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The Power of China’s Internet Memes

China’s Internet is full of online catchphrases, in-jokes and other memes. While many are just for fun, others have a deeper meaning to them. China’s Internet Memes sometimes are a powerful tool to say what cannot be said.

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China’s Internet is full of catchphrases, in-jokes and other memes. While many are just for fun, others have a deeper meaning to them. China’s online memes can sometimes be a powerful tool to say what cannot be said.

Jia Junpeng, your mum wants you to come home for dinner (贾君鹏你妈妈喊你回家吃饭)!” I remember hearing this sentence while I was still at university in the China Studies program. It was 2009, and the phrase had suddenly become the biggest thing on China’s Internet.

 

“I am not coming home for dinner, tell mum I am eating at the internet cafe.”

 

The sentence had popped up on a popular online forum one afternoon. It was a message board dedicated to the World of Warcraft game. Although it was not uncommon for people to post topics unrelated to the game, the sentence apparently stood out. When one other Internet user decided to create an account as ‘Jia Junpeng’, saying: “I’m not coming home for dinner, tell mum I am eating at the internet cafe”, other comments soon followed. Within a couple of hours, the sentence had attracted over 20,000 replies. There were people posing as Jia Junpeng’s brother, mother, uncle or teacher. An online craze followed of people making images and parodies of the thing.

W020121020584767522285“Jia Junpeng, your mum asks you to come home for dinner!!”

Chinese Internet cafes (网吧) were booming at the time. Some kids spend days on end playing online games and surfing the Internet. People imagined a story around the original message: it might have been an aunt who went online because her nephew did not come home, telling ‘Jia Junpeng’ that his mom wants him home for supper. It became a catchphrase because it struck a chord for people in a time of a rapidly changing society, where the rise of Internet made the generational gap even bigger. It had become less normal for families to eat together. Did mothers now have to go online to ask their children to come home?

Marketers used the hype to attract attention to their products. The sentence ‘Jia Junpeng, your mum asks you to come home for dinner’ was used by different companies in various ways. China Mobile changed the sentence to: “Jia Junpeng, your mum asks you to come and buy a phone card”. Restaurant chains used the sentence to promote their food (“Jia Junpeng, your mum asks you to come and eat our dumplings”), and a chain of English schools adjusted the sentence to: “Jia Junpeng, you mum asks you to come and learn English”.

Virtually all Chinese social media platforms suddenly had people named ‘Jia Junpeng’s brother’ or ‘Jia Junpeng’s mother’.

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english-schoolsChina Mobile ad and English school ad advertising with: “Jia Junpeng, your mum asks you to come and learn English / buy a phone card!”
 
China’s online memes

‘Memes’ are online phenomena that are rapidly shared and altered amongst netizens. A ‘meme’ can be anything: a video, an image or a catchphrase. It initially becomes popular because it triggers people. They then make their own jokes about it and creatively change the original text or image- in the end, the meme starts leading its own life. The majority of China’s memes are humorous and although many of them do not have a political meaning, some do. Those that are political, are mostly humorous, too.

The year 2009 was a crucial year for China’s social media landscape. Following the social unrest in Urumqi, the Chinese government closed down many social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. Sina Weibo was introduced as a new platform, working together with authorities to block “sensitive” content (Sullivan 2012, 775). In the years following Weibo’s launch, Chinese memes grew big. China’s web users soon discovered they could express their (political) opinion in creative ways without being blocked by censors.

Although online memes exist all over the world, Chinese memes are different from their western counterparts because the Chinese language is ideal for the creative use of characters. Words that are otherwise censored might get twisted and altered by the use of different characters. Chinese readers will still understand its true meaning, but censors will not look for it until it goes viral. Not only textual memes are popular in China, images are also widespread; they are also difficult to track for censors and cannot be blocked through keyword search functions.

 

“The grass mud horse became ‘an outcry against the very policies that forced it to become a secret symbol'”

 

Artist Ai Weiwei was one of the leading figures who made memes political. One of China’s most famous meme is the 3-character phrase ‘cao ni ma’ (草泥马), literally meaning ‘grass mud horse’, but pronounced in the same way as the vulgar “f*ck your mother” (which is written with three different characters). The ‘grass mud horse’ became some sort of mythical creature that resembled an alpaca. Everyone knew that it was actually a big middle finger to the authorities; it was netizen’s way of showing censors that they could avoid them through creativity. Ai Weiwei ‘adopted’ the ‘cao ni ma’ grass mud horse, spreading images of himself riding it, or holding it in front of his private parts.

