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The Unforgotten Victory: Why ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin’ Is One of China’s Biggest Films Yet

21st century Chinese moviegoers have never been more dedicated than they are to The Battle at Lake Changjin.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese war movie The Battle at Lake Changjin became a social media sensation this fall. Why did this particular movie become so successful in Chinese cinemas and on social media?

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yi Magazin: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

It’s the biggest Chinese movie of the moment: The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖). The war epic dominated all top trending lists on Chinese social media during the Golden Week holiday this year, and it became an unprecedented box office hit after it premiered on September 30, just one day before the celebration of the National Day of the People’s Republic of China.

The blockbuster, literally titled ‘Changjin Lake’ in Chinese, even became the highest-grossing film anywhere in the world during the first weekend of October, beating the much-anticipated James Bond movie No Time to Die.

Three weeks after its premiere, the movie grossed over 5 billion yuan ($792 million) and smashed 24 records in Chinese film history, including becoming the first Chinese film ever to break 400 million yuan at the daily box office for six consecutive days. The Battle at Lake Changjin is set to become the nation’s highest-grossing film ever.

Everything about Changjin Lake is big, from its unparalleled budget to all-star cast and production team. Written by Lan Xiaolong (兰晓龙) and Huang Jianxin (黄欣), the three-hour film is directed by famous film directors Chen Kaige (陈凯哥), Tsui Hark (徐克) and Dante Lam (林超贤), and features big names including Chinese actors Wu Jing (吴京) and Jackson Yee (易烊千玺). The production involved as many as 7000 crew members and 70,000 extras over 200 days of filming.

The movie is by no means China’s first big movie focused on the history of war. Why this movie has become such a major hit has to do with a combination of several factors. Here, we’ll explore how the film’s specific topic and narrative, the timing of its premiere and online media dynamics contributed to Changjin Lake’s unprecedented success and the social media craze surrounding it.

 

Changjin Lake: “The Motherland Will Never Forget”

 

Three bright red characters are prominently featured on the movie poster for The Battle at Lake Changjin: 长 津 湖 Chang Jin Hu (Changjin Lake), Chinese for what is also known as Chosin, the man-made lake located in the northeast of the Korean peninsula where one of the most important and harrowing battles of the Korean War (1950-1953) took place.

Below the title, the poster shows six smiling soldiers sitting on an American tank, in the background, the remains of battle are visible in between the snow-covered mountains under white sky.

The official movie poster for The Battle at Lake Changjin.

The movie tagline, also displayed on the poster in red characters, says: “The motherland will never forget” (“祖国不会忘义“). But what is it exactly that China will “never forget”?

It was November 27 of 1950 when the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir began. The Korean War had started just five months before, on June 25, when North Korea invaded South Korea. The American-led U.N. forces, commanded by Douglas MacArthur, came to support South Korea. By early October, they had crossed over the 38th Parallel in an attempt to occupy North Korea and soon neared the Chinese border.

The government of the newly-established People’s Republic of China, led by Mao Zedong, ordered the Chinese People’s Volunteers Force (CPVF) to join North Korea in the war, referred to as ‘the War to Resist America and Aid Korea’ (抗美援朝战争). For multiple reasons, the U.N. advance into North Korea posed a threat to the brand-new communist regime, and Mao eventually sent approximately 260,000 “volunteers” to the Korean front in October of 1950.1

The movie Changjin Lake provides a Chinese perspective on the start of the Korean War and the lead-up and unfolding of the battle of Chosin Reservoir, a massive ground attack of the Chinese 9th Army Group against American forces, preventing them from driving Kim Il-Sung and his government out of North Korea.

The film specifically follows the Wu brothers, company commander Wu Qianli (Wu Jing) and the young volunteer soldier Wu Wanli (Jackson Yee), and their fellow soldiers fighting side by side in extreme conditions.

Through elaborate and spectacular battle scenes, Changjin Lake shows the violent confrontations and brutal sufferings during the battle, that went on for seventeen days. Some 150,000 Chinese soldiers encircled and attacked the U.N. forces from the surrounding hills at the Chosin area.

Tens of thousands of lives were lost on both the Chinese and American side in the bitter cold and fierce fighting. From the start of the attack to December 14th, nearly 30,000 Chinese men died of frostbite at the site of the battle and the surrounding snowcapped mountains, where temperatures would drop 20-30 degrees below zero.2

The Chosin battle and the Korean War are generally not as well-known in the U.S. and Europe as they are in China. In America, the Korean War is even referred to as the “Forgotten War”, even though it played a major role in the international community and shaped the world as we know it today.

