SubscribeLog in
Connect with us

Newsletter

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.

Avatar

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Chinese New Year

Weibo Watch: Stealing the Show

About the biggest controversy surrounding the 2024 Spring Festival Gala, ‘Chunshan Studies’, Jia Ling’s peak in popularity, and other must-know Weibo topics.

Avatar

Published

on

PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #24

This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Stealing the show
◼︎ 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 Lies Behind – Celebrations and frustrations
◼︎ 6. What’s Noteworthy – Fu Yuanhui’s plea for help
◼︎ 7. What’s Popular – Multi-talented Jia Ling’s peak in popularity
◼︎ 8. What’s Memorable – The micro-film of the Spring Festival
◼︎ 9. Weibo Word of the Week – “Chunshan Studies”

 

Dear Reader,

 

It has been several years since I officially paused my PhD studies to dedicate my full attention to What’s on Weibo. My research focus during my studies was centered on the representation of the Second Sino-Japanese War in Chinese and Japanese popular culture, a topic I still find fascinating and relevant. However, one problem I encountered while doing my PhD was the constant allure of equally fascinating trends or topics to explore. The Spring Festival Gala is one such topic that always ranked high on my ‘PhD research wishlist.’

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Gala by now, but just to recap: the CMG Spring Festival Gala, formerly known as the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, is the state media’s annual live television event broadcasted on the evening of Chinese New Year since 1983. It’s one of the most-watched variety shows globally, attracting an average of 700 million viewers. Over 679 million people tuned in to the live broadcast this year (by comparison, the latest Super Bowl had a viewership of 123 million). The Gala features various acts, including singing, dancing, and comedy, spanning approximately 4 hours.

The Gala holds immense significance for all involved parties, from production teams to performers and sponsors. It’s a convergence of culture and commerce, where the Party meets pop culture. CMG (China Media Group), under the direct control of the Central Propaganda Department of the Communist Party, utilizes the show to communicate official ideology, promote traditional culture, and showcase top national performers. Despite its commercial aspect, the Gala always remains highly political, blending official propaganda with entertainment. Over the years, it has also become a platform to showcase China’s innovative digital technologies.

Given its importance, it’s not surprising that every second of the show is closely examined, analyzed, scrutinized by an audience of millions. This also results in a new controversy surrounding the show virtually every year, whether it’s about a performance that is deemed racist or about jokes that are believed to be sexist, about who appeared and who did not come up, about magic tricks going wrong or an audience member caught on camera while picking their nose.

The controversy you need to know about this year concerns Chinese actor Bai Jingting (白敬亭). Together with Wei Chen (魏晨) and Wei Daxun (魏大勋), he performed the song “Going Up Spring Mountain” (上春山). Although the song itself initially wasn’t particularly noteworthy, the performance attracted major attention due to the positioning of the three singers on a tiered platform, representing a mountain, with Bai standing on the highest pedestal. After Bai sang his part of the song, it seemed like he was supposed to step down but he didn’t, so Wei Daxun sang from a lower step afterward. It was rumored that Bai Jingting may have intentionally vied for a more prominent position to attract more attention on stage, resulting in choreographic asymmetry and some apparent confusion among the performers.

Adding fuel to these rumors is the fact that Bai was the only performer wearing all black, while the other two wore white. After rehearsal videos of the performance were posted online, netizens noticed that in one video Bai initially stepped down after singing his part, and that he also wore white in another. This led to claims that Bai purposely changed his outfit last-minute to black, so that he could ‘steal the show’ while occupying the center position. It would also make it impossible for producers to switch to a rehearsed version of the song. (Although it’s a live show, every year’s Gala has a taped version of the full dress rehearsal that runs together with the live broadcast, so that in the event of a problem or disruption, the producers can seamlessly switch to the taped version without TV audiences noticing anything. A change in position or attire would make this impossible.)