The grass mud horse became “an outcry against the very policies that forced it to become a secret symbol”, An Xiao Mina (2014, 361) writes.

600_54
imagesThe ‘grass mud horse’ (aka the ‘f*ck you horse’) and Ai Weiwei.

Memes are big all over the world. In China, memes carry a special meaning because of the highly censored Internet environment they emerge from. An Xiao Mina (2014) speaks of a “meme culture” that has provided a new sort of outlet for public discussion (362). With the creative use of visuals and language, they often speak a thousand words.

 

“With the creative use of visuals and language, China’s memes often speak a thousand words. ”

 

2011 and 2012 were important years for political memes. Chinese blogger Michael Anti has called the years from 2009-2012 the “golden years” of the Chinese internet because of the relative online freedom. Many memes have come up during these years.
 
From sunglasses to soy sauce: classic memes

There are a couple that are worth mentioning in a political context. There was the 2012 meme on the topic of Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese civil rights activist who was placed under house arrest by Chinese authorities. Chen is blind and always wears sunglasses. As a protest against his detainment, netizens collectively posted pictures of themselves wearing sunglasses.

5dOZBnpI_2151688bChen Guangcheng and his sunglasses took China’s Internet by storm (image source: The Atlantic).

Another example is the official investigation of Ai Weiwei in 2011 because of a picture where he posed naked with four women. According to the government, it was “dissemination of pornography”. Netizens were furious because the context of Ai Weiwei’s investigation was political and not about ‘pornography’. They responded by posting naked pictures of themselves online to prove that nudity is not pornography, as a protest.

In 2014, when China launched another ‘anti-pornography campaign‘, many netizens mocked it. Was the campaign really directed at ‘vulgar content’, or was it just another excuse to ‘clean up’ the internet? The Chinese word for ‘pornographic’ is ‘huang‘ (黄), which also means ‘yellow’. Many netizens responded to the campaign by posting pictures that were just a block of yellow color, accompanied by texts such as: “I am posting yellow (‘porn’), whatcha’ gonna do now?”

 

“I’m going to buy some soy sauce”

 

“I’m going to buy some soy sauce” (我打酱油) is another classic meme. A journalist was interviewing people on the street one day in 2008. When he asked a passer-by some questions, the man replied: “I’m just going to buy soy sauce.” The phrase later became synonymous with “It’s none of my business” – an excuse for speakers who want to avoid voicing their opinion on complicated or sensitive issues (Michels 2014, 128).

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 12.50.08The passer-by from the original interview in 2008 who said: “I’m going to buy soy sauce” (source video: link).

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u=2260017764,55391666&fm=21&gp=0
“It has nothing to do with me, I am buying soy sauce.”
 
The power of the meme

The power of memes in China lies in its various features. It uses in-jokes, images and creative language that make them difficult to tackle for censors. They are seen, shared and altered by an enormous online population because of the speed of spreading. Their message is often short and powerful, holding a thousand words within one image or catchphrase.

One of the most powerful features of memes is their elusiveness: where did it come from? Who started it? Who shared it, when? When a meme grows big, the whole Internet population gets involved. In China, the Internet population currently holds over 668 million people. Even if only a small fraction of people actively shares memes, it is almost impossible to track their path and pinpoint one person.

 

“China’s bloggers are not innovative because of governmental censorship, they are innovative in spite of it.”

 

Bloggers will find many ways to get their message across. As Michael Anti has stated: “China’s bloggers are not innovative because of governmental censorship, they are innovative in spite of it.” In this way, social media can help bloggers to slowly change China’s internet into a more open and free environment. Memes are part of this upward direction.

As for Jia Junpeng, I am not the only one who has not forgotten him. Earlier this year, his name became trending again, after one netizen posted the resume and picture of the ‘real Jia Junpeng’ on the World of Warcraft web forum. Jia Junpeng, whose English name is Philip Jia, supposedly is a young man who studied at Columbia University and has now returned to China to look for work. When one user named ‘Jia Junpeng’s grandmother’ posted: “Jia, it’s Mother’s Day this weekend, come home for dinner,” it attracted over 230,000 comments.

