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Viral videos and memes that take the West by storm hardly make a splash in China, which has its own brand of contagious social media. Dave Gerow explains.
Text by: Dave Gerow
Country: China

or many of us in the West, the subjects that are trending on our Facebook and Twitter accounts seem to give us a glimpse at the whole world. But in China, which is home to 22% of the world’s Internet users, the Internet looks somewhat different than it does in Europe or the Americas.

First, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube —three of the top five websites in the United States—are unavailable to Chinese netizens. Each of them has a cognate site in China: the role of Facebook is filled by Renren (which literally means “everybody”); Weibo is the equivalent of Twitter; and Youku serves the function of YouTube. Not even America’s top website, Google, cracks the top 20 in China, but the country’s number one website is Baidu, a similar search engine. Like their Western counterparts, these websites provide Chinese Internet users with memes and viral videos. Some are similar to the ones you might see trending on your own Facebook sidebar, while others strike Westerners as completely foreign and inaccessible.

When I asked Chinese netizens what had gone viral in their country, I was often surprised to be presented with a list of words or phrases that had no meaning for me. Many of them addressed issues of class, a vital topic in a country with a notoriously large wealth gap. Zhang Chen, who lives in northeastern China, provided me with a list of these words, including “tu hao”, which she says “is used to describe China’s nouveau riche. We can call the iPhone 5s ‘tu hao gold’, because if you’ve got an iPhone 5s, you can show off.” Another of Chen’s examples is “you qian jiu shi ren xing”, which she translates as “I can be willful because I’m rich”. But the word I’ve heard most frequently was entirely made up: duang.

In February 2015, duang took the Chinese Internet by storm. BBC Trending even published an article about it in March, saying that it had already appeared 8 million times on Weibo. The word had originally been used by Jackie Chan in a shampoo commercial in which he tried to describe the effect of his hair by making a noise which was written down as “duang”. Of course, the Chinese language doesn’t use phonetic spelling, so it was necessary to create a character to represent the word. “The character for duang is amusing,” says Scott Carver, an American English teacher in Jilin, China. “It sort of combines parts of the characters that make up Jackie Chan’s Chinese name. You can’t really translate the joke into English, but it’s very funny to Chinese readers.” Because the word has no actual meaning, it is used to comic effect by Chinese netizens. An example cited by the BBC is “To duang or not to duang,” while a Chinese student told me she had heard it used as an intensifier, e.g., “It’s too duang hot outside!”

Feng Mei Mei, a Chinese netizen, told me the story of an art student from the southern province of Guangdong who became an online celebrity thanks to an article he published in November 2014. “There is a teenager named Niko Edwards—that is his Internet name, not a real name. He was asked by Youku to make some advertising video for a dating site. He had the idea to send a balloon up and take beautiful pictures of the Earth. Youku liked the idea and said they would pay him something like 6,000 yuan for it—that is not bad money for a teenager.” However, Youku soon cancelled the deal with Niko and produced its own video with a very similar concept. Feeling that his idea had been stolen in a clear-cut case of copyright infringement, Niko published an article entitled 少年不可欺, which translates as something like “Youth, Do Not Be Bullied”. According to Mei Mei, “The title of that article is a popular phrase now. It stands for the struggle of little people against big corporations. Young people can understand it.”

And it wasn’t just young people who were interested in Niko’s story; celebrities took his side, too. Zhang Ziyi, who is known to Western audiences for her roles in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero” among other Chinese blockbusters, declared her support for Niko, making him an even bigger online sensation.

English-speaking celebrities have signed up for Weibo accounts, including Samuel L. Jackson, Ellen DeGeneres and Emma Watson. One Englishman who has made a splash on Chinese social media in 2015 is actor Richard Armitage, best known for his television roles on “Spooks” and “Hannibal,” as well as for playing Dwarf leader Thorin in “The Hobbit” trilogy. When Armitage decided to start his own Weibo account for his Chinese fans, he inadvertently became an Internet sensation. Silin Chen, a Chinese Armitage fan who has been following him for years, told me, “Richard Armitage was quite famous in China already before he had a Weibo account, and we called him dajiu. That means something like ‘old uncle’; it’s just a cute nickname for him.”

