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The Chunwan Liveblog: Watching the 2021 CMG Spring Festival Gala

We’re here to keep you updated about the CMG Spring Festival Gala, China’s biggest New Year’s TV event.

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Happy Niu Year! The Lunar New Year is here, and that means millions of Chinese families are watching the annual 4-hour-long live Spring Festival Gala as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Watch the event together with What’s on Weibo, as we will liveblog throughout the show. (This event had ended, liveblog is now closed!)

In these turbulent times when everything is changing, there is one thing to count on, and that is the airing of China’s Spring Festival Gala. Despite the pandemic, the 39th edition of the festival will go ahead.

A live-streaming of the Gala will be live on Thursday, February 11, 20.00 pm China Standard Time. Check out this YouTube link, live stream from Weibo, or watch straight from CCTV. We will be live-blogging on this page here.

 

What Exactly is the ‘Chunwan’ Gala?

 

China’s CCTV Spring Festival Gala (中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会), commonly abbreviated to chūnwǎn (春晚), is an annual TV gala to celebrate the start of the new year and it is the most-watched show in the world. Although it is known as the CCTV Gala, it is now officially presented as being hosted by “China Media Group” (CMG), the predominant state media company founded in 2018 that holds China Central Television, China National Radio, and China Radio International.

Since its very first airing in 1983, the Spring Festival Gala has captured an audience of millions. In 2010, the live Gala had a viewership of 730 million; in 2014, it had reached a viewership of 900 million, and in 2019, over a billion people watched the Gala on TV and online, making the show much bigger in terms of viewership than, for example, the Super Bowl.

The show lasts a total of four hours and usually has around 30 to 40 different acts, from dance to singing and acrobatics. The acts that are both most-loved and most-dreaded are the comic sketches (小品) and crosstalk (相声); they are usually the funniest, but also convey the most political messages.

As viewer ratings of the CCTV Gala in the 21st century have skyrocketed, so has the critique on the show – which seems to be growing year-on-year. According to many viewers, the spectacle generally is often “way too political” with its display of communist nostalgia, including the performance of different revolutionary songs such as “Without the Communist Party, There is No New China” (没有共产党就没有新中国).

For this same reason, the sentence “There’ll never be a worst, just worse than last year” (“央视春晚,没有最烂,只有更烂”) has become a well-known idiom connected to the Gala.

If you want to know more about the previous editions, we also live-blogged
– 2020: CCTV New Year’s Gala 2020
– 2019: The CCTV Spring Festival Gala 2019 Live Blog
– 2018: CCTV Spring Festival Gala 2018 (Live Blog)
– 2017: CCTV New Year’s Gala 2017 Live Blog
– 2016: CCTV’s New Year’s Gala 2016 Liveblog

 

Liveblog CCTV Gala 2021

 
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The original liveblog was done via a third-party app. The original texts and images are copied below for reference. The timestamp refers to the last moment that post was updated.
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What can we expect?

Feb 11 17:07

The show is starting a couple of hours from now, what can we expect?

The Spring Festival Gala usually always focuses on the themes that matter to Chinese authorities, as the event is an important moment to communicate official ideology. The themes and topic that will matter this year are the following:

– China’s battle against COVID19
– the Chinese Communist Party marks its 100th anniversary
– China’s eradication of poverty
– The upcoming Winter Olympics

These themes are likely to come up in various acts, or in the public service announcement or special moments throughout the show. Tonight, there will be a total of 36 acts including songs, dance acts, skits, acrobatics, martial arts, and some magic.

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What Is Weibo Anticipating Most Tonight?

Feb 11 19:15

Just an hour to go before the Gala will start! On Weibo, there are various hashtags related to the Gala, including “Chunwan Year of the Ox” (#牛年春晚#), which is already up to 270 million views at this point.

People look most forward to seeing the super popular Wang Yibo on stage, which will be in the early parts of the Gala. People also look forward to seeing Chinese top actress Yang Mi, she will be performing together with Chinese actor Liu Ye in one the show’s final acts. Then there’s the appearance of former ‘Supergirl’ star Li Yuchun, who will appear in a fashion show act that many look forward to.