As Beijing announced the end of China’s one-child policy this month, some netizens remembered Jia again, saying: “Jia Junpeng, your wife wants you to come home to make a second baby.” Some things, understandably, just never get old.

By Manya Koetse

References

Michels, Veronique. 2014. China Online: Netspeak and Wordplay used by over 700 million Chinese Internet Users. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.

Mina, An Xiao. 2014. “Batman, Pandaman and the Blind Man: A Case Study in Social Change Memes and Internet Censorship in China.” Journal of Visual Culture, 13(3): 359–375. http://doi.org/10.1177/1470412914546576

Sullivan, J. 2012. “A Tale of Two Microblogs in China.” Media, Culture & Society, 34: 773–783. http://doi.org/10.1177/0163443712448951

Featured image: graffiti saying: “Jia Junpeng, your mum wants you to come home for dinner”, as published by Sina News.

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

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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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Backgrounder

What Are Weibo’s “Super Topics”?

Explaining Weibo’s “Super Topics”

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What are Weibo’s “Super Topics” (超级话题) and what makes them different from normal hashtags?

Over the past year, Weibo’s so-called “Super Topics” (超级话题) have become more popular on the social media platform as online spaces for people to connect and share information.

Weibo’s “super topic” function has been around since 2016. The function allows Weibo users to create and join interest-based content community pages that are online groups separated from the main Weibo space. One could perhaps compare these Weibo Super Groups to ‘mega-threads’ or ‘subreddits’ on Reddit.

These are the most important things to know about Weibo’s Super Topics:

 

#1 A Super Topic is Not the Same as a Hashtag

Similar to Twitter, hashtags make it possible for Weibo users to tag a topic they are addressing in their post so that their content pops up whenever other people search for that hashtag.

Different from Twitter, Weibo hashtags also have their own page where the hashtag is displayed on top, displaying how many people have viewed the hashtag, how many comments the hashtag is tagged in, and allowing users to share the hashtag page with others.

A Super Topic goes beyond the hashtag. It basically is a community account where all sort of information is shared and organized. People can ‘follow’ (关注) a Super Topic and can also ‘sign in’ (签到).

On the main page of every Super Topic page, the main subject or purpose of the super topic is briefly explained, and the number of views, followers, and posts are displayed.

A super topic-page can be created by any Weibo user and can have up to three major hosts, and ten sub-hosts. The main host(s) can decide which content will be featured as essential, they can place sticky notes, and post links to suggested topics.

 

#2 A Super Topic Is a Way to Organize Content

Super Topic pages allow hosts to organize relevant content in the way they want. Besides the comment area, the page consists of multiple tabs.

A tab right underneath the main featured information on the page, for example, shows the “sticky posts” (置顶帖) that the host(s) of the page have placed there, linking to relevant information or trending hashtag pages. Below the sticky notes, all the posts posted in the Super Topic community are displayed.

One of the most important tabs within the Super Topic page is called “essential content” (精花), which only shows the content that is manually selected by the host(s). This is often where opinion pieces, articles, official news, or photos, etc. are collected and separated from all the other posts.

Another tab is the “Hall of Fame” (名人堂), which mainly functions as a reference page. It features links to the personal Weibo pages of the super topic page host(s), links to the Weibo pages of top contributors, and shows a list of the biggest fans of the Super Topic. Who the biggest fan of the page is, is decided by the number of consecutive days a person has “checked-in” on the page.

 

#3 Super Topics Are a Place for Fans to Gather

Although a Super Topic could basically be about anything, from cities to products or hobbies, Super Topics are often created for Chinese celebrities, video games, football clubs, or TV dramas.

Through Super Topic pages, a sense of community can be created. People can be ranked for being the most contributive or for checking in daily, and comment on each other’s posts, making it a home base for many fan clubs across China.

The host(s) can also help somebody’s page (e.g. a celebrity account) grow by proposing them to others within the group.

Super Groups are ranked on Weibo based on their popularity. This also gives fans more reason to stay active in the group, making their Super Topic top ranking within their specific category (TV drama, food, photography, sports, games, etc).

