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Weibo Watch: Doing Homework at the Hospital

Much lies behind the image of Chinese kids doing their homework in hospitals. We discuss that powerful image, the latest film about Zhang Guimei, the Three Subject Dance, and the Weibo hashtags to know.

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PREMIUM NEWSLETTER | ISSUE #19

This week’s newsletter:
◼︎ 1. Editor’s Note – Homework at hospitals
◼︎ 2. What’s Featured – A closer look at the featured stories
◼︎ 3. What More to Know – Highlighting 8 hot topics
◼︎ 4. What Lies Behind – Observations beyond the headlines, by Miranda Barnes
◼︎ 5. What’s Noteworthy – Much ado about fried eggs
◼︎ 6. What’s Popular – Shaoxing opera draws in a new kind of audience
◼︎ 7. What’s Memorable – One year since the ‘White Paper Protests’
◼︎ 8. Weibo Word of the Week – “Subject Three Dance”, a viral hit

 

Dear Reader,

 

‘What is this mysterious illness coming from China?’ ‘I heard Chinese hospitals are filled with kids?’ ‘Are face masks mandatory again?’ ‘Is the Health Code coming back?’ Over the past two weeks, while I was lying in bed with a fever of 39 degrees, I received numerous messages from non-Chinese friends expressing concern about images circulating online showing parents and their sick kids lining up in Chinese hospitals. For some, these scenes evoked memories of the early days of the pandemic and worries about an unknown virus.

While attracting global attention, the recent surge in China’s respiratory illnesses even prompted the World Health Organization to request more information from China about the clusters of pneumonia in children. Chinese health authorities reported no detection of unusual or novel pathogens. This current wave, occurring as China enters its first full winter season since the end of its ‘zero Covid’ restrictions, appears to be a mix of Mycoplasma infections, influenza, Covid-19, Norovirus, and Adenovirus. Coughs, colds, and fevers are notably affecting school-aged children.

A particular image that went viral recently showed Chinese school children doing homework while hooked up to an IV in the hospital. To some on the X platform, the image seemed so bizarre that they questioned its authenticity, suggesting it was fake or AI-generated. The English-language state media outlet SHINE (Shanghai Daily) clarified in one of its recent articles that the image was, in fact, real, and that study areas at some hospital infusion centers have been around since at least 2019.

However, that particular article, titled “AI-generated? Photo of Chinese students doing homework in hospital stirs X debate” was later taken offline and now leads to a 404 page.

Perhaps the disappearance of the article reflects the discomfort surrounding the scenes of Chinese schoolkids doing homework at hospitals. For many, seeing children in hospitals is already disheartening, but the sight of them doing homework in that setting –gasp– is the most dreadful thing they can imagine while also feeding into prejudiced ideas some foreigners may hold about life in China.

One thing I noticed about those messages I received about the images and videos depicting the surge in respiratory illnesses in China is that many people, especially those speaking from a European perspective, assume that children receiving IV fluids at the hospital must be seriously ill. The idea of letting such children do their homework is simply inconceivable.

In reality, it doesn’t necessarily take much to receive IV fluids in many Chinese hospitals or clinics. Unfortunately, part of China’s healthcare culture involves a profit-driven approach that can lead to over-prescriptions, excessive antibiotic use, unnecessary admissions, and the administration of intravenous fluids. Coupled with patients’ preference for hospital-based services and widespread expectations that IV infusions will make them feel better and speed up recovery, it’s not surprising that the practice of administering IV therapy has become routine among Chinese patients, even when their symptoms are mild.

Despite the prevalence of IV use and the many concerned parents who (partly also due to a lack in General Practictioners) are quick to take their sick kids to hospitals and clinics, the image and news articles of children doing their homework in hospitals also triggered discussions on Chinese social media.

The main point of discussion was not that the kids were too ill to do their homework nor that it was bizarre (many people actually praised local hospitals for setting up special study corners); the main focus was how these images embodied the concept of nèijuǎn 内卷, “involution.”

This buzzword has been generating discussions on Chinese social media for years now, and represents the competitive circumstances in academic or professional settings in China where individuals are compelled to overwork because of the standard raised by their peers who appear to be even more hardworking. One popular slogan used by a Chinese cram school showed that this societal rat-race already starts at a very young age: “If you come to us, we will train your kids, if you don’t come to us, we will train the competitors of your kids.”