We also look forward to seeing a skit that is titled “Pressured into Marriage Every Year.” Then of course, there will be the inevitable performance by Jackie Chan that always leads to some online discussions. We’re also curious to see that fashion show that highlights Chinese fashion using hologram technology.

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Starting in 5 Minutes!

Feb 11 19:59

Are you ready? Make sure you watch the live stream here or on YouTube here. Turn on the sound – you’ll hear pings coming up when we add an update to comment on the show throughout the night.

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Opening Dance

Feb 11 20:03

And…it’s begun! This first act of the night is a singing and dancing act titles “Best Wishes” (“万事如意” wàn shì rú yì – a Chinese idiom that means ‘may all your hopes be fulfilled.’)

This acts opens with some famous names (although there will be famous names throughout the show). The very pretty Tong Liya 佟丽娅 is an actress and dancer who was born in Xinjiang, she is of the Xibo ethnicity. William Chan Wai-ting is famous a Hong Kong singer, dancer and actor. We also see the actress Jiang Shuying on stage, also known as Maggie Jiang.

Performed by: Tong Liya 佟丽娅, Chen Weiting 陈伟霆 (Hong Kong), Jiang Shuying 江疏影, Du Jiang 杜江, Ouyang Nana 欧阳娜娜 (Taiwan), Long Zilan 龙紫岚 (Macau).

Updated with video link:

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Hosts of Chunwan 2021

Feb 11 20:06

Tonight’s hosts are Ren Luyu (任鲁豫), Li Sisi (李思思), Nëghmet Raxman (尼格买提), Long Yang (龙洋), and Zhang Tao (张韬).

Ren Luyu (1978) is a Chinese television host from Henan, and he has presented the Gala many times before (2010, 2016, 2018, 2019) so he is a very familiar face to the show.

Nëghmet Raxman (1983) is a Chinese television host of Uyghur heritage who also is not a newcomer; he hosted the Gala since 2015.

Li Sisi (1986) is a Chinese television host and media personality most known for her role as host of the Gala since 2012.

Then there are also two ‘newcomers.’ Long Yang (1989) is the youngest presenter tonight. Born in Hunan’s Chenzhou, she’s been working in Chinese state media for years. As a host, she’s done various big events before, but 2021 is the first time for her to host the CMG Spring Festival Gala.

Also for Zhang Tao (1988?) it is going to be the first time to present the show. Zhang currently hosts the CCTV4 China News and previously worked at Chongqing TV.

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Song and Dance “Holiday”

Feb 11 20:12

This act is called Holiday (节日), and includes African, Egyptian, Spanish, Russian, and Chinese influences.

There are some famous people involved in this act, such as the 70-year-old singer Zhu Mingying (朱明瑛) and the Chinese actor Zhang Han (张翰).

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance.

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Tech Innovation at the Gala

Feb 11 20:16

The Gala is always a time to showcase China’s innovative digitalization. This year, the Gala is also called a “tech innovation event,” which, for the first time, will use 8K ultra high-tech definition video and AI+VR studio technologies.

The event also features the innovative use of super high definition cloud communication technology to coordinate performances on stage.

As reported by CCTV, some actors who are not in the Chinese mainland and aren’t able to perform live due to the COVID-19 pandemic will still be “on stage”; the cloud technology allows actors who can’t be physically present during the live performances to participate via prerecorded videos while also remotely interacting with the audience.

Chinese state media have been announcing the tech integrated in the show, calling it “a breakthrough in new media communication.” It’s all about 4K, 5G, AR, AI, 3D, and 8K!

This year, the Gala is cooperating with the Douyin app for its ‘hongbao’ (red envelope) activities.

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Yue Yunpeng & Sun Yue Crosstalk

Feb 11 20:26

This is the first xiangsheng of the night. Xiangsheng (相声), or ‘crosstalk,’ is a dialogue between actors with rich puns and word jokes, that usually sees two actors with one playing the “joker” and the other playing the “teaser. ”

On stage, we see Chinese actor Yue Yunpeng (1985), who is particularly known for his xiangsheng performances, together with well-known Beijing-born comedian Sun Yue (1979). This is a famous duo, they’ve previously also performed together at the Gala.

The two are looking back at the songs that have appeared at the festival throughout the years – all songs that the audience can sing together with them.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance.

