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Weibo Watch: Buddha’s Happiness and a Storm in a Latte Cup

Why was HeyTea’s Buddha brew discontinued? How to explain the major drama surrounding e-commerce influencer Dong Yuhui? Which other topics went viral on Weibo? We discuss al the ins & outs in this 20th edition of Weibo Watch.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #20

This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Blessed objects
◼︎ 2. What’s Featured – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What More to Know – Highlighting 8 hot topics
◼︎ 4. What Lies Behind – Behind the Dong Yuhui drama
◼︎ 5. What’s Noteworthy – Zhang Xuefeng and liberal arts
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – MayDay alleged lipsync incident
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – More attention for Nanjing Massacre
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “Rat-like Handsome Guy”

 

Dear Reader,

 

What was supposed to be a “zen” cup of tea caused a stir in China earlier this month – a storm in a latte cup.

The well-known Chinese tea chain HeyTea (喜茶), comparable to a tea-centric Starbucks, collaborated with the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum to release a special ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ (佛喜) latte tea series adorned with Buddha images on the cups, along with other merchandise such as stickers and magnets. The series featured three customized “Buddha’s Happiness” cups modeled on the “Speechless Bodhisattva” (无语菩萨).

The “Speechless Bodhisattva,” originally named the “Contemplative Arhat” (沉思罗汉), is a small statue from the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum that already became the ‘museum viral hit’ of the October holiday this year due to its facial expression. Videos that went viral on Weibo showed crowds of people in front of the statue, trying to get a glimpse of its expression – not unlike the crowds in front of Mona Lisa.

In light of this popularity, it is not surprising that the special Buddha HeyTea x Jingdezhen collaboration soon gained popularity, especially among younger consumers. On the first day of the launch in late November, people lined up and the cups soon sold out in HeyTea stores across Chinese cities.

The HeyTea Buddha latte series, including merchandise, was pulled from shelves just three days after its launch.

However, the ‘Buddha’s Happiness’ success came to an abrupt halt when the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Shenzhen (深圳市民族宗教事务局) intervened, citing regulations that prohibit commercial promotion of religion. HeyTea wasted no time challenging the objections made by the Bureau and promptly removed the tea series and all related merchandise from its stores, just three days after its initial launch.

The decision not only disappointed many but also sparked questions about the extent to which the HeyTea Buddha series genuinely conflicts with Chinese law.

As the issue became a topic of discussion, scrutiny arose regarding why other ‘made-in-China’ products, including Buddha keychains and Boddhisatva phone covers, are still allowed to be sold in the country. The popular WeChat blogging account Xinwenge also highlighted that, technically, the images weren’t even of Buddha but sculptures representing Arhats – Buddhist adepts or the highest ideal of a disciple of the Buddha. Moreover, the Jingdezhen Museum itself contributed significantly to the virality of the Speechless Boddhisatva; they even issued a special WeChat sticker series.

WeChat stickers (left), keychains of the Speechless Boddhisatva.

Some Chinese internet users, however, agreed that it was inappropriate for HeyTea to sell such ‘Buddha’ teas. Although they praised efforts to spread more love for Buddhism, especially among young people, they thought it was “extremely disrespectful” to have a Buddhist image on a tea cup that would end up in the trash.

For others, the discontinued milk tea cups became even more ‘sacred’ as they used them to make their own little office altars or lights.

From office altars to holy lights, the HeyTea cups are transformed to spiritual objects.

The HeyTea Buddha latte tea saga provides insights into various facets of present-day China. It shines a light on the success of domestic coffee and tea chains and the original collaborations they launch to attract more customers. A recent academic study into the success and appeal of Chinese (bubble) tea brands even calls the long queues in front of these shops a “ritualised leisure experience” (Yan et al. 2023).

As we’ve seen in the past, whether it’s a new shop opening or the launch of a fresh collaboration, these events can quickly escalate from garnering local attention to becoming nationwide phenomena, with social media playing a pivotal role. Displaying your HeyTea cup holds a certain status, acting as social currency across Chinese social media platforms (Hutchins 2023, Ch5).

The story also underscores just how careful brands need to be when launching the next original idea; it cannot be too tame or else it won’t speak to China’s young consumers, but it also cannot be too bold or else it might rub Chinese authorities the wrong way.

Furthermore, the HeyTea story shows the interaction between Buddhism, consumerism, and the Chinese state. Nowadays, commodification of Buddha is everywhere, also in Tibet – even though it goes against traditions. Although the use of Buddhist images to sell merchandise unrelated to Buddhism could be seen as a form of “cultural misappropriation” (Cantanese 2019, 2), the commercial success of such products show that most people do not only see nothing wrong with it, they actually appreciate when their cup of latte has another layer of meaning to it: just because it’s commercial doesn’t mean it is meaningless.

As reported by Jing Daily earlier this year, Chinese temple visits have seen a significant surge and about 50 percent of Chinese temple visitors are millennials or were from Gen Z. Aside from burning incense and praying, these younger visitors are particularly fond of the temple shops that sell “blessed objects.”

Especially in a time when younger consumers are turning away from meaningless spending and are feeling more connected to spirituality, finding a bit of Buddha in their latte brings joy. “It’s a pity they discontinued,” one Xiaohongshu user wrote, “At least I still have the Buddha magnet on my fridge.”

To explore other viral topics on Chinese social media, check out our latest stories below. This week’s newsletter includes contributions from Miranda Barnes. You’ll hear back from us in our next newsletter, which you will get right before the start of 2024.

