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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

“Daddy Ma, Are You OK?” – Jack Ma’s Situation Discussed on Chinese Social Media

Public sentiments on Jack Ma have shifted, but the fans still defend their idol.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese tech superhero Jack Ma has become a hot topic on international social media this month since he has been missing in action for weeks, while Alibaba is facing an anti-monopoly investigation. Ma seems to have fallen out of favor, not just with authorities but also with many Chinese web users.

This month, the alleged ‘disappearance’ of Alibaba founder Jack Ma made headlines in various English-language media, from Reuters to CNN and the Financial Times.

The direct reason for speculation about Jack Ma’s whereabouts was his absence at Africa’s Business Heroes, a talent show he helped create in which Ma was part of the finale judge panel. According to FT.com, the final – which won’t be broadcasted until spring – took place in November.

Although an Alibaba spokesperson explained Ma’s absence from the show as a “schedule conflict” that made it impossible for the tech tycoon to participate, many Twitter users directly tied his ‘suspected missing’ to a critical speech he gave at the Shanghai Bund Finance Summit on October 24 of 2020.

In this speech, Ma made critical remarks on how China’s financial market is regulated and supervised. Kevin Xu at Interconnected provides an English translation of this speech here.

On November 3rd, two days before Alibaba’s fintech subsidiary Ant Group was set to raise around $37 billion with the biggest initial public offering of all time, Chinese regulators abruptly suspended the process. A report by the Wall Street Journal claimed that Chinese President Xi Jinping personally made the decision to halt the IPO of Ant Group after years of rising tensions between Ma and the government.

Pressure on Jack Ma and Alibaba further increased in December when Chinese regulators launched an anti-monopoly investigation into Alibaba and the Ant Group.

Alibaba announced the investigation of its company on its official Weibo channel on December 25 of 2020.

On December 25, People’s Daily also reported the anti-monopoly investigation. The state newspaper hosted a hashtag page about the matter on Sina Weibo (#人民日报再评阿里巴巴被调查#) which garnered over 240 million views. They wrote:

Large Internet platform companies should take the lead in strengthening industry self-discipline, in further enhancing their sense of social responsibility, and in safeguarding a favorable Internet economic ecosystem. The Internet industry has never been, and should never become, a place that is outside the law for anti-monopoly. Regarding platform economy, reinforcing anti-monopoly regulations is never a “winter” for the industry – it is just a new starting point for better and healthier development.”

Although Chinese official media have since not reported much on the issue, and have not published about Ma’s alleged ‘disappearance’, Ma’s whereabouts and his situation has become a much-discussed topic on various Chinese social media platforms.

 

Jack Ma in Short

 

Being among the top 20 richest people in the world, Jack Ma is world-famous as the founder of Alibaba, a multinational tech company specializing in e-commerce that was founded in 1999.

Jack Ma, whose Chinese name is Ma Yun 马云, was born in Hangzhou in 1964 to a family of low status. His life story has been retold in many books. Ma was bullied at school, had poor math skills, and flunked the entrance exam twice before he was accepted into the Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute, where he graduated in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.

Ma had been interested in English since he was a young boy. He would cycle to the main hotel in his city to connect with foreign tourists, acting as their local tour guide in return for English classes. The name ‘Jack’ was given to him by one of the tourist friends he made at that time.

image via kknews.cc

Ma went on to become an English teacher and barely even touched a keyboard before he traveled to the US in 1995 as an interpreter. It was during this trip that he was first introduced to the internet, after which he became inspired to set up his own commercial web site in China – a web site named ‘China Pages’ for Chinese businesses.

Although that business flopped, Jack Ma founded Alibaba in 1999, which would turn into an internet giant influencing virtually all corners of China’s digital world. The Alibaba Group now operates numerous businesses, including Taobao, TMall, AliExpress, and the Ant Group.

Ma’s success is a source of inspiration to many, and his ‘crazy Jack’ energetic behavior and willingness to make fun of himself has only made him and his story all the more captivating.

A younger Ma in one of his fun song-and-dance appearances – as Snow White.

Ma officially stepped down as Alibaba’s CEO in 2019 but is still the company’s largest individual shareholder.

 

“What’s up with Ma Yun?”

 

Until recently, Jack Ma was one of the more popular Chinese celebrities on social media. Jack Ma quotes, memes, videos, or stories would frequently go viral.

As one of the most respected and powerful entrepreneurs of China, bookstores have entire sections dedicated to Jack Ma and his role as a business magnate, the richest man of China, and also as a welldoer and an inspiring influential.

Books about Jack Ma.

Whatever Ma would say or do would go trending, with many people praising what he did, what he said, or where he went.

In 2017, the meeting between US President Trump and Alibaba’s Ma was a big topic of discussion, with many Chinese web users taking pride in Ma’s meeting with Trump, calling him the perfect ambassador to China in their dealings with Trump. “Ma Yun [Jack Ma] for president!” was a much recurring phrase.

It is a phrase you won’t read as much, if at all, on Chinese social media these days anymore. The silence surrounding Jack Ma recently has led to speculation and reflections on his current situation.