Chinese clinics and hospitals offering special study rooms or homework corners for kids are actually also part of this ‘rat race.’ One hospital in Nantong, Jiangsu, recently opened up its brand-new study corner in the IV area (输液区一角“学习区”). A spokesperson argued that the hospital does not encourage parents to let their sick kids do homework at the hospital while hooked onto an IV. Still, without such spaces, kids would end up doing homework on floors and in dimly-lit hallways, creating a messy situation and making them even more uncomfortable.

Similarly, schools in Beijing have clarified that students who are ill are not required to finish their homework. Parents have also voiced their opinions, saying they don’t want their kids to do school work when they are ill, but the pressure is simply too much to avoid it.

Much lies behind the image of Chinese kids doing their homework at a hospital, but there’s also a lesson in how quickly people jump to conclusions without understanding the context. While that powerful image is interpreted differently in various contexts, one thing most people seem to agree on is that it’s never a bad idea to take things slow when feeling ill, especially for kids who could use a break.

As I pour myself another hot water with honey and ginger, I hope you also take care of your health during this cold and flu season and remember to take a pause from the everyday rat race, no matter your age or location.

Best,
Manya

 

A closer look at the top stories

1: The Challenges of an Ordinary Chinese Couple | Two years after they first started sharing their story on Chinese social media, millions of netizens are engrossed in the struggles of the Chinese young parents Li Jun and Liang Liang, whose journey of starting a family and buying an apartment in the city at a time of economic downturn turned into an emotional rollercoaster.

Read more
 

2: Overwhelming Success of a Haidian Food Vendor | A Beijing food vendor, affectionately known as ‘Auntie Goose Legs,’ has become a viral sensation after becoming super popular among the city’s student community. However, this beloved ‘auntie’ has caused quite a commotion recently after relocating her stall, triggering debates among local students over which university she truly ‘belongs’ to.

Read more
 

3: Hu Xijin and Others Discuss Dutch Politics | The Dutch general elections on Tuesday, November 2022, resulted in a victory for the right-wing Freedom Party (PVV). The party, established in 2006, is led by the 60-year-old Dutch politician Geert Wilders who is known for his outspoken populist rhetoric and anti-establishment sentiments. On Chinese social media, the Dutch election outcome became a topic discussed by some well-known bloggers.

Read more
 

4: Hospitals Flooded during Wave of ‘Flu’ Cases | Recent discussions on Chinese social media platforms have highlighted a notable surge in flu cases. The ongoing flu season is particularly impacting children, with multiple viruses concurrently circulating and contributing to a high incidence of respiratory infections. Among the prevalent respiratory infections affecting children are Mycoplasma pneumoniae infections, influenza, and Adenovirus infection. The spike in flu cases has resulted in overcrowded children’s hospitals in Beijing and other Chinese cities. Parents sometimes have to wait in line for hours to get an appointment or pick up medication.

Read more
 

 

What More to Know

Highlighting 8 hot topics

◼︎ 1. “OLD FRIEND OF CHINA” KISSINGER DIES AGED 100 | The death of the 100-year-old Henry Kissinger made international headlines this week. In China, the former US Secretary of State is mostly remembered as “an old friend” of the country. His lifelong connection to China started in 1971, when he traveled to Beijing for a private meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai to plan the details of the significant and groundbreaking visit by President Nixon, which eventually took place in February 1972. Kissinger would eventually visit China over a 100 times, even after his retirement. His last visit to China took place in July of 2023, when he attended a meeting with President Xi Jinping. This week, Xi sent a condolence message to President Biden and extended sincere condolences to Kissinger’s family. Kissinger’s book On China is still a much-read classic in China.

Besides grieving over the death of Kissinger, Chinese netizens also mourned the loss of another American this week, namely Charlie Munger. The legendary investor, who had many fans in China, died at the age of 99. (Weibo hashtag “Kissinger Passes Away” #基辛格逝世#, 680 million views).

◼︎ 2. GETTING FINED IN SICHUAN’S PUGE | In November, the leaders of a village in Puge, a county in southern Sichuan Province, sparked heated debates by introducing new regulations. According to these rules, local residents could potentially face fines for maintaining a ‘dirty and disordered’ (‘脏乱差’) living environment. Examples of offenses include leaving spider webs in the home, having an untidy bed, or neglecting to do the dishes. The fines range from 3 yuan to 30 yuan ($0.42-$4.20). While some commenters believe that these regulations reflect the village’s attempt to promote cleanliness and order, an online poll revealed that the majority of respondents disagree with the idea of local village leaders imposing fines for personal messiness. (Weibo hastag “Place in Sichuan Gives 10 Yuan Fine for Not Folding Blanket” #四川一地规定不叠被子罚10元#, 140 million views).