In the meantime, wishing you a merry Christmas, with lots of love, and perhaps some ‘blessed objects’ below the Christmas tree.

Best,
Manya

References:

Cantanese, Alex John. 2019. Buddha in the Marketplace: The Commodification of Buddhist Objects in Tibet. University of Virginia Press.

Hutchins, Joanna. Chinafy: Why China is Leading the West in Innovation and How the Rest of the World Can Catch Up. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Business.

Yan, Qi, Xiaolei Shen & Haobin Ben Ye. 2023. “The Cue Is in the Queue, Smart! Assessing the Ritualised Leisure Experiences of Long Queuing for a Bubble Tea Brand in China.” Leisure Studies.

 

A closer look at the top stories

1: Blood Donations in Tibet Trigger Controversy | The medical rescue of a critically injured Shanghai woman in Tibet has recently triggered major controversy on Chinese social media after netizens suspected that the woman’s treatment may have been facilitated through the abuse of power. Dozens of local public officials in Tibet donated blood to rescue a Shanghainese woman. Many believe it’s a matter of privilege.

Read more
 

2: Death after Binge Drinking | A woman who spent a night binge drinking with friends ended up experiencing cardiac arrest due to alcohol poisoning. A Chinese court has determined that her friends share partial responsibility for failing to prevent her from excessive drinking.

Read more
 

3: Doubts over Lucky Winner | A Chinese hardcore lottery player defied all mathematical logic last week by winning over USD 30 million by purchasing a staggering 50,000 tickets with the same number. The fortunate resident of Nanchang in Jiangxi province invested a total of 100,000 RMB (approximately USD 14,000) to buy tickets for the Chinese ‘Happy 8’ (快乐8) lottery, visiting multiple sales outlets. Since all the tickets shared identical numbers, each ticket yielded a prize and instantly made the man a multimillionaire. However, on Chinese social media, where the story went trending, people are skeptical and suspect foul play.

Read more
 

 

What More to Know

Highlighting 8 hot topics

◼︎ Kathy Chow Hoi-mei’s Death and Leaked Medical Records | The death of the 57-year-old renowned Hong Kong actress Kathy Chow Hoi-mei (Zhou Haimei, 周海媚), who became famous for her role in various TV series in the ‘80s and ‘90s, became a major topic on Weibo this week. The actress, who had been suffering from autoimmune disease lupus for many years, still posted a happy video days before she passed, thanking people for the birthday wishes she received earlier this month. On December 11, rumors of her death started circulating and on Tuesday evening, a medical record believed to be related to Chow’s emergency treatment prior to her death surfaced and detailed the related medical rescue information. Kathy Chow’s studio later released an official statement confirming the news of her passing. A hospital worker from Beijing was later detained for leaking private, medical information (Weibo hashtag Zhou Haimei Passes Away #周海媚去世#, 1.5 billion views).

◼︎ Gree’s Dirty Laundry | Dong Mingzhu (董明珠, 1954), the famous Chinese businesswoman who serves as president of Gree Electric, the major home appliance maker known for its air conditioners, became a trending topic this week for lashing out against Meng Yutong (孟羽童, 1998) during her talk at at a ceremony for new employees on December 13. The 25-year-old Meng Yutong was previously a secretary for Dong, but left the company in May of 2023, saying she was pursuing postgraduate studies. Before joining Gree, Meng was working on a career as an online influencer and participated in various (reality) TV shows. She joined Gree in 2021. In her public talk, Dong Mingzhu criticized Meng by suggesting she used her position at Gree to become an online celebrity and that she had created “a negative impact” within the company. Many netizens think that Dong’s criticism actually has more to do with generational differences, saying Dong expected Meng to follow a similar path as her – but times have changed (Weibo hashtag “Dong Mingzhu Lashes Out Against Meng Yutong” #董明珠怒斥孟羽童#, 450 million views).

◼︎ Beijing Subway Carriages Break Apart | On the night of December 14, a train accident occured on the Beijing Changping subway line (昌平线). Over thirty passengers sustained injuries after one of the carriages broke apart in the middle; there was an abrupt break in the articulated joint of carriages 0244 and 0245. Passengers reported a “sudden impact” at around 19:00 as the train was on its way from Xi’erqi (西二旗 ) to Life Science Park (生命科学园站). The incident caused passengers to be stuck for a large part of the evening before rescue and evacuation teams arrived at the scene. The incident caused significant disruption for commuters, as they could not get their train back while hundreds of people were waiting for a taxi. The cause of the incident is still under investigation. (Weibo Hashtag “Beijing Subway Changping Line Experiences Sudden Malfunction” #北京地铁昌平线突发故障#, 290 million views).

◼︎ 86 Years Since Nanjing Massacre | The “Nanjing Datusha,” literally: “Nanjing Massacre,” was commemorated in China this week, both online and offline. The commemoration took place on December 12, marking the Japanese invasion of the city of Nanjing in 1937, starting a six-week long massacre during which people were bombed out of their homes and shot in the streets. Japanese soldiers tortured, raped, and killed large numbers of common people; their corpses were piled up along the river. According to China’s official data, at least 300,000 people, including children, elderly and women, were killed during this winter. Over recent years, Chinese social media has played an increasingly important role in the commemoration of the Nanjing Massacre. Although Chinese official media play a pivotal role shaping the way this is remembered online, ordinary netizens also show a lot of interest for this part of war history that is engraved in China’s collective memory. (Weibo hashtag “These Numbers Are Scars in Hearts of Chinese That Can’t Be Healed” #这些数字是中国人心里无法愈合的伤疤#, 170 million views).

