“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.
“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.
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Eyebrow Pencil Gate: “Lipstick King” Li Jiaqi Loses 630,000 Fans In One Night
China’s famous beauty livestreamer Li Jiaqi is in hot water after his annoyed response about an $11 eyebrow pencil.
Li Jiaqi is losing fans. That is according to a Weibo hashtag that went trending today (#李佳琦掉粉#), which highlights a significant drop of 630,000 Weibo followers in just 24 hours.
For those unfamiliar with Li Jiaqi (1992, English name Austin Li), he is one of China’s most renowned make-up influencers, also known as the “Lipstick King.” Previously a cosmetics salesman, Li has since risen to become one of China’s most celebrated livestreamers, setting numerous records along the way.
In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.
But now Li is in hot water because of an e-commerce livestream he did on Sunday, September 10th. When some viewers complained that the eyebrow pencil by Huaxi Zi (花西子), Florasis, seems to be getting more expensive (79 RMB, $10.9), Li vehemently defended the cosmetic brand. Seemingly annoyed with his viewers, he insisted that the product was reasonably priced, highlighting the brand’s use of high-quality ingredients and claiming it had not increased its prices for years.
In addition to this, Li began to lecture his audience, questioning whether they had made significant efforts to have received salary raises over the years (Literally: “Sometimes it’s because of yourself, if you haven’t seen a raise in so many years, did you work hard enough?” [“有的时候自己原因好吧。怎么多年了工资张没涨有没有认真工作”]). Even his assistant, next to him, seemed visibly uncomfortable when Li lashed out. We added some subtitled to this short fragment here.
China's famous make-up influencer #LiJiaqi is in hot water due to an e-commerce livestream he did on Sunday. When viewers complained about an eyebrow pencil being too expensive (79 RMB/$10.9), he got annoyed, insisting that the product was not expensive at all.raTnslated video: pic.twitter.com/JDKGMKovDX
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) September 11, 2023
Later on, Li appeared to recognize his mistake and suggested that people weren’t obligated to purchase the Florasis brand; instead, they could opt for a more affordable eyebrow pencil that he would be promoting later on.
This incident sparked major backlash from fans who voices their anger and disappointment, accusing Li of losing sight of his humble origins and owing everything to his viewers. Starting out by selling Maybelline makeup behind a shop counter, Li rose to prominence alongside the live e-commerce trend, amassing immense wealth thanks to his dedicated fans and viewers.
Why would he now alienate his viewers in such a way? Furthermore, many argued that the Florasis eyebrow pencil is undeniably expensive, with some even making comparisons to the cost of gold when measured by weight.
In the early morning of September 11, Li apologized on his Weibo account. He wrote that he felt disappointed in himself for responding the way he did. “As a livestream host I should send out positive energy, and learn to control my emotions,” he wrote.
Later on, he issued an on-camera apology during a livestream. With tears in his eyes, he expressed heartfelt remorse for letting down so many people and acknowledged his mistakes. A related hashtag on Weibo soon got over 430 million clicks (#李佳琦哭着道歉#).
But many people do not appreciate his apologies. The top comment under his written apology post says: “You are making money out of ordinary people and now you turned around saying ordinary people are too poor,” while the most popular comment under the livestream apology said: “If I would earn 5 million yuan a day ($685k), my tears would be much more sincere than yours.”
There are more angles to this story. Besides alienating his audience, others also feel he is not being completely transparant. As Li Jiaqi hinted during the livestream, he seems to have a very close relationship with the Florasis brand. Some reports even suggest that the commission rate for his endorsement of the Florasis brand, which was established in Hangzhou six years ago, may have been as high as 80%.
It is not the first time Li gets caught up in controversy. Last year, Li disappeared from China’s e-commerce channels for three months after one of his livestreams made references to shooting tanks. The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations.
However, a notable distinction between that controversy and the current one lies in how his fans reacted. Despite the prior controversy, the majority of his supporters remained loyal to the beauty influencer, extending a warm welcome when he returned in September of 2022.
This time, many followers feel personally attacked by him. While Li Jiaqi defended the brow pencil price by suggesting that “domestic brands are struggling,” some commenters ask: “If domestic brands are struggling, don’t you think the people are also struggling?” (“国货难，国民难道就不难了吗?”)