◼︎ 3. VISA-FREE CHINA TRAVEL FOR 5 EU COUNTRIES + MALAYSIA | On November 24, China’s Foreign Ministry announced that, starting from December 1st 2023, individuals holding ordinary passports from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Malaysia can enjoy visa-free entry to China for business, tourism, family visits, and transit, as long as their stay does not exceed 15 days. This initiative, which aligns with China’s broader efforts to boost tourism and promote international exchanges, will continue until November 30, 2024. On Weibo, many netizens expressed disappointment that the visa-free travel regulation was unilateral; Chinese travelers still need a visa to enter these countries. (Weibo hashtag “China Tries Out Visa-Free Policy for France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Malaysia” #中方将对法德意荷西马六国试行免签政策#, 110 million views.)

◼︎ 4. CIVIL SERVANTS EXAMS | The yearly national public servant exams in China began last Sunday. With over 3 million candidates, this year marks a historically high number of candidates who are vying for the available 39,600 job openings in central government agencies and affiliated institutions – twice the amount of positions that were available in 2019. (Weibo hashtag “Average of 77 People Competing for One Position for 2024 National Exam” #2024国考平均约77人竞争一岗位#, 34 million views).

◼︎ 5. PINDUODUO’S 11-11-6 WORK SCHEDULE | As news circulated on November 29 that Pinduoduo, the Chinese online retailer, was on the verge of surpassing Alibaba as China’s most valuable e-commerce firm (spoiler: Alibaba remained the largest by day’s end), discussions about the company’s demanding work schedule gained traction on Weibo. According to insiders, employees are required to follow an “11-11-6” work system: start work at 11:00 a.m., get off at 11:00 p.m., and work six days a week. Sometimes they allegedly also work overtime until the early hours of the morning, making 70-hour work weeks. The harsh work culture at Pinduoduo already triggered national debates in 2021 after the sudden death of a 22-year-old female employee. (Weibo hashtag “Pinduoduo Work System” ##拼多多 工作制##, 50.9 million views).

◼︎ 6. COTTI COFFEE GOES TEA CAT | Cotti Coffee (库迪咖啡), founded by Charles Lu and Jenny Qian, former Luckin Coffee executives who departed in 2020, has expanded to over 5,000 locations across more than 300 cities in five countries. The brand gained attention last week with the announcement of its entry into the tea market. Starting from January 2024, Cotti is set to unveil its Milk Tea brand “Tea Cat” (茶猫), which is now in its pilot store testing phase. Given Cotti’s remarkable growth over the past 2 years, we can anticipate a surge in the number of ‘Tea Cat’ outlets in Chinese cities in the near future. (Weibo hashtag “Cotti Coffee Marches into the Tea [Industry]” #库迪咖啡进军奶茶#, 42,5 million views).

◼︎ 7. CHINESE BILLIONAIRE BUSINESSMAN REUNITED WITH SON | On December 1st, Jie Kefeng (解克锋), a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur from Hebei who had offered a million yuan reward to find his missing son, Jie Qingshuai (解清帅), finally reunited with him after 25 years. Jie Kefeng and his wife held a thank-you banquet on December 2nd, which attracted considerable attention online. Jie Qingshuai, the couple’s second son, was abducted in 1998 when his mother left him at home to run a quick errand. The couple never gave up on finding their son and finally, through the help of anti-child trafficking authorities and technology, they found their son, who was sold by human traffickers as a child. The people responsible for his kidnapping have since been arrested. (Weibo hashtag: “Billionaire Family Throws 26th Birthday Party for Abducted Son” #亿万富翁全家为被拐儿子补过26岁生日#, 32.2 million views).