While these are all mere rumors, they triggered widespread criticism of Bai, trending throughout the week. People accused him of having a bad character and wanting to steal the limelight, it even sparked the new term ‘Chunshan Studies’ (see our Weibo Word of the Week) and the video of “Going Up Spring Mountain” (上春山) became the Gala most replayed performance. The title ““Going Up Spring Mountain” took on an entirely different meaning and was even trademarked by a company in Shenzhen. It sparked memes, jokes, and led to people mimicking the song or editing images of the performance.

CCTV made it clear in a popular Weibo hashtag that “Every move in the Spring Festival Gala is carefully designed and precisely presented” (#春晚每一个走位都精心设计并被准确呈现#), suggesting Bai followed directorial instructions and never sought the limelight. It’s quite ironic that while the Gala usually wants to pretend that there is still some spontaneity involved, it now had to stress how there actually is none whatsoever to protect Bai’s reputation.

Also ironic is that while the entire discussion revolved around whether or not Bai was stealing the show, the song “Going Up Spring Mountain” actually did steal the spotlight and became the most-discussed act of the night. This year’s controversy adds to the Gala’s long list of noteworthy moments, each shedding light on the changing dynamics of China’s evolving media landscape, propaganda efforts, nationalism, gender issues, fan culture, and more. Perhaps it’s time for someone to undertake a PhD on that…

Miranda Barnes and Ruixin Zhang contributed to this Weibo Watch newsletter.

Best,
Manya (@manyapan)

PS Is there a China Studies topic that’s on your ‘wishlist’ too? Or have you come across any new trends or online phenomena that piqued your interest? I’m always eager to learn more about what fascinates you. Don’t hesitate to shoot me a message!

 

A closer look at the featured stories

1: The CMG Gala | The CMG Spring Festival Gala is not just an essential part of Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations, it is also the biggest televised media spectacle of the year. Over the entire last week, this four-hour extravaganza featuring forty-six performances has dominated social media conversations. In this article, we reflect on the highs and lows of this year’s edition of the world’s most-watched television program. Read all about it here 👇🏼

Read more
 

2: What a Mess | In the summer of 2023, it seemed like Messi’s popularity in China had reached its peak during a friendly match between Argentina and Australia held at Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium when a Chinese fan stormed onto the pitch and embraced Messi. The incident went viral and only garnered more appreciation for the soccer superstar, who extended his arms and reciprocated the hug. Fast forward eight months, and Messi’s reputation in China has plummeted to its lowest point. His highly anticipated appearance in a match in Hong Kong failed to materialize, leaving fans and organizers disappointed. Many suspect political motivations behind his absence, leading to widespread disillusionment among Chinese fans. (Updated with Messi’s response on 2/19).

Read more
 

3: Box Office Peak Season | During the Chinese Spring Festival, along with the National Day Holiday, movies tend to earn around 32.3% more on average. Sci-fi and action films are usually the most successful, followed by comedies. Last year, the Spring Festival box office revenues accounted for about 12.3 percent of the yearly total. This year, it was actually all about comedy and animation. Jia Ling’s latest movie was the most anticipated one. Check the big nine Spring Festival movies in our article below.

Read more
 

 

What More to Know

Five Bite-Sized Trends

◼︎ 🚙 Long Way Home | Sold-out tickets, overcrowded trains, traffic jams, and aggravated travelers – the Chinese New Year travel season has been a hot topic on Chinese social media recently, sparking various discussions. Over the weekend of February 17-18, terms such as ‘way home’ (返程) and ‘traffic jam’ (堵车) dominated Weibo as the eight-day Spring Festival holiday ended, with millions returning home after leisure travel and family visits. The situation was particularly severe in Hainan, where some endured waits of up to fourteen hours for a ferry, despite local authorities predicting a seven-hour clearance for traffic jams. China Daily reported that the provincial government increased the number of flights and ferries in hopes of avoiding mass congestion, but to no avail. As people nationwide faced difficulties returning home by train, boat, or car, more voices on social media called for amendments to the annual leave and public holiday system, advocating for a more staggered return to work to alleviate nationwide travel congestion (related Weibo hashtag: #海南离岛严重拥堵有人排14小时上船#, 130 million views).