Earlier this year, a casual remark made by Chinese actress Zhang Yuqi during a livestream also ignited discussions surrounding the stark disparity between the perspectives of celebrities and the financial realities experienced by ordinary individuals. During that promotional livestream, Zhang suggested that 699 yuan ($100) for a cashmere blanket was so cheap, saying: “I don’t even think I can buy a pair of socks with that amount.”
In response to this incident, some commenters mentioned that they could cover their food expenses for an entire month with that money. Many netizens remarked that some Chinese celebrities seem to not only live in a world where everything costs more, but they also seem to reside in a place where “poverty” is defined differently.
By Monday night, Li Jiaqi still had 29,8 million followers on Weibo, although some wondered how many of them were active and authentic Weibo users. Will Li be able to win back the favor of his fans? The numbers will tell.
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How Chinese Netizens Boosted the Buzz for the ‘Creation of the Gods’ Blockbuster
Despite initial low expectation, this Chinese ‘Lord of the Rings’ has now garnered a devoted online community of fans who are helping to boost its success.
Early this week, the Weibo hashtag “Creation of the Gods I Breaks 2 Billion Yuan [US$275M] in Box Office” (#封神第一部票房破20亿#) became a trending topic on Weibo, followed by a hashtag celebrating raking in 2.2 billion [US$302M] on Friday (#封神第一部票房破22亿#), showcasing the remarkable success of Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms (封神第一部：朝歌风云) in both Chinese cinemas and across social media platforms.
Together, the hashtags have amassed an impressive 230 million views to date, underscoring the growing popularity of this summer box office sensation.
Directed by Chinese film director Wuershan (乌尔善), Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms stands as the initial film within the trilogy of the fantasy epic Creation of the Gods, also known as Fengshen Trilogy (封神三部曲).
The mythological epic is considered the most ambitious and expensive production in Chinese film history with a planned budget of 3 billion yuan (approximately US$410 million).
The film, which was officially released on July 20th, achieved its box office milestone 25 days after its release. The success of Creation of the Gods I can largely be attributed to the collaborative efforts of the production team and a dedicated group of fans who volunteered to promote the film online, a phenomenon referred to as zìláishuǐ (自来水).
Zìláishuǐ (自来水) literally means ‘tap water’ but it is a label for those netizens who spontaneously promote a film or artist without getting paid for it.
The three characters, 自来水, are actually an abbreviation of the term 自发而来的网络水军 (zìfāérlái de wǎngluò shuǐjūn: “self-organized internet water army”).
This term has emerged on Chinese social media in recent years, signifying a group of individuals who willingly promote films or television series out of love and admiration. Their actions are driven by personal enthusiasm and passion. Unlike those who are paid to promote something, these ardent fans invest their own time and effort into amplifying the presence of their favorite films or shows.
This concept first gained prominence within the fan community of the film Wolf Warrior (战狼) in 2015. It gained broader recognition with Monkey King: Hero Is Back (西游记之大圣归来) later that same year when zìláishuǐ successfully influenced numerous cinemas to increase showings for the animated movie. Earlier this year, zìláishuǐ once again played a crucial role in boosting the popularity of The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2) upon its release.
Rocky Start for a Multi-Billion-Dollar Film
The origins of the Fengshen Trilogy can be traced back to an initial pinghua (平话) story – which laid the foundation for later written narrative forms in China, – namely King Wu’s Campaign Against [King] Zhou (武王伐纣平话), that emerged sometime between the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, as well as the Investiture of the Gods (封神演义), a novel from the Ming (1368-1644) dynasty.
This captivating narrative delves into the history of the Shang (c. 1600-c. 1046 BC) and Zhou (c. 1046-771 BC) dynasties, intricately weaving together folklore, legends, and a variety of mythical beings and creatures.
Wuershan reportedly came up with the idea for the movie after watching The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001 and publicly shared his intention to turn the Fengshen story into a film in 2012. The project officially commenced in June 2014.
From February 2017 onwards, a global audition was held to select the lead actors and actresses, who then underwent 6-8 months of specialized training. The filming started on August 2018, and concluded in January 2020.
The narrative of Fengshen holds tremendous popularity in China. Nevertheless, this extensive familiarity might actually present a challenge when it comes to triggering the audience’s interest. Past mythological films produced in China have often left viewers with exceedingly low expectations – or even a lack of expectations altogether – for this genre of Chinese cinema.