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Chinese New Year Face Masks

Feb 11 20:22

Today’s event is taking place with an audience attending, as every year. This is also possible due to China’s super strict COVID19 measures and requirements.

What is noteworthy is the masks worn by every audience member – they are special Year of the Ox Spring Festival face masks made by the China Media Group for this occasion. How very 2021.

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Traditional Jokes

Feb 11 20:29

Some jokes just never get old.. like this one, that also surfaced on Chinese social media last year.

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Andy Lau, Wang Yibo, Guan Xiaotong “Niu Qilai”

Feb 11 21:59

OMG! Robot ox, virtual ox, 3D ox – Year of the Ox in China’s digital era!

Here comes Andy Lau, one of Hong Kong’s most famous actors. But it’s probably not Andy that most people are excited about now – it’s Wang Yibo, one of Weibo’s most influential celebrities of the moment.

Talking about the most-anticipated act of this night, it’s actually Wang Yibo according to social media users – there was an online poll on who they want to see most tonight.

Wang Yibo (1997) is a Chinese actor, singer, dancer, and rapper who debuted as a member of the South Korean-Chinese boyband UNIQ in 2014 and starred in the 2019 Chinese TV series The Untamed (陈情令). On Sina Weibo, the celebrity was the champion of Weibo’s ‘Most Influential Celebrity’ charts recently – he really has a huge online fanbase.

Also performing here is Beijing actress Guan Xiaotong (1997), who is also known as the ‘national daughter’ for always playing the daughter roles in tv-series and movies. Remember that time when Weibo servers were down due to a celebrity relationship announcement? That was about Guan and her relationship with Chinese singer and actor Lu Han.

Updated with video link:

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Martial Arts Meet High Tech

Feb 11 20:47

This act is titled “Heroes of Heaven and Earth” (天地英雄) and uses AR technology to integrate nature landscapes into martial arts scenes.

And then there’s this performer who is hanging by her hair that is causing some discussion online:

em>Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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“How come Andy Lau never gets old?!”

Feb 11 20:43

Meanwhile, on Chinese social media, netizens are discussing why it seems that everyone is getting older except for actor Andy Lau, who performed in the act before this. Andy Lau was born in the Year of the Ox and he’s 60 years old!

Fun fact: all of the performers in that act, namely Andy Lau, Guan Xiaotong, and Wang Yibo were all born in the Year of the Ox.

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The 2021 Theme and Director

Feb 11 20:50

While we are into the sixth act of the night, let’s look at the theme and director of this show for a second.

After themes such as “New China”, “Chinese Dream”, “National Unity”, “Family Affinity”, and “Chinese values, Chinese power,” this year’s theme is focused on reflecting the daily lives of ordinary people.

Due to COVID19, this is also a special edition of the festival. Usually, it takes place from various locations with different hosts across China. This year, that is not the case.

This year’s chief director is Chen Linchun (陈临春). After the Guangdong director Yang Dongsheng (杨东升) directed the CCTV Gala in 2017, 2018, and 2020, it’s a different chief director for a change, but Chen is definitely no stranger to the Gala. He previously directed the event in 2008 and 2011 and was also closely involved in the production before.

The Gala is always completely rehearsed multiple times before the live show. The fifth rehearsal of the Gala took place on Tuesday.

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New Social Media Traditions are Born

Feb 11 22:00

Another “new tradition” is online shopping while watching the festival.

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“Running Youth”

Feb 11 21:03

This song is called “Running Youth” (奔跑的青春), performed by many well-known faces.

One of them is the popular Dilraba Dilmurat 迪丽热巴, a young Chinese actress of Uyghur ethnicity.

em>Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Special Program: “Report to the Motherland”

Feb 11 21:10

This special part of the show invites Chinese space experts to tell the story of spaceflight, and there will be representatives of the “2020 Poverty Alleviation Award” to shortly address China’s anti-poverty efforts.

em>Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Andy Lau became a meme already

Feb 11 21:08

Meanwhile.. on Weibo, the actor Andy Lau who performed earlier tonight seems to have become a meme, with people sharing this segment of the song that wishes everyone a prosperous New Year. Gōng xǐ fā cái!