The Changjin Lake movie is the living proof of how the Korean War and the Chosin battle are anything but forgotten in China. The Chinese attack at Chosin is remembered as a glorious victory and strategic success for turning around the war situation in Korea and leading to a withdrawal of most of the UN forces by late 1950. The battle set the stage for the ceasefire that eventually ended the war in 1953.

The epilogue of Changjin Lake also explains how the battle “completely tipped the scales of the Korean War” and “set a perfect example for annihilating a U.S. reinforced regime,” calling Chosin “the greatest setback in the history of the Marine Corps.”

The movie’s narrative and script recurringly underline why this particular historical event should not be forgotten by the Chinese people. In one of the film’s earlier scenes, Mao Zedong (played by Tang Guoqiang, the actor who has played Mao over a dozen times) talks to military leader Peng Dehuai in the days leading up to China’s decision to send out troops to North Korea:

“[Our] country is newly established and thousands of things are waiting to be done. If it’s for our current situation, I really don’t want to fight this war. But if it’s for the future, and the peaceful development of our country over a few decades or a century, we must fight this war. The foreigners look down on us. Pride can only be earned on the battlefield.”   

It is a scene that is telling for the narrative the movie conveys about the Chosin battle and the war at large, during which the Chinese troops were severely underestimated by the well-equipped U.N. forces.

After the ‘Century of Humiliation,’ the time from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s during which China was attacked, weakened, and torn by foreign forces, the Korean War and Chosin battle showed that the military strength of the People’s Republic of China was a new force to be reckoned with. By showing this strength, China did not just save the North Korean regime but also defended its own borders and the nation’s prestige.

The determination and fighting spirit of the Chinese soldiers at Chosin as depicted in the movie – one impressive scene shows dozens of soldiers frozen into “ice sculptures” while still in battle posture – strikes a chord with Chinese audiences.

Promotional image for Changjin Lake, showing the two brothers Commander Wu Qianli (right, played by Wu Jing) and Wu Wanli (played by Jackson Yee).

At one point in the movie before the battle begins, a member of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army says: “If we don’t fight this battle, it will be our next generation who will fight it.”3 It is a line that is brought up by many netizens on Chinese social media.

“I was very moved after I watched the film, and this phrase just stayed with me,” one Weibo commenter writes: “They sacrificed their blood to bring us peace, and I salute them.”

Another Weibo user shares the phrase, along with a photo of cinema tickets for Changjin Lake, writing: “I am grateful for the blood that was shed by countless revolutionary martyrs for the stable lives we now have. National peace and stability are not easy to gain. We should cherish every day.”

When the narrative of the movie and China’s role in the Korean War was questioned by former journalist Luo Changpin (罗昌平) on his Weibo account in October of this year,  he was arrested for defaming national heroes and martyrs. Luo allegedly mocked Chinese soldiers by saying they “never doubted the ‘wise decisions’ of their higher-ups.”

A hashtag related to the news of his arrest (#罗昌平被批捕#) garnered over 350 million views on Weibo, with many netizens condemning Luo’s criticism and applauding his detainment.

“I hope they give him frozen potatoes to eat,” one popular comment said, referring to the Chinese soldiers in North Korea who had nothing else to eat. Many felt that there was just one punishment that would be appropriate for him: “They should send him to Chosin, the weather is cold up there.”

 

Relevant Timing: “The Chinese Are Not to Be Messed With”

 

The specific timing for The Battle at Lake Changjin to premiere in Chinese theatres is noteworthy and has helped in boosting its success.

Firstly, the movie was released during the National Holiday, the seven-day holiday period starting 1 October that has become the most important movie season in China and annually sees the launch of the biggest domestically produced movies. Changjin Lake’s premiere coincided with China’s Martyr’s Day on September 30, which commemorates Chinese national heroes who sacrificed life to protect the motherland.

The Chinese epic was also launched as part of the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China. This anniversary has played a major role in China’s popular culture over the past year, with various movies and TV series being launched dedicated to the hundred years of history since the Communist Party was founded in 1921.

Perhaps more importantly, the popularity of The Battle at Lake Changjin comes at a time of escalating political tensions between the U.S. and China, accompanied by a rise of Chinese nationalism.

Chinese state outlet Global Times recently emphasized how ticket sales of the Changjin Lake movie were boosted amid China-US tensions, quoting Chinese film critic Xiao Fuqiu, who said that the popularity of Changjin Lake “fits the national sentiment in the constant rivalry between China and the US.”

