I find it interesting that Chinese netizens are able to convey a meaning, idea, thought, or sentiment in the least number of words – or even in pictures. For example, the image of the Green Dam Girl conveying implicit anti-censorship messages (with each of the items surrounding the figure symbolizing something else).
It’s rather like a no-frills, “low-carbon” way of communication, isn’t it? Expending the least amount of effort for maximum gain (understanding).
First, let’s talk about memes
The idea of “internet memes” is used to describe concepts, videos, phrases, ideas, etc. that spread via the internet through various social media avenues. They may evolve over time through commentary, imitations, or parodies, spreading peer-to-peer, rather than by premeditated means. A “meme” itself is a relatively newly coined term identifying the cultural ideas or beliefs that are transmitted from one person or group to another.
Think of it as an inside joke amongst those in the know. But in the case of the internet, those “in the know” can be an enormously large group. Psychologically, having a shared understanding with others (even those they don’t know) brings about a sense of camaraderie and trust. This is especially prevalent in the Chinese digital world, given that the internet is all-encompassing part of their lives and that trust online, especially amongst China youth, is especially high.
Their rapid growth and impact of internet memes has caught the attention of society. Academically, researchers study how they evolve and try to predict which memes will survive and spread. Commercially, they have created a high level of buzz. Marketers are clamoring to understand them and how to use them in viral marketing, viewing them as a free form of mass advertising.
Great Wall of China bike jumper meme
Now back to Chinese youth
Personally, I find that the difference between US vs. China memes is that more often, Chinese memes are symbolic in conveying an implicit meaning, versus simply spoofing or poking fun at something (though that happens a lot too).
The Chinese (especially China youth) have an all-encompassing digital affinity where the internet doesn’t simply enhance their lives, but is woven into its very basic fabric. Young Chinese netizens are now identifying themselves through buzzwords that are able to communicate where they are from, how they were brought up, personality type, attitudes and paint a detailed picture of who they are… simply in a single word or phrase.
Let me give you an example of how TV shows and pop culture references have become identifiers.
This 20-something Chinese female netizen has no description in the personal profile column of her blog – no real name, or age, or hobbies, or quotes… instead she fills the space with only the following phrases:
Qiong er dai (poor second generation)
Qiong mang zu (the poor and busy)
Yue guang zu (moonlite/moonlight)
Qiang qiang zu (online bargain hunters)
Zhai nu (reclusive)
Cao shi nan ((desiring a) gentle herbivorous man)
Bianlitie nu (post-it girl)
This may look like a secret code at first sight, but to the trendy young netizens, these buzzwords are more than enough to draw a detailed profile of this netizen that would otherwise have required many more words to convey.
Now let’s decipher this ‘secret code’
According to the labels, other netizens would immediately understand that she is not from a rich family, (hence “poor second generation”) and that she is overworked and underpaid (“the poor and busy”), spending her earnings before the end of the month (“moonlite”). In order to save money, she scours the internet for coupons (“online bargain hunters). She prefers staying at home (“reclusive”) and desires a “herbivorous man” (one who is polite and gentle). As for Ms. Netizen herself, she is a kind-hearted, plain-looking “post-it girl”, meaning that she is always ready to help others but almost immediately forgotten afterward, just like post-it notes that people use and throw away daily.
Survival of the shortest
In the fast-paced, almost schizophrenic nature of China’s digital playground, the volume of information is vast but time (and patience) is short. The greatest amount of information conveyed most accurately in the least amount of words is a necessary rule in the game.
The Chinese youth’s obsession with TV dramas, celebrities and pop culture forms a universal language of buzzwords, understood, accepted and adopted into digital labels.
The descriptive words in the case above are from popular TV dramas. For example, the term “post-it girl” originated from a Taiwanese TV drama in 2008 about the story of a plain “post-it girl” finding true love with a young, handsome CEO. The protagonist is described as a post-it girl who, like an actual post-it note, is plain, convenient and useful, but something (someone) you promptly forget after. Chinese netizens bonded over their ability to relate to this girl and to the idea of being a “post-it girl”, accepting that there’s nothing wrong with being “average”. The male equivalent “fried dumpling man” is found from an online serial drama about a well-meaning man who treats his female friends well, but who cannot seem to make any fall in love with him. Other TV dramas have given rise to the “phoenix man”, he who is notorious for being egotistic and calculating.
In China, this implicit form of communication is prevalent. Chinese society has long been known for its subtleties in speech and manner and this appears to have translated into the digital space. Also, in a world of censorship, it is necessary to convey accurate meaning in abstract ways. Finally, we have found that Chinese youth often find it difficult to speak their mind, whether it’s due to discouragement from parents and teachers, or to save face, or for fear of ostracism, or simply that they are unsure how to (though this appears to be changing…). Thus they are turning to creative ways of expression online, creating an internet meme culture that seems to have taken a life of its own.