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“What Is Peppa?” – Viral Ad Campaign for ‘Peppa Pig’ Movie Makes the British Pig More Chinese Than Ever

It’s the Chinese new year of Peppa Pig.

Manya Koetse

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A new ad campaign for the upcoming Peppa Pig movie features a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what Peppa is. The commercial is a huge success on Chinese social media, and strikes a chord with netizens for touching upon various societal and cultural issues. Peppa is more Chinese than ever now.

“What is Peppa?” That is the question that is currently going viral on Chinese social media, with the hashtag #WhatisPeppa (#啥是佩奇#) receiving a staggering 400 million times on social media platform Weibo at time of writing.

The reason for the trend is an ad campaign, titled ‘What’s Peppa’, promoting the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year film, a production by Entertainment One and China’s Alibaba Pictures.

The promotional video (5:39 length, watch featured video), that came out via various online channels on January 17, focuses on a grandfather living in a remote rural village who is anticipating the Spring Festival reunion with his son and his family, who now live in a big city.

The grandfather, named Yu Bao, wants to know what gift to get for his little grandson. When calling his family on a bad connection through his old 2G mobile phone, the word “Peppa” is all he gets from his little grandson before his phone breaks down. But what’s Peppa?

Yu Bao then goes on a comical mission to find out what Peppa is: looking it up in the dictionary, asking his friends -who are just as oblivious as he is-, and asking the entire village.

At the local shop, it is suggested that ‘Peppa’ is some kind of shampoo.

Eventually, one of the female villagers, who used to be a nanny, knows what Peppa is. She tries to explain it to Yu Bao, who now even seems willing to paint his own pig pink for his grandson. She explains that it is a pink cartoon pig whose face looks somewhat like a traditional fire blower.

With some guidance, the grandfather then goes to work and creates a unique ‘Peppa Pig’ gift from a metal air-blower to surprise his grandson during Chinese New Year.

But much to his disappointment, he then receives a phone call from his son, who tells him they are not coming home for Chinese New Year – before the connection drops again.

As grandpa, sad and lonely, is walking by the side of the road, his son suddenly appears in his car, telling him that the connection dropped too soon; he was not just telling him the family was not coming for Chinese New Year, he was trying to tell him that they invited him to come to their home instead.

When the family is finally reunited, it is time for the proud grandfather to show the result of his difficult quest for Peppa to his grandson.

The grandpa’s mission is complete: he gives his grandson a one-of-a-kind Peppa Pig.

The commercial ends with the entire family enjoying the upcoming Peppa film in the cinema together. When a friend from the village calls the grandfather to let him know he finally found Peppa thanks to his new smartphone, Yu Bao says: “It’s okay, I found Peppa already!”

The last shot of the video shows Yu Bao’s friend, a sheepherder, standing with his new phone, while someone in the back plays the tune of the Peppa cartoon. The big slogan on the wall is partly based on a popular catchphrase from another Chinese ad, and says: “At the start of the New Year, don’t accept gifts; the whole family goes to the city to watch Peppa instead.”

 

What’s Peppa Pig?

 

Peppa Pig is a popular children’s cartoon that first aired as a British animated television series (produced by Astley Baker Davies) in May of 2004. It took more than eleven years before the show was officially launched in the PRC (CCTV/June 2015).

The Peppa Pig family, including George.

Since then, Peppa Pig has become one of the most popular programs for preschoolers in China. But not just preschoolers love the pig; it has also become highly popular among young adults, who wear Peppa t-shirts, Peppa watches, and are major consumers of China’s thriving Peppa industry.

In 2018, Chinese popular short video app Douyin (also known in English as Tik Tok) removed approximately 30,000 short videos relating to British cartoon Peppa Pig from its platform, as Peppa had turned into somewhat of a subversive symbol to a Chinese online youth subculture dubbed ‘shehuiren‘ (社会人) (read more here).

This news item led to some confusion in Western media, where it was often suggested that Peppa was completely banned in China. She is, in fact, not banned; she is now more popular than ever.