The challenges encountered by Wuershan and his team were amplified by the three-year-long pandemic and the investment issues of the film’s primary production company, Beijing Culture. The pandemic introduced uncertainty about the film’s release, while Beijing Culture, the primary investor, faced complications due to its involvement in actress Zheng Shuang’s project. Zheng’s reputation had already taken a significant hit when she was accused of abandoning her two surrogate babies in the US, followed by substantial fines for tax evasion (read more).
Although the filming concluded, the movie’s release date was pushed back, prompting concerns about the film’s quality and noticeably dampening the expectations and excitement among Chinese netizens. In June 2023, the announcement of the film’s official release date also failed to generate significant attention or interest among netizens.
At the early stages of promoting the film, the movie’s marketing team adopted a strategy in which they mostly highlighted the young, good-looking, and muscular actors starring in the film. But this approach made some netizens believe that the film had to rely on such visuals to attract audiences because its overall quality was just not up to par.
Based on data from the Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan, Creation of the Gods I garnered a modest box office earnings of slightly over 49 million yuan (US$6.7M) on its opening day, positioning it in the eighth spot among other films that were launched around the same time. This outcome was not just quite disappointing for a project that had received a substantial investment of 3 billion yuan – it was actually pretty disastrous.
Captivating the Hearts of Moviegoers
In spite of its tumultuous production journey and initial cautious response from Chinese moviegoers, as the film continued to be screened in theaters, an increasing number of netizens began to develop a genuine fondness and admiration for Creation of the Gods I.
1: New Portrayal of Su Daji
The presentation of the storyline, especially the reinterpretation of the renowned character Su Daji (苏妲己), garnered praise from moviegoers.
In the original story of Investiture of the Gods, Su Daji was held responsible for the downfall of the Shang Dynasty due to her seduction of Yin Shou (殷寿), the King of the Shang Dynasty. This fateful enticement ultimately metamorphosed him into a ruthless ruler, leading to the demise of the dynasty.
Within China, an ingrained idiomatic expression places responsibility on women for unfortunate occurrences, known as “a beauty that brings disaster” (红颜祸水), and Su Daji has long been emblematic of this notion. However, Wuershan and his screenwriting team chose to diverge from this perspective in the film. Instead, the movie portrays Su Daji as a manifestation of Yin Shou’s ambitious nature. It underscores that Su Daji wasn’t the catalyst for the dynasty’s downfall; rather, Yin Shou himself was responsible for his own downfall.
Although not everyone agrees with this new portrayal of Su Daji, the controversy around the character’s representation has brought greater attention to the film.
2: Fresh Faces in China’s Cinema
Another factor contributing to Creation of the Gods I‘s success in capturing the affection of early moviegoers is the commitment exhibited by both the younger and more seasoned actors and actresses, whether in leading roles or supporting positions.
The majority of actors and actresses who assumed key roles in the film were newcomers to the entertainment industry, introduced through a global audition process. This extensive search encompassed around 15,000 individuals worldwide, culminating in the selection of over 30 participants for a specialized training camp.
Within this training program, they underwent instruction in martial arts, equestrianism, archery, drumming, ancient qin music, and a variety of cultural courses, including pre-Qin history and etiquette. These courses were devised based on the Six Arts: rites (礼), music (乐), archery (射), chariotry or equestrianism (御), calligraphy (书), and mathematics (数). These arts formed the core of education in ancient Chinese culture and were required to be mastered by students during the Zhou dynasty.
3: Costume & Set Design
The production team’s meticulous attention to detail in the costumes and set designs further increased the film’s popularity.
For example, the production team built an entire forest system ecosystem reminiscent of Tibet’s Linzhi and Motuo forests, all within a 10,000-square-meter studio in Qingdao. This was partly due to the protective status of Tibet’s forests, rendering filming scenes involving horse riding impossible. The set allegedly was so lifelike, that many butterflies and insects were attracted to the forest after it was completed.
Similar stories also includes the construction of the main set, the Longde Hall (龙德殿) which was built up by a set design team consisting of 1,500 workers, with 800 of them specializing in wood carving.
