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China Memes & Viral

Meet China’s Latest Internet Celebrity: The “Vagrant Shanghai Professor” (上海流浪大师)

He is the latest online sensation in China, but what is this hype really about?

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Over the past month, the popular short-video app Douyin flooded with videos of the so-called “Vagrant Shanghai Professor” (上海流浪大师), who has conquered the hearts of millions of Chinese netizens. His fans are determined to make the Shanghai drifter more famous, regardless of his own wishes.

It has been nine years since “Brother Sharp” (犀利哥), a homeless man from Ningbo, became an online hit in China for his fashionable and handsome appearance. Now, another homeless man, this time from Shanghai, has become an internet sensation for his poise, wisdom, and modesty.

‘Brother Sharp’ became an online hit in 2009 (image via Chinasmack).

It all started about three weeks ago when an online video of a homeless man who eloquently discusses literature and philosophy went viral on Chinese social media, receiving millions of views within a time span of just three days. The man was nicknamed the “Vagrant Shanghai Professor” (上海流浪大师).

Soon, more information about the man’s identity started making its rounds on the internet. The “Vagrant Professor” is named Shen Wei (沈巍), a 52-year-old who was born and raised in Shanghai. Shen reportedly once worked as a civil servant at the Shanghai’s Xuhui District Audit Bureau, before he took sick leave and started roaming the streets anonymously for more than twenty years.

Persistent rumors started circulating the internet, suggesting that Shen once graduated from the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai and that he became a vagrant after his wife and daughter had died in a car crash. Despite Shen himself repeatedly denying these claims, the rumors kept appearing in articles and on social media.

Whether he likes it or not, Shen’s quiet days of reading books and collecting garbage are now seemingly over. Within a few days after the first video of Shen went viral, hundreds of people began searching for him near Shanghai’s Gaoke West Road, the place where he usually stays, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ‘Vagrant Professor’ and take a selfie with him.

Hundreds of photos and videos of Chen started flooding the internet, all showing the same image: Shen surrounded by people, holding their phones in his face.

Shen became a true social media phenomenon, even receiving attention outside of China, with both BBC and Washington Post reporting about this man’s sudden rise to fame.

For Shen, his online celebrity status has come at a price. When the crowds became too big, the Shanghai police had to intervene and escort him out of his shelter. While the police were trying to bring Shen to safety, people were still taking his picture and tried touching him. One woman even held up a cardboard sign saying: “Vagrant Professor, I want to marry you.”

Over the past week, Shen hasn’t been seen out in public. Some recent photos of Chen show that he had an apparent makeover when attending a class reunion that was specially organized for him by his former classmates.

As the hype around the ‘Vagrant Professor’ is slowly quieting down, more critical responses to Chen’s sudden fame are surfacing on Chinese social media, asking who this hype really is about in the end.

Many netizens question the invasion of Chen’s privacy, saying that this craze was not so much about Chen himself but more about people’s needs for a dramatic and touching story, and social media users’ greed for more clicks and likes for themselves through Chen. These so-called “like hunters” will try to get as many ‘likes’ as possible to make them feel good about themselves.

Commenters also point out that if it would have been about Chen himself, his ‘fans’ should have left him alone as he requested. Instead, they disrupted his life so drastically that he had to leave the streets he once called home.

On Weibo, one person wrote: “This is how I see it: all these people who took his photo are the real beggars, begging for likes.”

Other people wrote: “Society has gone mad,” and: “Even if you don’t want to be famous, they will just make you famous.”

The fashionable beggar ‘Brother Sharp’ who rose to fame in 2009 initially benefited from his overnight stardom. He received help from social workers, but once he looked like a ‘regular person’ again, people lost interest in him.

Brother Sharp after his makeover.

According to a recent media report, ‘Brother Sharp’ has, again, lost contact with his family and might be back on the street, anonymous this time. Perhaps the story of the ‘Vagrant Professor’ will see a similar ending once the hype has blown over.

By Gabi Verberg, edited by Manya Koetse

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

Gabi Verberg is a Business graduate from the University of Amsterdam who has worked and studied in Shanghai and Beijing. She now lives in Amsterdam and works as a part-time translator, with a particular interest in Chinese modern culture and politics.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Pierre

    April 16, 2019 at 7:27 am

    One new Buzz, interesting actually.
    I do not see what they are promoting, maybe a new KOL account.
    What do you think Gabi?