 

Peppa the Movie

 

Amid the huge success of Peppa in China, it was announced in the summer of 2018 that Chinese tech giant Alibaba was working together with Entertainment One on the release of a Peppa Pig movie especially for the Chinese market, as this year’s Chinese New Year is the start of the Year of the Pig.

The movie, titled ‘Peppa Pig Celebrates New Year’ (小猪佩奇过大年), is set for a nationwide release on February 5, the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. This is the most popular time for big blockbusters to come out, as many people are free during Chinese New Year and have the time to go out to the cinema together with their families.

The movie itself revolves around Peppa and little brother George and their parents, who are having a reunion for the Spring Festival. It features various Chinese traditions, and of course, something unexpected will happen.

 

Why This Peppa Ad Campaign is So Brilliant 

 

The Peppa ad has really struck a chord on Chinese social media for various reasons. The video was directed by Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏, 1984), who also directed the actual Peppa movie, and the campaign is also sponsored by China Mobile.

What this ad campaign does:

It mixes the love for Peppa with the warm feeling of Chinese family reunions during Chinese New Year.

It presents a nostalgic idea of the Chinese village community, where neighbors come together and look out for each other.

It touches upon the issue of China’s rapid urbanization, that has caused many villages to become deserted and isolated as younger generations have settled in the cities.

It highlights how China’s digitalization is leaving behind its elderly population (read more here).

It shows the strong grandparent–grandchild relationship; usually, Chinese grandparents play an active role in raising grandchildren, something that has been changing due to younger generations moving to the city.

In other words; the advertisement completely draws the figure of Peppa Pig into a Chinese socio-cultural context, where it symbolizes the strong connection between Chinese families amid China’s rapid urbanization and digitalization.

By now, the Peppa campaign is making its rounds from Weibo to WeChat and elsewhere on the Chinese internet, with some online sellers already offering a remake of the Peppa present for sale as a collector’s item. Bloomberg reports that Chinese stocks connected to Peppa Pig have surged after the clip went viral yesterday and today.

“I give this video 100 points!” some commenters on social media write, with others saying it has made them tear up. “This already is the best ad campaign of the year.”

Peppa was already a famous figure in China, but with this viral hit and the upcoming movie, the British pig really has become a part of China’s popular culture and media environment: it’s the Chinese new year of Peppa Pig.

UPDATE (Jan 19): [Now passed one billion views] Want to understand more about this movie and its context? Check out our video here.

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes

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

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Celebs

China’s Celebrity Weight Craze: Qin Hao’s Viral Diet and Body Anxiety Behind the Weight-Loss Trend

The extreme diet of Chinese actor Qin Hao has sparked a trend of people sharing photos of their corn and egg meals. It’s yet another celebrity weight-loss trend that is more about unrealistic expectations than healthy ways of shedding pounds.

Zilan Qian

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Actor Qin Hao’s remarkable weight loss has sparked waves of online excitement over a potential new diet plan. Qin is not the only Chinese celebrity whose weight loss journey has become an online hype. But behind the relentless pursuit of celebrity weight loss plans lies the issue of body anxiety, particularly among young Chinese women.

Why do we see so many photos with one ear of corn on Weibo these days? It has everything to do with Qin Hao (秦昊). The actor, renowned for his role in the highly acclaimed 2020 Chinese drama series “The Bad Kids” (隐秘的角落), has recently garnered significant attention for his appearance in another compelling series titled “The Long Wait” (漫长的等待).

This time, his surge in popularity is not just because of his exceptional acting abilities or the captivating character he portrayed, but mostly because of the remarkable diet plan he followed to lose weight during the filming of the series.

In his latest role, Qin played a middle-aged man with a chubby physique, round cheeks, and a beer belly. He had put on a lot of weight to play this character. However, later on, the director asked him to quickly lose weight and “sharpen up” (“必须瘦出棱角”).

Qin’s wife, Yi Nengjing (@伊能靜), discovered an online diet menu that helped Qin successfully lose over 20 pounds, resulting in a significant transformation in his appearance. Due to numerous inquiries from fans and followers, Yi decided to share the diet plan on her Weibo account.