After learning all these stories behind the movie, many Chinese netizens have come to believe that the film is not as bad as initially thought. They attributed its underperformance at the box office not to its quality but to an inadequate promotional strategy and execution. In response, many have rallied to support the film.
Zilaishui to the Rescue
Lately, a big group of fresh enthusiasts for Creation of the Gods have come together on Chinese social media and are growing rapidly as a community of ‘Fengshen zìláishuǐ‘ (封神自来水): voluntary and passionate supporters and promoters of the Fengshen Trilogy.
Shui Mu Ding (@水木丁), a Chinese columnist and writer, who is also a member of the ‘Fengshen zìláishuǐ,’ shared her emotions after observing the film’s first-day box office results: “Picture yourself strolling along the beach and stumbling upon a beached whale. You may not have the power to help it, but would you just turn around and leave? It seems impossible to let go.”
She then wrote an article and published it on WeChat and Weibo, recommending this film to her readers and followers. Some people questioned if she was paid for it, but she said she did this “simply because I want to.”
Simultaneously, other members of the ‘Fengshen zìláishuǐ‘ community are also contributing to broaden the film’s impact through various approaches.
For example, they use the content of the film to create memes on social media.
They also cleverly “hijack” ongoing trending topics linked to the actors involved in the film, even when these subjects weren’t directly linked to the film itself. By employing a clickbait approach or crafting posts reminiscent of gossip news narratives, their ultimate goal is to persuade netizens who viewed this hashtag to learn more about the film and, ideally, entice them to go to the cinemas to see the movie.
Then there are those people sharing their experiences after viewing the movie in the cinema and posting them on different social platforms. Some fans even choose to watch the film in theaters twice, three times or even more, pondering over details and sharing their discoveries online, to showcase their support for the film.
Embracing a New Era in the Industrialization of China’s Film Industry
Among the many reviews shared by Fengshen zìláishuǐ, the credits list at the end of the film, just before the bonus scene, keep poppping up. This extensive roster of names, scrolling across the screen for about three minutes, shows the immense scale of this challenging project, resonating deeply with many moviegoers and sparking discussions on the industrialization of Chinese films.
As highlighted in prior interviews, director Wuershan possesses a clear vision for enhancing and refining Chinese film production. His ideas encompass streamlining film production processes by genre, implementing structured and methodical approaches to oversee every facet of filmmaking, and seamlessly integrating cutting-edge technologies.
These principles have been seamlessly woven into the production of the Fengshen Trilogy, setting new standards for the industrialization of China’s film realm.
For instance, prior to actual filming, Wuershan conducted multiple animation previews and rehearsals, aligning his team with his creative vision and mitigating potential losses arising from miscommunication. This approach not only trimmed shooting and editing expenses but also facilitated meticulous planning of the shooting schedule.
Given the film’s extensive utilization of visual effects and reliance on blue screen technology, director of photography Wang Yu (王昱) and his team devised an ingenious technique to craft an expansive screen. They ingeniously repurposed excavator buckets into blue panels, collaborating with the excavator team to erect the blue screen as needed. Through precise control of various angles, they erected a sprawling screen wall.
In another instance of production innovation aimed at standardizing filming procedures, the production team veered away from conventional boxed meals and fast food, instead establishing an actual “Fengshen Canteen” to cater to their workforce of 8000 members, strictly following China’s food safety regulations.
In his quest to explore new ways to improve China’s movie industry industrialization, Wuershan joins the ranks of other directors such as Guo Fan (郭帆) (The Wandering Earth 2) or Chen Sicheng (陈思诚) (Lost In The Stars). They’re all dedicated to innovating film processes across various genres by melding Hollywood knowledge with their own filmmaking expertise to bolster China’s film industry. Guo Fan also visited the set of Fengshen Trilogy to learn from the filming process.
This idealism and drive to improve China’s film industry at large has also resonated with Fengshen zìláishuǐ, futher motivating them to continue their efforts in promoting high quality Chinese films like Creation of The Gods
For now, some fans are already concerned about how their beloved “domestically produced masterpiece” will perform in the international market. But most zìláishuǐ are still busy to promote the movie on Chinese social media and further helping to grow its box office numbers, paving the way for the release of the first and second films of the trilogy during the upcoming summer vacations in China – next year and the year after. If all goes well, we’ll know what they’ll do next summer.
Edited for clarity by Manya Koetse.
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