◼︎ Gao Yaojie Passes Away | The Chinese renowned gynecologist, academic, and AIDS activist Gao Yaojie (高耀潔) passed away at the age of 95 this week. Gao achieved international acclaim as a ‘whistleblower’ for exposing an AIDS epidemic that spread across rural China due to irregular and illegal blood donation processes during the 1990s. She was actively involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but was also silenced and put under house arrest by authorities. She eventually fled to the US, where she stayed until her death. Although Gao’s passing went trending on Chinese social media, the narratives surrounding her death are very different from those in foreign media; one of the most popular posts on Weibo asserted that Gao’s pessimism about the Party and China’s future was “completely wrong.” Another popular post claimed that her work had become used as an anti-Chinese tool for “hostile Western forces.” (Weibo hashtag “Dr. Gao Yaojie Passed Away” #高耀洁医生去世#, 180 million views).

◼︎ Beijing’s First Snow | The Forbidden City dressed in white, Beijing Zoo pandas playing in the snow, and a winter wonderland at Summer Palace; this week Chinese netizens and online media accounts posted numerous photos of the first snow falling the Chinese capital. Although many enjoyed the snowfall, it also caused disruptions from airports to train tracks and from schools to offices. As temperatures keep plummeting, more snowfall is expected along with potentially record low temperatures. (Weibo hashtag: Beijing’s Snow #北京的雪#, 99 million views).

◼︎ Xi in Vietnam | Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Vietnam in six years made headlines this week. This visit, aiming to strengthen ties between the communist-run nations, follows Hanoi’s recent efforts to enhance diplomatic relations with Washington after a recent visit by Biden. During a summit in Hanoi, Xi and Vietnamese leader Trong advocated for strengthening strategic ties and agreed to collaborate on various issues, including maritime patrols, trade, and crime prevention. China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, with significant economic and investment ties between the two countries. (Weibo hashtag: Xi Jinping’s Vietnam Visit #习近平访问越南#, 38+ million views)

◼︎ Toddler’s Tragic Death | A very tragic story coming from the city of Dongguan, Guangdong, attracted the public’s attention this week: a 2-year-old child fell into a supermarket bread/flour mixing machine on Decemer 8 and did not survive. The parents are the owners of the supermarket bakery, who would take their child to work due to lack of childcare at home. The incident has generated online discussions on the importance of parents providing a safe environment for their children (Weibo Hashtag “Dongguan Child Dies after Falling into Supermarket Bread Blender” #东莞一儿童掉进超市面包搅拌机身亡#, 290 million views; “The Child Who Fell in the Breadmaking Machine is Son of Owner” #掉进搅拌机的是面包店老板家孩子#, 15.2 million views).

 

What Lies Behind

Observations beyond the headlines, by Miranda

Behind the Influencer Drama at East Buy

In recent days, Dong Yuhui (董宇辉) has become a hot topic on Chinese social media after a live broadcast that captured widespread attention. Dong is a top livestreamer for the e-commerce platform East Buy (东方甄选), which is part of New Oriental (新东方). Formerly a celebrated teacher, Dong has garnered popularity among Chinese netizens for his enthusiasm, humble background, English proficiency, witty jokes, personal stories, honest talks, and singing talent (read more here).

The current buzz around Dong stems from ongoing drama at East Buy. Livestream viewers and Dong’s loyal fans were angered when the editorial team behind Dong claimed that many of his popular livestream talks and stories were not created by him alone but were the result of collaborative teamwork. This led people to believe that the company team was taking credit for Dong’s individual efforts.

This influencer drama, while not the first this year, stands out because fans are vehemently defending Dong. His followers even refer to him as the ‘National Son-in-Law.’ Many view the team’s comments as a form of betrayal and backstabbing.

The story has gained significant traction because people see themselves in Dong—a former farmer’s son who rose to China’s e-commerce stardom due to his talent and hard work. For many, he represents hope for ordinary people, a path they can dream of themselves. Now, facing workplace bullying, Dong’s fans are not just expressing support online; they are also redirecting their spending elsewhere, saying, “I only bought from them because I like Dong.”

Faced with an online boycott, a loss of millions of followers, and a drop in stock market prices, subsequent PR efforts to silence the issue went awry. In the end, the CEO of EasyBuy was removed, and New Oriental founder and chairman Yu Minhong (俞敏洪) stepped in to try to alleviate the marketing disaster by hosting a live stream jointly with Dong.

Online discussions continue, with some pointing out that this reveals a power struggle between big individual influencers and the traditional corporate structure under the influencer economy. The recent support for Dong indicates that e-commerce platforms need to carefully consider how they handle their most well-known employees. Although these influencers have grown through the platform, efforts to limit their influence might backfire and result in greater losses. The key lesson here is that companies should never turn against their most beloved underdogs, as it may come back to bite them in the ass.

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

Zhang Xuefeng and Liberal Arts

Oops, he did it again. Chinese educational internet influencer and exam prep coach Zhang Xuefeng (张雪峰) recently stirred up another trending discussion by seemingly belittling liberal arts during a livestream. He claimed that having a Liberal Arts Degree is equivalent to ending up in a lower status within the service industry.