The five-day diet plan consists of the following meals:

Day 1: Only unsweetened soy milk is consumed throughout the day.
Day 2: Each meal consists of one ear of corn.
Day 3: Breakfast includes dragon fruit, lunch consists of an apple, and dinner consists of blueberries.
Day 4: Breakfast consists of one boiled egg, while lunch and dinner consist of boiled shrimp.
Day 5: Breakfast includes broccoli, lunch consists of spinach, and dinner consists of lettuce.

Qin before (left) and after (right) following the diet plan. Photos from Yi Nengjing’s Weibo post.

On Weibo, many people trying out this diet are posting photos of their daily meals, resulting in dozens of photos of a single ear of corn being posted on the platform these days.

Many Chinese netizens are posting photos of corn – their entire meal according to day 2 of Qin Hao’s diet (images via Weibo.com).

Despite the supposed effectiveness of the diet, Yi also issued a warning to her followers. “I want to emphasize once again that I do not recommend this menu to anyone,” she wrote on Weibo. “The entire process is incredibly arduous, and Qin experienced weakness in his legs due to hunger for some days.”

Despite the warning, the menu still managed to attract a significant number of netizens willing to give it a try. With titles like “Challenging Qin Hao’s Diet Plan (挑战秦昊饮食法)” and “Losing 8 Pounds in Five Days (五天瘦八斤),” many people took to platforms such as WeChat, Bilibili, and Weibo to share videos, images and texts documenting their experiences with the same diet plan and the amount of weight they lost each day.

Among those who decided to try the diet plan was the renowned screenwriter and producer Yu Zheng (于正), known for his works such as “The Palace” (宫) and “The Story of Yanxi” (延禧攻略). Yu shared on his Weibo account that he successfully lost 10 pounds in just a few days by following Qin’s diet plan. In doing so, he also inspired others to give it a try.

Bilibili users sharing themselves practising Qin’s diet plan.

While some individuals recognize the extreme nature of Qin Hao’s diet plan, they have made modifications by adding carbohydrates and proteins on certain days or incorporating other “diet foods” like cucumbers or healthy snacks.

A user on Bilibili tried out Qin Hao’s diet plan and shared her experience. Although she admitted feeling “extremely hungry,” she said she lost almost 8 pounds and was “very pleased” with the outcome.

However, many choose to strictly adhere to the original plan, expressing sentiments such as “As long as I’m not starving to death, I’ll push myself to the limit” or “Even though I’m so hungry that I could eat a person, I’m still very happy with my progress.”

 

EXTREME CELEBRITY DIETS

“You are truly too fat.”

 

Qin is not the only celebrity whose weight loss journey has captured widespread attention. Earlier this year, another viral trend emerged among netizens, who urged director Guo Jingming (郭敬明) to establish a weight loss camp due to the noticeable weight loss among actresses who had worked on his film sets. On Weibo, this phenomenon was described as “no one can leave Guo Jingming’s film crew without losing weight” (“没有人能够胖着走出郭敬明剧组”).

Guo later disclosed his diet plan for actors and actresses during a television program. According to Guo, they were required to adhere to a diet that excluded oil, salt, and sugar. Additionally, he admitted that he would tell them “you are truly too fat (你真的太胖了)” on a daily basis, as a form of persuasion for those who were reluctant to follow the diet plan. Despite the extreme nature of this diet and his ‘brainwashing’ methods, many individuals continued to express their desire for Guo to realize an actual weight loss camp for them to join.

Weibo users compared photos of actresses Yu Shuxin and Jin Jing before and after joining Guo’s film crew to illustrate the effectiveness of Guo’s diet plan. The post where the above photos come from simply said: “I want to go! (想去!)” after the hashtag “#Guo Jingming film crew diet camp #郭敬明剧组减肥营#.

Guo reveals his way of helping actors lose weight (source).

The trend of following celebrity diets for weight loss remains popular, with an increasing number of individuals adopting the diet plans promoted by celebrities like Yu Shuxin, IU, Zhang Tianai, and others.

These diets come in various forms, ranging from single-food diets like cucumber and egg or boiled broccoli with plain porridge, to more restrictive approaches that eliminate specific ingredients, such as carbohydrates, or advocate for skipping evening meals. The widespread popularity of these diets is evident on social media, where netizens, mostly female, try them out and document their weight-loss journeys, sharing their progress with a wider audience.