On Chinese search engine Baidu, the search prediction reflects web users’ confusion over his whereabouts; upon searching for ‘Ma Yun’ in the first week of January, the first five automatic predictions are the following:

– Jack Ma fled abroad
– Did Jack Ma really flee abroad?
– Jack Ma sentenced to prison
– Jack Ma disappeared
– Jack Ma Shanghai Bund speech

On Douyin (the Chinese TikTok), the first sentence to come up when searching for Ma Yun, is “What’s up with Ma Yun?”

On Weibo, where Jack Ma has over 26.4 million followers on his official account, there have not been any new posts since October 17. But Ma’s last post, which talks about an educational event, is still attracting new comments every few minutes.

“Daddy Ma, come on, ok? We’re rooting for you,” one commenter writes.

“We haven’t seen you in a long time, Brother Ma,” some write: “When will you come back into the public arena?”, with others saying: “Teacher Ma, what happened?”

But besides the messages from those who seem concerned about the well-being of the tech tycoon, there are many angry ones.

Some blame Ma for praising the ‘996’ work system (working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week). In 2019, Ma called the 12-hour working day a “blessing,” causing much controversy online. Because the death of a young employee at Pinduoduo was also linked to her long working hours, the ‘996’ work system is a hot topic this week, with many condemning how Chinese tech companies are exploiting their employees and revisiting Ma’s 2019 comments.

Others also turn to Jack Ma’s Weibo page to complain about the shutdown of Alibaba’s music streaming app Xiami. Although Xiami only holds a small percentage of China’s music streaming market – apps such as QQ Music and KuGou are more popular – there are still many people who have been using the app for years and hate to see it go: “Why can’t you give it another chance, why can’t you take care of our Xiami!?”

And then there are those commenters who, in light of the recent developments and anti-monopoly investigations, call Ma a “greedy capitalist” and a “bloodsucker.” “Maybe he’ll be punished,” one person writes: “Is that a ‘blessing’ too?” “I went from being a fan to a hater,” another commenter writes, with others calling him an opportunist.

 

Changing Sentiments on Social Media

 

Jack Ma used to be an idol for many young people in China, but now it seems they have started to oppose him. On the Chinese video sharing site Bilibili, mainly used by younger generations, comments appearing in some videos featuring Ma are filled with anger and scolding.

This shift in Ma’s popularity among young people was recently also explained by young Chinese vlogger Yu He in this video, who argues that young people do not adore Jack Ma in the same way older Chinese people do.

Ma’s vision of working really hard, praising the ‘996’ work culture, and “everybody can be successful if you really try hard” was an inspiration to previous generations, but many post-90s people in China today – who are struggling in a highly competitive job market – do not have a lot of faith in Ma’s work philosophy when their everyday lives are not about working to live, but about living to work. To them, Ma’s ideas about working around the clock to get further in life do not make sense, as some feel they are working themselves to death while others get rich.

There is also anger over consumer lending platform Huabei, a product of Alibaba’s Ant Group. Huabei previously encouraged users to spend more money in its ads, and its platform makes it very easy to spend money first and pay it back later – even for those who might not oversee the long-term consequences of excessive debt.

The question of why Jack Ma seems to have fallen out of favor with many Chinese people is also a topic of discussion on question-and-answer platform Zhihu.com.

One popular analysis by the e-commerce account Zhiser claims that Jack Ma used to be supported by the ordinary people because he made it possible for so many of them to make money through the Taobao marketplace platform, which started in 2003. Alibaba’s Alipay online payment platform made it possible for common people to conveniently transfer money without extra fees.

But over recent years, Zhiser argues, Alibaba’s business strategies have changed in such a way that its own profits are maximized and small sellers are negatively impacted.

With the arrival and growth of Alibaba’s Tmall, where only brand owners or authorized dealers can open an online store & where transaction commissions are much higher, the traffic of small sellers on the Taobao marketplace has been reduced. Alibaba’s activities are increasingly focused on benefiting the bigger companies – and itself -, while small entrepreneurs are increasingly struggling to be noticed and make money.

Without the means to open their own Tmall shop, without the capital to afford advertisement and paid promotions for their shops, the small sellers are watching helplessly how the big boys dominate the platform algorithms and take the money, Zhiser explains.

Alibaba is now also increasingly focusing on the fruit & vegetable market. There’s Alibaba’s Hema Fresh supermarket brand, for example, with big plans to open hundreds of stores nationwide in the upcoming years. The rise of Alibaba’s fresh food businesses directly impacts the livelihood of ten thousands of ordinary Chinese who have their own small vegetable shops or street stalls – exactly those people who are already in vulnerable social groups.

Although the rise of Alibaba was once a great opportunity for common people, the changing business strategies have now resulted in Jack Ma getting more enemies, including small entrepreneurs, small sellers and buyers, offline shops, offline vendors, etc.

For them, the ‘Alibaba dream’ of using the power of the Internet and technological advancement to enable small businesses and young people to share the benefits of free trade has lost credibility.

“These years, Jack Ma has played the role of the destroyer rather than the savior,” the author writes. His article received over 10,500 endorsements.