Not too long ago, Zhang already caused some controversy by strongly discouraging Chinese youth from pursuing a degree in journalism.

This time again, many people are offended by Zhang’s remarks, suggesting it is wrong and extreme of him to lump all liberal arts majors together. However, there are also those who agree, saying that choosing an educational route in science and engineering is more fruitful. The numbers also indicate that science and engineering graduates are much more likely to be employed after getting their degree than liberal arts graduates.

Zhang Xuefeng later attempted to clarify his comments and offered a quasi-apology by wearing a T-shirt saying ‘sorry.’ He emphasized that he did not intend to criticize the service industry, expressing that there is nothing inherently wrong with being a part of it. Instead, he just wants people to be realistic about their expectations when choosing their educational paths.

Zhang’s comments are especially impactful due to a record number of Chinese college graduates entering the job market while facing bleak employment outlooks. In this light, picking the right educational path has become an extra important and weighty issue for both students and their parents.

 

The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

MayDay Alleged Lipsync Incident

The question of whether the members of the Taiwanese pop band Mayday lip-synced during their concert on the Chinese mainland has stirred up discussions on Chinese social media, amassing millions of views recently. The popular band performed in Shanghai on November 16, but speculations about lip-syncing arose when some concertgoers shared videos on social media, casting doubt on whether they had sung live.

This story became especially big when one music blogger, Shenglixue (@声理学) used specific software to analyze the videos, asserting that the singers were lip-syncing. The issue gained so much attention because lip-syncing during performances, or pretending to play musical instruments, goes against the guidelines issued by the government-backed China Association of Performing Arts and is considered a form of deception.

However, the band denied allegations of not singing live, labeling the rumors as “malicious slander.” Their concert in Paris was also livestreamed last week, allowing attentive listeners to occasionally hear off-key notes that were definitely not lip-synced. Earlier this week, a veteran music agent and associate professor from Taiwan’s Nantai University’s Department of Popular Music Industry also weighed in on the issue, refuting the lip-syncing allegations.

The music blogger who initially published the allegations has vowed not to post about Mayday anymore, as his personal details, including his mum’s name and photos, were leaked online by doxers.

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

Increasing International Attention for Nanjing Massacre

As Weibo commemorates the Nanjing Massacre this week, we revisit an article from last year about an American pawn shop owner discovering potentially unseen photos from this particularly gruesome chapter of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

When a TikTok video showcasing these images went viral, Chinese netizens were astonished by how little awareness Western social media users had about the events during the Japanese invasion of Nanjing in 1937. While it remained uncertain whether the photos found by the pawn shop owner were genuinely previously undiscovered images of Nanjing, the entire incident ultimately shifted towards fostering greater international awareness of this historical tragedy.

Read more

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Rat-Type Handsome Guy” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “Rat-Type Handsome Guy” (shǔ xì shuài gē 鼠系帅哥).

The term “Rat-Type Handsome Guy” (鼠系帅哥) has actually been around for some time, but attracted more attention on Chinese social media recently. The word is part of a group of other terms to describe popular aesthetics of famous men with features resembling animals.

In 2022, for example, the “Monkey-Type Handsomes” (猴系帅哥) were especially popular. The term was used to describe the kind of Chinese celebrities who were undeniably handsome and also showed some resemblance to monkeys due to their strong brow ridges, narrow and long face, thin upper lip, and prominent T-zone.

When categorizing handsome men in China’s entertainment industry into animal-types, from monkeys to snakes, from dogs to birds, it is not always only about facial features but also about a certain air or vibe (氛围感) that surrounds an idol. A loyal and cute dog-like vibe, a calm and strong ox-like feeling, or a sharp and sexy cat-like character.

Thi year, the ‘rat-like’ handsome men have been more in vogue. They have small eyes, a pointed jaw and a small mouth. Although not all actors who are rat-like are deemed handsome, those that are handsome are all the more rare – and popular.

Chinese actor Yang Di (杨迪) went trending for being a representative of the “Rat-Type Handsome Guy” (鼠系帅哥) recently. Although he himself proudly posted about it on Weibo, there are also many netizens who think that being ‘rat like’ is actually not really attractive and not worth boasting about.

 
This is an on-site version of the Weibo Watch newsletter by What’s on Weibo. Missed last week’s newsletter? Find it here. If you are already subscribed to What’s on Weibo but are not yet receiving this newsletter in your inbox, please contact us directly to let us know.

Stories that are authored by the What's on Weibo Team are the stories that multiple authors contributed to. Please check the names at the end of the articles to see who the authors are.

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Weibo Watch: “Bloglator in the Era of Social Media”

By examining the influence of the “tragically ugly” schoolbook case, Bai demonstrates that WoW reporting had considerable impact on overall international media coverage.

Manya Koetse

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #28

Dear Reader,

 

It’s been a little while since the last Weibo Watch newsletter. Those of you who follow me on X might already know that some personal circumstances have made it difficult for me to get a lot of work done this month following the unfortunate loss of two close family members and all the arrangements surrounding it. When it rains, it sometimes really does pour. However, life goes on, and I’m now ready to return to doing what I love most at What’s on Weibo. Thank you for your understanding as we dive back into the swing of things.

On that note, I am very happy to share some exciting news: my work at What’s on Weibo is the focus of a new study by Prof. Bai Liping (白立平) from the Department of Translation at Lingnan University (Hong Kong). The study, titled “Bloglator in the Era of Social Media: A Case Study of the Reports about the ‘Tragically Ugly’ Math Textbooks on What’s on Weibo,” has been published in Perspectives journal (2024, 1–16). You can find a link to the study here (limited free online copies available).