Screenshot of the cover photo of one video on Bilibili introducing Yu Shuxin’s diet plan, which has been played over 150,000 times. The title says “Yu Shuxin’s way of losing 20 pounds’ weight. Revealing the diet plan to make your body easy to slim down! Losing 10 pounds in 10 days!”

The majority of posts and short videos revolving around these diet plans often feature attention-grabbing titles like “losing xx pounds in xx days,” accompanied by celebrities showcasing their slimmed body shapes.

 

CONCERNS SURROUNDING CELEBRITY CRASH DIETS

“Let me advise you: never, ever go down this terrible path.”

 

With the increasing popularity of celebrity diets, concerns about their impact on (mental) health have arisen. Doctors have issued warnings against attempting Qin Hao’s diet plan, cautioning that it can cause significant harm to the body and result in weight gain once discontinued.

Diets that severely restrict calorie intake, like this one, can have detrimental effects such as weakened immunity, decreased bone density, impaired memory, hair loss, and an increased risk of depression. Netizens commenting on posts of people trying these diets often warn others against blindly following their lead. One user offered a stern warning, saying: “To my sisters who haven’t started dieting, let me advise you: never, ever go down this terrible path.”

Despite the prevailing health concerns associated with celebrity diets, not everyone places their well-being above achieving a desired body shape. In response to a diet plan video by Kpop singer IU, one user acknowledged the potential harm it could cause but still said losing weight was their primary goal, as being overweight made them feel miserable: “I don’t care if it’s harmful to my body, as long as I can lose weight.”

Other users argue that everyone has the right to do whatever they want with their body: “We are all adults and responsible for our own affairs. If you want to lose weight, eat less. If you don’t want to lose weight, then continue to be overweight.” 

 

PURSUIT OF THE PERFECT BODY

“For female celebrities, being fat destroys everything.”

 

Behind the never-ending new celebrity diet plans is the question of why celebrities losing weight garners such significant attention. It appears that shedding pounds has become a convenient method for celebrities to attract public interest and enhance their overall image. Losing weight is often portrayed as a symbol of willpower and dedication to one’s career.

For instance, Yuan Shanshan, who previously faced criticism for her appearance in certain TV series, received applause and positive attention after slimming down and achieving a V-line figure. Media reports frequently associate female celebrities’ dietary practices with the concept of “self-discipline,” utilizing titles such as “How self-disciplined are female celebrities?” to highlight their various weight-loss approaches.

Articles perpetuating body shaming comments towards female celebrities for weight gain. Headlines employing phrases like “the image of you giving up yourself is ugly” and “being fat destroys everything” depict weight gain negatively. The highlighted sentence emphasizes the damaging impact of being fat on a woman’s self-esteem.

On the other hand, when female celebrities gain weight, they are often accused of “betraying” their professional careers or “giving up” on their ambitions.

A quick online search reveals how numerous news articles and blog titles highlight female celebrities’ self-discipline through their successful weight loss. These pieces often showcase extraordinary diet methods, like relying on single strands of noodle as a carbohydrate source or consuming plain, boiled vegetables without any additional ingredients.

 

SLIM LIKE A CELEBRITY

“Will your boss promote you because you’re as thin as a celebrity?”

 

The public’s scrutiny of celebrities’ weight, often using it as a measure of willpower and success, is a common phenomenon, but celebrities themselves also influence the public’s perception of the ‘perfect’ figure. On various variety shows, female celebrities’ heights and weights are increasingly showcased, which inadvertently contributes to viewers’ anxieties about their own bodies.

Articles on social media treat these measurements as if they represent the standard for the majority, presenting titles such as “After looking at the heights and weights of these female celebrities, I swear I will never eat again,” or “The true heights and weights of female celebrities – a reference for weight loss,” and: “How light is thin? Revealing female celebrities’ heights and weights.” These articles contribute to the idolization of specific body shapes and weights as symbols of beauty and perfection.