What makes the Super Topic group more ‘private’ than the common Weibo area, is that people posting within the Super Topic can decide whether or not they also want their comment shared on their own Weibo page or not. If they choose not to, their comments or posts will only be visible within the Super Topic community.

 

By Manya KoetseGabi Verberg, with contributions from Boyu Xiao

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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Why Trump Has Two Different Names in Chinese

Why does ‘Trump’ have multiple names in Chinese?

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First published , updated version published March 7, 2019

It is confusing even for Chinese netizens and journalists: why does Donald Trump have multiple names in Chinese? And which is the right one to use? What’s on Weibo explains.

Donald Trump has two most commonly used different names in Chinese. In Mandarin*, they are Tèlǎngpǔ (特朗普) and Chuānpǔ (川普). Both names have been used by Chinese mainstream media and netizens for years.

*(Due to the scope of this article, we’ll just use the Mandarin pinyin here.)

In the Chinese translation of Donald Trump’s autobiography The Art of the Deal (1987), the ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ transliteration is used, whereas the translation of the George Ross book Trump-Style Negotiations (2008) uses ‘Chuānpǔ’ as the Chinese name for Trump.

Considering that Trump is making headlines every day, more people are wondering why Trump has two Chinese names, and which one is the correct name to use. There are even discussions about the topic on Chinese social media.

 

Why are foreign names translated?

 

Why are non-Chinese names actually translated into Chinese at all? With English and Chinese being such vastly different languages with entirely different phonetics and script, the majority of Chinese people will find it hard to pronounce a foreign name that is written in English.

Writing foreign names or terms in Chinese script has a long history and practical reasons which won’t be further elaborated on here. At present, aside from being standardized, it does not just help Chinese speakers to pronounce these words, it also makes it easier to remember them. Most Chinese names usually consist of two or three characters; the first character is the surname, and the last character(s) is the given name.

Translating a name to better adapt to the culture in which it is used does not only happen with English names in China; you often see the same happening with Chinese names in foreign countries.

In that case, the first character (surname) is moved to the back, and the given name changed into an English one. Alibaba’s Ma Yun, for example, has become globally known as ‘Jack Ma.’ Film star Zhao Wei is called ‘Vicky Zhao’, Tencent’s Ma Huateng is known as ‘Pony Ma,’ and the popular actress Lin Yun is called ‘Jelly Lin.’

 

The right way to translate a foreign name in Chinese

 

There are multiple ways to translate a foreign name to Chinese. Most commonly, a name is translated into Chinese characters that are phonetically similar to the original name, without necessarily being very meaningful. The transliteration of ‘Hillary’ (Clinton), for example, is ‘Xīlālǐ’ (希拉里). ‘Bush’ is translated as ‘Bùshí’ (布什).

Another option is to choose a name purely based on meaning rather than phonetics. One example is Elvis Presley, who is called ‘Cat King’ (Māo Wáng 猫王) in Chinese, which stays close to his nickname “The Hillbilly Cat.”

The best option when translating a foreign name into Chinese, however, is to make sure it stays close to its original pronunciation while also using elegant characters. In other words; it is nice when a name’s translation makes sense both phonetically and semantically. Marilyn Monroe’s last name in Chinese is Mènglù (梦露), for example, which sounds like ‘Monroe’ and has the characters for ‘Dream Dew’ – a perfect transliteration for such a dreamy actress.

Even when the characters used for a foreign name in Chinese are not necessarily intended to convey a certain meaning, it is important that they do not have any negative connotations. Nobody wants a character in their name associated with divorce, disease or death – it is believed to bring bad luck.

Another thing is that it is considered helpful for foreign names in Chinese is to maintain a ‘foreign flavor’ to it, to make it clear that the name is actually a transliteration. To give an example raised in this Nikkei article: President Reagan’s name is generally translated as Lǐgēn 里根 in Chinese – the characters being somewhat uncommon for a Chinese name.

The same name could also be written with the characters 李根, very common for a Chinese name, but then it would be difficult to know whether a media report is talking about Reagan the President or just a local Chinese person by the same name. Transliterations of foreign names, therefore, are often easily recognizable as foreign names on purpose.