But when he joined Weibo, he gave himself a new name. “I think he was trying to find his Chinese name, so he used Google or something…and finally named himself ‘Li Jian Jun’.” Here Silin began to laugh, but was unable to explain why. “It’s a context thing…Li Jian Jun was a really common name for people about 50 years ago. It was a common name for an old-style worker from the countryside.” Other Chinese netizens seem to find the name Li Jian Jun equally funny. As a longtime Armitage fan, Silin Chen finds his strange Chinese name charming. “Actually there is so much to say about Richard Armitage’s Weibo,” she says. “He is so cute and, well, makes so many language mistakes on Weibo. We love him.”

But while the mistakes of an English actor trying to communicate in Chinese seem amusing, some Chinese netizens are less forgiving of their own citizens failing to communicate in English. When Lei Jun, CEO of a smartphone company called Xiaomi, attended a product launch in India earlier this year, he struggled greatly with his scripted English speech. In an effort to excite the crowd, he repeated the phrase, “Are you OK?” The Chinese equivalent of the phrase “How are you?” can be literally translated as “Are you OK?” so Lei’s mistake was understandable; he isn’t fluent in English. Chinese netizens teased him mercilessly, though, and the phrase “Are you OK?” became a meme. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined Weibo last month, he was greeted by numerous Chinese users posting, “Are you OK?”

Sometimes there are crossover memes from the West. One recent phenomenon was “The Dress”, which went viral in February 2015. Originating in Scotland, the photograph of a dress was perceived by some people as black and blue and by others as white and gold. Carver, the English teacher, says several of his students nearly came to blows over the colour of the dress in March. “I used a picture of the dress as a joke when I was reviewing colours with my 5-year-olds,” he told me. “Suddenly this little girl, who’s normally very sweet, stood up and screamed that it was gold and white. She was the only one in the class who saw it that way. I laughed at first, but then she started getting pretty worked up, so I had her sit down and changed the subject. It was funny, though. I imagine that was an argument that was taking place all over the world in a number of languages.”

Finally, there’s the story of Brother Orange, which bridged East and West like no other. Matt Stopera, an editor for the popular website BuzzFeed, had his phone stolen in New York in 2014. The phone ultimately ended up in the hands of Li Hongjun, a small-town Chinese man whose photographs began appearing on Stopera’s photo stream. Li hadn’t stolen the phone (he’d never been out of China), but as the one who wound up with it, he became a celebrity when Stopera began posting the mysterious photos online. Ultimately, Stopera was invited to China, where he was treated like a celebrity. He shared his story on BuzzFeed, and Li was suddenly a celebrity in America. He visited and was given a grand tour of the United States, complete with a guest appearance on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show”. The story of Brother Orange is a rarity in the world of viral sensations: It has captured the hearts of netizens in both China and the West. When so many of our memes and trends seem accessible to only one culture, it’s particularly heart-warming to stumble upon a meme that can actually transcend cultural barriers.



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Trending in China

When you think of the Internet, you imagine it is universal. But in reality it can be quite different throughout the world. In China, which is home to 22% of the world’s internet users, the Internet looks somewhat different than it does in Europe or the Americas.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are three of the top five websites in the United States; but they are not available in China. China has its own versions of each of these sites: Renren is the Chinese Facebook, Weibo is the equivalent of Twitter, and Youku is the Chinese variant of YouTube. And America’s top website Google is replaced by Baidu, a similar search engine.

Like their Western counterparts, these websites provide Chinese Internet users with memes and viral videos. Some are similar to the ones you might see on your own Facebook sidebar, while others strike Westerners as completely foreign and inaccessible.

For example, the made-up Chinese word duang became quite popular in 2015. In a shampoo commercial, Jackie Chan made a noise that sounds like duang to describe the effect of the shampoo on his hair. Duang is now sometimes used by people as an intensifier such as in It’s too duang hot outside.

Another interesting story is the story of Brother Orange. He inadvertently purchased a stolen cell-phone and the photos he took with it appeared on the photo stream of the original owner, Matt Stopera. Eventually the two of them met when Stopera went to China, where he became a celebrity. Likewise, after Stopera wrote about his experience online, Brother Orange became a celebrity in America.



 

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