‘Am I too fat weighing xx pounds?’ ‘What weight is considered “fat” in today’s society?’ ‘Why do people care about women’s weight so much?’ ‘Why am I so obsessed with my own weight?’ As women track and critique the weight fluctuations of female celebrities, many are grappling with questions about body image on social media. They seek answers to their own concerns, shaped by constant exposure to the seemingly ideal body weights of these celebrities.

Amidst all the celebrity weight craze, more critical voices are emerging in the Chinese social media sphere. Witnessing people blindly following celebrities’ weight loss journeys, one Zhihu user recently wondered: “Why should everyone strive to have the same bodies as the ones displayed by celebrities? Is there any tangible benefit for ordinary individuals to achieve the same level of thinness as these celebrities? Will your boss promote you or increase your salary simply because you’re as slim as a celebrity?”

Many individuals also question the connection between weight loss, self-discipline, and professional success. They assert that celebrities’ ability to maintain a slim figure is predominantly driven by financial incentives rather than exceptional personal qualities.

One Weibo user commented on Qin Hao’s diet plan, highlighting the disparities between celebrity lifestyles and those of everyday individuals: “Most people don’t have jobs that demand such extreme measures, nor do they lead a celebrity lifestyle with chauffeured transportation and dedicated services for nutrition and exercise management. Furthermore, everyday individuals don’t need to rely on weight loss as a means to seek public attention or stay in the spotlight.”

Chinese author Mao Li (毛利), in a Zhihu post, shared her perspective on the issue and acknowledged that she also has wasted valuable time on futile body image anxieties. She suggests breaking free from the media’s “perfect body” hype, embracing self-acceptance, and finding joy in living together with our bodies. She encourages people to “accept it, enjoy it, and praise it.”

By Zilan Qian

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China Arts & Entertainment

From Comedy to Controversy: Behind the Li Haoshi Incident

Exploring the dynamics that led to the social storm involving Chinese comedian ‘House’ Li Haoshi.

Manya Koetse

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The Li Haoshi scandal sheds light on a complex interplay of factors, including the working conditions within the Chinese comedy industry, the expectations placed on performers in China’s entertainment realm, and the significant role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in shaping Chinese nationalism. A deep dive by What’s on Weibo.

Humor is no joking matter. While the business of humor can be competitive and challenging no matter where you are in the world, there are some special considerations and implications for working in humor in China.

This week, Chinese comedian Li Haoshi (李昊石), who performs under the name ‘House’, experienced firsthand that there are strict limitations to what can be openly satirized or joked about in China today. When one of his jokes about two stray dogs described them by referencing a famous People’s Liberation Army (PLA) slogan, he found himself at the center of a social media storm. One related hashtag received over 1.1 billion views on social media platform Weibo this week.

The phrases used in the comic skit, with Li saying they came to mind while watching the dogs chasing a squirrel, were: “Forge exemplary conduct, fight to win.” The lines are part of the PLA slogan “Follow the Party! Fight to win! Forge exemplary conduct!” (“听党指挥,能打胜仗,作风优良!”), which was used by Xi Jinping in 2013.

Li Haoshi was not just socially canceled by angry netizens who defended the honor of Chinese soldiers and slammed the comedian for being so unpatriotic, he also saw his career go up in flames. His shows were called off, he was banned from social media, his employer was fined more than $2 million, he was blacklisted under orders of the China Performing Arts Association (CAPA), and he is now under official investigation.

Following the controversy, there were different views on Chinese social media regarding the issue (read more here). Although the majority of commenters argued that the PLA is never to be joked about, some people also lamented that online discussions lacked nuance.

This scandal sheds light on a complex interplay of factors, including the working conditions within the Chinese comedy industry, the expectations placed on performers in the Chinese entertainment world, and the important role played by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in shaping Chinese nationalism.

 

HUMOR AND STAND-UP COMEDY IN CHINA

 

Humor has played a prominent role in Chinese language and culture for centuries, manifested through a diverse array of jokes and humorous texts. Professional comedians, who served to entertain the aristocrats, have been around since as early as 800 BC.

