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China Memes & Viral

The Benz Guy from Baoding and the Granny Xu Line-Cutting Controversy

While the public initially supported ‘Grandma Xu’ and criticized the Benz driver from Baoding, the narrative took an unexpected turn.

Manya Koetse

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Following the rapid spread of a video capturing a man and woman involved in a road rage incident, Chinese netizens named and shamed them. But when the situation turned out to be different than it seemed, the focus of the story shifted, emphasizing the responsibility of the so-called ‘melon-eating masses’ actively participating in these kind of hyped-up incidents.

A Baoding license plate with the number 冀F8656Z briefly became China’s most talked-about car tag this week following a road rage incident that was captured on camera (see video). The incident involved the passenger of a black Mercedez-Benz, who went viral on Chinese social media for smashing the hood of another car at a ferry terminal in Zhanjiang. The altercation was triggered by a dispute over line-cutting.

The incident occurred on the afternoon of January 29 at Zhanjiang’s Xuwen Port, where vehicles were queuing up in the car and coach ticket lane. When a Mercedes-Benz Vito attempted to cut into the line, a white Chery car – with an older woman in the passenger seat – refused to yield. In response, the alleged Mercedes owner (male) and another passenger (female) angrily exited their vehicle and scolded the white car’s driver and passenger, as well as slamming their hood and seemingly causing damage to the car.

Meanwhile, the black Mercedes, apparently driven by a third individual, proceeded to cut in line and eventually drove off after the passengers got back in.

The 71-year-old lady in the white car who recorded the incident, Ms Xu or Granny Xu (徐老太), just so happened to have a relatively large social media following on a Douyin account run by her daughter (五莲徐八月). When she posted the video of the incident online, her 500,000 followers (now 800,000) came into action to name and shame the couple who insulted and intimidated her. As a result, the license plate, clearly visible in the footage, became a top trending search query.

This phenomenon, wherein netizens unite to research and expose information about individuals involved in controversial incidents, is also known as the “Human Flesh Search Engine” (人肉搜索) in Chinese (read more).

On January 30, the story started gaining massive attention on Chinese social media and online media sites. What mostly angered people was not just the arrogant and aggressive behavior of the Benz passengers, but also the fact that they acted so rude and entitled toward an elderly lady.

It came out that the aggressive man, the 40-year-old Mr. Wang, is a teacher at Hebei Agricultural University, and people started targeting their anger towards the Agricultural University, the city of Baoding, and even Hebei province as a whole.

The couple triggered China’s meme machine and popped up in various funny edited images.

“Do not cut in line” bumper stickers showing the Benz guy from Baoding.

They even appeared on some online merchandise, namely on bumper stickers warning others not to cut in line.

 
Another Point of View
 

While the public initially supported ‘Grandma Xu’ and criticized the Benz driver from Baoding, the narrative took an unexpected turn. Because in the midst of this controversy, dashcam footage from the Mercedes Benz also surfaced online, along with other images showing the scene from different angles.

This footage offered an alternative perspective, revealing that the Benz driver was attempting a zipper-style merge into the lane but was intentionally blocked by the white car, with the passenger filming the confrontation.

Later on, the surveillance video from the Xuwen Port was also released (video). That 7-minute video showed the entire conflict from the start, and although it showed that the Mercedes driver was at fault for cutting in line and damaging Xu’s car, it also showed that the Chery car was not without fault.

The new information caused a shift in public opinion as people started to think the Ms Xu purposely misrepresented the situation by omitting her role in the traffic altercation. It also became evident that, contrary to initial assumptions, Ms. Xu was not the driver of the white sedan at all; instead, a younger male was behind the wheel.

Bird’s eye view images of Xuwen Port also revealed that in lane 7, where the altercation occurred, all cars eventually merge in a zipper-style pattern.

As a result, both the Benz driver and the elderly lady now faced public condemnation – one for traffic misconduct, the other for distorting the truth on social media.

 
The Role of the Melon Eaters
 

As online discussions about the entire incident are still unfolding, there’s been a change in what people focus on regarding this story.

Initially, the rude and agressive Benz guy and his female companion, a meme-worthy couple, were the main topic of conversation. Then, as people started realizing the role played by the so-called ‘granny’ influencer – who edited and posted the footage in such a way that made her seem like the mere victim, – they were angry at her.

Ultimately, however, some commentators and bloggers noted that it is actually the so-called ‘melon eating masses’ who are responsible for making this story go viral and choosing sides without knowing all the facts. The Chinese term is chīguā qúnzhòng (吃瓜群众), translated as melon-eating masses or peanut gallery, referring to the netizens who are enjoying the spectacle as it unfolds, sharing details or opinions with limited knowledge.