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“The Road of Pursuing Dreams,” Performed by Han Hong

Feb 11 21:14

This song titled “The Road of Pursuing Dreams” (追梦之路) performed by Han Hong (韩红), a famous singer and songwriter of mixed Han and Tibetan ethnicity. She became a topic of banter on social media for earlier performances during the Chunwan that were a bit awkward.

em>Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Beautiful Jasmine Dance

Feb 11 21:19

This dance is called “Jasmine” (茉莉) with the lead dancer Meng Qingyang and performance by the China Oriental Performing Arts Group.

Updated with video link:

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(Act 10) Skit: “Balcony”

Feb 11 21:38

This skit was among one of the more anticipated performances tonight. It is focused on the early days of the epidemic in China and how to overcome hardships.

The skit is about people during the lockdown who are worried about family members working on the frontlines. Neighbors use drones to pass on food.

The end of the lockdown is then lifted (looking back on April 2020), which is celebrated. The Gala switches to scenes of Wuhan and real frontline workers.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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“Tomorrow Will Be Better”

Feb 11 21:46

This song, titled “Tomorrow Will Be Better” (明天会更好) is a clear reference to the pandemic and it is sung by, among others, Jackie Chan! It continues on the same stage and in the same setting as the skit before this.

Jackie Chan (成龙) has become an annually returning performer at the CCTV Gala. Although his performances are always much-anticipated, they’ve also been pretty cringe-worthy. In 2017, the song performed by Jackie that was simply titled “Nation” was met with criticism for being overly political. In 2018, the Hong Kong martial artist sung a song that was called “China” and in 2019 he performed ‘My Struggle, My Happiness.’

We also see Zhu Yilong on stage, a Chinese actor born in 1988. He was voted as one of the actors that Chinese social media users were looking forward to see most at tonight’s Gala.

(Picture above shows performer with “thank you” on this shirt). Many netizens say they are moved to tears by this song and the memory of everything that happened last year during the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan.

Updated with video link:

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The “Tomorrow Will Be Better Song” Moved Many to Tears

Feb 11 21:48

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“China in the Lights”

Feb 11 21:51

The Gala is moving fast! “China in the Lights” (灯火里的中国) preceded the skit that is now on stage, and it was sung by Chinese singers Zhang Ye (张也) and Zhou Shen (周深, also known as Charlie Zhou), accompanied by performers from the Evergrande Folk Song and Dance Troupe and others.

em>Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Spring Cleaning (大扫除)

Feb 11 21:57

This performance is called ‘Spring Cleaning’ (大扫除), referring to the custom of cleaning the house before the Chinese New Year – a way of driving away the bad luck of the previous year to allow for a new start.

Performing here are Sun Tao (孙涛), Wang Xun (王迅), Qin Hailu (秦海璐), Huang Zitao (黄子韬). The skit makes fun of Chinese bureaucracy.

This skit is especially noteworthy because Chinese singer-songwriter, rapper, actor, and model Huang Zitao is in it. He became super popular as a former member of the South Korean-Chinese boy band Exo and its Chinese sub-unit, Exo-M.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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FASHION SHOW

Feb 11 22:20

This fashion show (山水霓裳) takes place around Li Yuchun’s solo performance, and it highlights the beauty of Chinese costumes in a new way. As state media previously reported, the fashion show uses split-screen shooting and hologram technology to show the beauty of Chinese costumes to “demonstrate cultural confidence.”

Around 2013, Li Yuchun was one of the most discussed female artists on the Chinese Internet. She was the winner of China’s ‘Supergirl’ TV show and became a national idol and a cultural phenomenon. Due to her androgynous look, Li Yuchun’s stardom led to online discussions on the tomboy trend and sexuality, as she challenged the conventional Chinese criteria for feminine aesthetics and traditional gender norms. It is the third time for Li to participate in the Gala.

Updated with video link:

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如此家长

Feb 11 22:21

Here is another xiangsheng act now with performers Jin Fei (金霏) and Chen Xi (陈曦). The act is about being parents and children’s education.

Some people on Weibo are joking that it’s good that the audience is wearing face masks so nobody has to pretend to laugh when they think the jokes aren’t funny.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Relatives – Weibo blowing up!