Although humor has always been there, it has not necessarily always been appreciated. Confucianism has played a significant role in devaluing humor in China, as it formally regarded humor and satire as inferior forms of aesthetic expression. Chinese rulers who did not tolerate criticism or dissent also could not appreciate jokes or comics which, in any way, went against their rule and authority (Sullivan & Sullivan 2021, 102; Yue 2008, 403-413).

In the early days of modern China, following the collapse of the Qing dynasty, there was a notable resurgence of various forms of humor and jokes that spanned two decades, including cross-talk (xiàngsheng 相声) and skits (xiǎopǐn 小品). It was during this period that the Mandarin word “yōumò” (幽默) was introduced, derived from the English term “humor.” This term was coined by the renowned Chinese writer and translator Lin Yutang (林语堂), who faced the challenge of finding an exact Chinese translation for the English word (Hsu 2015, 2).

For decades, from the founding of People’s Republic of China to the Anti-Rightists Movement and the Cultural Revolution and beyond, there was not much yōumò around. As described by David Moser (2004), the constraints imposed by the Party and political sensitivities severely limited the content and topics that comedians could explore.

The comparatively relaxed political atmosphere of the post-Mao era gave rise to novel forms of humor and comedy. In subsequent years, influenced by the United States, “stand-up comedy” (tuōkǒuxiù 脱口秀) also gained popularity. Initially originating in small bars or cafes in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, this comedic genre swiftly spread across the nation.

But similar to numerous other performance forms in China, stand-up comedy faces challenges in maintaining its spontaneity and provocative nature. Performers and comedy clubs are required to obtain licenses and gain script approval, while also navigating strict boundaries regarding politically sensitive topics that are strictly off-limits (Sullivan & Sullivan 2021: 102).

This does not mean that stand-up comedy is not thriving in China. On the contrary, the genre has only become more popular over recent years as stand-up comedy performers skillfully navigate the boundaries of what is acceptable by employing different techniques, such as irony, self-deprecation, and surreal humor to offer alternative perspectives within the permitted discourse (see: Chen and Gao 2023). In doing so, Chinese stand-up comedy has evolved beyond its American influences and embraced more traditional Chinese comedic language techniques from xiàngsheng and other performing arts.

In today’s landscape, Chinese comedians face a multitude of boundaries beyond just political ones. Operating within an environment where cultural and commercial factors hold significant sway, it becomes almost inevitable for popular performers to encounter controversy at some point in their careers. Authorities, audiences, sponsors, or companies may take offense at the content of their comedic expressions, adding further complexity to their navigation of these boundaries.

Li Dan, Papi Jiang, and Yang Li previously also faced criticism for their “inappropriate” or “vulgar” jokes.

The online comedian Papi Jiang (Papi酱), for example, saw her videos being taken offline in 2016 for containing “vulgar language and content,” after which she vowed to choose her words more carefully in the future. Female stand-up comedian Yang Li (杨笠), also known as the “punchline queen,” was dismissed as the spokesperson for American tech company Intel in 2021 for her jokes that allegedly insulted men. The popular talk show host and comedian Li Dan (李诞) sparked controversy for promoting female underwear brand Ubras with a slogan that was deemed sexist.

In such a working environment, it is difficult to fathom that the 31-year-old Li Haoshi, who had previously appeared on the immensely popular stand-up comedy competition show “Rock & Roast” Season Four, was unaware that his reference to a PLA slogan would surpass the acceptable boundaries. However, like many comedians, he may simply have been testing the limits.

 

THE POWER OF PERFORMERS

 

Another factor that comes into play when exploring the reasons behind the ‘House’ scandal is the special role attributed to Chinese performers.

Although Chinese performers and renowned names in the cultural industries have always been seen as fulfilling an exemplary role, this notion holds even greater significance in the era of social media, where Chinese performers and celebrities wield tremendous influence in an online environment with over one billion internet users. The rapid growth of online entertainment-focused apps and platforms has also created opportunities for unknown performers to achieve overnight fame.

There have been various studies about celebrities in China. One study from 2019 by Sullivan and Kehoe highlights the complexity of China’s celebrity scene. Because while the industry flourishes, it still operates under strict regulations imposed by both the state and industry stakeholders. Additionally, moral values play a significant role in shaping the industry. Sullivan and Kehoe argue that the state, through media and cultural industries, retains control over the symbolic economy within which celebrities operate (2019, 242).