  2. Rod

    February 14, 2020 at 9:49 am

    It is a nice story, I really like it . Even if is fake(or storytelling) it is a nice message for the young generation of Chinese. And good inspiration for personal Branding.

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China and Covid19

‘Voices of April’: The Day After

“The best way to make videos go viral is by censoring them.”

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On April 23, a day after the video ‘Voices of April’ briefly took over social media before it was censored, the trending topic of the day is a hashtag related to new Covid cases reported in Shanghai.

Shanghai reported higher Covid-19 cases and deaths on Friday than the five days prior, which showed a daily decline in new cases. Shanghai reported a total of 23,370 new cases (including 20,634 asymptomatic ones), the municipal health commission said Saturday. A related hashtag by Xinhua News received over 910 million views on Weibo on Saturday (#上海新增本土确诊2736例无症状20634例#).

Although the hashtag was initiated by state media to inform about the Shanghai Covid situation, netizens started using it to criticize Shanghai’s handling of the crisis, with more commenters questioning China’s zero-Covid strategy. Similarly, other state media-initiated hashtag places also became online spaces where Weibo users vented their frustrations earlier this month.

Besides the ongoing online criticism and vocal disagreement with China’s Covid handling and policies, there are also many who express shock at the recent crackdown of any form of protest or criticism regarding the situation in Shanghai.

“‘Voices of April’ has been shutdown all over the internet, I’m simply dumbfounded,” one person said about the popular video that contained real recordings of events that happened during the city’s lockdown.

“If you still can find the video anywhere, forward it,” another person writes.

Besides Voices of April (四月之声), there have also been other videos over the past week that are meant to expose the mishandling of the Covid situation in Shanghai.

One of them is titled Farewell, Language (再见语言), another one is Shanghai Late Spring (上海晚春).

Farewell, Language (再见语言) is a 42-second sound art video by artist Yang Xiao (杨潇), who used over 600 commonly used propaganda phrases from Chinese official channels and randomly broadcasted the audio in the community where he lives.

The anti-epidemic workers just continue their work and do not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary at all. The video shows how this kind of language has been so normalized that for most, it has just become background noise in their everyday life – without even noticing nor critically assessing its meaning or logic anymore.

The Shanghai Late Spring (上海晚春) video is a compilation of video footage from the Shanghai lockdown, showing people struggling to get food, violent altercations between anti-epidemic workers and residents, people living in deplorable conditions in quarantine centers, and more (link to video).

The video uses the song Cheer Up London by Slaves, its chorus being:

You’re dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead, dead, already-ready
Dead, already, dead
.”

One Weibo commenter responded to the video in English, using a text from Les Misérables: “Do you hear the people sing / Singing the song of angry men / It is the music of a people / Who will not be slaves again!” The phrase “do you hear the people sing” was also used by other social media users to address the situation in Shanghai and the censorship of related topics.

“The best way to make videos go viral is by censoring them,” one commenter replied.

Read our previous article about ‘Voices of April’ here.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

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.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China and Covid19

The Voices of April – The Online Rise of a Shanghai Protest Video

‘Voices of April’ is the biggest topic in China’s Covid social media era since the death of Dr. Li Wenliang.

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Voices of April is a video containing edited audio snippets that show the reality of a Covid-stricken Shanghai where residents struggle with feelings of powerlessness. The video seeped into every corner of WeChat, but not long after, it was gone.

On Friday, April 22, a video was shared on Chinese social media and when the evening fell, it suddenly was on everybody’s smartphone screen.

Voices of April (四月之声) is a compilation of real audio snippets from conversations recorded in Shanghai throughout April, providing an emotional and heart-wrenching account of what residents in Shanghai have gone through since the Covid crisis started in their city.

By early Saturday morning, Beijing time, the Voices of April (四月之声) video had seeped into every corner of WeChat. Not long after, it was gone.

The video, made by a person named ‘Cary’, first seemed to have appeared online on Friday with the following message:

One month after the outbreak of the epidemic in Shanghai, I’ve seen too many online voices coming by which then soon disappeared. Over time, I’ve become somewhat desensitized, but some things shouldn’t have happened. Since they did, they shouldn’t be forgotten. Too many of our compatriots have suffered in ways that could have been avoided. I made a video, as objective and realistic as possible, as a record to remember the voices of April, and hope that all of them will pull through.”