Feb 11 22:28

This song is super popular, social media is exploding, because superstars Zhang Jie and Yi Yang Qianxi (Jackson Yee) are on stage. Jackson Yee became the youngest member of the Chinese boy band TFBoys in 2013 and is also a solo artist and singer, he has an enormous fanbase on social media.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Chinese Opera (盛世百花园)

Feb 11 22:38

In comparison to other acts, there are few Chinese Opera acts in the Spring Festival Gala nowadays, but this is an elaborate act that includes many famous names.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Lay Zhang Is Here

Feb 11 22:45

This act was among the acts that was discussed the most on social media before the Spring Festival Gala began, because it is Lay Zhang (张艺兴) singing “Picture Scroll” (画卷). Zhang is a Chinese singer-songwriter, music producer, dancer, and actor. He debuted as a member of the South Korean-Chinese boy group Exo.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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On the Train to Spring

Feb 11 23:07

This performance is called “Towards the Happiness of Spring Days” (开往春天的幸福) and takes place on the high-speed train. The skit has a focus on hard work, duty, and also touches upon China’s rapid developments (the gaotie train, 5G, etc).

One of the performers in this skit is Chinese actress Ni Ni, who is praised on social media for her slim and pretty body figure.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Shepherds of Keketuohai

Feb 11 23:07

This song is called “Shepherds of Keketuohai (可可托海的牧羊人) performed by artist Wang Qi (王琪) and actress Luo Wenbo (骆文博). This song was released earlier in 2020.

Keketuohai is a national park / scenic area in Xinjiang that has many geological wonders.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Pressured to Marry

Feb 11 23:21

“Pressured to Marry Every Holiday” (每逢佳节被催婚) is a skit that focuses on the social pressure many Chinese young people feel, especially during Chinese New Year, when parents and relatives will ask them why they still are not married?! This had led to the phenomenon of people ‘renting’ fake boyfriends or girlfriends to avoid nagging questions, something that is also mentioned in this performance.

Some people on social media actually dread this skit because they are single and pressured, and this doesn’t help!



Performed by: Kaili Zhang 张凯丽, Zhang Guoqiang 张国强, Wan Xi 万茜, Ren Jialun 任嘉伦, Wu Hailong 吴海龙, Zhang Weiwei 张维威

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Children’s Song and Dance

Feb 11 23:32

“Listen to me” is the 22nd act of tonight (we’re not there yet.. still 14 more to go OMG!). This dance is performed by the Air Force Blue Sky Children’s Art Troupe.

Also on stage are ‘Sister Moon’ and Wang Yuan (Roy Wang), who is known as one of China’s most influential teens, although he is now 20 years old.

Luo Tianyi was also in this performance, a Chinese Vocaloid released by Shanghai Henian Information Technology Co. in 2012. She is the first Vocaloid Chinese singer.

Updated with video link:

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Crested Ibis

Feb 11 23:36

Zhu Jiejing (朱洁静) is here with the dance performance Zhuhuan (朱鹮), referring to the Crested ibis (a type of bird).

Zhu (1985) is a top dancer in China. She was recruited by Shanghai Dance School at the age of 9 and went on to have a flourishing career.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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National treasures returning home

Feb 11 23:41

Chinese actor Zhang Guoli is presenting this segment, which is a special part of the program about cultural relics that “return home”, meaning they returned to the mainland from overseas.

The Buddha head that is introduced here was returned from Japan.

The idea behind this “returning to the motherland” segment is of course also symbolical – stressing the importance of the Chinese nation as the (cultural) home.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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“I love you China”

Feb 11 23:47

An ode to China in this piece titled “I love China’ (我爱你中国), with on piano Li Yundi, the famous concert pianist, and dance by Tan Yuanyuan (Chinese American) and Zhang Aoyue.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Meanwhile on Taobao…

Feb 11 23:49

Meanwhile, the Chunyun is flourishing on e-commerce platform Taobao as well. Some Taobao sellers have managed to collect entire wardrobes of performers worn on stage just now.

