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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.

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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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In China’s “Kua Kua” Chat Groups, People Pay to Be Praised [Updated]

Money can’t buy you love, but in these ‘kua kua’ groups, they can buy you praise.

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Social media is often called a battlefield, but in these Chinese WeChat ‘Kua kua’ groups (夸夸群), people will praise you no matter what you do or say.

A new phenomenon has become a hot topic on Chinese social media these days. ‘Kua kua’ groups (夸夸群) are chat groups where people share some things about themselves – even if they are negative things – and where other people will always tell them how great they are, no matter what.

Kua kua groups (夸 ‘kuā‘ literally means ‘praise’) have become all the rage in China. People seem to love them for the mere fact that it makes them feel good about themselves.

The format is clear. Person A tells about something that is on their minds, and asks people for positive feedback. Person B, C, and D will then come forward and tell them how good or pretty they are, sometimes based on their profile photo.

One could say: “Hi everyone, I’ve just turned down a job offer, but now my future is full of uncertainty, please compliment me.” Then people in the chat group will respond and say things such as: “You look like the type of person who knows exactly what they want.”

The Kua kua praise group phenomenon allegedly began within the online community of Xi’an Jiaotong University – although some claim it was Shanghai’s Fudan University – when one person asked others in a chat group to compliment them. The idea started to compliment and praise others, and so a trend was born; first, in university (BBS) chat groups, and now on WeChat and beyond the realm of universities.

The phenomenon has been around for at least six years, but only recently started gaining widespread attention on Chinese social media. According to China’s Toutiao News, virtually every college now has its own ‘praise group.’

But the praise does not always come for free. Although many (college-based) chat groups are free to join, people who want to be complimented and are not yet a member of an existing group can join Kua kua groups when they pay for it. On Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao, there are various online shops that sell a ‘Praise group’ membership starting from 50 yuan ($7,5) per person, going up to 188 yuan ($28).

The time of praise is limited to five minutes unless you pay more. The quality of the compliments you’ll be getting also depends on how much you pay. Some groups allegedly consist of “students of great talent,” and the number of people complimenting one person could reach up to 500 people.

The contents of the praise could literally be anything. A simple “I want to be praised” comment could get a variety of reactions from “your hat looks nice” to “the fact that you’re so honest and straightforward about what you want is something that is hard to come across in this day and age,” to “you used a period mark [at the end of your sentence], you must be someone who is very persistent in reaching your goals.”

The fact that the “Kua kua” phenomenon is such a success in China might relate to its culture, where humility and modesty are considered ideal in day-to-day communications. When given a compliment, it is common in China to deny it or to suggest that the person giving the compliment is much better than they are (also see Cheng 2003, 30).

These chat groups, however, break away from the dominant cultural interactions: people don’t have to be polite in responding to the compliments and can wallow in the praise they paid for.

Although not as big as the “Kua Kua” group phenomenon, these kinds of groups also exist in the English-language social media sphere. On Reddit’s “Toast Me” page, for example, there are some 92,000 subscribers participating in asking and giving positive feedback to others, albeit unpaid.

The people giving compliments in the Chinese Kua kua groups are random people, some students, some staff of Taobao stores, who get hongbao, red envelopes with digital money gifts, for contributing to the group. According to some reports, some ‘customers’ end up staying the group and become a part of the team themselves.

We will follow up on this later: we booked a ‘five-minute praise session’ ourselves, but are still awaiting admission to the group…

 

Update: Our Kua Kua Experience

 

So what is the Kua kua experience like? We decided to try out for ourselves and purchased a 5-minute praise session through Taobao for 50 yuan ($7,5) from a seller that had a good rating.

After the purchase is completed, the seller will contact you with details asking for your WeChat ID. After adding, they will ask you what your ‘problem’ or issue is, and you will be put in a virtual queue until your turn comes up to be praised.

You’ll then be added to a WeChat group that has your name in the headline (ours was something like “Manya you can do it”) and that has around 200 participants.

The message posted by us was:

Hello, I’m Manya (Dutch). I’ve been studying Chinese for more than ten years. In fact, I’m afraid to say it may even be more than 13 years, but I still often don’t understand what Beijing taxi drivers are saying. Even studying every day won’t help. I’ve been learning for so many years, yet I often still don’t understand what the old people in Beijing are saying. It’s a bit embarrassing. I think my Chinese is still not good enough. I can’t understand the ‘crosstalk’ [comedy sketches] during the Spring Festival Gala at all. It makes me feel a little dispirited.

