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Weibo’s Digital Graveyard: Remembering the Dead on Chinese Social Media

‘The Dead’ honors the deceased and tries to break existing taboos on death in China.

Brydon Brancart

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With China’s rapid digitalization and flourishing online media environment, there’s one crucial societal topic that, although taboo, also now finds its place on Chinese social media: this Weibo account collects the stories of the dead and writes their online eulogies. In doing so, they are trying to break longstanding taboos around death in China.

“My grandmother passed away due to illness in 2016. She was 78 years old. My grandmother was a kind soul. She married my grandfather after his divorce. They had never even seen each other before [her] mother and father prepared the marriage, and yet she lovingly cared for him her entire life.” This eulogy was posted on Weibo on February 12th of this year.

Within hours after it was posted, over 100 people had replied with the most popular emoji for these type of posts: the candle.

Since 2011, thousands of these kinds of posts have appeared on Weibo, one of China’s biggest microblogs, thanks to “The Dead” (@逝者如斯夫dead), an account run by a small team dedicated to memorializing the deceased. Through their online memorials, they have encouraged conversation of a taboo topic.

 

HUNTING FOR THE DEAD ON WEIBO

“We wanted to provide a place for people to remember those who had passed away”

 

Starting small, ‘The Dead,’ which borrows its Chinese name from the Confucian phrase “All passes like a river” (逝者如斯夫 Shì zhě rú sī fū), has amassed over half a million followers. “We wanted to provide a place for people to remember those who had passed away,” a team member recently explained to What’s on Weibo.

Weibo users typically contact the account requesting eulogies about their deceased loved one, but such direct requests were rare just a few years ago. Instead, the account started by hunting for the dead among Weibo’s pages. They searched for signs of a user’s passing, like comments about mourning, and then monitoring the account for inactivity.

‘The Dead’ told What’s on Weibo that “while at present most of our information comes from Weibo users,” its team will still “go through the deceased’s page…looking through comments in the discussion section and asking about the user’s current condition” to confirm a death and glean facts for a memorial posting.

Few of its half a million followers personally know the people in the obituaries. But their reaction to its eulogies reveals a deep and often emotional connection to the topic of death.

“Every now and then I go to their page and scroll through the memorials,” one follower writes: “Those people, who were so full of life, passed away just like that. It’s so moving that sometimes I scroll until my eyes fill with tears.”

Another follower comments: “Whenever I’m feeling low I go and scroll through [the page], it always calms me down. I’ve been very inspired by it, thank you.” For many Chinese, such an open discussion of death would have been unthinkable in the past.

 

DEATH AS TABOO

“This taboo has an independent power in shaping human action”

 

Every culture confronts death differently and few do it well. Traditional Chinese culture shunned discussions of death, notes Cheris Shun-Ching Chan, professor of sociology at Hong Kong University.

Chan believes that Confucian silence on questions of death and folk Buddhist references to “a dark world (yinjian) and a cruel hell (diyue)” account for the topic’s avoidance. She also points to fears that a premature death could mark the end of one’s lineage (Chan 2012,37).

Chan’s survey research found that avoidance of any discussion about death was so widespread that it had become taboo. “The taboo manifests as an observable avoidance of the topic,” Chan writes, “particularly unexpected, accidental, or premature death, among not only the elderly but also the generation in their late 20s and 30s” (Chan 2012,36).

While religious belief waned during the tumult of the 20th century, the taboo persisted. “Today, this taboo has an independent power in shaping human action,” Chan argues: “In other words, one does not need to hold beliefs about hell, the dark world, ghosts, evils, and precipitating death in order to observe the taboo” (2012,38-40).

Stifling discussion about death has consequences, big and small. Individuals unwilling to acknowledge death are reluctant to write wills or register as organ donors. Respecting the death taboo, doctors avoid delivering a terminal diagnosis to patients, informing family members instead.

One news story from 1993 exemplifies this taboo on death; when residents near China’s first hospice care center protested the presence of death in their neighborhood, matters turned violent. They started shattering the center’s windows, driving doctors and their patients from the center in the middle of the night. As the health needs of China’s population evolves with its economic growth, the death taboo threatens much more.