Exploring how the launch of the movie and its success relates to anti-American sentiments in China leads to somewhat of a chicken and egg situation. Was the hit movie launched because of the current geopolitical climate, or are Chinese audiences more receptive to the theme because of it? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and one conclusion doesn’t exclude the other.

Chinese Korean War propaganda poster, via Chineseposter.net.

In 2019, during the initial phases of the US-China trade war, CCTV 6, the movie channel of China’s main state television broadcaster, surprised Chinese audiences by changing their schedule and playing ‘anti-American’ Korean War movies for three nights in a row. The move showed that there is an apparent urgency for Chinese popular films to draw attention to events that are deemed of historic importance in today’s political climate.

The day before the launch of Changjin Lake, various Chinese media included a quote by one of the movie’s writers, Huang Jianxin, in saying that the film is supposed to convey that “the Chinese are not to be messed with.”4

After it became clear just how much the movie had raised at the box office, English-language Chinese state media Global Times seemed to gloat about the success, writing that “the movie pushed the patriotic sentiment of people across the country to a peak amid the tense China-US competition and China’s effective control of the epidemic.”

 

The Social Media Era of Chinese Blockbusters

 

Just twenty days after the premier of Changjin Lake, a hashtag dedicated to the film hit a staggering 2.2 billion views on Weibo (#电影长津湖#). Besides this hashtag, there are countless other hashtags, online discussions, and fan groups dedicated to the movie on Chinese social platforms from Weibo and Zhihu to Bilibili, TikTok, and Douban.

The premier of Changjin comes at a time when China’s commercial cinema is increasingly thriving. Over the past few years, several locally-made films have become major hits in China – not just in the cinemas, but also on social media.

One of the highest-grossing films in mainland China of the past years is the patriotic “Rambo-style” action blockbuster Wolf Warrior II (战狼2, 2017), which also features Wu Jing as the hero star. The film tells the story of a special forces soldier who battles foreign mercenaries and helps Chinese and African citizens during a local war in Africa. The film became a social media sensation in 2017 and broke box office records.

Movie poster for Wolf Warrior II.

The Battle at Lake Changjin is similar to Wolf Warrior II in various ways: they’re both Hollywood-style commercial entertainment blockbusters that are set overseas, incorporate official narratives, and are immensely patriotic, speaking to the growing nationalist sentiments among Chinese moviegoers and netizens. Both movies were huge topics on Chinese social media, with online fan groups and discussions snowballing their popularity.5

In “The Era of Baokuan Films: How Chinese Social Media Creates Box Office Successes” (2021), author Xiao Yang argues that there is an emergence of a group of movies in China that become major hits (‘baokuan’ 爆款) through the Internet and social media, relying on online marketing strategies and netizens’ involvement in the film’s promotion.

Rather than just passive movie watchers, the social media era has made Chinese audiences more active in interacting with domestic movies, producing their own content, including opinions, feedback, and memes.6 The success of major Chinese movies such as The Wandering Earth (流浪地球2019), Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世 2019) or Dying to Survive (我不是药神2018) could partly be attributed to the interplay between social media and film engagement.

One example of the new dynamics between Chinese movies and the online environment is the 2021 hit movie Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英), which features the story of a daughter who travels back in time and meets her own mother as a young woman and befriends her. The movie led to an online trend in China of netizens sharing stories and photos of their mothers when they were young, triggering online discussions on what they would tell their mums if they could go back in time.

Although the movie and its online marketing strategy initially sparked the trend, the social media responses further added to the success of the film. In this way, film audiences also become marketers of the movies they are interacting with.

In this social media age, Chinese movies also have their own official accounts to promote their movie and define their online presence. The Changjin Lake movie has its own account on Weibo and on TikTok, and the film started its online marketing campaign as early as October of 2020, a year before its premiere.

The official online presence of Chinese movies also means they can interact with fans and other accounts. On October 20 of 2021, just when it became known that Changjin Lake had grossed over 5 billion yuan, the account of the super-popular Chinese fantasy adventure blockbuster Ne Zha congratulated Changjin Lake via social media on its new ranking in the Chinese box office record charts, emphasizing that the movies were standing “side by side” in the progress of Chinese cinema.

The hit movie Ne Zha congratulates Changjin Lake for its box-office success.

This interaction between two of the biggest Chinese movies of the past years in China garnered a lot of attention on Weibo, where people applauded both films. A hashtag dedicated to Na Zhe congratulating Changjin Lake (#哪吒给长津湖的贺图#) was viewed over 170 million times. “I love you both! Together we will further promote Chinese cinema,” one popular comment on Weibo said.