The study examines the role played by bloggers in the present-day news ecosystem, where social media has become increasingly important in various ways, making both news consumption and news production more multi-dimensional. In doing so, Bai zooms in on What’s on Weibo (WoW) as a prominent example of what he calls a ‘bloglator’: a blend of ‘blog’ and ‘translator’ to refer to someone who “translates, adapts, and recreates content from articles or posts on blogs, or does any translation on blogs” (3).

The research suggests that WoW’s work, reporting on trending topics on Chinese social media since 2013, constitutes a special form of news-related blog translation as well as blog-related news translation, carving out a special niche within journalistic translation and the broader news ecosystem.

Serving as a case study is an article published on the site in May 2022 about illustrations in a Chinese schoolbook series for children that triggered controversy on Weibo for their peculiar design and for being perceived as ‘aesthetically displeasing.’

The controversy began when concerned parents noted that the quality of the design in their kids’ math textbooks was ugly, unrefined, and overall weird.

The controversial schoolbook.

Children depicted in the math book illustrations had small, droopy eyes and big foreheads. Besides the poor design quality, many people found some illustrations inappropriate: a girl sticking out her tongue, recurring depictions of American flag colors, an incorrect depiction of the Chinese flag, a bulge in the pants of depicted boys, and boys grabbing girls. These elements led many to believe the books had “evil intentions,” with parents expressing concern that these “tragically ugly” books could negatively impact children’s aesthetic appreciation.

The explosive online discussions about the textbooks sparked a chain of events, covered in various articles here. Ultimately, it led to an official investigation by China’s Ministry of Education, holding 27 staff members accountable for their poor performance.

Among them were the Party Committee Secretary of the People’s Education Press, President Huang Qiang, who received a “serious warning” from the Party. Chief Editor Guo Ge was removed from office, along with others, including the head of the editorial office for elementary school mathematics textbooks. Illustrator Wu Yong and two other designers involved in the mathbooks reportedly will never work on national school textbooks or related projects again. The entire event was significant in various ways, also drawing increased attention to the quality of illustrations in teaching materials and shedding light on the dynamics behind Chinese schoolbook publications.

Bai’s study notes that WoW was among the first English websites to report on this topic, subsequently picked up by numerous other media outlets. While some sources, such as Australian news site news.com.au and The Guardian, included links or references to WoW, other news sites did not explicitly mention WoW but still used my translations, most notably the “tragically ugly” comment.

This non-literal translation of a Chinese phrase (most probably derived from 惨不忍睹 cǎn bù rěn dǔ “so horrible that one cannot bear to look at it”) exemplifies “translingual quoting,” a process where the original discourse is translated during quoting (6). You could consider it a ‘creative translation’ to convey meaning rather than exact words. As other reports also reproduced these exact words, it was evident what their source was. These two words ultimately became pivotal in the English coverage of the event; even today, a Google search directs you to this textbook controversy.

By examining the influence of the “tragically ugly” schoolbook case, Bai demonstrates that WoW reporting had considerable impact on the overall international media coverage of the event. It was cited by various English media outlets from Australia to the UK, from India to Hong Kong, including in traditional newspapers like The Independent, Sunday Times, and South China Morning Post.

He concludes:

“In the era of social media, just as Weibo has supplemented traditional media in the Chinese news ecosystem, WoW has filled a niche left by traditional media in the English news media ecosystem. Through WoW, readers can stay informed about the trending topics on Weibo, learn the views of the netizens and foster a deeper understanding of Chinese social and cultural life. The case study demonstrates that WoW’s reports about the tragically ugly math textbooks are consistent with its founder’s objectives of explaining the stories behind the hashtag and facilitating a better understanding of contemporary China, and that a ‘bloglator’ may play an important role in the evolving news ecosystem in this era of social media.”

Of course, I’m thrilled to see this finalized study on WoW’s impact in the news ecosystem. Beyond that, I value the term ‘bloglator,’ which aptly describes my role, and is different from the work done by journalists who translate news. It involves various strategies such as translingual quoting, providing explanations and background contexts, omitting irrelevant information, summarizing source texts, and most importantly, complete independence in choosing what to write about & the best way to cover it.

This independence enables WoW to spotlight interesting, noteworthy topics that help you stay connected to the Chinese social media sphere and its dynamics. As a subscriber, your support makes What’s on Weibo’s continuity possible. I look forward to working on many more topics in the future. Even the “tragically ugly” ones can sometimes turn out beautifully.

Best,

– Your ‘bloglator,’
Manya Koetse
(@manyapan)

 
References:

Bai, Liping. “Bloglator in the Era of Social Media: A Case Study of the Reports about the ‘Tragically Ugly’ Math Textbooks on What’s on Weibo.” Perspectives, (2024), 1–16. doi:10.1080/0907676X.2024.2343047.

 

A closer look at some featured stories

1: “Fat Cat Jumping Into the River Incident” (胖猫跳江事件) | The tragic story behind the recent suicide of a 21-year-old Chinese gamer nicknamed ‘Fat Cat’ has become a major topic of discussion on Chinese social media, touching upon broader societal issues from unfair gender dynamics to businesses taking advantage of grieving internet users. We explain the trend here👇🏼

Read more
 

2: TV show Triggers Nationalistic Sentiments | Forget about previous song competitions. Hunan TV’s ‘Singer 2024’ is all the talk these days. Besides memes and jokes, the show – which now invited notable foreign talent to compete against Chinese established performers – has set off a new wave of national pride in China’s music and performers on Chinese social media.