Channeling public opinion and safeguarding social stability are priorities for Chinese authorities, and the influence of Chinese celebrities is often used to promote Party ideology and policies. While authorities encourage Chinese famous performers to act as positive role models, negative news surrounding the country’s popular stars is often perceived as having a “negative social impact” or a “bad influence on public morale.”

There are some some noteworthy instances that exemplify the significance of moral values and the role of Chinese celebrities as role models. One such example occurred in 2019 when Roy Wang (Wang Yuan 王源), a young Chinese singer and actor widely regarded as one of the country’s most influential teenagers, found himself embroiled in controversy after being caught smoking during a restaurant dinner in Beijing.

The incident surrounding Wang’s smoking quickly ignited a firestorm on Chinese social media. The controversy stemmed from two main factors. Firstly, Beijing had implemented a ban on smoking in all public indoor spaces since 2015, making Wang’s actions a violation of the law by lighting up in a restaurant. Additionally, as an influential teen icon, Wang held the responsibility of being a role model to his numerous fans, amplifying the impact of his behavior.

The idea that China should “raise the bar” for becoming a celebrity was widely propagated in 2021. In that same year, the China Association of Performing Arts (CAPA) officially released new guidelines for Chinese performers aimed at promoting adherence to the principles of “social morality.” According to these guidelines, performers could face a permanent ban from their profession if they fail to comply.

The guidelines are meant to “promote the healthy development of the performer industry” and lay out the “practice norms,” which stipulate that performers, among other things, should abide by national laws and regulations, should honor their contracts and comply with copyright laws. But they also stipulate that they should “love the motherland and support the Party’s line and policies” (“热爱祖国,拥护党的路线方针政策”), “persevere in the orientation that literature and art should serve the people and socialism” (“坚持文艺为人民服务、为社会主义服务的方向”), and “actively uphold a positive image” (“积极树立正面形象”).

By joking about the PLA, Li Haoshi violated some of the rules laid out by CAPA. His severe punishment not only demonstrates to the public that Chinese performers/celebrities should abide by the same laws as ordinary citizens – if not be held to even higher moral standards, – it also serves as a cautionary message to other entertainers, urging them not to overstep boundaries and to uphold their responsibility as public figures to positively impact public morale.

 

THE SACRED PLA

 

In addition to Li Haoshi’s position as a stand-up comedian and his role as a performer/celebrity, another significant aspect of this controversy revolves around the status of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in contemporary China. PLA soldiers are revered as the heroic “soldier sons of the people” who display unwavering loyalty to the Party and the nation.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was founded in 1927, with Mao Zedong counted among its founders. It played a crucial role in the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In addition to its core duty of protecting the country and conducting military operations, the PLA is also involved in other tasks such as peacekeeping efforts and disaster relief. However, its primary and most significant role is to serve as the military branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and ensure the CCP’s continued leadership in China. By safeguarding China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity, the PLA carries both a military and symbolic significance.

The PLA plays a major part in Chinese nationalist discourses, while simultaneously also playing a central role in driving nationalism in China. Whether it is the social media spectacle of China’s Taiwan military exercises or ‘100.000 soldier loving girls‘ during the Wuhan floods, the PLA acts as “a bridge between nationalism as an abstract ideological concept and as an everyday concern of the people for the security of their country” (Ji 2004, 248).

Military propaganda, often disseminated online, is important in reinforcing the image of PLA soldiers as guardians of the nation. When four Chinese PLA soldiers were killed during a border clash with Indian troops in 2020, Chinese state media outlets made noteworthy efforts to shape the ways in which the soldiers are to be remembered, blending political and personal elements while lauding their unwavering patriotism. In doing so, they posted their photos along with phrases such as “The place where I stand is China” and “I will defend the motherland with my life.”