While the story is still simmering online, the the Xuwen County Public Security Bureau has imposed a 10-day administrative detention and a fine of 500 yuan ($70) on Mr Wang for his actions of smashing the hood of the car. Ms Xu reportedly is getting her car fixed, renewing the entire hood of the dented sedan.

The original video that sparked all the controversy has since been removed from Ms Xu’s Douyin account.

In the end, the story has a negative impact on both Wang and Xu, which will probably haunt them for some time to come. The only one benefiting is the seller of ‘please don’t cut in line’ bumper stickers, which have since become a viral success.

Regardless of all disagreements regarding this incident, there’s one thing virtually everyone agrees with, especially during this busy Chinese New Year travel season: bad traffic etiquette and cutting in line is not cool, and resorting to aggression and vandalism is never the solution.

By Manya Koetse

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©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Insight

A Snowball Effect: How Cold Harbin Became the Hottest Place in China

Part of Harbin’s enormous success can be attributed to a snowball effect, but the hype is also the result of a well-coordinated campaign.

Manya Koetse

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There is one topic that has been dominating Chinese social media recently: Harbin and its remarkable influx of tourists. How can the buzz surrounding this frosty city be explained?

The new year has just started and Harbin already seems to be the hit of 2024. The capital of China’s Heilongjiang Province, which is famous for its Ice and Snow Festival and Russian heritage, has been dominating trending topics on Chinese social media from late December well into this second week of January.

Every day recently, there’s another hashtag about Harbin that is hitting the hot charts on Chinese social media platforms Weibo, Douyin, and Xiaohongshu. Whether it is about Harbin travel, food, or funny memes, there seems to be an endless stream of stories and topics coming from the city in China’s northeast.

The sudden hype surrounding Harbin is similar to that of Zibo in 2023. The Shandong city, known for its local BBQ culture, became all the rage in spring of last year for its joyful atmosphere and post-pandemic celebratory mood.

Is Harbin the ‘Zibo’ of this 2023-2024 winter season? How come the historical city became such a social media phenomenon?

 
Harbin’s Hottest Festival
 

This year marks the 40th edition of the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival (哈尔滨国际冰雪节), which is the largest ice and snow festival in the world. The official opening ceremony on January 5th not only celebrated the milestone of the 40th edition but also highlighted Harbin’s role as the host city for the 2025 Asian Winter Games. This will also be the first festival after the end of China’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy (the event was previously still held but kept much smaller).

Harbin winters are tough, with temperatures plummeting to as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius (minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit) or even colder. The idea for a Harbin ice festival first emerged in the late 1950s, when local officials wanted to cheer up the city and its residents in the dark and gloomy winter days.

They therefore introduced a winter festival centered around the idea of ice lanterns, of which the history goes back to the fisherman on the Songhua River using candles inside frozen blocks to give light on long winter nights. The festival was successful from the start; nearly 250,000 people participated in the 1963 edition (Dewar et al 2001, 524).

First edition of the Snow and Ice Festival in 1963.

After the Cultural Revolution put a halt to the festivities in 1966, local authorities reviewed the festival again in 1984, and revived it as an event to boost the local economy. About a decade later, it had already become one of the biggest of its kind globally, with its ice sculpting competitions and snow sculpture parks, including thousands of ice structures and spectacular lantern venues.

This 2023-2024 season turns out to be another important moment for Harbin and its ice festival. In November of 2023, the city launched a press conference in which they stressed the importance of strengthening the city’s position as an (international) leader in the field of ice and snow tourism in this post-pandemic era and fully focus on turning the season into a “people’s festival” and a “people’s event” (“使冰雪季和冰雪节真正成为人民的节日、百姓的盛会”).

From string quartets to hot air balloons, Harbin is going all out to entertain and impress visitors this year, and all the efforts are paying off.

More than two million people are expected to visit Harbin for this year’s festival, including its ‘Ice and Snow World’ (哈尔滨冰雪大世界) which opened on 18 December and will run until late February. This amusement park is a major attraction within the larger festival, and this 25th edition, with its 810,000-square-meter, is the largest-ever held.

In a time when Chinese domestic travelers are exploring their own country in new ways, from Special Force travel style to show-inspired journeys, the latest buzz surrounding Harbin is something that many simply do not want to miss out on, causing the coldest city to become one of the hottest destinations of the moment.