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“Be Rest Assured, China”

Feb 11 23:55

China’s military power is the focus in this scene, where Lei Jia sings “Don’t Worry, Homeland” with images of the military in the background.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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100 Years Communist Party

Feb 11 23:58

This song (唱支山歌给党听) is dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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HAPPY NIU YEAR!

Feb 11 23:59

While people on social media are complaining their parents are falling asleep, it’s 0:00 in Mainland China. The New Year is here!

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The Big Reunion

Feb 12 00:12

An inescapable part of Chunwan is the moment where everyone gets together and all ethnic groups and age groups and types of performances are thrown out on the stage together. That moment is now. This song is called “All People are One” (万众一心).

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Silly jokes keep coming

Feb 12 00:12

As we’re entering some of the final acts, some Chinese social media users have found a striking similarity between popstar Huang Zitao and the Buddha head that was just proudly presented on the #SpringFestivalGala as a national treasure returned to the motherland.

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Catching up…

Feb 12 00:18

The final acts of the night are always seemingly going much faster than the first (or we’re getting more tired), so what did we miss? The people you saw earlier were representatives of national medals and national honorary titles, including some people honored in the fight against COVID19.

There was the Peaceful Snow Picture song (瑞雪平安图) featuring Han Xue, Yuan Jiawei, and Wang Junkai – who is hugely popular as a member of the TFBoys.

We have now arrived at the xiangsheng act featuring Li Yinfei and Ye Peng.

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Sun Nan

Feb 12 00:24

Chinese singer Sun Nan is a recurring performer on the Spring Festival Gala. He was also the singer who danced together with 540 robots in an earlier version of the gala.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Andrea Bocelli and Matteo Bocelli Sing “Fall on Me”

Feb 12 00:30

These Italian performers joined via ‘cloud’ performance and were not actually in Beijing.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Burning Snowflakes/Love is Here (Olympic 2022 Song)

Feb 12 00:37

This performance is called ‘Burning Snowflakes’ (燃烧的雪花) and it is among the acts that was discussed a lot before tonight due to the participation of Yang Mi (1986).

This beautiful actress and singer gained fame and popularity through her various roles in Chinese hit TV dramas. Born in Beijing, Yang already started her acting career at the age of 4. Yang is now seen as one of Chinas biggest actresses, and also as one with the most commercial value; she was listed in the Top 10 Forbes Chinese Celebrities of 2020. And with 110 million fans (!) on her Weibo account, she is one of the most popular social media stars in China.

Also on stage is Chinese actor Liu Ye (刘烨, 1978), who is regarded as one of China’s top actors.

The enormous dancing panda on stage perhaps tells us more on what we can expect for the Winter Olympics in China in 2022.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Meanwhile..

Feb 12 00:47

While the show is entering its final phase and Jay Chou is singing Mojito.. (virtual presence via cloud tech, he’s not in the studio)..

..the news that BBC is no longer allowed to broadcast in mainland China is already called the biggest news of the Chinese New Year.

Updated with video links:
Link to video of Jay Chou performance; Link to video of following performance

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The Last Dance

Feb 12 00:30

This is the last dance of the night, a dance for ‘good luck’ featuring lead dancers Wang Haitian and Zhou Xu, with a performance by the China Eastern Performing Arts Group.

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

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Unforgettable Night

Feb 12 00:55

Unforgettable Night! The last song of this night is “Unforgettable Night” (难忘今宵).

It is sung by the senior singer and dancer Li Guyi (李谷一), who became famous with the song ‘Homeland Love’ (乡恋) around the time of China’s Reform and Opening Up – the singer and her songs are nostalgic for many viewers. Li Guyi also appeared at the very first version of the Gala in 1983, and became the singer that sang the most at the event.

Li Guyi sings the same song every year at the end of this show. The last song ends with all performers of the Beijing venue on stage. The song repeats the phrases 共祝愿 祖国好: let’s all wish together that the country will be good, that it will last long and be prosperous. The hosts wish everyone a happy new year, and much luck for the new year. And so do we! It’s a wrap, happy niu year to you!

Updated with video link:
Link to video of this performance

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

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China Society

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?

Manya Koetse

Published

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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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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Movie “Sister” Stirs Discussions on Traditional Family Values in China

The movie ‘Sister’ has sparked online discussions on whether or not personal values should be prioritized over traditional family values.

