China’s ever-growing middle class is now facing the question of how they and their children can remain in the middle class in a situation where everyone is continuously working harder and doing all they can to rise above the rest. Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, is quoted by Zhou:

The lower class still hopes to change their fate, but the middle and upper classes aren’t so much looking upward, and they are marked by a deep fear of falling downward. Their greater fear is perhaps losing what they already have.”

The term ‘involution’ often comes up together with criticism on China’s ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). Although Alibaba founder Jack Ma once called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” the system is a controversial topic, with many condemning how Chinese (tech) companies are exploiting their employees, who are caught in a conundrum; they might lose their sanity working such long hours, and might lose their job and future career prospects if they refuse to do so.

But the term also comes up when discussing China’s education system, where competition starts as early as kindergarten and the pressure on children to succeed in the ‘gaokao’ college entrance exam starts many years before it takes place.

This image shows the “juan” 卷 character from ‘nei juan’ (involution) changing into a person on their bike with laptop. Image via http://www.bajieyou.com/new/431e6ef39aac4a6da232671122f66ff4

This discussion also came up with a now-famous image of a student riding his bike while also working on his laptop, using every moment to study. This was then also called “Tsinghua Inversion” (清华内卷), referring to one of China’s top universities, where competition is so vicious that students must double their efforts to catch up with others.

 
‘Involution’ Discussions on Chinese Social Media
 

By mid-2020, ‘involution’ attracted the attention on Weibo when popular academic accounts started discussing the term. Recently, ‘involution’ is used so often on Chinese social media that it has already gone beyond its original context, leading to many people discussing its meaning.

“We are forced to work overtime and are unable to resist, and yet it seems that everyone is doing it out of free will,” one Weibo user says, with another person adding: “The abnormal state of inversion has already become our normal state.”

A popular legal blogger (@皇城根下刀笔吏) on Weibo writes:

It is an internal bottomless vicious cycle of competition. For example, everyone used to work eight hours per day, five days per week. Then one company comes up where people work twelve hours per day, six days per week. Then this company will have major competitive strength in the market economy. But the outcome is that other companies are also compelled to do the same in order to compete. As time goes by, all companies will shift to a twelve-hour workday, six days a week, and job applicants entering the market can’t find any eight-hour workday positions for five days a week anymore. So, if another company wants to beat its competitors, it will have to introduce a seven-day workweek. And then other companies will need to follow in order to make a living. That is involution.”

By now, there are various images and memes that have come to represent the meaning of ‘involution’ in present-day China, such as one cram school sign saying: “If you come we will train your kids, if you don’t come, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

“The society’s resources are in short supply and to obtain the limited supplies, people are all madly practicing their skills to obtain them – regardless if they need them or not,” another Weibo user says.

Most comments relating to the discussion of ‘involution’ on Chinese social media express a sense of fatigue with an ongoing rat-race in the education and employment market.

On the interest-based social networking platform Douban, there are even some support groups for people who feel stuck in ‘involution’ and are looking for a way out. The “Center for Victims of Involution” (内卷受害者收容中心) group has over 3000 members, with smaller groups such as “Let’s Escape Involution Together” (我们一起逃离内卷) having a few dozen participants.

The generation that is mostly affected by this sense of socioeconomic stagnation is the post-90 generation. In 2020, a record high of 8.74 million university graduates entered the job market, but their chances of finding a job that suits their education and personal expectations are slim; many industries are recruiting fewer people than before in an employment market that was already competitive before the COVID19 pandemic. It leaves them facing a troubling Catch 22 situation: they will be stressed and pressured if they do not find that top job, but when they do, they are often also stressed and pressured.

It is a recurring topic on social media. Five years ago, a song by the Rainbow Chamber Singers (彩虹室内合唱团) titled “The Sofa Is So Far” immediately became a hit in China. Many young Chinese recognized themselves in the hardworking and tired people described in the lyrics, which started with: “My body feels empty / I am dog-tired / I don’t want work overtime.”

How to get away from the involution rat race is also a much-discussed topic on Weibo, where the hashtag page “How can young people resist involution” (#年轻人如何反内卷#) has received over 280 million views.

Some suggest the answer to ending the vicious cycle is to find a way to get rich fast, others suggest that not getting married and staying child-free is also a way to alleviate the pressure to participate in this zero-sum game.

Tech blogger Sensai (@森赛), who has over 2 million followers on Weibo, advises young people to find their true interest and to invest in it before the age of 30. Doing something that sparks joy, such as learning a new language or working on art, might start as a hobby but could turn into a valuable side business later, Sensai says.

For some, however, that goal seems unattainable. “I am already working 15 hours a day, how could I ever do that?!”

“This is just bringing us into a whole other level of involution,” others write.

In order to watch A Love for Dilemma (小舍得), the show that started so many of these discussions this month, you can go over to iQiyi or YouTube.

By Manya Koetse

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Zhou Minxi. 2020. “‘Involution’: The anxieties of our time summed up in one word.” CGTN, Dec 4 https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-12-04/-Involution-The-anxieties-of-our-time-summed-up-in-one-word-VWNlDOVdjW/index.html [20.4.2021].

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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