Zhiser’s article reflects a perspective that surfaces in many places. “We believed him, that he really was making things better for us,” another blogger writes.

Others think that Jack Ma was true about his intentions and dreams when he was a teacher and then started his business, but changed when he became surrounded by money-driven big investors, causing him to become alienated from his former ideas and philosophies, losing touch with China’s younger generation, the small shop owners he promised to serve and the ordinary people.

 

“He changed China, he changed the world”

 

Despite the recent criticism of Ma, many people still defend and support him. There are even those who criticize him but still express their admiration for him.

Regarding the criticism coming from post-90s generations, one Chinese web user commented:

You have no idea what it was like before Jack Ma came around. You’re too young to know. If you want to go back [in that time], I suggest you go live on the moon.”

Discussing the changing sentiments regarding Ma, Zhihu author Qing Rui writes:

Jack Ma is a great entrepreneur of this era. He changed China, he changed the world. A lot of nonsensical people scold him for damaging China’s real economy, while he’s actually worked hard to improve the efficiency of the business sector, which has not only greatly boosted the real economy, but also greatly improved the living standards of the Chinese people.”

It is a sentiment shared by many, who express that they think the recent shift in views on Ma is uncalled for, or reminding people of the positive effect Ma and his businesses have had on China’s development.

“Those who scold Jack Ma are brainless idiots,” some write.

“How is it possible for the public opinion on Daddy Ma shifting 180 degrees? It’s like throwing stones at someone who fell down,” one Weibo user from Shenyang writes.

Although perhaps less crowded than before, online ‘Ma Yun Fanclubs’ are still active. One Weibo fan writes: “Let’s all hope our favorite idol Ma Yun will smoothly sail through this crisis!”

As for the ‘disappearance’ of Jack Ma that has previously been reported – although Ma has not been out in public, it is highly unlikely that he is actually missing.

CNBC reported on January 5 that the Chinese billionaire is lying low, according to a person familiar with the matter.

When famous Chinese actress Fan Bingbing got caught up in a tax evasion scandal in 2018, her ‘disappearance’ also made headlines in international media. After months of silence and wild rumors, the actress returned to social media with a public apology. She was ordered to pay taxes and fines worth hundreds of millions of yuan.

Meanwhile, Jack Ma’s Weibo page is still receiving dozens of new messages. In between the “evil capitalist” scoldings, there are some who really hope Ma will come back to public life soon: “We’ll support you, teacher Ma, don’t give up!”

 

By Manya Koetse

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China Digital

Pinduoduo Employee’s Suicide Intensifies Online Debate on Company’s Working Culture

For the second time this month, Pinduoduo makes headlines for the death of an employee.

Manya Koetse

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The suicide of a Pinduoduo staff member is trending today on Chinese social media, where discussions on tough ‘996’ working schedules (working 9am-9pm, 6 days a week) have been ongoing since the sudden death of another employee.

The staff member named Tan (谭) reportedly jumped from the 27th floor of an apartment building in his hometown of Changsha in Hunan province, where he had arrived that same day. The incident occurred around 0:30 AM 12:30 pm on January 9.

Pinduoduo published a statement about the death of their employee, expressing their condolences. They also said they were awaiting the results of the ongoing investigation into the death of Tan.

Meanwhile, the company stated they would immediately open a special channel within their office system for psychological support and consultation.

Tan had been working at Pinduoduo since July of last year as a technology development engineer. He was unmarried.

Pinduoduo is China’s largest interactive online shopping platform. The company has been under fire on social media recently, with stories coming out on the company’s overwork culture that is putting an enormous strain on its employees.

The death of a 22-year-old female staff member, who suddenly collapsed after a long day of work on December 29, is still being investigated. Although no official cause of death has been given, her death has been linked to Pinduoduo’s extreme working culture.

“A Second Foxconn?”

Since Pinduoduo is making headlines again for another employee death, people on Weibo are now mentioning the electronics manufacturer Foxconn (富士康). Foxconn attracted major media attention after a series of employee suicides in 2010 and 2012 linked to low pay and poor working conditions.

On Weibo, many commenters wonder if Pinduoduo is becoming a second Foxconn.

Meanwhile, more staff members are speaking out about Pinduoduo’s working culture. The stories of former employees of the company’s community group buying unit Duoduo Maicai (多多买菜) were shared by Sohu News. They talk about 12-hour workdays and “supersize” work weeks (超级大小周) where staff would work 13 days in a row, then get one day off, or not getting days off at all. They also speak of requirements to minimally work 300 hours per month.

Despite the waves of criticism on Pinduoduo, there are also online voices who praise the company for bringing out a clear and honest statement right after the death of their employee and opening up a support channel for staff members.

Update January 11:

In an updated statement released to the media, Pinduoduo states that their employee had applied for leave from his supervisor on January 8 at 8:37 a.m., without giving a reason. He reportedly passed the probationary period and was a high achiever who received an average 80 out of 100 assessments at the company.

The company also states that when their support team flew to Changsha to provide assistance to the family, they learned that the employee already booked his return flight for January 9 from Changsha to Shanghai.

 
By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Miranda Barnes

 

For information and support on mental health and suicide, international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

 

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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