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Two Sides of the Olympic Medal: Eileen Gu’s Gold and Beverly Zhu’s Fall on Weibo

Eileen Gu and Beverly Zhu seem similar in many ways, but their Olympic journey in China turned out so differently.

Manya Koetse

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This week, Chinese social media saw two sides of the Olympic coin. Eileen Gu and Beverly Zhu are both American-born teenagers competing for China in the Olympics, but while Gu was celebrated, Zhu was condemned.

A day after grabbing gold at the Olympics, the 18-year-old Chinese American freestyle skier Gu Ailing (谷爱凌 Eileen Gu) is front-page news in China. She is China’s biggest Olympic social media hit since female swimmer Fu Yuanhui became an online sensation during the Summer Olympics in Rio.

Eileen Gu’s gold medal at the women’s Freeski Big Air final was the third gold medal for China and Gu also became China’s first female gold medalist in snow sports.

Gu is popular for her athletic talent and disarming smile, but the American-born teenager also garnered huge attention online for switching national affiliations and competing for China, a decision she announced in June of 2019. At the time, Gu called the decision “incredibly tough,” writing:

I am extremely thankful for U.S. Ski & Snowboard and the Chinese Ski Association for having the vision and belief in me to make my dreams come true. I am proud of my heritage and equally proud of my American upbringing. The opportunity to help inspire millions of young people where my mum was born, during the 2022 Beijing Winter Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help to promote the sport I love. Through skiing, I hope to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations.”

Now, 2.5 years later, Gu has not just won gold, she has also won the hearts of millions of netizens who call her the “snow princess” – the hashtag “Gu Ailing’s Gold Medal” (谷爱凌金牌) received over two billion views on Weibo and the platform’s servers even temporarily went down after Gu’s win (this, by the way, also once happened back in 2017 when Chinese singer and actor Lu Han announced his new relationship).

 

Gu: An Online Sensation and Rolemodel for Girls

 

This week, Gu is all over Chinese social media, with videos and images of her epic win dominating feeds on Weibo and Douyin and an advertisement for Chinese sports brand Anta featuring the medalist popping up everywhere. Chinese super celebrities such as Roy Wang (TFBoys) are drawing even more attention to Gu by publicly congratulating her – Wang’s message to Gu received some 400,000 likes on Tuesday.

On February 8, 520 drones formed a portrait of Gu in the city of Sanya to celebrate her gold medal. A video and images of the moment went viral (#三亚520架无人机庆谷爱凌夺金#).

But there is much more. There’s Gu wearing a panda hat, Gu eating dumplings, Gu saying she’s never been to Hainan (#谷爱凌说自己没有去过海南#), Gu talking about how she handles fear (#谷爱凌谈如何应对恐惧#), and then there’s the viral video of her cooking together with her Chinese grandmother (#谷爱凌姥姥冯工#); almost anything Gu does or says nowadays seems to go viral.

It should be noted that the Olympic athlete was already popular before she snatched the gold medal. According to Chinese domestic consumer research platform CBNData, Gu promoted at least twenty brands and companies in 2021 alone, including Anta Sportswear, Midea, Luckin Coffee, China Mobile and Bank of China. Based on the information regarding Gu’s brand endorsement fees, CBNData estimates the teenager must have made at least 200 million yuan ($31,4 million) over the past year for doing work related to promotions and brand ambassadorship.

Gu Ailing promoted at least twenty different brands in 2021.

For many, Gu is an inspiration. The young athlete is hard-working and smart – she was admitted to Stanford – and she is not afraid to speak her mind when reporters ask her tricky questions.

“Gu Ailing’s positivity gives me strength,” one female Weibo user writes:

She’s dealing with an American upbringing, Chinese ethnic identity, being a girl in extreme sports, public opinions about her nationality, all kinds of people speaking for her, yet she is always outgoing and steady. Really, it doesn’t matter what happens, what matters is what makes you happy. Are you happy in your life? Don’t dwell on loss and regret, ok?

Debates about Gu’s citizenship have played out across international social media over the past few weeks. Since China does not recognize dual nationality, the general assumption is that athletes like Gu who compete under its banner are required to renounce their non-Chinese citizenship, but reporters’ questions regarding Gu’s current citizenship were recurrently avoided, leading to more speculation on whether or not she actually gave up her American passport or not.

On Chinese social media, many thought these discussions were irrelevant, stressing that Gu represented China for the Olympics now and that the issue of her citizenship was only brought up to polarize.

One Weibo user (@远望白洞) wrote:

The people who care too much about what nationality she is only want to criticize her for 1) potentially someday returning to US citizenship and 2) using dual citizenship to get special treatment. Either way, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s her freedom to go back to the US and the positive effect she has on so many young people will not disappear because of it.”