In a rapidly aging China, people live longer and deaths cost more than ever before. The World Health Organization reports that eight of the top ten causes of death in China are now due to non-communicable diseases.

As deaths caused by accidents and communicable diseases have dropped, death by stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer have jumped double digits and with that jump, a commensurate increase in the costly treatments of these diseases.

A 2013 study of the cost of non-communicable disease on the Chinese economy predicted that between 2012-2030, China will spend 27.6 trillion dollars remedying non-communicable disease. The death taboo threatens to leave China unprepared to care for a population living longer thanks to better medical care but dying at higher rates of chronic illness.

Health care in China is free, to a point. According to the Economist, China’s national health-insurance system caps reimbursements for treatment of serious chronic illness like heart disease and end of life care. The death taboo poses a risk to families in a country where it is still considered unfilial by many to pursue a course of treatment other than one meant to cure the patient.

Hospice care, which should be cheaper, is rarely considered and seldom available. While hospice care is now part of the standard course of treatment for end of life care in EU and North America, the death taboo undermines demand for the service. This, in turn, removes pressure on medical insurers to provide hospice coverage. Insurance coverage for hospice care is so limited that families are forced to pay out of pocket for most hospice care.

 

ADDRESSING DEATH

“Everyone ought to admit death’s existence and face up to its realities”

 

Addressing these challenges starts with acknowledging death as a part of life. “People have slowly become more willing to discuss death,” the Weibo ‘The Dead’ team observes: “You can see this in Weibo users openly posting about the passing of loved ones.”

Beyond Weibo, the account’s rejection of the death taboo has also found powerful allies elsewhere. In Beijing, Chen Yi and Luo Ruiqing, children of prominent CCP members, launched the Beijing Living Will Promotion Association, advocating for individuals and families to openly discuss and plan for end of life care.

Yi and Ruiqing explain to Caixin that watching the slow and painful death of their parents with few options for palliative care moved them to take action.

Their website provides information to help individuals decide about the kind of end of life care they want and how to ensure their wishes are followed through the use of a living will, a standard feature of Western health care but new to China.

In Shanghai, Wang Ying, a psychologist who now specializes in end-of-life, is taking a different approach to addressing the same problem. Ying founded Hand in Hand, an organization that encourages individuals to openly discuss their deaths as a form of preparation.

Like Yi and Ruiqing, Ying’s determination to challenge the death taboo stemmed from her conviction that repressing a discussion about end of life care and death causes his elder relatives needless suffering at the end of their lives.

Noting the rising interest in their Weibo account, ‘The Dead’ has recently started a Wechat mini app where users can send manage their own memorials and share them with others. The team believes that Weibo and Wechat allow them to reach out to a large audience all over the country.

They admit, however, that problems of economic disparity have limited their reach, and guess that most of their subjects and contributors are urban dwellers. Still, they are hopeful that their work can help change many people’s perspectives.

“Everyone ought to admit death’s existence and face up to its realities,” they say: “Working hard to live with an understanding of death is a lesson every Chinese person must learn.”

By Brydon Brancart

References (other sources in-text through hyperlinks)

Chan, Cheris Shun-Ching. 2012. Marketing Death: Culture and the Making of a Life Insurance Market in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Brydon Brancart is a writer and Chinese translator. Originally from California, he has lived in both Beijing and Shanghai. He is interested in understanding the role modern media trends play in shaping worldviews, personal identity, and social behavior.

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China Digital

TikTok’s In-Video Search Function (And How to Activate It)

TikTok shows a glimpse of what in-video search is going to look like in the future.

Manya Koetse

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What is TikTok’s new in-video search function and how to activate it?

Twitter’s most awesome WeChat guru Matthew Brennan recently posted about an “in-video search function” launched in the Chinese social video app TikTok (抖音). (Click here to read about the difference between the Chinese and overseas version of TikTok).

As shown in a video posted by Brennan, the function allows TikTok users to select the face or clothes of a person appearing in a short video to search for other videos or images containing the same person or clothes.

The ‘vision search’ is a powerful new function within the super popular app.

The idea is that it becomes easier than ever for Tiktok users to find (and buy!) a piece of clothing, that perfect handbag, or even a snack featured in a video.