Read more
 

3: Storm over a Smoky Cup of Tea | Chinese tea brand LELECHA faced backlash for using the iconic literary figure Lu Xun to promote their “Smoky Oolong” milk tea, sparking controversy over the exploitation of his legacy. “Such blatant commercialization of Lu Xun, is there no bottom limit anymore?”, one Weibo user wrote. Another person commented: “If Lu Xun were still alive and knew he had become a tool for capitalists to make money, he’d probably scold you.”

Read more
 

 
This is an on-site version of the Weibo Watch newsletter by What’s on Weibo. Missed the last edition of our newsletter? Find it here. If you are already subscribed to What’s on Weibo but are not yet receiving this newsletter in your inbox, please contact us directly to let us know.

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Weibo Watch: The Battle for the Bottom Bed

“The battle for the lower bunk beds” (“下铺之争”) is a reflection of society and generational difference in China, touching upon expectations regarding the respect younger individuals should show the elderly.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #27

 

This week’s newsletter:

◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Battle for the Bottom Bed
◼︎ 2. What’s Been Trending – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What More to Know – Five bit-sized trends
◼︎ 4. What’s the Drama – Top TV to watch
◼︎ 5. What’s Noteworthy – Zara x Haidilao
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – Martin Garrix x Huang Zitao
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – Social media in times of flood
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – Coffin rooms

 

Dear Reader,

 

Sometime around last summer, a significant debate about train etiquette began trending on Chinese social media. Central to the discussion was a question that attracted over 190 million views on Weibo: Can passengers bring their own “bed curtains”?

The curtains in question (床帘 chuánglián, also 火车遮挡帘 huǒchē zhēdǎnglián) are often used in the cheapest class of sleeper cabins on Chinese trains, known as hard sleepers (硬卧 yìngwò). In these cabins, each compartment features six bunk beds, with three beds on each side separated by a small table. Only the bottom bunk offers sufficient space for seating and is also the most expensive among the three.

Example of Chinese hard sleeper train compartment, image via Sohu.

Train carriages usually comprise 11 semi-open compartments, each featuring a corridor and two foldable seats per cubicle. With so many people in one carriage, noise can become an issue, and privacy can be hard to come by.

“Bed curtains” have emerged as a popular strategy to combat these nuisances, creating a somewhat private and quiet space on trains without disturbance from fellow travelers. Essentially, they are pieces of fabric that can be easily secured above or on the sides of the bunk bed using clips or ropes. These days, Taobao sells them in various colors and patterns.

Bunk bed curtains, sold on e-commerce sites likes Taobao, turn lower bunk beds in a more private space.

Recently, the debate over these curtains reignited on Chinese social media, particularly focusing on how their use creates an additional barrier for other passengers, especially the elderly, to sit on the lower beds. This sparked discussions about whether younger passengers should consider swapping their lower bunk beds with senior passengers, who may find it difficult to access the middle and upper berths, where it’s often impossible for them to sit up straight.

The catalyst for these discussions was a viral video featuring an elderly lady confronting two young people who had hung covers on their bottom bunk beds. She accused them of selfishness for not allowing older passengers with upper bunk tickets to sit on their beds.

Many commenters expressed support for the young passengers in the video, emphasizing that they are not obliged to let other passengers sit on their bed. The topic unleashed a flood of stories of train annoyances about strangers sitting on people’s bottom beds, depriving them of privacy.

The topic further popularized the use of bed curtains, with commenters writing: “I dislike others sitting on my bed but find it difficult to confront them; this is such a clever solution!”

There are currently no explicit regulations prohibiting or allowing these bed curtains, as long as they do not cause inconvenience or block access to other bunks, but many people view them as “uncivilized” and “impolite.”

The online critics of bed curtains often fondly recall their experiences traveling on China’s sleeper trains in past decades. They reminisce about meeting strangers, sharing snacks, playing cards, and forming friendships—experiences characterized by less privacy, but more camaraderie.

As this discussion has been dubbed “the battle for the lower bunk beds” (“下铺之争”), it’s evident that it encompasses more than just seating arrangements. Some say it is a reflection of the current society. It touches upon societal shifts, traditional/cultural expectations regarding the respect younger individuals should show the elderly, and mostly, generational differences.

Unlike the older generations preceding them, Chinese younger generations, products of the one-child policy and growing up amid increasing prosperity, have undergone a significant transformation in their familial roles over the past decades. Not only were they both pampered and pressured to succeed, they also often enjoyed having their own rooms from a young age. Their upbringing has fostered a more individualistic perspective, a heightened emphasis on personal happiness, and a greater value placed on privacy.

Additionally, while previous generations typically ‘served’ their parents, you see that parents often prioritize ‘serving’ their children of younger generations, treating them as equals within the household. This has also led to different views on the interaction between younger and older members of society. Many younger people won’t accept Chinese seniors acting rude or entitled simply because of their age.

The “battle for the bottom bed” essentially symbolizes clashes between different generations. While older generations value communal experiences and respect for elders, younger generations assert their individual rights and prioritize personal space. Given the insufficient seating for all six passengers in current hard sleepers, they argue that it’s China Railways’ responsibility to adapt the layout to better cater to passengers’ needs.