 

Trump, Tèlǎngpǔ, and Chuānpǔ

 

In the case of Trump, his Chinese names are mainly chosen for phonetic reasons, with different sources using different characters. Part of the challenge in deciding the right Chinese translation for his name, is the fact that Chinese does not have consonant cluster ‘tr’ as one sound.

The Chinese-language Nikkei newspaper dedicated an op-ed written by Chinese scholar Ke Long (柯隆) to the matter, who argues that although it may all seem trivial, it is actually quite confusing and unpractical for president Trump to have more than one name in Chinese.

The Chinese media in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and most overseas Chinese-language media, refer to Trump as ‘Chuānpǔ’ (川普).* According to the World Journal, the biggest Chinese-language newspaper in the US, it is the only proper way to translate this name, yet most Chinese state media and Chinese-language UK media (such as BBC) all use ‘Tèlǎngpǔ.’

* (The Chinese version of The New York Times 纽约时报中文版 is an exception, as ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ 特朗普 is generally also used in this publication.)

Author Ke Long explains that Chinese translations of foreign names try to stay as close as possible to the pronunciation of a name in its original language. This is why the name of the city ‘Paris’ is pronounced ‘Bālí’ (巴黎) in Mandarin Chinese, staying close to the French pronunciation, and ‘Amsterdam’ being ‘Āmǔsītèdān’ (阿姆斯特丹), which follows the city’s Dutch pronunciation.

If the British would pronounce ‘Trump’ as ‘te-lan-pu,’ then it would thus perhaps be more understandable why media such as the BBC would write Tèlǎngpǔ. But they don’t pronounce it like that, Ke Long argues, saying that the use of ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ thus does not make sense, and is actually closer to the Japanese way of writing Trump’s name (‘トランプ’: to-ra-n-pu).

More so, the author writes, it does not make sense for Chinese media to take over the British transliteration of the Trump name. Considering Trump is American, Chinese media should follow the translations made by American media. He also notes that if it would be about the Prime Minister of Britain, the Chinese transliteration should follow the one used by the media in the UK.

Although the Nikkei author seems to advocate for a singular use of ‘Chuānpǔ’ by all media, no Chinese media are necessarily ‘wrong’ in their transliteration of the name Trump. The ‘Tèlǎngpǔ’ 特朗普 translation follows the example of outlets such as the BBC, while Chuānpǔ 川普 follows that of other media.

Some Chinese bloggers argue that Chuānpǔ 川普 is the best way to write Trump’s name, because the first character, that actually means ‘river,’ is commonly used in Chinese, making the name sound more ‘natural’ and easy to pronounce than ‘Tèlǎngpǔ.’ Moreover, they argue that the Mandarin ‘chuan’ sound is more appropriate to convey the pronunciation of ‘tr’ than the ‘te-lang’ way.

In the end, the reason why Trump has two names most commonly used in Chinese is just a matter of media, with various mainstream outlets adopting different names since Trump first made headlines, and without there being any clear consensus on which Chinese name to use across all these different Chinese-language media platforms around the world.

 

Chuángpù and Chuángpò?

 

On Chinese social media, President Trump even has more than two names. There are also netizens referring to him as 床鋪, 闯破 or 床破 (Chuángpù/Chuángpò); these are all transliterations that contain strange or negative characters, making the name unrefined and harsh-sounding on purpose to make the name ‘Trump’ look and sound bad.

Although there have been online discussions on the right transliteration for the name Trump, it is unlikely that there will be one official Chinese name for the US President in the near future. Xinhua News, China’s official state-run press agency, has consistently been using Tèlǎngpǔ 特朗普 for years, and will probably continue to use it.

Many netizens simply use both versions of his name in one post to avoid confusion, and some news reports have even started using both names in its headlines (image below).

Despite the somewhat confusing situation at hand, there are also those who do not seem to mind at all. “Who cares if it is Tèlǎngpǔ or Chuānpǔ anyway?” one netizen says: “In this day and age, we all know who it is we are talking about.”

– By Manya Koetse
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This article first appeared in 2017 and has been republished with various corrections:
– The first version did not properly convey the argument made by author Ke Long in his Nikkei piece, which is more clearly laid out in this version.
– This version has added some extra information coming from sources after 2017.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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