It also helps users to quickly find other videos in which an online celebrity appears. The function ultimately is an additional feature that keeps users scrolling and shopping within the app – increasing app traffic – as long as possible.

On September 16, Chinese media reported about the function as a “powerful” new tool that greatly strengthens the functionality of the popular short video app.

The function might not immediately seem completely new to Chinese app users; like Google Image Search, Baidu and Taobao also have similar functions (百度识图, 淘宝识图).

On e-commerce platform Taobao, for example, you can take a photo of an item you want (e.g. a certain snack as in example below) and Taobao will try to find the exact same product and list the online stores where you can buy it.

But TikTok’s in-video search function is on a whole new level; it does not require users to scan or upload a photo at all. It gives an indication of what visual search will be like in the future.

Whatever video comes by in your TikTok stream, you only need to click the “search” function (识图), select the part of the video you want to search for (you can drag the square from area to area), and TikTok will find the product or face you’re looking for – as long as there are comparable products/faces (it does so very fast).

Very much like Taobao, TikTok will recommend various (in-app) online stores where the product can be purchased.

Want to try out the function? For now, it only works in the Chinese version of the app and is still in the ‘testing phase’ and does not work with all videos.

Make sure you have an updated version of TikTok.

1. Go to “me” (我) page within TikTok
2. Tick the three lines in the top right corner
3. Go to the last option in the sidebar menu titled “lab” (实验室)
4. Activate the function (image below).

So now if you spot a dress you like and would like to buy, press the ‘search’ button on the right of a video, select the dress, and TikTok becomes like your personal shopping assistant looking for similar dresses for you.

Tiktok makes shopping supereasy.

This really makes online shopping more addictive than ever, and also makes it more difficult for people in online videos to hide where they bought their clothing, or what other videos they are in.

Read more about Tiktok here.
Read more about Chinese apps here.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Digital

Didi Riders Can Now Have “Verified Party Members” Drive Them Around

Party-building 3.0? Didi has got it covered.

Manya Koetse

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This is Party-building in the new era: Didi now allows users of its Premier Car Service to let a verified Party member drive them to their destination.

On September 20, as the People’s Republic of China is nearing its 70th-anniversary celebrations, the country’s most popular taxi-hailing app Didi published an article on Weibo and WeChat explaining its verified Party Member Driver Program.

Recently, riders in Beijing may have noticed something different at Didi’s Premier Car service, which is called “Licheng” 礼橙专车 since June of last year.

Some of Licheng’s drivers now have a red background to their profile photos accompanied by a Communist Party emblem. Upon clicking the profile of these drivers, customers will see that this driver is a Party Member Driver (“党员司机”) – meaning that the Didi driver’s status as a Party member has been verified through Didi’s “Red Flag Steering Wheel” program (红旗方向盘项目) that was set up in November 2018.

Didi’s “Red Flag Steering Wheel” program (红旗方向盘项目) that was set up in November 2018. Image via Guancha.

Didi writes that these drivers can also be identified as Party members through the red sticker on the dashboard at the passenger side, which literally says “Party member driver.”

The article explains that the recent project is an effort to contribute to China’s Party-building in the digital era, and that Didi aims to establish a Party member community within its company.

This car is driven by a Party member (image via Didi/Weibo).

The company is apparently planning to make this community a lively one, as it promises to provide online and offline activities that will help these drivers stay up to date with the latest developments within the Party, and that will increase their “Party awareness.”

Starting this month, Didi will reportedly also offer “patriotic classes” to all of its drivers via its online classroom program.

China has more than 88 million Party members. Party membership does not come overnight; those who want to become a Communist Party member need to attend Party courses, pass written tests, be recommended by other members, and pass a screening (read more here).

As for now, riders cannot manually pick to have a Party member as their driver; a nearby driver will be automatically selected when they order a car – if it is a Party member, they will know straight away from the driver’s profile.

For now, Didi has set up “mobile Party branches” in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and a number of other cities.

On Weibo, some see the initiative as a marketing move from Didi’s side. “If you hear the driver is a Party member, you know it’s reliable. It’s a good thing.”

The past year was a tough year for Didi, after the murders of two young women by their Didi driver made national headlines, causing outrage and concerns about customer’s safety when hailing a car through the Didi company.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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