 

Engaging with Changjin: Eating Frozen Potatoes to Show Solidarity

 

Over the past weeks, netizens interacted with Changjin Lake in various ways, starting discussion groups, fan clubs, and sharing experiences of going to see the movie.

Considering that The Battle at Lake Changjin was made with government support and guidance,7 it is perhaps unsurprising to see that Chinese state media have also been actively promoting the movie on social media in various ways. Since long before the premiere of Changjin Lake, state media outlets including People’s Daily and Xinhua have consistently been featuring news relating to the movie through their channels.

The official Study Xi, Strong Country app, a Chinese app where users can score points by learning Xi Jinping Thought, issued a service where points could be exchanged for Changjin Lake movie tickets.

Besides the direct promotion of the movie itself, Chinese media outlets have also come up with other initiatives related to the movie. CCTV posted various videos on social media featuring Chinese veteran volunteer soldiers. One video was dedicated to a 93-year-old Korean War veteran Li Changyan, who is described as “the real Wu Qianli,” launching the Weibo hashtag “Wu Qianli from the Movie Really Exists” (#电影中的伍千里真实存在#).

“Wu Qianli from the movie really exists,” a short video portraying the 93-year-old Commander Li Changyan.

These kinds of initiatives further strengthened the online presence and hype of the Changjin Lake movie, inviting more interaction between the movie, the media, and netizens.

Besides the online discussions and art works dedicated to the film, there were also social media users who, inspired by the scenes of the soldiers on the battlefield, prepared frozen potatoes to try for themselves. Some local cinemas even distributed frozen potatoes to audiences before the movie.

The trend was sparked by one young woman from Yunnan, who decided to film herself while eating frozen potatoes after watching Changjin Lake. Applauded as a gesture of solidarity, the move went viral and saw over 590 million views on Weibo alone (#女孩看完长津湖回家尝冻土豆#). Since then, many people on Weibo and TikTok have posted videos of themselves eating frozen potatoes to honor the Chinese soldiers.

Trends such as these helped build hype around the movie, making the movie even more popular for its popularity.8 Showing personal engagement with the film, countless social media users in China are posting photos of their movie tickets.

See my ticket! Netizens showing others on social media that they went to see the movie.

Others also share selfies at the cinema with official Changjin Lake merchandise, which includes memorabilia such as big drinking cups, toy figures, or a military vehicle that is actually a popcorn box.

Moviegoers sharing photos of the official merchandise they got when watching Changjin Lake.

Whether it’s on social media, at the box office, or in Chinese official media, The Battle at Lake Changjin definitely is the biggest movie of the year and has come to represent much more than just the film alone.

“The mighty martyrs of the People’s Volunteer Army will never be forgotten,” is the last sentence featured in Changjin Lake before the movie ends. Several videos on social media show how some moviegoers in local theaters across China stand up and salute the cinema screen after the film has ended – 21st century Chinese moviegoers have never been more dedicated to watching a film.

Various videos circulating on social media show Chinese moviegoers saluting after the ending of the Changjin Lake movie.

For some on social media, the hype surrounding the epic war movie has led to a fear of missing out. With so many internet users sharing a photo of their cinema visit on social media throughout October, one Weibo user posted an image with her movie ticket on October 23, writing: “I feel like I’m the last person in China to go and see this movie.”

Watch the trailer for The Battle at Lake Changjin here.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

1 For more on this, see: Li, Xiaobing. 2020. Attack at Chosin: The Chinese Second Offensive in Korea. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, page 29-31.
2 Li, Attack at Chosin, page 16, 32.
3 Chinese: “如果这一仗我们不打,就会是我们的下一代打”
4 “让大家看到:中国人是不好惹的”
5 For more on this see: Berry, Chris. 2018. “Wolf Warrior 2 : Imagining the Chinese Century.” Film Quarterly 72(2): 38-44.
6 Xiao Yang. 2021. “The Era of Baokuan Films: How Chinese Social Media Creates Box Office Successes.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 15(1), page 108.
7 Wang Jiequn, director of the Beijing Municipal Film Administration and part of the Communist Party’s propaganda office in Beijing, reportedly said at a news conference in September of 2021 that the authorities had “organized and planned” the production together with the film’s makers, Bona Film Group and Bayi Film Studio (See: Myers, Steven Lee & Amy Chang Chien. 2021. “For China’s Holidays, a Big-Budget Blockbuster Relives an American Defeat.” The New York Times, October 8 [10.21.21]
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/05/world/asia/battle-lake-changjin.html).
8 Xiao Yang (2021) refers to the “Matthew effect”: popular products get more popular (116).