◼︎ 8. YANG MING’S LOVE STRUGGLES | The renowned Chinese basketball player and head coach of the Liaoning Flying Leopards, Yang Ming (杨鸣), took center stage on Chinese social media this week due to rumors about his divorce from his wife Tang Jialiang, with whom he has two children. Despite Yang Ming being a prominent figure in the sports realm rather than in the Chinese entertainment circle, the private aspects of his life, particularly his romantic relationships, continue to captivate netizens who have been following the gossip surrounding the handsome coach for years. This heightened interest is fueled by past speculations of Yang Ming being involved with a female college student. His current romantic interest supposedly is a 45-year-old music teacher. (Weibo hashtag “Exposed: Yang Ming Divorced” ##杨鸣被曝离婚##, 430 million views).

 

What Lies Behind

Observations beyond the headlines, by Miranda

Discussions over ‘True Feminism’

Beyond the Clouds (我本是高山) is a biographical film that premiered in China on November 24. Directed by Zheng Dasheng (郑大圣) and Yang Jin (杨锦), the film portrays the life of Zhang Guimei (张桂梅, 1957), a nationally renowned female principal who manages a girls’ school in the impoverished Huaping County, Lijiang, Yunnan province.

As a teacher in Huaping County, Zhang noticed many girls dropping out of school, forced into marriage or work. In many underprivileged areas of China, where sons are often favored over daughters, girls’ education takes a hit when finances are tight. Driven by her commitment to the higher Communist cause and the belief in the pivotal role of female education in shaping the nation’s future, Zhang established the first free girls’ school in China in 2008 with the help of donations. Over the past 15 years, this school has sent over 2000 girls to universities, setting them on diverse career paths.

Over the past decade, Zhang Guimei’s selfless work has been praised by the people and recognised by the authorities. In 2021, she even received a medal from Xi Jinping for her lifelong dedication to girls’ education in rural China, precisely where women’s emancipation is most crucial. Despite her popularity as a feminist championing girls’ education in China, the film has faced criticism for distorting elements of her story.

For instance, the film portrayed Zhang’s motivation to sustain the school as a personal response to mourning her husband’s early death. Feminist supporters of Zhang argue that this narrative transforms her commitment to a higher cause into a personal and romantic motive: ‘Can’t she just be doing this because she believes in the importance of female power? Why does everything have to be motivated by a man?’ they challenged.

Another point of discussion is how the film portrays female students skipping school to go shopping or hang out at internet cafes. Many commenters argued that this is far from the reality, “do you know how much these girls value their opportunity to continue school? Why do you portray them like that?” Another reason why some argued the movie was actually not supporting the feminist cause is how it changed a real story relating to an abusive alcoholic father into one about an alcoholic mother instead. Outraged, some fans of Zhang’s work see these kinds of seemingly trivial changes as an attack on Chinese women, going against the nature of Zhang’s lifework.

Although Chinese state media is promoting Beyond the Clouds through online platforms and news articles, the voices criticizing the adaptation will not be silenced. While official channels mostly emphasize how Zhang is a true communist, many of her fans mostly see her as a true feminist – and they vehemently resist any attempts to frame Zhang or her story within a patriarchal narrative.

 

What’s Noteworthy

Small news with big impact

Much Ado About Fried Eggs

Mao Anying, Chinese military officer and the son of Mao Zedong, died on November 25 in 1950. Every year, there are some sensitivities surrounding this date because of fried egg rice. One part of Mao Anying’s death that has become an ongoing, urban-legend-kind-of online story is that he supposedly disobeyed army rules and cooked egg fried rice at the Chinese headquarters in the North Korean battlefield. The smoke of the fire supposedly alerted the enemy and led to the bombing in which he would lose his life. The anniversary of Mao Anying’s death has therefore come to be mocked and celebrated by some netizens as “Egg Fried Rice Day” (蛋炒饭节) or “Chinese Thanksgiving” (中国感恩节), since it’s close to the American Thanksgiving.

A few years ago, the sensitive nature of this meme became clear when Chinese celebrity chef Wang Gang (王刚), with many social media followers, uploaded a video on how to prepare Yangzhou-style fried rice. As described by Dennis E. Yi (2020), the chef was accused of “humiliating China” due to the alleged – and perhaps unintentional – connection to Mao Anying.

This year, Wang Gang once again found himself apologizing for sharing an egg fried rice tutorial around the anniversary of Mao Anying’s death, sparking allegations of disrespect towards Mao Zedong’s son. As this marked the third instance of Wang Gang facing backlash over fried rice, he has now pledged to refrain from making egg fried rice in the future (“作为厨子,以后再也不做炒饭”). Relevant hashtag pages have since been removed from Weibo.