Those insulting the PLA can face serious consequences under the “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law” which was introduced in 2018. In 2021, former Economic Observer journalist Qiu Ziming (仇子明), along with two other bloggers, were the first persons to be charged under the new law as they were detained for “insulting” the Chinese soldiers. Qiu, who had 2.4 million fans on his Weibo page, made remarks questioning the number of casualties China said it suffered in the India border clash. He was sentenced to eight months in prison.

Li Haoshi’s faux-pas is particularly sensitive because the lines used in his joke indirectly made a comparison between PLA soldiers and stray dogs, while also placing words famously used by Xi Jinping in a ridiculous context. Additionally, as highlighted by Chinese bloggers and China Digital Times editor Alexander Boyd, Li’s joke potentially alludes to a scene from the 1956 Chinese war movie Battle on Shangganling Mountain (上甘岭) during the Korean War, where soldiers were depicted chasing after a squirrel. The intention of the scene was allegedly to showcase the kind-hearted nature of the brave soldiers of the Volunteer Army.

Some people believe that Li Haoshi was purposely alluding to that scene with his joke, and in doing so, insulted China’s Korean War ‘martyrs,’ which is illegal under the martyr defamation law. That would be a serious offense. In 2022, former investigative journalist Luo Changping was sentenced to seven months in prison and ordered to make a public apology for insulting Chinese soldiers portrayed in a blockbuster movie about the Korean War.

Whether or not Li intended to make such a connection or put much thought into his joke remains uncertain. However, many netizens are angry with Li for various reasons. Chinese nationalists defend the honor of their hero soldiers, while others blame Li for not respecting the boundaries within which he should operate.

Furthermore, Li’s colleagues, Chinese stand-up comedians, are also upset that he took the risk of making a politically incorrect joke, which has put the entire industry under scrutiny. This incident has created more tension for other performers in an already challenging work environment.

On Chinese social Q&A platform Zhihu, one experienced stand-up comedian performer from Shandong shared his view on the matter, suggesting that Li has brought harm to their industry:

For commercial performances, our lines have to first have to go through a script reading meeting, they will then go through 4-6 open rounds of ‘polishing,’ and then go through the script polishing of the copywriters working for the show. (..) Moreover, the words and phrases we use in our jokes must have a contextual understanding and source. Therefore, there is no way that Li Haoshi was not aware of the history and origin of the sentences he used.

At the same time, all of our jokes in commercial performances require approval. Therefore, Li Haoshi obviously knew that this particular joke wouldn’t pass the approval, so he intentionally didn’t submit it. This is not a case of ignorance, it is simply being malicious.”

Overall, Li Haoshi’s case serves as a warning to others to be cautious with their words, whether used during performances, talk shows, interviews, or online.

Jokes are not to be taken lightly in a media environment where every line carries weight. When humor becomes such a serious matter, it becomes increasingly challenging to stay funny.

By Manya Koetse

References (other online sources hyperlinked in text)

Chen, Dan, and Gengsong Gao. 2023. “The Transgressive Rhetoric of Standup Comedy in China.” Critical Discourse Studies 20 (1): 1-17.

Hsu, Pi-ching. 2015. Feng Menglong’s Treasury of Laughs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Ji, You. 2004. “Nationalism, the Chinese Defence Culture and the People’s Liberation Army.” In: Leong H. Liew and and Shaoguang Wang (eds), Nationalism, Democracy and National Integration in China, pp. 247-268. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Moser, David. 2004. “Stifled Laughter: How the Communist Party Killed Chinese the Chinese Humor Form of Xiangsheng.” Danwei.org http://www.danwei.org/tv/stifled_laughter_how_the_commu.php, accessed via https://www.academia.edu/5929719/Stifled_Laughter_How_the_Communist_Party_Killed_Chinese_the_Chinese_Humor_Form_of_Xiangsheng [20 May 2023].

Sullivan, Lawrence R. and Nancy Sullivan. 2021. Historical Dictionary of Chinese Culture. New York and London: Rowman & Littlefield

Sullivan, Jonathan, and Séagh Kehoe. 2019. “Truth, Good and Beauty: The Politics of Celebrity in China.” The China Quarterly 237 (March): 241–256.

Yue, Xiao Dong. 2008. “Exploration of Chinese Humor.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 21 (4): 407-421.

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