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

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 Arts & Entertainment

Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala

The first-ever ‘mini film’ of the Spring Festival Gala struck a chord with viewers for its strong storytelling and authentic production.

Manya Koetse

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This precious and powerful short film by Zhang Dapeng has touched the hearts of Spring Festival Gala viewers. But there is more to the short film than meets the eye. Here’s the noteworthy story behind the 7-minute Spring Festival Mini Film.

On January 21, 2023, China’s Spring Festival Gala, hosted by China Media Group, kicked off the Year of the Rabbit. The annual show, which featured forty different acts and performances, lasted over four hours and attracted millions of viewers worldwide (see our liveblog here, and see a top 5 highlight of the show here).

Traditionally, the Spring Festival Gala always shows several short public service ad films in between the performances, but this year was the first time the Gala featured a “mini-film” or “micro film” (微电影).

Titled Me and My Spring Festival Night (“我和我的春晚”), the 7-minute film was praised among viewers. On Weibo, one hashtag dedicated to the short film received over nine million clicks (#我和我的春晚#).

The film was directed by the Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏). Born in 1984, Zhang is a Beijing Film Academy graduate who previously attracted wide attention for directing the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year movie and the brilliant ad campaign that came with it. Titled What Is Peppa, that short ad film featured a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what ‘Peppa’ is. The promotional video became an absolute viral hit back in 2019 (see/read more here).

Still from ‘What is Peppa.’ 2019.

This time, Zhang’s latest Chinese New Year film is about a hard-working former military man from China’s countryside named Zhang Jianguo (张建国), for whom coming on the show to play the trumpet has been a dream for many years. By featuring his story, the film takes us from the Chinese 1980s, 90s, 00s – as we see him change jobs, move around, and start a family – up to the present.

The main idea behind the film was to honor all the ordinary viewers who have written – and are still writing – to the Gala ever since it first aired in the early 1980s, and to tell a story inspired by these personal letters and ordinary viewers.

Short Summary of “Me and My Chunwan”

At the start of the film, we see Zhang Jianguo dusting off his military honorary awards (光荣军属), putting on his jacket, grabbing his thermos flask and trumpet, and setting out on a journey in the midst of winter.

Riding an electric tricycle in the icy cold, his driver (actor Huang Bo 黄渤) asks him where he is going. “Can you keep your mouth shut?” Zhang replies (“你嘴严实不严实”). “I can,” the driver says, and Zhang then says: “So can I.”

The voiceover narration, a first-person narrative by Zhang himself, explains that he has always been busy: “I never had time for the Spring Festival Gala. My Spring Festival fate is all because of something my captain said.”

The film jumps to a scene showing Zhang as a young military man during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, working outside while people are watching the Spring Festival Gala on a small black and white television inside. As his commander (played by Wu Jing 吴京) hands him his trumpet, he says: “Go and play your trumpet on the television.”

“If the leader asks me to go on the Spring Festival Gala, it’s a task I must complete,” the voice-over says.

But in the military scene itself, duty calls and Zhang has to blow the trumpet to announce dinner time.

In the years that follow, Zhang is always busy during the Spring Festival Gala. Working in the factory, getting married, working on a train, farming cattle, taking care of his family, and always cooking. His trumpet is still there with him, to announce dinner time or hanging on the wall as a memory of times past.

As the years pass by, Zhang realizes that he has gradually forgotten about his commander’s words. Time moves fast. First, he had a son, then his son grew taller than himself, and then his son had his own son. “And I still had never been to the Spring Festival Gala.”

With his captain’s words back on his mind, Zhang, now an older man, sets out on his journey without telling anyone. By foot, by electric tricycle, by bus, and by train, Zhang travels all the way to the famous Beijing Studio 1 to perform at the Spring Festival Gala after being “too busy” for forty years.

Backstage at the Spring Festival Gala, Zhang sits down with famous Chinese Spring Festival Gala performers (Ma Li 马丽 and Shen Teng 沈腾). While unpacking his lunchbox, he tells them he was finally not too busy to come on the show: “I wrote a letter and here I am.” “It’s that simple?” Ma Li wonders.

The producer then rushes to come and get Zhang, who bravely walks towards the stage with his old little trumpet.

A female voice-over then reads out a message, while we see various scenes throughout the years showing Zhang – from young to old – writing letters to CCTV from wherever he is.