If you want to know more about a renewed focus on Mao Anying in Chinese online media, where official voices communicate why – and in which way – Mao Anying needs to be remembered by the Chinese people, do read this feature article we published in 2022.

Read more

 

The latest buzz in arts & pop culture, by Ruixin

Why Shaoxing Opera is Popular Among Chinese Youth

Yue opera (越剧), also known as Shaoxing opera, is a Chinese opera genre that originated in Zhejiang Province and is particularly popular in Shanghai. Although Chinese opera is generally mostly loved by China’s older generations, new adaptations of classic plays or films featuring a fresh generation of opera performers have now also generated a buzz among China’s younger audiences.

Recently, it’s Yue opera New Dragon Gate Inn (新龙门客栈) that has gone viral, featuring six actresses (they also play the roles of men) of the Zhejiang Xiaobaihua (小百花) troupe. The play is actually an adaptation of the 1992 martial arts film. One actress in particular has become popular online for her cross-gender acting (女扮男装), namely Chen Lijun (陈丽君), who plays the role of Jia Ting. She joined the Xiaobaihua troupe in 2013, right after her graduation.

The online succes of this show (and other ones, including Butterfly Lovers 梁祝) and their performers has led to a run on opera tickets and has cultivated a new kind of theater audience. New Dragon Gate Inn is performed at the Butterfly studio theater in Hangzhou (杭州蝴蝶剧场) and uses immersive theater styles to break away from traditional forms of opera performance. If you want to grab a ticket, you’ll have to really try since you’ll join thousands of others who are eagerly waiting to attend one of the shows in real life.

 

What’s Memorable

Best reads from the archive

One Year Since White Paper Protests

Exactly one year ago, news of protest movements popping up in various cities across China went buzzing around the internet. After enduring months of stringent Covid measures, students in Nanjing and Xi’an gathered around campus and held up blank paper sheets in protest of censorship. Their white papers said what could not be expressed, and so the movement was soon dubbed the “white paper protest” or the “A4 Revolution.”

Unrest and protests happened from Urumqi to Nanjing, from Beijing to Shanghai. People sang the ‘Farewell’ song (送别) to commemorate those who died in the tragic 11.24 Urumqi fire and who spent the last 100 days of their lives in lockdown. Online, people used various hashtags and posted clips of ‘Do you Hear the People Sing’ from Les Misérables.

But while news of the protests made global headlines, the terms “outside forces” or “external forces” (外部势力) increasingly popped up in Chinese social media discussions. Boosted by nationalistic bloggers, the idea that foreign forces were meddling in China’s affairs became more prevalent as a way to explain the sudden wave of protests . Read more in this newsletter’s pick from our archive below.

Read more

 

Weibo Word of the Week

The catchword to know

“Subject Three” | Our Weibo Word of the Week is “Subject Three” (kē mù sān 科目三).

Recently, ‘Subject Three’ has become a buzzword on Chinese social media in connection with a viral dance, the Subject Three Dance (科目三舞蹈). From Douyin to Bilibili, the dance is super popular online and is performed by various people, from online influencers to virtual vloggers. The dance has become especially big since the renowned Chinese hotpot chain, Haidilao, allowed its staff to perform this viral dance for diners upon request, leading to amusing and occasionally awkward situations. On November 28, one customer even turned violent when he found the Subject Three performance at a local Huai’an restaurant too noisy and annoying.

The term ‘Subject Three’ allegedly first gained traction in 2022 or early 2023 following a video showcasing the jubilant atmosphere of a Guangxi wedding. Subsequently, ‘Guangxi Subject Three’ (广西科目三) became a popular reference, originating from a humorous joke. Although traditionally associated with the third part of a driver’s license exam, people playfully suggested that Guangxi locals undergo three significant “exams” in their lifetime: one for singing folk songs, one for mastering the art of slurping rice noodles, and the third for dancing (“广西人一生中会经历三场考试,科目一唱山歌,科目二嗦米粉,科目三跳舞”).

By now, the dance has transcended its original context of Guangxi weddings and Haidilao staff dances, as it’s turned into a true social media hype where people create and share videos of themselves and others performing the Subject Three Dance, which is characterized by playful and exaggerated movements accompanied by the background music of “江湖一笑” (Jianghu Smile), making it entertaining, humorous, and, most of all, meme-worthy.

 
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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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.

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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 👇🏼

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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).

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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.

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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.

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