 
Turning Bad Publicity into Something Positive
 

On December 18, Harbin officially opened its Ice and Snow World to the public, welcoming thousands of visitors. This is also when the city and its festival first started trending on social media, but not necessarily in a good way.

Visitors initially complained that despite making reservations, they had to wait in lines at the entrance for hours, and that the time slot reservation system (分时预约) – introduced in Covid days – actually made things more difficult rather than facilitating a smoother crowd management process.

People also complained when Ice and Snow World issued a notice that they couldn’t accommodate more than 40,000 people and had already reached their limit during the early afternoon, therefore halting further ticket sales on the 18th. The 40,000 people limit seemed strange to many, who commented that other events and venues across China, such as Shanghai Disneyland, could welcome much more visitors.

People who had been waiting in line for hours starting shouting that they wanted their money back, and that incident went viral online as the “ticket refund incident” (#哈尔滨退票事件#, 170 million views on Weibo).

Not only did these incidents generate more public attention for the events taking place in Harbin, Snow World’s response also became a hot topic as they soon issued an apology, swiftly canceled the time slot reservation system, gave ticket refunds, and introduced a ‘first come first served’ system (#冰雪大世界取消预约制#, #哈尔滨冰雪大世界致歉#, 370 million views).

A side effect of this incident and how it was handled was that a so-called “underdog effect” became visible on social media, where many people started defending Harbin and Snow World. Supporters questioned whether visitors would similarly express frustration while waiting in lines at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

One Weibo blogger (@刘成春) wrote: “Please do not dismiss Harbin’s Ice and Snow World just because of some minor shortcomings. A group of simple, honest, hardworking people have spent days on end creating these sculptures with ice taken from the Songhua River at temperatures below minus 20. They’ve been making so much efforts, and Harbin just wants to present these works as gifts and the city’s signature to the people (..) Please don’t discredit the only snow and ice landmark of Northeast China.”

After the incident, this sentiment echoed widely on Chinese social media, where many believed in Harbin’s genuine efforts to make its snow and ice season a success, recognizing the sincerity and goodwill of those involved. The idea that Harbin really deserves to shine this season was further strengthened because of videos emerging on social media of previous Covid years, when the smaller festival looked empty and staff still worked hard to try and entertain the few visitors that were there.

 
Southern Little Potato Hype
 

On New Year’s Eve, videos showing celebrations in Harbin rapidly gained traction online, showing that Harbin was doing everything it could to entertain and create a welcoming atmosphere for its visitors.

These visitors have also become part of the buzz surrounding Harbin this season, mainly the emergence of the so-called “Southern Little Potatoes” (南方小土豆 nánfāng xiǎo tǔdòu). This term refers to the increasing influx of tourists from China’s warmer southern regions who are making their way to the snow-blanketed north.

The term “Southern Little Potatoes” humorously describes these southern tourists, especially women, who are frequently spotted sporting light-colored down jackets and hats. Their short height, distinct travel attire makes them stand out among the typically taller and darker-dressed locals in northeastern cities, leading to the playful potato comparison by northerners.

One of the ‘Southern Little Potatoes’ memes (via 21jingji.com).

As “Southern Little Potatoes” became a trending term online, southern tourists also started using it to make fun of themselves and it came to be used to highlight the warm and sometimes funny exchanges between the north and south.

The “Southern Little Potatoes,” who are not used to not used to ice, snow, and extremely cold weather, are also known to get into tricky situations, needing locals to help them out. On January 9, one tourist from the south went viral for stepping out of the train as he quickly wanted to experience licking a metal pole in freezing temperatures. The moment his tongue got stuck, the train staff kindly helped him get unstuck.

For locals, these silly southern tourists are a great business opportunity. One street seller started offering a supervised metal pole licking experience: you can lick a small metal pole for 5 yuan ($0.70), a bigger one for 10 ($1.40), and the tallest one for 15 ($2) (photo below).

Metal pole licking experience.

The Southern Little Potato trend has set off the online meme machine, as well as sparked a small local economy. Some Harbin taxi drivers, for example, promote themselves as being designated “little potato drivers” to serve their ‘friends from the south.’ Street sellers selling ‘little potato’ plush toy keychains for 15 yuan became all the hype.

Little Potato merchandise sold in the streets of Harbin (via 21jingji.com).

You could say that this general trend has also strengthened ties between the north and south. In Chinese, Harbin (Hā’ěrbīn 哈尔滨) is now affectionately shortened to ‘Ěrbīn‘ by visitors and netizens, with the dropping of the ‘Ha’ reflecting a more casual, friendly familiarity with the city.