The female narrator says: “Dear Uncle Zhang, we’ve received your letter regarding your hopes to realize your cherished stage dream. In this age of emailing, and knowing that you’ve been writing us for 39 years, we’re moved and feel guilty. Our reply may be late, but not our sincerity..

Meanwhile, we see a flashback to a mailman pulling up to old Zhang’s home (the mailman is the actor Wang Baoqiang), and the old Zhang finally receives that much-anticipated letter from CCTV at his remote rural home.

The female narrator continues: “This year, we proudly invite you to be a guest at the Spring Festival Gala and to “ring the dinner bell” [play the sound announcing dinner]. Sincerely, the Spring Festival Director Committee.

In the final shot, we see Zhang blowing the trumpet at the Gala, with flashbacks showing him blowing that trumpet in all those decades before. He has finally made it to the big stage.

A Noteworthy Story

While Me and My Spring Festival Night received a lot of praise on Chinese social media, the story behind the film was not immediately clear to many viewers celebrating the Chinese New Year, but it was explained in several articles and interviews with director Zhang Dapeng.

During the live-televised Spring Festival Gala itself, the airing of Me and My Spring Festival Night was directly followed up by a shot featuring a person (a veteran) in the audience standing up and actually playing the trumpet.

Directly after, the song “Goodmorning Sunshine” began, representing multiple people from all kinds of professions and social groups. About one minute into the song, the camera turns to another audience member: the person who plays ‘Uncle Zhang’ in the mini-film. Later in the song, we can see he is wiping away tears, visibly moved.

Why was he so moved? The older man in the audience, the main ‘Uncle Zhang’ actor in the film, is Jin Changyong (金长勇), and he actually is not a professional actor.

Somewhat similar to the character Zhang Jianguo, Jin Changyong or “Uncle Jin” (金叔) is a hardworking veteran from Hebei’s Huailai County in Zhangjiakou.

Jin Changyong is a 63-year-old farmer who is also active at the Hebei Tianmo Film and TV Park doing security and logistics-related jobs. He served in the army for four years from the age of 19, as, among others, a military chef.

Director Zhang Dapdeng came across ‘Uncle Jin’ one day while shooting another film at the studio. While Jin was busy doing kitchen work, director Zhang saw him and, as he later recounts, was struck by his face that showed he had “lived through many changes” (“这种饱经沧桑的脸”).

Zhang later invited Uncle Jin to star in the movie, and he also made sure Jin’s own story played a role in the script.

Director Zhang Dapeng, image via CCTV.

This makes this short movie all the more special, something which has since been discussed on Chinese social media (#春晚微电影的主演是普通农民#).

The surprising twist in the story is how Zhang Jianguo tells other people he has just always been “too busy” to attend the Gala, while he had in fact already written to the show for 39 years with the hope of one day being invited.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film is how Zhang Dapeng chose to cast some of China’s most celebrated actors as supporting roles to lift up the main character and actor, Jin, who was inexperienced and learnt from his fellow players.

In an interview, Jin expressed that the entire experience of playing in this short film left his overcome with emotion. After the filming had ended, he told reporters that he had sleepless nights because he had not received an actual invitation to the Spring Festival Gala yet, something which he so very much hoped for. Just one week before the show, that invitation finally came.

The fact that Jin, in a way, played a man like himself in the short movie has added to the film’s popularity.

“I was sincerely moved by this film,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “This was the best program I’ve seen on the Gala over the past decade.”

While some people also remarked that the short film seemed to have been influenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, others praised it for its originality.

“This was just the best part of the night,” several commenters said: “It made me cry.”

“Zhang Pengda – a name to remember,” others wrote.

You can watch the short film on Youtube here.

By Manya Koetse 

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China Celebs

Gu’s Year: How Eileen Gu Became a Beloved Icon and Controversial Role Model in China

Patriotic, privileged, perfect? A year after Eileen Gu became an online sensation in China, she is still generating discussions.

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Eileen Gu, the American-born freestyle skier and gold medallist who represented China in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, has made headlines again for her excellent halfpipe World Cup performance during the Chinese New Year. One year after Gu first became an internet sensation, she is, once again, receiving praise and triggering discussions on Chinese social media.

This Chinese Lunar New Year, the three Chinese Winter Olympic athletes Wu Dajing, Xu Mengtao, and Gao Tingyu, were widely discussed on Chinese social media after their debut at the CGM Spring Festival Gala.

Over 8000 kilometers away, another Winter Olympic athlete, Eileen Gu – better known as Gu Ailing 谷爱凌 in China, – also garnered huge attention for her excellent performance at the Calgary halfpipe World Cup. Just as people were celebrating the Chinese New Year, Eileen Gu claimed her second gold medal at the FIS Freeski World Cup.