Within a matter of seconds, the screen then just fills up with positive feedback and emoji. There are dozens of comments, and they almost go too fast to read them all.

Some of the responses:

You’re great, and even I don’t understand Beijing taxi drivers.

Stay confident in yourself!

You’re so cool.”

You can type so many Chinese characters, who’d say your Chinese is not good enough?!

Manya, you’re so fantastic.”

None of us understand what old people in Beijing are saying.

Chinese is just not easy to study, the fact that you’ve been doing it for so long already shows how great you are.”

It’s incredible that you’ve already come this far.”

A woman who is so motivated about studying really moves me, you’re my role model, you make me want to study more English.”

During the praise session, the group leader will occasionally post a hongbao [envelope with money] for the participants to receive in return for their compliments.

After five minutes, the session ends, and the people will send out some last words of encouragement. The group leader will personally thank you for being part of the group, and later, you’ll be removed from the group as the people will move on to the next person who is waiting in line to be praised.

How does it feel to be praised by some 200 people, receiving hundreds of compliments? It’s overwhelming, and even though you know it’s all just an online mechanism, and that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you say, it still makes you glow a little bit inside.

Although some experts quoted by Chinese state media warn people not to rely on these praise groups too much, there does not seem to be much harm in allowing yourself to be complimented for some minutes from time to time.

Other people reviewing the same Kua kua group apparently feel the same: “I’m super satisfied, the result is amazing.”

By Manya Koetse  and Miranda Barnes

Featured image via hexun.com.

References

Cheng, Winnie. 2003. Intercultural Communication. Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please 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 Youth Federation: Ban Minors from Live Streaming Platforms

If implemented, this would mean a big blow to China’s live streaming market.

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More than 45% of Chinese live stream users are minors. A new proposal by the China Youth Federation wants to ban those under the age of 18 from broadcasting in China’s booming live streaming environment.

Chinese minors will no longer be able to do live streaming if it is up to the All-China Youth Federation (ACYF, 中国青联). The China Youth Federation submitted the proposal during the Two Sessions (Lianghui), China’s largest annual legislative meetings.

The China Youth Federation is an organization to represent China’s youth groups founded in 1949, that has the Communist Youth League of China as its core.

China’s live streaming market is booming. Sina News reports that some 425 million netizens used live streaming platforms in 2018. According to the Online Information Center of the Communist Youth League, Chinese minors are particularly active live streamers: 6.4% of live stream users are primary school students, 18.3% of them are junior high school students and 20.3% are senior high schoolers.

There are dozens of live streaming platforms in China, with this list of apps, including the short video & live stream platforms Douyin and Kuaishou, being among the most popular ones. If the law would be implemented, China’s thriving live streaming market would certainly suffer a big blow.

Earlier this week, Sixth Tone already reported that “protecting minors online” would be among one of the important themes discussed by tech leaders at the Two Sessions.

On Saturday, March 9, the hashtag “Proposal to Ban Minors from Engaging in Livestreaming” (#建议禁止未成年人担任网络主播#) [basically meaning “prohibiting minors from being online hosts”] became top trending on Weibo, attracting more than 180 million views. Various Chinese state media sources state that the live streaming industry is in “a state of chaos” and needs stricter control to protect minors, who could easily come into contact with “vulgar” and “inappropriate” content through live streaming platforms.

The ban could be realized by implementing stricter controls on the registration process of China’s various live-streaming networks. This could suggest that the measures would go beyond minors just being banned from live streaming themselves.

“I support this proposal, live streaming platforms are not appropriate for minors,” a popular comment said, with many Weibo users agreeing: “Young people should focus on their schoolwork instead.”

But not everyone agrees with stricter controls on China’s online platforms. One commenter wrote: “Officials can have multiple wives, rich people have multiple women, yet if common people watch live streams where some vulgar language or sensitive content occasionally pops up, then it’s not allowed.”

“What should be banned is vulgar content, not minor users,” others write.

Earlier this week, Beijing News reported that Yan Xiaohong (阎晓宏), director of the Chinese Copyright Association, also submitted a proposal relating to minors using the internet. Yan’s proposal goes much further than that of the ACYF: he suggests that special online platforms should be developed for minors, and argues that it is not good for China’s youth to be able to access the same online content as adults.

By Manya Koetse 

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please 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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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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