 
A Snowball Effect
 

Although part of Harbin’s enormous (online) success can be attributed to a snowball effect that began after December 19/20, with people showing their appreciation for the city and joining the hype, the attention on social media was also a result of a well-coordinated campaign.

As described by Chinese media outlet The Paper (澎湃新闻), Heilongjiang Province’s Cultural and Tourism Department Party Secretary and Director He Jing (何晶) recently stated in an interview: “This year’s popularity [of Harbin] isn’t accidental; we’ve been preparing for a year.” He explained how, since early 2023, they started focusing on new media and social media strategies to promote Heilongjiang and Harbin in multiple ways.

For this season, Harbin Snow World made sure there were several online influencers and celebrities promoting the festivities, such as Chinese influencers Kiki (陈洁Kiki) and Barbin (Barbin.ili芭比) or Olympic champion speed skaters Fan Kexin (范可新), Zhang Hong (张虹), and Zhang Yuting (张雨婷). There are also various brand collaborations, such as with Tencent and its Game for Peace (和平精英). Local official media channels and big state media accounts also collaborate with Harbin in posting a lot of promotional videos related to festivities.

This year, Harbin also introduced all kinds of activities and venues to increase their appeal. The ice-made terracotta warriors, for example, or the hot pot restaurant housed within an ice structure, where even the tables are sculpted from ice. These are just some of the many ‘must-experience’ attractions in Harbin that have garnered attention on Chinese social media (#哈尔滨把火锅玩出了本地特色#).

There is also a 20-meter high snowman wearing a red hat, that has come to serve as a must-go photo opportunity for visitors. The local tourism ambassador, the Exploring Pinguin (淘学企鹅), with its cute appearance and orange backpack, is also one of those things that further adds to the appeal of Harbin and its Snow World.

Local authorities, including the tourism department, also pulled out all the stops to ensure visitors felt welcome and accommodated. They made sure local hotels and other business maintained fair prices despite the surge in tourists and to increase the focus on customer service.

They also made sure to listen to (online) feedback and quickly act on complaints. For example, after so many tourists from the south arrived at Harbin Airport and had to change into warmer clothing in the chilly central hall, they increased the number of airport dressing rooms, equipped with seats, mirrors, and carpets. This kind of attention to detail and drive to serve visitors is a strategy that has greatly contributed to Harbin’s current success.

You now see that the combined efforts of local authorities and businesses in Harbin, both online and offline, have cultivated a unique festive atmosphere. This atmosphere is contagious; it motivates locals to actively contribute to maintain the standards while also encouraging visitors to actively promote the city. This leads to new groups of visitors getting enthusiastic to travel to Harbin.

While this success is partly orchestrated, with authorities and state media being key players, there is also that ‘special something’ — a kind of genuine charm, sincerity, relatability, and likability — which is much harder to schedule through strategies. It’s an organic ingredient that is a major part of the buzz. In this way, Zibo and Harbin are very much alike.

Despite some criticisms about prioritizing short-term fame and social media hype for Chinese tourist destinations, it seems that Harbin’s success will be long lasting. As some social media users say: “I can’t make it this year, but I definitely will go to Harbin for the next season. I’ve never even seen snow in my life.”

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Ruixin Zhang and Miranda Barnes

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References

Dewar, Keith, Denny Meyer, and Wen Mei Li. 2001. “Harbin, Lanterns of Ice, Sculptures of Snow.” Tourism Management 22 (5): 523-532.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Yu Hua’s Surprising Transformation from Renowned Avant-Garde Writer to Beloved “Scruffy Pup”

Yu Hua’s rise as an online celebrity highlights that Chinese youth value relatability and likability over literary prestige.

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On Chinese social media, Yu Hua has transcended his status as one of China’s most renowned contemporary writers. Surrounded by memes, online jokes, and fans born after 2000, he has emerged as a cultural icon for China’s younger generations.

Not long ago, mentioning Yu Hua (余华) would bring to mind an avant-garde writer known for his literary exploration of human suffering. Recently, however, Yu Hua’s name on the Chinese internet and social media is more and more associated with memes, jokes, and the “scruffy pup” (潦草小狗).

Born in 1960, Yu Hua emerged as one of the renowned Chinese young writers of the later 1980s and 1990s who became known for their avant-garde fiction. Since 1983, Yu has come out with many stories and (short) novels. His most renowned works include the novels To Live (活着, 1993) and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (许三观卖血记, 1995). His work was translated in many languages and he became the first Chinese writer to receive the James Joyce Award in 2002. Yu Hua recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of his literary debut.