◼︎ 👫 Holding Hand Gate Continued | Remember the 2023 so-called ‘Holding Hand Gate’? Chinese social media exploded after a local SOE official was snapped by a street photographer while taking a stroll with his mistress, a co-worker who had joined him on a Chengdu business trip. The viral video showed the woman elegantly dressed in a fitted pink ensemble, adorned with a $5000 Dior purse, walking hand in hand with the official, who sported a coordinated t-shirt and carried shopping bags. The man, PetroChina executive Hu Jiyong, was fired after his extramarital affair was exposed online. The woman, PetroChina employee Ms. Dong, was also dismissed. Now, the affair has again gone trending after Ms. Dong talked about the aftermath in a February 18 Douyin livestream, calling the commotion surrounding the exposed affair a particularly dark moment in her life, which she got through thanks to the help of her loved ones. However, the livestream was cut off halfway and the account was suspended for “violating the platform’s relevant regulations” (related Weibo hashtag #太古里牵手门女当事人直播间被封#, 270 million views).

◼︎ 🤖 OpenAI’s Sora | Since the American AI research company OpenAI introduced its new video generation model ‘Sora’ on February 16, it has become a big topic of discussion in Chinese media and on Weibo. Though not officially launched yet, demo videos released by Sora show what the new text-to-video model is capable of, allowing users to create very realistic, high-quality and detailed videos. In a recent column, Chinese political commenter Hu Xijin called Sora a “groundbreaking development” while also expressing worries over how these new technologies will impact the future of realistic film and the film industry at large. At the same time, Hu also wondered what the rapid progress of American AI companies means for China and its AI ambitions, calling the introduction of Sora a “warning” that China may be lagging behind when it comes to AI. If you’re interested to read more on this, I recently wrote an op-ed for The Guardian about the US-China race for AI supremacy: link. (Related Weibo hashtag #OpenAI首个视频生成模型Sora有多强大#, 28 million views).

◼︎ 🇷🇺 Navalny’s Death | The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny shocked the world this week. The 47-year-old anti-corruption activist died in a maximum-security prison in Russia’s far north. A day before his death was announced, Navalny appeared in a court hearing, where he cracked jokes about needing money from the judge. In the years leading up to his death, Navalny endured chemical burns and survived poisoning attempts. In a video message, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, held Putin accountable for her husband’s death. Chinese state media outlets reported Navalny’s death on Weibo, citing Russian statements that he suddenly fell ill after a walk in the prison on Friday, leading to shock and eventual passing. On Weibo, some commenters cynically dubbed his death as “Russia-style modernization,” while others criticized it as “Putin’s way,” labeling Putin as a ‘Czar’ or ‘Emperor.’ There were also remarks suggesting that Navalny’s demise was the foreseeable consequence of Russia’s intolerance toward opposition, and wrote that Navalny himself had opted to return to Russia after being treated in Germany in 2021 (related Weibo hashtag #俄反对派人士纳瓦利内狱中死亡#, 27 million views).

◼︎ 🦒 Giraffes on Weibo| Since I missed one newsletter edition (following the late little rabbit news), I haven’t had the chance to cover the giraffe incident on Weibo yet. Here’s a brief overview: In early February, around the 3rd, Weibo users flooded the US embassy’s account page with complaints about their economic struggles and plummeting stock market worries. The post they were responding to wasn’t related to China’s economy at all; it was about tracking giraffes in Namibia using GPS technology. This seemingly innocent post became a platform for discussing China’s post-pandemic economic issues and also included direct criticism of Chinese leadership. It’s not uncommon for Chinese netizens to use seemingly unrelated hashtags or posts to discuss sensitive topics, hoping to evade censorship. However, the giraffe thread was eventually censored anyway. Despite this, the post still garnered over 20,000 shares and nearly a million likes. Who would’ve thought wildlife conservation could be so popular? 🤡

