If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a meme says millions.
In China, the online world is as rich as any other, despite the Great Firewall blocking platforms the West is reliant on, such as Google, Facebook, and Instagram.
Because of its partial separation from the rest of the world, the Chinese internet has its own set of unique memes. When an image manages to tap into the collective conscience of 1.3 billion people, we know there’s something there.
Here are some of the memes that struck a chord in mainland China this year—and what they tell us about Chinese society in 2018.
Gangster Peppa Pig
This adorable cartoon pig that looks like a walking Microsoft Paint doodle became an unlikely symbol of tongue-in-cheek subversion in China.
Peppa Pig may have started in the United Kingdom as the titular character in a children’s show, but she became the mascot of China’s dissatisfied youth.
It started with kids proudly showing off their Peppa Pig temporary tattoos on Kuaishou, China’s version of the viral video app Vine, and trying to look “gangsta” in them.
The stark contrast between the cartoon pig, oozing with wholesomeness, and teenage rebellion became infectious.
Soon, adults latched onto it, including some actual gangsters, who posted photos of Peppa Pig watches and Peppa Pig tattoos—real and temporary.
For most people, the Peppa Pig meme was just a funny joke. But for the government, it became another cultural element that “threatened society.”
In the end, Peppa Pig ended up getting flagged by several platforms for removal, such as on popular apps Tik Tok and Kuaishou.
This is pretty similar to banned cartoon icon Winnie the Pooh, which was used on Chinese social media to poke fun at President Xi Jinping.
This massive eye roll
It’s the eye roll that launched a thousand giggles in 2018.
This reporter’s amazing eye roll at another journalist captivated the Chinese internet in March, when China held its annual parliamentary meeting.
For context, the Chinese government screens all questions beforehand, and every journalist who’s selected to speak almost always goes on script.
Often, that means lobbing softball questions about whether a meeting was successful, how hard leaders are working, or how a resolution was passed without fail. (For the record, this particular reporter’s question was about the management of state-owned assets.)
The brazen expressiveness of the reporter fed up with the government’s choreographed press conferences and tightly-controlled media struck a nerve on the internet.
When so much effort gets put into creating the perfect show, it’s surprising when something like an eye roll slips through the cracks, and on live television nonetheless.
As if they’ve run out of ways to show off their wealth, rich kids in China went to even greater lengths in 2018—by pretending to fall out of their fancy cars, with their designer bags, shoes, and expensive possessions all splayed out on the ground.
Parodies quickly followed, with “ordinary people” showing off their everyday struggles.
Even government bureaucrats joined the fun—falling on the immense amount of paperwork they have to do.
The meme’s life cycle from genuine flaunts of wealth to ironic statements about daily life highlighted China’s distaste for the nouveau riche, their spoiled children, and the rift between the country’s haves and have-nots.
The village pop star
If the average Chinese hates inherited wealth, then the antidote is a good rags-to-riches story.
Enter Yang Chaoyue, dubbed the miracle girl of 2018.
The 20-year-old came from a small village and debuted on a reality TV show adapted from Korean TV called Produce 101, where 11 girls are selected from among 101 contestants to form a new pop group.
Even though Yang couldn’t really carry a tune, fans found her down-to-earth personality and bumbling dance moves approachable.
She eventually came in third and successfully made it to the girl group, Rocket Girls 101.
Because of her background, Yang became the embodiment of luck and perseverance, with netizens forwarding images of her face to friends as good luck charms.
When #MeToo became #RiceBunny
In 2018, #MeToo reached China and led to the public shaming of some of the country’s most powerful men, including a billionaire, a famous Buddhist monk, and a well-known television host, who were publicly outed for sexual misconduct.
But of the 36 men who were accused of sexual harassment and assault, more than half faced no consequences.
Later, China’s internet censors clamped down on #MeToo discussions online entirely.
In order to evade censors, supporters adapted the hashtag to become #RiceBunny, which is pronounced “mi tu” in Mandarin.
This meme and the discussion online helped to bring to light a tough topic in Chinese society. It remains to be seen if #MeToo will help effect lasting change to the country’s traditional patriarchal culture.