When it comes to the internet, the Chinese government may have taken inspiration from the Great Wall of China and created the largest digital boundary in the world, blocking 500 million users from accessing the global-standard social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But blogger Michael Anti, whose real name is Jing Zhao, explains in a vivid talk given at TEDGlobal 2012 that the internet landscape of the world’s most populous country is far more complicated than that simple story. Chinese innovators have copycatted popular Western social media sites. While we have Google, China has Baidu. While we have Facebook, China has RenRen. While we have Twitter, China has Weibo — and 300 million microbloggers using it, as 140 characters allows for a full paragraph to be written in Chinese.
In his talk, Anti looks at some of the fascinating ways in which social media are changing Chinese life, and shifting the balance of power in the country. For example, after local authorities tried to cover up a train crash in Wenzhou in 2011, people took to social media sites to criticize the move. With more than 10 million messages about the cover-up visible for all to read, an official investigation was eventually launched. Anti also explains that on Weibo, people regularly tweet their misfortunes, waiting for them to be picked up by popular micobloggers and shared widely.
So what exactly is huge on ChinaNet? Below, a look at 8 popular memes, many political in tone and others the Chinese equivalent of Keyboard Cat.
When Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest this spring, this meme — a send-up of a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad — began spreading across the Chinese internet. Why? Because while his name, and even his initials, were blocked by the government, the image got through the country’s censors. The spreading of the meme has been called “guerrilla activism.” [Christian Science Monitor]
Dress the Nude
China Central Television inspired this hilarious meme when they aired a broadcast about an exhibit at the National Museum of China … and blurred the genitals on Michaelangelo’s famous David. Ever since, internet users have poked fun at the “anti-vulgarism campaign” by putting clothes on famous nude works of art. [Ministry of Tofu]
The song “Shang Bu Qi” has become something of an anthem of the Chinese internet. So when this video appeared on Youku — the Chinese version of YouTube — featuring a bus full of schoolchildren singing the song, it instantly went viral. [China Smack]
Dark Glasses Portraits
Another show of support for Chen Guangcheng, Chinese internet users snapped photos of themselves wearing the blind activist’s signature sunglasses. [Christian Science Monitor]
The Salt Panic Incident
In 2011, China was very fearful of radiation following the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan. When chatter began that salt could fight the effects, thanks to its iodine content, people began buying stores out of salt. And images of empty salt shelves became all the rage on the internet. [China Whisper]
Grass Mud Horse
These alpacas might look cute and fuzzy, but they are an example of a highly political meme in China. Grass mud horse, or Cao Ni Ma, first appeared in January 2009 as a symbol of anti-censorship sentiment in this video. Earlier this month, the alpaca symbol was seen on many signs in a protest in Hong Kong as Chinese President Hu Jintao celebrated the 15th anniversary of the city’s handover to China. On the internet, July 1 was officially dubbed “Grass Mud Horse Day,” as high numbers of people posted alpaca images. [Tea Leaf Nation, NY Times]
Similarly, the sunflower seed has become an online symbol for artist Ai Weiwei, whose name and likeness where quickly scrubbed from the Chinese internet when he was detained in 2011. (Watch the talk Ai Weiwei made for TED2011, just weeks before he was put under arrest in China and his studio destroyed.) As supporters realized that Weiwei’s nicknames, and even puns related to him, were also being blocked, they channeled his famous sunflower fields installation at the Tate Modern as a form of protest. [Fast Company]
For this highly popular meme, three photos are cobbled together — one representing the “ordinary youth,” another representing the “artistic youth” and finally the “idiotic youth.” The meme became so popular so quickly that gained a Chinese acronym, 普文二. [Ministry of Tofu]
The TED Blog would like to extend special thanks to An Xiao Mina, whose research on Chinese memes formed the framework for many of the articles above. Watch her speak at MIT’s Personal Democracy Forum and read her piece in The Atlantic, comparing the Chen Guangcheng meme above to the Trayvon Martin hoodie meme. And check out her column on Chinese political and social memes at 88-Bar.com.