 

What’s the Drama

Top TV to Watch

The TV drama “Amidst a Snowstorm of Love” (在暴雪时分) currently ranks number one on Weibo and Baidu’s Top TV drama rankings. The romantic drama tells the love story of snooker player Lin Yiyang (林亦扬, played by Wu Lei 吴磊) and nine-ball player Yin Guo (殷果, played by Zhao Jinmai 赵今麦). It is a genuine love story that showcases the chemistry between the two main stars, and the high ratings for the drama show that audiences were craving a straightforward drama that warms hearts on cold days. The drama premiered on February 2 and has since skyrocketed in popularity. The main hashtag on Weibo has received over 4 billion clicks, with 150 million views on February 19 alone.

▶️ This drama is an adaptation of the novel “Amidst a Snowstorm of Love” (在暴雪时分) by Chinese web novelist and screenwriter Mobao Feibao (墨宝非宝).
▶️ Singer Deng Dian (邓典D.D, b. 1999) performed the theme song for this drama, which has also become an online hit.
▶️ To realistically portray his characters, actor Wu Lei underwent snooker and billiards training before filming the drama. He also learned horse riding, archery, badminton, and tennis for other roles, leading some commentators to joke that he’s getting ready to compete in the “Olympics” of China’s entertainment industry.

You can watch Amidst a Snowstorm of Love with English subtitles via Viki here.

 

What Lies Behind

Observations beyond the headlines, by Miranda Barnes

Only a few days into the Chinese New Year, China had already registered over 3.5 billion passenger trips. The Spring Festival travel rush is known as the world’s largest annual migration, predominantly journeys back to hometowns and family reunions. And so, over the past ten days or so, social media was flooded with videos showing family members’ emotional reactions when they are surprised by the homecoming of loved ones. Videos showed tears, laughter, hugs, and gentle scoldings for not giving advance notice of arrivals. Many viewers admitted to being moved to tears by these heartfelt moments while scrolling on their phones. But during the Spring Festival, we gradually saw a shift in people’s posts as they reported from their hometowns, where happy family reunions often turned into dinner dramas.

Returning home after prolonged separation from parents often evokes mixed feelings among Chinese younger people. While they look forward to family gatherings and homemade comfort food, they also worry that their family might find out that the idealized portrayal of their lives over the phone doesnt exactly match the reality. The joy of reunion fades with each passing day.

“It’s my fourth day home and I’ve been offering to do all the dishes to nurture our family bond,” some said, “but now, on day five, an argument has finally broke out.” While the immediate triggers for family disputes may vary, underlying reasons are often similar, as shared by Weibo users. Comments like “All you do is stay glued to your phone,” “You can’t even support yourself with your income; do you know how much money your cousin is making?” and “When are you getting married? You’re embarrassing us,” are commonplace. One commenter lamented, “I’m currently locked up in my room after a disagreement with my family. They all say home is a safe haven, but we all know that returning home during Chinese New Year means stepping into the eye of a storm.”

Amid these challenging times, psychologists offer online tips to foster better understanding of the generation gap and improve communication. Nevertheless, many express the difficulty of engaging in equal and respectful conversations with their parents and elders. As one blogger reflected, “It’s always the same emotional cycle during the Spring Festival: a honeymoon phase to start with, followed by numerous arguments, and sadness upon leaving home in the end.”

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

“We hired a car and now we’re being extorted. Halfway through, they wanted us to pay more to buy tickets; we disagreed, so now the driver won’t continue driving. What should I do? Should I call the police?” This was the urgent plea for help that Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui (傅园慧) posted on Weibo on Saturday morning, February 17th. Following her post, Fu Yuanhui and the scamming incident quickly went trending on Weibo, and her situation was soon resolved. This also led to criticism, as people argued she only got help so quickly because she is famous. Read more via link below.