It has almost been a year since the then-18-year-old Chinese-American freestyle skier grabbed gold at the Olympics and became front-page news in China.

Although Gu already garnered attention online when she announced in June of 2019 that she would switch national affiliation and compete for China, it wasn’t until the Olympics that she appeared all over social media, was featured in dozens of ad campaigns, and practically became a household name in China.

Now, in light of the FIS Snowboard World Cup and the X Games in Aspen, Gu is back in the limelight.

On January 21st, the first day of the Year of the Rabbit, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV celebrated Gu’s victory on social media using the hashtag “Eileen Gu Claims Two Golds within Three Days during the New Year Celebrations” (#谷爱凌过年3天2金#), with a two- minute video clip recording the highlights of her recent race. The hashtag has since received over 180 million views.

Gu herself also shared her victory on Weibo and wished people a prosperous New Year. That post attracted over 110,000 likes.

Many Chinese people celebrated Gu’s new achievements with words of admiration, praising her capabilities and determination. One Weibo user commented: “I have to say, Gu Ailing is truly excellent. Three days, two medals. She has an indisputable talent.”

Another user posted a video of Gu practicing while waiting for her flight and commented: “A healthy, energetic, diligent, excellent Gu Ailing who even continues training while waiting for boarding. Success doesn’t come overnight.”

Others also view Gu as a national icon for her gold medal wins for China. The phrase “wèi guó zhēngguāng” (“为国争光”), “winning glory for the country,” appeared in many posts under the hashtag related to Gu’s win.

But over the past year, since Gu’s Olympic success, she has not always merely been viewed as a patriotic hero. Despite her popularity, Gu also triggered controversy and sometimes came under fire, with some wondering if she truly was patriotic and others blaming her for being privileged.

 

PATRIOTIC

Everybody knows Eileen Gu is Chinese

 

During the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the fact that Gu had switched her international allegiance and represented China instead of the US instilled pride among many Chinese. Chinese media flooded with stories on Gu that focused on the narrative of the multi-talented “mixed kid” who gave up her United States citizenship to represent the People’s Republic of China.

However, when being asked about her citizenship in interviews, Gu’s replies left many people wondering about the facts of the matter; they wanted to know whether or not Gu actually gave up her American passport, as China does not recognize dual nationality. Gu’s response “I’m American when in the US and Chinese when in China” triggered dissatisfaction among Chinese audiences.

“I have stopped liking her since she said that,” one Weibo user reflected in December 2022, and the post received 35,000 likes. To this day, there are many social media comments bringing up Gu’s comment: “You’re in America, so now you’re American, right?”

Others also attacked Gu after Forbes listed her as the third highest-paid female athlete in the world in 2022 (#谷爱凌年收入1.4亿#). Some commenters argued that she had earned her money in China and was spending it in the US, and that she was unpatriotic for doing so.

However, some netizens defended Gu by stressing what she had done for China. In Weibo posts and comment threads, users supporting Gu wrote: “She won two gold medals and more for China, what did your patriotism contribute to China?” Others also said Gu had shown her love for China through her performances, and that it would be impossible to expect her to distance herself from the country she grew up in.

Meanwhile, Western media outlets described how the bi-lingual Gu had been “dodging” explicit questions about her US citizenship status. This also led to Gu getting attacked by Americans. When Gu returned to the US and enrolled in Stanford University, there was even an online petition about getting Gu’s admittance to Stanford revoked due to Gu’s supposed “lack of integrity about her nationality” and indifference to “the human rights violations” in China.

Among Chinese netizens, questions also rose about whether Gu had only represented China during the Olympics and if her return to the US might mean that she would give up her Chinese nationality and play for the US team instead.

But with Gu’s debut at the FIS Freeski World Cup in the Year of the Rabbit, Chinese bloggers pointed out that Gu’s nationality was still listed as Chinese.

“No matter where she is, Gu Ailing still has the Chinese nationality,” one Weibo blogger wrote, with others also saying: “She is still representing China, we should all support her! The rumors about her changing nationalities are false!”

“Everybody knows Eileen Gu is Chinese,” another social media user wrote.

But not everybody is convinced: “Don’t fool yourself. I’m happy she helped China win gold, but dual citizenship is dual citizenship, there’s no point in covering it up.”

