From Pepe the Frog at the Hong Kong protests to uproar over China’s grueling ‘996’ work culture, 2019 was the year memes became a vehicle of defiance in China.
Memes have a way of capturing the hive mind of the internet and the hot-button issues that everyone is talking about at the moment.
In China, it’s no different.
Although the government blocks access to popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, the Chinese internet is as rich and diverse as any other, with its own unique set of memes.
They’re often used, for example, to evade censors, as was the case this year on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, which remain a sensitive subject in China.
But it’s not just political topics that are covered. This year, catchphrases like “996” and “cherry freedom” were used as social commentary to skewer China’s notoriously long work hours and lack of upward mobility.
Here are five memes that got the Chinese internet talking in 2019—and what they tell us about Chinese society.
The ‘four generations challenge’
2019 started out really wholesome.
This meme began on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, and shows four generations of Chinese living under one roof. It usually unfolds with a child walking into a room and calling out to a parent, followed by the parent calling out to a grandparent, and finally, the grandparent calling out to a great-grandparent.
Videos of the challenge were first shared on Reddit and then started getting coverage in the Western media, which highlighted the phenomenon of multigenerational households in China.
Soon, people around the world were recreating the meme with their own families.
Pepe, the poster child of Hong Kong’s protesters
When protests broke out in Hong Kong this year against an unpopular extradition bill, an unlikely figure emerged as the demonstrators’ mascot—Pepe the Frog.
Created by American artist Matt Furie in 2006, the dopey cartoon frog became a popular meme on Myspace and 4chan.
But Pepe really gained mainstream notoriety in 2016 when it was adopted by white supremicists online, leading the Anti-Defamation League to label the frog as a hate symbol.
In China and Hong Kong, though, Pepe never had the racist undertones it did in the West. Instead, young users saw the character as a cute, irreverent figure. In Chinese, Pepe is known as “the sad frog.”
By the time protests broke out in June, young Hong Kongers were already regularly using Pepe stickers on WhatsApp and other forums.
As the demonstrations wore on, new protest-themed variations of Pepe quickly emerged, including Pepe with an umbrella and hard hat, the common protection gear worn by protesters.
996, China’s version of hustle culture
For years, Chinese tech workers willingly subjugated themselves to “996” culture, clocking in at 9 am and working until 9 pm, 6 days a week.
It’s the Chinese equivalent of hustle culture, and seen as a necessary sacrifice to compete with Silicon Valley.
But this year, Chinese tech workers have had enough of 996.
In March, an anonymous programmer created a “blacklist” on GitHub, an online platform for developers to share code, and invited Chinese tech workers to add names of companies with excessive work hours, along with any evidence.
The list was called 996.ICU, suggesting the work culture would land people in the intensive care unit.
(Read more: Why Chinese employees don’t use email)
996.ICU since been “starred” more than 230,000 times, with hundreds of coders adding company names and evidence to the list.
Others have assembled on messaging and social media apps, with little centralized coordination.
In the United States, being able to afford avocados is the archetypal millennial aspiration, a symbol of bougieness and middle-class comfort.
In China, it’s imported cherries.
“Cherry freedom,” as it’s called, became a buzzword in 2019 when an article complaining about the high cost of living in Beijing went viral.
In it, the 26-year-old author, who remains anonymous, lamented that her salary of $1,400 a month was not enough to live in Beijing, let alone afford imported cherries, considered a luxury and popular gift.
The article went viral and was viewed 420 million times on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter.
Online, people started joking about playing mahjong with cherries instead of money.
Cherry freedom spawned other novel measures of financial independence, including Starbucks freedom, travel freedom, and the ultimate freedom—the ability to buy a house.
What can be salty, can also be sweet
No, this phrase is not referring to candy.
Rather, keyanketian 可盐可甜, which roughly translates to “it can be salty and sweet,” refers to how a person can be both handsome (salty) and pretty (sweet).
Although it can be used for any gender, the phrase is typically used to describe a new breed of male pop singers in China: young, 20-something with delicate, round facial features but a stereotypically masculine personality. They’re also called xiaoxianrou 小鲜肉, or “little fresh meat.”
The phrase’s Exhibit A is Lay, a singer from the K-pop boy group Exo. When a fan posted a picture of him on Weibo, it came with the caption “salty and sweet,” suggesting his boyish looks belied his aggressive stage presence.
The rising popularity of “little fresh meat” has led luxury brands to tap into stars like Lay to be their spokesmodels. It also suggests that Chinese millennials are embracing more fluid expressions of gender, away from traditional notions of masculinity and femininity.
A report from the online shopping website Taobao noted earlier this year that more women were searching for and buying suits.