Read more
 

 

The latest buzz in arts & pop culture

So far, the Year of the Dragon is an especially fruitful one for Chinese actress and director Jia Ling (贾玲). Although the famous comedian had previous major successes with her directorial debut Hi, Mom in 2021, her current popularity is unprecedented: everyone is talking about Jia Ling.

We recently covered Jia Ling’s return to the spotlight after a year-long break from the public eye. Not only did she announce her new film YOLO (热辣滚烫), the actress also lost a staggering 110 lbs (50 kg) for her role.

Her movie turned out to be the biggest box office hit of the season. Of all the different box office premieres during the eight-day Spring Festival holiday, Jia Ling’s YOLO took the lead with 2.7 billion yuan.

YOLO (热辣滚烫) is an inspirational story about an overweight woman who finds new purpose and becomes fit through boxing. But it’s about more than the movie alone: Jia Ling herself has become a great source of inspiration to others. Besides acting and directing, she is now also singing and composing. This week, the music video for Jia’s song “Everything Is Still Possible” or “Everything Comes in Time” (一切都来得及) was released. In the video, the ‘new’ Jia Ling can be seen singing a duet with her former self, singing about the importance of loving yourself.

Jia Ling singing a duet with her old self.

After her box office success, hit song, and new appearance, it seems that Jia Ling is at the peak of her popularity. She’s become a role model for her talent, dedication, and style – she’s the hottest woman on Weibo.

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

In light of the Spring Festival, we’ve picked this article from our archive from one year ago which explores a new genre that was introduced during the CMG Gala in 2023, namely the ‘micro film.’ While this year’s show also featured another short film by director Zhang Dapeng at the very beginning, the 2023 short film titled “Me and My Spring Festival Night” (“我和我的春晚”) truly captivated audiences. This 7-minute mini-film was a remarkable piece of storytelling with a surprising twist at the end. Many viewers hailed it as the highlight of the Gala, with some even going so far as to call it the best segment of the Gala they’d seen in a decade. Read more about the short film here 👇

Read more

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Chunshan Studies” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “Spring Mountain Studies” or “Chunshan Studies” (Chūn Shān Xué 春山学), a phrase which has taken the Chinese internet by storm recently.

“Chunshan Studies” emerged as a result of the controversy surrounding the song “Going Up Spring Mountain” performed at the annual CMG Spring Festival by Bai Jingting (白敬亭), Wei Chen (魏晨), and Wei Daxun (魏大勋). Bai, the only singer of the three dressed in black and standing at the highest pedestal during the live performance, became the subject of online scrutiny when netizens accused him of purposely choosing his position and attire to steal the spotlight.

The incident became a hot topic, almost evolving into a full-fledged study with various related theories, hence netizens humorously started referring to it as “Spring Mountain Studies” or “Chunshan Studies”. Netizens meticulously scrutinized everything from wardrobe details to body language, searching for hidden meanings and subtle clues that may reveal the intentions of those involved and the truth of what happened on stage. On social media platforms Douyin and Bilibili, numerous “Chunshan Studies” videos emerged, providing frame-to-frame analyses of how Bai Jingting may have tried to seize the main position and supposed abnormal stage movements.

Chunshan Studies has become a distinct field of study focusing on the “Going Up Spring Mountain” controversy, but it also intersects with critical analysis, popular media discourse, and social studies. Some commenters believe that the discussions about Bai Jingting’s position on stage are actually about equity and ethical behavior.

Guess we all learned something new this Spring Festival!

 
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.

Continue Reading

Chinese New Year

Weibo Watch: Late Little Rabbit

Experts anticipate a small peak in “dragon babies” (龙宝宝) births this year. But many young people don’t care much for lunar birth timing.