Eileen Gu and her mother, image published by Sohu.com.

That Gu is praised as an example and role model for women also relates to her background. Gu was raised by her Chinese mother, a molecular biology graduate and former ski instructor, and her maternal grandmother, a former official at China’s Ministry of Transport. Not much is known about who her (American) father is, and it seems clear that the upbringing by these two powerful women has contributed to Gu’s determination and drive, and her own ambition to inspire other girls and young women.

 

Beverly Zhu: Olympic Cyber Bullying

 

Just some 48 hours before Gu’s Olympic success, there was the Olympic debut of another US-born athlete representing China. Like Gu, Beverly Zhu is a California-born teenager who changed her citizenship to compete for China during the Winter Olympics. Her parents, both Chinese, moved to the US in the 1990s.

The 19-year-old figure skater announced she would be representing China in September of 2018 and changed her name to Zhu Yi (朱易).

Zhu already was not as popular as Gu on Chinese social media before the Olympics. Her Weibo account has some 110,000 fans, while Gu now has over 4,2 million fans on her personal Weibo page.

But the contrast with her fellow California-born Olympic colleague became even starker when Zhu’s Olympic debut turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. The athlete ended with the lowest score after she crashed into a wall and failed to correctly land two jumps in the women’s singles short program on Sunday, pushing Team China out of the medals – she was almost unable to hold back her tears.

Afterward, she told reporters:

I guess I felt a lot of pressure because I know everybody in China was pretty surprised with the selection for ladies’ singles, and I just really wanted to show them what I was able to do, but unfortunately I didn’t.”

Zhu then fell twice in the free skate on Monday, after which she openly sobbed.

During the week, Zhu was criticized and even ridiculed on Chinese social media. There was the Weibo hashtag “Zhu Yi Cries Again in the Arena” (#朱易再度泪洒冰场#), “Zhu Yi Cries” (#朱易哭了#), and “Zhu Yi Fell” (#朱易摔了#), which was later taken offline by online censors along with some ninety Weibo accounts and hundreds of messages bullying Zhu.

But even after the meanest comments were taken offline, Weibo users still expressed their apparent dislike for Zhu. “If you can’t handle the pressure, what are you doing here?”, some said, with others writing: “What is she crying about? It should be us crying while watching her.”

Zhu is by no means the first Chinese female Olympic athlete to experience cyberbullying. During the Tokyo Olympics, athletes Wang Luyao and Yang Qian were also attacked by netizens, showing just how quickly public sentiment can turn against those who are in the limelight.

Did Zhu receive so much criticism just because of her performance, or is there more behind it? For both Zhu and Gu, the fact that they represented China as American-born teenagers automatically meant more eyes were focused on them already.

While Gu seems carefree in talking to the media, Zhu appears more timid and soft-spoken. This might have contributed to Zhu being not as popular online, especially after Zhu cried after her disappointing performance. When Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui (傅园慧) became an overnight online sensation during Rio, it was not her bronze medal that made her popular but her enthusiasm and confidence.

Another reason which perhaps prevented Zhu from becoming more of an idol among the public is the fact that there have been many rumors about how Zhu allegedly did “not deserve” her Olympic spot and those regarding her father’s role. Zhu’s father is a renowned Chinese professor who, along with his daughter’s move, also came back to work at prestigious universities in Beijing. It was rumored that Zhu’s father might have helped his daughter get a spot on the Olympic team. Although the rumor was later later refuted, many people were already prejudiced about the young figure skater.

It’s worth noting that there are also hundreds of Weibo users jumping to Zhu’s defense and those condemning the cyberbullying surrounding her. Just like Gu, she sacrificed a lot and worked very hard to get where she is today, even if it did not lead to her grabbing a medal.

There are also those netizens who remind others that Zhu is just a teenager, as is Gu. Some are already worried about Gu’s sudden rise to fame, too. One netizen (@哭泣的空肚子) wrote:

Fame is a double-edged sword. Your success can be magnified to an extreme, and your mistakes can also be enlarged without boundaries. From now on, she will face the days in which she’ll be carefully walking on the sharp edge of that sword because if she does something that does not conform to what people expect of her, the same people who praise you today will then step on you.”

Perhaps, it is not Zhu Yi but Eileen Gu who will be walking on eggshells for the time to come.

Read more about China and the Olympics here.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

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.

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

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of ‘Wandering Earth 2’

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “‘The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that the sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had:

“(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Instead of triggering anger, the bad review actually instilled a sense of pride among many Chinese, who argued that the review showed the impact the movie has made. Some commenters pointed out that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by the Indians as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative clash with American values about what the international community should look like. Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

Meanwhile, another state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by critics.

ON IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10 and a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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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 

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

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