 

PRIVILEGED

Gu’s success is unrelated to normal people

 

Another discussion that has flared up during Eileen Gu’s past year of success is focused on her alleged privileged status, especially within the context of her being praised as a role model for Chinese (female) younger generations.

In February of 2022, an Instagram comment made by Gu regarding the use of VPNs in China caused some controversy. At the time, one person asked Gu about “internet freedom” in China and how it was possible for her to use Instagram while she was in China, where the platform is blocked. Gu then replied: “Anyone can download a vpn its literally free on the App Store [thumbs up]”

A screenshot of the exchange then circulated on Weibo, where many netizens were surprised about Gu’s statement. VPNs are generally not available on app stores in mainland China, as there are numerous restrictions on virtual private networks (VPNs) which are commonly used to browse websites or apps that are otherwise blocked in China.

Gu was then criticized over the fact that she seemed unaware of the restrictions on VPNs along with her suggestion that ‘internet freedom’ only referred to the accessibility of foreign platforms, allegedly showing her privileged position.

After Gu enrolled in Stanford University and posted her all-A transcript of the first semester at the end of 2022, many praised her hard work but there was also criticism about her “showing off” and strategically choosing a supposedly easier curriculum.

“She posted it to impress Chinese people who do not understand the system,” one person commented, with others replying that an “S” grade does not equal full points and that she had no A+ grades. Others claimed that Gu probably received help with her schoolwork.

Gu’s Weibo post at the end of 2022 reviewing her achievement of the year, including her transcript of the first semester at Stanford University.

As online discussions intensified (#谷爱凌斯坦福所有课程全部满分#), Gu herself responded to online criticism, stressing that she – without anybody’s help – had worked hard for her grades and that only 5% of students can get an A at Stanford.

The idea that Gu comes from a very privileged background and that it is not just her diligence that brought her success is a recurring one on social media.

Gu was raised by her Chinese mother, a molecular biology graduate who studied at Peking University and Stanford University and who used to be a speed skating athlete as well as a part-time coach at Peking University. She allegedly worked at Wall Street and later became a CEO of a risk investment company. Her grandmother, a former official at China’s Ministry of Transport, was a university basketball player, while her grandfather was a soccer player at school who was also good at swimming, skiing, and skating. Her family members’ background is exceptional. University students were rare among Gu’s grandparents’ generation, and studying abroad was also uncommon for her mother’s generation.

As people believe that this family background has largely contributed to Gu’s success, Gu’s position as a “role model” is questioned.

“Gu’s success is unrelated to normal people,” one Weibo user wrote. “What is the meaning of having this kind of role model? I have no parents from the Ivy League, no pretty face of mixed race, no elite education from the mix of Chinese and American cultures, no exceptional family background, and even no talent,” one Zhihu user wrote.

“Gu started skiing at three years old, and practiced running, basketball, piano, and ballet soon after; I started playing in the mud at three years old and I can still only play in the mud,” another user wrote. “Gu’s mother meticulously planned Gu’s life, but my mother could hardly spare any time for me while she was working.”

 

PERFECT

Congratulations, Little Gu, you’re the greatest!

 

Amid all the online discussions surrounding Eileen Gu, there is the view that people have not necessarily grown tired of Gu herself but of the (online) media narratives surrounding her which present her as the perfect daughter, the perfect athlete, or the perfect role model.

Some people admit that they feel jealous or say that they feel it is unfair because they feel they could never reach that standard.

One article published by The Paper in 2022 reiterated the popular view that Gu’s success “has nothing to do with ordinary people” (“谷爱凌的成功与普通人没啥关系”), but argued that people should draw inspiration from her story rather than focusing on all the aspects of her life that are unattainable to them.

A commentary by PLA Daily also argued that Olympic athletes should not be turned into “gods” for their overnight success; neither should they be vilified because of their shortcomings. It’s not about the pursuit of perfection, the author wrote, but about facing up to one’s own shortcomings.

There are also those who remind others that Gu is still a teenager. Not only have some of the controversies over the past year shown that Gu is not “perfect,” they also showed that fame is a double-edged sword.

As one netizen put it: “Success can be magnified to an extreme, and mistakes can be enlarged without boundaries (..) She’ll be carefully walking on the sharp edge of the sword because if she does something that does not conform to what people expect of her, the same people who praise you today will step on you tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, many Chinese fans of Eileen Gu have had it with those leaving “sour comments.” “She is representing China, she snatched gold, your empty ‘patriotism’ is contributing nothing!”

“Congratulations, Little Gu, you’re the greatest!” some say: “You did a good job, and we’re proud of you.”

By Zilan Qian and Manya Koetse

 

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