Manya Koetse

Published

on

PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #23

 

Dear Reader,

 

With a record 9 billion passenger trips expected in the upcoming weeks, China’s Spring Festival travel rush is in full swing. Preparations for festivities and family reunions are underway, and the most auspicious year for baby-making is about to begin.

The Year of the Dragon, specifically the Wood Dragon, will commence on February 10th. While in some years, mothers are trying to deliver their babies earlier to make sure it is not born in what is considered a less lucky year (such as the Year of the Sheep), the dragon year is known for seeing an increase in (delayed) births. Many expectant couples and aspiring parents across China hope to deliver their babies in what is traditionally seen as the most auspicious year for a child to be born.

As a symbol of power once associated with the emperor, children born in the dragon year are believed to be destined for good fortune and are more likely to become leaders. “Wàng zǐ chéng long” (望子成龙) is a Chinese idiom that literally translates to “hoping one’s son becomes a dragon” and means to have great hopes for one’s offspring to succeed in life.

This year, experts anticipate a small peak in “dragon babies” (lóng bǎobǎo 龙宝宝) births. The last Year of the Dragon, 2012, also witnessed a temporary increase in births in mainland China. Some maternity wards even had to add beds, and expectant mothers were reminded to reserve their spot months in advance (Huang et al 2021; Hvistendahl 2013).

While a baby boom won’t solve China’s demographic problems, it would be welcomed this year. Earlier this month, the National Bureau of Statistics reported just 9.02 million births for mainland China in 2023, another record low after 2022 when only 9.56 million babies were born. It was the first time deaths outnumbered births in China since the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s.

Despite triggering discussions and concerns on Chinese social media, many young people suggest that the ‘experts’ worrying about China’s dropping birth rates should go ahead and have more babies themselves. Even a lucky dragon year won’t convince them to have children amidst youth unemployment and rising living costs.

Some feel that the Year of the Dragon only adds to the pressures they already face. In social media discussions, they come up with various reasons to disagree with parents and family members urging them to have a baby this year. After all, having a baby in the dragon year may make it harder for the child, facing increased competition in education and the workplace from fellow dragon babies.

On Weibo, Sina Finance recently conducted a poll, asking netizens if they deliberately choose a specific time, such as the dragon year, for having children. Despite strong traditional beliefs in lunar birth timing, nearly 80% of respondents said they would not pick a particular timing for their child’s birth, as any timing is considered the best timing.

I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, and I’m thrilled to share some personal news with you: my baby boy Kai entered the world early last week, at the tail end of the Year of the Rabbit. Though not as mighty and bold as the Dragon, the Rabbit is cherished for symbolizing longevity, peace, and prosperity. Kai is not only healthy and strong but also irresistibly cute and cuddly, so I can definitely accept that he just couldn’t wait for the dragon year to make his debut. We’ll make do with the rabbit charm instead.

The arrival of my own late little rabbit this month is also why it has been quiet at What’s on Weibo over the past two weeks. Meanwhile, on Weibo, various topics trended; the Chunyun travel season started (Jan 26-March 6), a devastating landslide hit Yunnan, two deadly fires raised discussions, the Brendan Kavanagh incident unfolded and made international headlines, and Olympic champion Eileen Gu once again became a hot topic. We’ll get back to writing about these trends and much more in the coming weeks. Our next regular newsletter will be sent to you in the first week of the Year of the Dragon.

Until then,

Best,
Manya

References:

Huang, Cheng, Shiying Zhang, Qingguo Zhao, and Yan Lin. 2021. “Dragon Year Superstition, Birth Timing, and Neonatal Health Outcomes.” China Economic Review 66: 101594. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chieco.2021.101594.

Hvistendahl, Mara. 2013. “Enter the Dragons.” The Atlantic (Jan/Feb): 21-22.

 

 
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.

Continue Reading

Popular Reads