Meanwhile, some Chinese ‘experts’ are cited by media, encouraging young people who have bought lower berths to be understanding and swap with the elderly for their convenience. A related hashtag on the matter was viewed more than 400 million times on Weibo, and the most popular replies basically told the experts to shove their suggestion up theirs. “I have the right to what I pay for,” some said: “If they need a lower bed, let them pay for a lower bed.”

Some bloggers comment that the very fact that this seemingly trivial topic has become such a major topic of debate on Chinese social media is a sign of a “regression in morality.” Some propaganda accounts raise the example of the humble PLA soldier Lei Feng, who would help out other passengers and train staff while traveling, instead of occupying a seat. While most do not expect the same of modern-day travelers, they do think that people, young and old, should show a little more understanding for each other.

In this light, another video garnered attention. It showed an elderly woman on a train politely requesting to swap a top bunk with a young passenger occupying a bottom bunk. The request was made on behalf of her 83-year-old travel companion, and they were happy to compensate for the price difference. That video received praise from netizens, who expressed that it’s the attitude that matters. The young passenger swapped beds with the older lady and did not accept payment for it.

In the end, it’s clear that kindness and empathy are cross-generational, and that communication always helps bridging differences.

In case you don’t feel like bridging differences on your next hard sleeper train, however, here’s the link to the bed curtains.

Warm regards,

– Manya Koetse & Miranda Barnes

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: Chengdu Disneyland | Chengdu Disney is the latest viral hotspot on Chinese social media, and it’s probably unlike anything you’d imagine. How did an ordinary outdoor senior gym in a local Chengdu neighborhood become nationally known as ‘Chengdu Disney’? By mixing online trends with real-life fun, blending foreign styles with local charm, and adding a dash of humor and absurdity, Chengdu now boasts its very own ‘Chengdu Disney.’ We explain the trend here👇🏼

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2: Unleashing Flood of Stories | The recent marriage announcement of the renowned Chinese calligrapher/painter Fan Zeng and Xu Meng, a Beijing TV presenter 50 years his junior, has sparked online discussions about the life and work of the esteemed Chinese artist. Some netizens think Fan lacks the integrity expected of a Chinese scholar-artist.

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3: Yellen’s Favorites | Earlier in April, Yellen concluded her second trip to Beijing within a year, and once again, it’s not her official talks but rather her choices in food and drink venues that are sparking discussion on social media. From Yunnan classics to fusion cuisine, these are Janet Yellen’s picks for dining and drinking in Beijing.

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What More to Know

Five Bite-Sized Trends

◼︎ 🌧️ Guangdong Floods | Flooding, landslides, power outages. It’s been a rough few days in Guangdong. From the provincial capital Guangzhou to smaller cities like Shaoguan, Zhaoqing, and Qingyuan, exceptionally heavy rainfall since April 18 has brought significant problems to various areas. At least 4 deaths have been reported, with 10 people still missing. More than 100,000 people have been evacuated. The regions hardest hit are along the Beijiang River, which flooded on April 21. This marks the second flood of the river this year, with the first occurring on April 7, marking the earliest date in the season since floods in major Chinese rivers began being numbered in 1998. As with previous floods, social media is used as a channel to warn people about the ongoing situation, with further rainfall expected. Meanwhile, state media are honoring rescue workers as local heroes, or ‘those going against the tide’ (nìxíngzhě 逆行者).

◼︎ 🌋 Ijen Crater Death | A 31-year-old Chinese tourist tragically lost her life after falling from the edge of Indonesia’s Ijen volcano while attempting to take a photo. She tripped over her own long skirt, plummeting from a height of 75 meters early on the morning of April 20, while the tourists were there to witness the sunrise. With the May 1st holiday approaching, Chinese authorities, through social media, are using this incident as a cautionary tale to warn tourists of the hazards of prioritizing that ‘perfect social media photo’ over personal safety.

◼︎ 💀 Another University Poisoning Case | One recurring case that surfaces on Weibo is that of Zhu Ling, the female victim in the notorious 1995 thallium poisoning incident at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Although Zhu Ling survived, she was left paralyzed and reliant on her parents for care for the rest of her life. The case remains unsolved, with many pointing to her roommate as the primary suspect. Now, a new suspected poisoning incident at a university has gained attention, following the death of a 25-year-old male student at Xiangtan University due to organ failure after seeking medical treatment. His 27-year-old roommate is currently under suspicion and has been detained. This is a case that is likely to draw further scrutiny in the time to come.

◼︎ 🏃‍♂️ Marathon Controversy | There was something fishy about the conclusion of the Beijing Half Marathon and the four runners at the finish line. In a video clip that went viral on Chinese social media (see here), viewers observed that three African runners seemed to intentionally slow down to allow Chinese competitor He Jie (何杰) to win the gold medal. Now, the Beijing Half Marathon Organizing Committee has announced the disqualification of all four runners for “breaching the rules of the competition,” nullifying their results, and reclaiming their trophies and medals. The Chinese Athletics Association has also introduced new regulations for discipline management in national events. It appears that the three African runners were “pace setters” who were not intended to be competing athletes, and sponsor/partner Xtep (特步), a sports equipment company, was responsible for not properly identifying them. Consequently, the company has been terminated as a partner. Marathon fraud and the importance of properly regulating major sports events has become a recurring topic on Chinese social media. Last October, the Chinese Athletics Association issued an emergency notice to standardize and regulate China’s national marathon and running events more effectively after Chinese marathon runner Yin Shunjin appeared to be intentionally obstructed by a support vehicle, forcing him to navigate around it and costing him valuable time in the crucial final two minutes of the marathon.