Manya Koetse

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Mainlaind Chinese drama My Sister (我的姐姐, also known as ‘Sister‘) was just released in theatres and is sparking online discussions on family relations and the role of women in China.

After the hit movie Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英) received praise earlier this year for focusing on the role of mothers within Chinese families, this film zooms in on the role of older sisters.

My Sister, directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), revolves around the story of An Ran, an 18-year-old daughter who is unexpectedly facing the major responsibility for her 6-year-old brother after the tragic loss of their parents. While trying to find her own path in life, she suddenly has to step into the role of caregiver for her younger sibling. But does she want to take on this role?

Actress Zhang Zifeng (张子枫) is playing the main lead in this movie, which touches upon the issue of dealing with traditional family values and personal dreams and ambitions. Sister reveals the difficulties women face within the traditional Chinese-style family structure and the sacrifices they make for their parents, their children, siblings, and their husbands; and how the roles and tasks that are expected of them also clash with their own ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

For An Ran, the relationship with her little brother is troublesome. As a young girl, she had to pretend to be disabled in order to allow her parents to have a second child, preferably a son (under the One Child Policy, families with children with disabilities were allowed to have more children). Now, as a young adult, she once again has to sacrifice her own individual freedom in order to let her brother thrive.

The renowned Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) dedicated a lengthy post to the movie on her Weibo account, where she called the film “fascinating” and “thought-provoking.”

Li suggests that multiple social issues play a role in this film. First, there is the conflict between individual-oriented values and traditional family-oriented ethics. While traditional Chinese ideas about family require An Ran to put her brother first and move personal self-fulfillment to the backseat, An Ran is a young woman who grew up in a rapidly modernizing China where women are more empowered and independent. Why should she sacrifice her personal education and career in order to devote herself to raising her brother?

Another social topic that plays a major role in this film is the deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. An Ran literally had to make herself weaker in order for her brother to be brought into this world – and in doing so limiting the possibilities for her future career, – with these patriarchal practices prioritizing the thriving of sons over the happiness of daughters. An Ran’s anger and resistance show that traditional ideas about male superiority clash with modern-day Chinese society, where profound changes within gender relations are already taking place.

“Sisters do not dislike their little brothers,” one Weibo commenter wrote: “What they dislike is the hidden meaning behind their brother.”

Another female blogger responded: “Within my family, from my grandpa’s generation up to myself, it is actually the women who discriminate against women. I think these are deeply rooted ideas that can’t be changed. Look at my second elder aunt; she had seven children, all girls, and only four were left. The others were given away. However, my grandfather has always been good to me, and has never made me feel any less than the boys. Yet my grandma and my mother sometimes make me doubt about my life.”

Under the hashtag “How to Evaluate the Movie My Sister” (#如何评价电影我的姐姐#), which attracted 150 million views on Weibo, many ask the question of what they would do if they were An Ran. Would you take care of your little brother? Or would you leave his care up to other family members and choose your own path in life?

“If it were me, I’d raise my brother. Although it’s actually the parents’ problem, the little brother is innocent.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t raise him,” another commenter writes: “Although the little brother is innocent, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my life for him. And it might be a better choice to leave him with other family members than with me.”

These discussions also triggered the hashtag “Should Personal Values Be More Important Than Family Values?” (#个人价值必须高于家庭价值吗#). One top commenter raised the issue of ‘what if this was about a little sister instead of about a little brother,’ again provoking the idea that existing gender roles and the preference over sons play a major part in these discussions.

“These traditions no longer suit this era of a developing society. Let me ask you this question: would the little brother also take care of his sister once she grows old?”

“Personal values should always have priority. If you are not happy yourself, how could you ever take care of your family?”

“I have the perception that the family-oriented concept is deep-rooted. Although there consistently are new values and personal-oriented viewpoints, when it comes to real problems, most people will still be family-oriented.”

One commenter wrote: “What are ‘values’? What is the family in modern-day society? What does it mean to prioritize something? If we don’t first clarify this, the discussion becomes meaningless.”

Meanwhile, all the online discussions on Sister have boosted the film. By now, the movie has already become a box office hit and defeated the American Godzilla vs. Kong.

By Manya Koetse

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