The video in question, embedded below, is almost six minutes long. (Update: Here is a link to a version including English subtitles.)

It starts its narrative on March 15, just a day before Shanghai introduced its so-called “grid screening” strategy – meaning that every resident in a city Covid key area would do two nucleic acid tests within 48 hours. That day, the total amount of Covid cases since the onset of the outbreak in early March was 1156. The audio is real – as all snippets are – and was recorded during an official Shanghai Epidemic Prevention and Control news conference.

“Right now, Shanghai has no lockdown, and there is no need for a lockdown,” the spokesperson can be heard saying, while the video shows aerial footage of Shanghai city.

The video then jumps to March 26, when the total number of cases since the beginning of the outbreak had risen to 12,527 (asymptomatic and symptomatic combined), the daily new added cases being 2676.

Still, Shanghai officials can be heard saying that there will ‘never be a lockdown’ in the city, suggesting that Shanghai is not just important for Shanghai, it is important for the economy of the entire country.

The video then shows its title page: Voices of April.

The video, showing aerial footage of Shanghai for the entire six minutes, then continues with snippets of audio fragments starting at the beginning of April, with worried residents calling local authorities to voice their concerns about their personal situation after the sudden announcement of a phased lockdown in Shanghai on March 27.

Through dozens of audio snippets, we hear the voices of residents, delivery drivers, community workers, parents, children, Covid patients, pet owners, volunteers, and more.

In doing so, through the words of those who witnessed it, Voices of April raises the issues that so many have been concerned about over the past 25 days or more. Shanghai residents going hungry; food supplies going to waste due to mismanagement and failing logistics; parents and children being separated in quarantine facilities; people unsuccessfully trying to get urgent care for a medical emergency in their family; cancer patients being unable to return to their homes after getting chemotherapy at the hospital; Covid patients arriving at centralized quarantine locations that have no supplies nor beds; a desperate mother who finds herself calling out to neighbors to get medicine for her sick child in the middle of the night; pet owners in tears over their dog being killed by anti-epidemic workers.

“The virus is not killing people, the hunger is,” one voice can be heard saying.

“Distribute supplies! Distribute supplies! Distribute supplies!” a group of people can be heard shouting.

Through the audio snippets, it becomes clear that it’s not just residents who have been suffering throughout this whole ordeal – it’s the entire city, including its volunteers and community workers who are also helpless in helping others due to the policies in place.

The video ends with a black and white screen showing the characters “上海, 早日康复” (Shànghǎi, zǎorì kāngfù): “Shanghai, get well soon.”

Not long after the video went viral, Wechat and Weibo users discovered they were no longer able to forward the file, and soon all links to the video ended up leading to a ‘404’ deleted message.

The censorship seemingly only added fuel to fire. “[You want] war? War it is!”, some said, with others posting images protesting the censorship: “You can’t censor the unity of the people of Shanghai!”

Straight away, netizens started coming up with various alternative ways to refer to the title of the video to circumvent censorship, suggesting that there can never be a ‘zero policy’ when it comes to silencing people’s voices.

Nevertheless, alternative hashtags and phrases were also soon taken offline, such as the hashtag “The Voices of Shanghai” (#上海之声#).

“You can’t treat everything that’s being deleted as something that never happened,” one Weibo user wrote. Another commenter said: “What are you deleting? For what? What is so terrible for us to know that you’ve come so quickly to censor it?”

“It’s just a record of actual events, what good does it do to censor it? Originally, we were just sad, not angry. Now it’s a revolt of the people. A cover-up only makes matters worse.”

The only time during China’s Covid era when there was an online outpouring of anger comparable to this instance is probably when Li Wenliang passed away – the doctor who was initially silenced when he tried to warn others about the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (read more here). His death, and the censorship surrounding it, also led millions of people to vent their frustrations online. The censorship, as in this case, only added fuel to the fire.

One word that many people commenting on the Voices of April video use after seeing it is ‘powerlessness’: “I watched the Voices of April. Putting all of the powerlessness together, this world seems even more helpless.”

“Tonight is the night of the deleted voices [404之声],” one Weibo user wrote.

For context:
Growing frustrations during early outbreak of the city’s Covid crisis
Children and parents being separated for isolation
Pet dog killed by anti-epidemic worker
Deplorable conditions at quarantine locations

Update, also read: Voices of April, The Day After.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

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.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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