◼︎ 🎲 Little Tuan Tuan Goes to Jail | Popular Chinese influencer “Little Tuan Tuan” (一条小团团), who has millions of followers on the Douyu livestreaming app, became a top trending topic on Chinese social media on April 23 after news came out that she had been arrested. The famous game livestreamer had already stopped airing since last month, but it only now became known that she is suspected of engaging in large-scale illegal gambling activities. In late 2023, Douyu’s chairman and CEO Chen Shaojie was also arrested for allegedly hosting online gambling, which is illegal in mainland China. At the time, state media already reported that the arrest of Chen may lead to a group of top game anchors being implicated due to their involvement in gambling and money laundering. After the earlier arrest of four other anchors, Tuan Tuan is the latest livestream host to be arrested, signaling a zero tolerance approach towards gambling activities in China’s game-focused livestreaming world. Little Tuan Tuan could face up to five years in prison.

 

What’s the Drama

Top TV to Watch

Best Choice Ever (Chéng Huān Jì 承欢记) is the latest Chinese TV drama hit. Produced by CCTV and simultaneously broadcasted on CCTV-8 and Tencent, it premiered on April 9, and some are already calling it the best romcom drama of the year. This urban family/romance drama centers around the story of Mai Chenghuan (麦承欢), a post-95 young woman living in Shanghai, who is preparing to marry her boyfriend Xin Jialiang (辛家亮), who comes from a wealthy family. However, when Chenghuan’s mum is doing all she can to meddle in their relationship, Mai Chenghuan must break free from her mother’s overbearing influence and focus on her own personal growth.

Noteworthy:

▶️ This drama is based on a book by the same name by Hong Kong writer Yi Shu or Isabel Nee Yeh-su, who is known for the strong, intelligent female characters in her stories.
▶️ The main protagonist is played by the super popular Chinese actress Yang Zi (杨紫), who previously starred in hit series such as Ode to Joy (欢乐颂) and The Oath of Love (余生).
▶️ This series is also airing in Thailand starting from April 29, but you won’t hear Yang Zi speaking Chinese there; the entire show will be dubbed in Thai.
▶️ The Shanghai Culture and Tourism office has also been involved in this production, that features some pretty scenes from around Shanghai, which is drawing in young visitors wanting to visit film locations like the Zhapu Road Bridge and Huaihuai Mansion.

You can watch Best Choice Ever online here (with English subtitles) via YouTube.

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

A short dress sold by Zara has gone viral in China for looking like the aprons used by the popular Chinese hotpot chain Haidilao. “I really thought it was a Zara x Haidialo collab,” some customers commented. Others also agree that the first thing they thought about when seeing the Zara dress was the Haidilao apron.

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The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

Dutch DJ Martin Garrix found himself embroiled in controversy following the first F1 China Grand Prix Music Festival in Shanghai, which took place from Friday to Sunday. Garrix was allegedly supposed to perform together with Chinese singer Huang Zitao (黄子韬), who initially complained via livestream that the DJ did not show up to their joint rehearsal, and then claimed the DJ showed disrespect by performing his song without him being present on stage. On Weibo, one hashtag about the incident attracted over 160 million views.

Both Huang and Garrix are popular on Weibo, where the Chinese singer has over 66 million fans while the Dutch DJ has more than 360,000 followers.

In response, Garrix promptly posted a video on Weibo refuting what he called “misinformation and lies,” asserting that he and Huang Zitao were never scheduled to perform together. Hearing about Huang’s complaints, he still invited him up on stage, but he never showed up (Garrix claimed he was hiding in the bathroom). Following this, the event organizers issued an apology for the confusion.

Online, opinions remain divided, with some defending Garrix and labeling Huang a “crybaby,” while others support Huang, arguing that Garrix was rude for not wanting to share the stage with the Chinese singer. Either way, it seems the two performers won’t be sharing a beer, nor a stage, anytime soon.

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

This pick from our archive – in light of the current floods – revisits the flood of three years ago. The social media trends during China’s heavy rainfall and floods in Henan in July of 2021 show the multidimensionality of online communication in times of disaster. Facing the devastating downpours, Weibo became a site for participation, propaganda, and some controversial profiting.👇

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Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Coffin Room” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “Coffin Room” (guāncái fáng 棺材房), or even “Mini Coffin Room” (mínǐ guāncái fáng 迷你棺材房), referring to extremely tiny spaces being rented out at rooms.

The term “coffin room” isn’t new; it previously appeared in mainstream media to describe small cubicles rented out in Hong Kong to people who couldn’t afford larger spaces in the exorbitantly expensive housing market. However, it has recently resurfaced on Chinese social media to describe similarly cramped spaces in Shanghai.

One viral video showcased a rental room of about 5m² (approximately 53.82 square feet) with a makeshift sleeping space right behind a toilet, measuring about two meters long and one meter wide (approximately 6.56 feet long and 3.28 feet wide), all for a monthly rent of 300 yuan ($41). This so-called “coffin room” sparked controversy, with many deeming it absurd and a testament to Shanghai’s overheated housing market. However, the landlord mentioned that the room was already rented out to a Didi driver the day it was posted. See video here.

 
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