In early 2022, Yu Hua, who seemed to have moved beyond the peak of his writing career, returned to the limelight at a book launch event. However, the focus was not on his own new book but on Fatigue of Life and Death (生死疲劳) by his friend, fellow Chinese author, and Nobel laureate Mo Yan (莫言).

Yu Hua was invited to the event as a guest but attracted attention for how he expressed his admiration for Mo Yan (莫言), using no less than three swear words in a row, basically voicing how “f*cking good” he thought Mo Yan’s work is (“牛逼”, “妈的”, “我操”). The moment went viral as many netizens appreciated how Yu Hua, such an established author, swore like any other enthusiastic ordinary person. He was suddenly very relatable.

The incident led people to explore Yu Hua’s past, finding more examples of his special, down-to-earth kind of humor. Such as when he revealed that people would often mistake him for Mo Yan and how he had gotten use to signing his own name inside Mo Yan’s books.

Another time, Yu Hua casually talked about his author friend Shi Tiesheng (史铁生), who became wheelchair-bound after an accident at 21, and how he made an excellent goalkeeper during football games among writers.

Reflecting on his first day of work, he once humorously shared that he arrived two hours late, only to discover he was the first one there, saying, “It was a sign I’d found the perfect job.”

This kind of light-hearted humor that goes against the grain seems to resonate with Chinese youth, especially at a time when they are facing various social pressures and a growing youth unemployment crisis. Terms like “involution” (nèijuǎn, 内卷), “ugly tired” (lèichǒu, 累丑), and “lying flat” (tǎng píng, 躺平) underscore a sense of collective pessimism.

Many find it refreshing to see a literary master like Yu Hua breaking down his own image and authority and connect with today’s younger generations by going against traditional values. One popular blogger (@十两欢) even referred to Yu Hua as a “therapy for the youth” (“年轻人安抚师”).

As Yu was getting increasingly popular online, a viral video in 2022 compared him to a cute yet somewhat confused dog, with the video suggesting Yu Hua actually looks just like this dog. This led to him being dubbed “the scruffy pup.”

“I’m sorry, Teacher Yu Hua,” the vlogger wrote: “I genuinely love your work and I mean no disrespect, but you [and my dog] really do like look alike.”

The scruffy pup meme.

Over the past two years, the “scruffy pup” meme has become part of Yu Hua’s online popularity. From Weibo to Bilibili and Xiaohonghu, people comment on his literary work and share inspirational quotes, while also making fun of his personality and relatable approach to life.

One viral gif shows Yu Hua seemingly bored and glassy-eyed during book signing, with many commenters replying that the look in his eyes captures exactly how they feel while at work or school.

Yu Hua himself has indicated that he embraces the ‘scruffy pup’ comparison, though he did clarify that he’s actually a “scruffy dog wearing a suit.”

Some of the memes and funny images about Yu Hua (screenshots via Xiaohonghu by Whatsonweibo).

Yu Hua’s newfound status as a cultural icon for China’s youth is not just visible on social media, it is also visible offline. During his book signing events in Hong Kong and South Korea in 2023, fans reserved all nearby hotel rooms. Some enthusiasts even came prepared with sleeping bags and tents, ensuring they queued up early to secure a chance to meet their idol.

Yu’s popularity is part of a broader trend of Chinese older literary figures becoming part of online youth culture. As recently highlighted by He Qitong at Sixth Tone, both Yu Hua and Mo Yan are examples of literary household names in China who have recently reached online celebrity status after their humorous takes on modern living and literature began to circulate on social media. Their appearances on popular TV shows like “I Read Books on an Island” (我在岛上读书) have further boosted their popularity.

In spring of 2023, Mo Yan went viral for disclosing that he had struggled to create a suitable speech for Yu Hua during the 65th anniversary celebration of the Chinese literary magazine Shouhuo in Shanghai. The Nobel laureate, one of China’s greatest modern-day writers, therefore admitted he had received in help in eventually writing the speech with ChatGPT.

The way Chinese young people are now writing and joking about established writers such as Yu Hua and Mo Yan shows a huge difference from the way people engaged with scholars and literary figures in earlier years. With the rise of social media, netizens were eager to gain knowledge and wisdom from well-known intellectuals, excited about how the internet provided new ways to ask questions and learn from them.

Today’s post-00 generation isn’t primarily seeking profound insights from their literary icons but is rather looking for relatability and likeability. In the case of Yu Hua the scruffy dog’, it is evident that many have found that humor and grounded observations about daily life are the strongest bridges connecting two different generations and the spheres of China’s avant-garde authors and Gen Z social media users.

By Ruixin Zhang and Manya Koetse

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