EMILY CARMAN WRITES — The meme has become a prevalent part of the internet and youth social media culture. Urban Dictionary describes it as, “Not a word but a lifestyle.” From Pepe the Frog to Dat Boi to everything Spongebob, the meme is used by young people everywhere for comedic, sarcastic, romantic and even political purposes. This is especially true in China, where extended presidential terms, fawning media questions, and an overall restrictive government have pushed Chinese youth to create an onslaught of memes criticizing their government.
Memes have given Chinese netizens a chance to express their political opinions while circumventing censorship regulations. As Michael Anti, a Chinese journalist and blogger, says, “China’s bloggers are not innovative because of governmental censorship, they are innovative in spite of it.” So, in the spirit of these innovators and in recognition of the political power of the meme, here’s a list of China’s most popular memes, the ones the Chinese government doesn’t want you to see.
Winnie the Pooh
Back in 2013, a picture of Winnie the Pooh walking with Tigger was placed alongside a photo of President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama walking together.
The meme, which essentially compared Xi to the likes of Winnie the Pooh, faced heavy censorship from the Chinese government. This led to a barrage of Winnie the Pooh memes popping up on social media, especially memes that mocked the fact that the Chinese government would take offense to a silly cartoon bear, such as the one below.
With recent news that the Chinese government will be eliminating Xi’s two term limit, the Pooh Bear meme has taken on a new form: All hail King Winnie!
The meme was obviously meant to ridicule the Chinese ruler for acting as a king or emperor rather than a president. Chinese social media even created a meme of Pooh Bear hugging a pot of honey with the words, “Find the thing you love and stick with it,” meant to mock the president’s love of, and firm grasp on, political power.
Liang Xiangyi’s Eye Roll
Two weeks ago, the “widely watched and intentionally dull” National People’s Congress was taking place in China. The annual meeting of the country’s legislature is often a showcase for political pageantry and scripted media questioning. During the festivities, reporter Liang Xiangyi was standing next to a fellow reporter as the event was being broadcast on China’s national news broadcasting station, CCTV. Liang listened as the reporter asked an intentionally fawning question to a Chinese official and, as the New York Times put it, “Looking her up and down, Ms. Liang rolled her eyes with such concentrated disgust, it seemed only natural that her entire head followed her eyes backward as she looked away in revulsion.”
— Bill Birtles (@billbirtles) March 13, 2018
The eye-roll was seen across the nation as the video quickly went viral. Gifs, riffs, and of course, memes, were spread rapidly across social media platforms as an expression of frustration and annoyance with the staged politics of the NPC and the government itself. Fans of Liang began recreating the eye-roll and her social media account was flooded with support.
— Lulu Yilun Chen (@luluyilun) March 13, 2018
The same night the video surfaced, the state-run media began censoring all references to the incident. Liang’s name became the most censored term on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media app, and internet censors blocked searches for her name. Social media users have continued to create and share the meme despite censorship and some predict that the meme will continue to resurface in the right situations.
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) March 13, 2018
The Rice Bunny Movement
The #Metoo movement has been spreading internationally as an attempt to recognize victims of sexual assault. The hashtag has recently made its way to China and, shockingly, has not been well received by a government uncomfortable with, what seems like, any form of criticism.
The hashtag #woyeshi, which translates to “me too,” went viral initially, but was met with heavy censorship. As a response, Chinese netizens got creative, giving rise to The Rice Bunny. Rice in Mandarin is pronounced mi and bunny is pronounced tu, put it together and Rice Bunny = Me Too.
Chinese social media platforms are now awash with rice bunny memes. Users have used emojis and images to spread the #Metoo movement across the country, initially avoiding the eyes of censors. A powerful way of localizing an international movement, The Rice Bunny is evidence of the creativity of internet users and the power of memes.
The Grass Mud Horse
One of China’s most popular and clever memes is that of the Grass Mud Horse, aka the “fuck you horse.” This meme cleverly utilizes the phonetics of the Chinese language to alter words that might otherwise be censored. The 3-character phrase “cao ni ma” literally translates to “grass mud horse,” but is pronounced in the same way as the vulgar phrase “fuck your mother.”
The grass mud horse quickly took on the form of a mythical horse or alpaca figure, meant to resemble a middle finger to the authorities. Artist Ai Wei created the grass mud horse as a way of showing the public that they could avoid censorship through creativity. He has shared and spread many images of himself riding the horse and holding it in front of his private parts.
The meme is literally used as a way of saying “fuck you” to the Chinese government and its censorship. According to Wei, the grass mud horse is, “an outcry against the very policies that forced it to become a secret symbol.” Though the meme is a couple of years old, it still persists in China despite its heavy censorship.
And More About Xi
Unsurprisingly, a lot of people in China were upset about the elimination of Xi’s two term limit and, as a result, they took to the internet to protest. The protest took the form of several viral memes that were removed almost immediately from social media platforms, but not before being shared millions of times.
One of the most popular of these memes was the silver linings meme. Combining a joke about Xi’s term extension and a joke about the common Chinese pressure to get married. It reads: “My mom said that I have to get married before Xi’s term in office ends. Now I can breathe a long sigh of relief.” The meme was shared over a hundred thousand times before it was taken down by censors just hours after its initial posting.
— Owen Churchill (@owenschurchill) February 25, 2018
The Durex spin-off spread quickly on Weibo with a statement reading, “Two rounds just aren’t enough.” The meme was obviously meant to mock Xi for “going for round three” as president. The fake advertisement was promptly taken down and Durex asked users in China to be aware of false advertising that didn’t come from their official accounts.
It is clear that the meme can be used as a powerful tool for communicating political and social angst, even in one of the world’s most censored regimes. If these memes are any evidence, we can expect the youth of China will continue to protest their dissatisfaction with internet censorship through creative memes.