The curious case of the Chinese Internet folk meme

Play or protest? Why did an innocuous message in a World of Warcraft forum generate 300,000 comments in 24 hours?

Published October 21, 2009 6:22PM (EDT)

"The Curious Case of Jia Junpeng, or The Power of Symbolic Appropriation in Chinese Cyberspace," by Yang Guobin, an associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Barnard College, is the most interesting investigation of Chinese Internet use -- as play and as protest -- that I have yet read. Judging by the quality of this essay alone, published at the China Beat, Yang's new book, "The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online," should go straight to the top of the reading list for anyone who cares about what the future of the Chinese Internet means for the evolution of Chinese society.

Yang tells the story of how a single 12-character message -- "Jia Junpeng, your mother wants you to go home to eat" -- posted to an online forum frequented mainly by bored gamers frustrated with delays in the rollout of World of Warcraft in China, became a viral sensation -- attracting 7 million hits and 300,000 comments in one day -- that received widespread coverage from Chinese media.

The message was coopted for private sector marketing purposes and in an apparently successful attempt to get a Chinese blogger released from jail. Like many similar Chinese Internet viral sensations, it has become a constantly evolving folk meme that has no official method of transmission. But no one knows who Jia Junpeng is (if he or she even exists) or why the original message was posted or whether, even, it was supposed to mean anything beyond the obvious. Yang Guobin uses the incident as the hook for an exploration of how, in part, "the main features of Chinese Internet culture today are the products of a history of play." It's a code that can be pretty difficult to crack if you haven't grown up in it.

Yang's conclusions as to what it all means for the future of discourse and political action in China are subtle and hard to distill into a few paragraphs. But one key nugget:

I think the main message is that in China today, the Internet can always be appropriated by users for their own purposes, however closely it is monitored or controlled.

If so, the big question going forward will be determining just what are the "purposes" of new generations of online Chinese citizens.

In an obliquely related note, China's 719.8 million cellphone users sent 574.6 billion text messages in the first nine months in 2009, according to the most recent data released by China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. Whether or not some of those texts are destined to wind up on Chinese Internet discussion forums, that's still an awful lot of room for play -- or protest.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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