From Trump’s nicknames to a snarky protest against hustle culture, these were the top memes on the Chinese internet in 2020.
2020 has been a roller-coaster year, to say the least.
The pandemic made worse inequalities that were already seething underneath. The U.S. election offered fodder for social media feeds. TikTok took the world by storm, and online shopping became the norm as people found themselves stuck at home.
In China, the online commentary was not that much different from the rest of the world, as the country grappled with Covid-19 and watched the U.S. election from afar.
From Trump’s foibles to quarantine-induced online shopping, these were the hottest topics on the Chinese internet in 2020.
Trump’s Chinese nicknames
For people in China, the U.S. election was one giant spectacle, watched with a sense of amusement and schadenfreude. On the Chinese internet, it felt more like a pop culture moment than a political event. Memes, satire, and gossip ruled the feed.
The candidates each had their own snarky nicknames. Trump was called Chuanchuan 川川 or Pupu 普普, short for his Chinese name Chuanpu 川普, and Joe Biden had Dengdeng 登登, derived from Baideng 拜登.
On the Trump side, though, people had two other nicknames—Dongwang 懂王, or “King Know-It-All,” because of his frequent pronouncements of “knowing more than anyone else,” and Chuan Jianguo 川建国, which roughly translates to “Trump Builds China.”
The idea is that Trump’s policies and antics appear to benefit China more than the U.S.
Later, when Trump contracted the coronavirus, people on the internet started using the cheeky nickname Duwang 毒王, or “Sick King.”
‘Balance due people’
Amid the online spending frenzy induced by the coronavirus, a new phrase emerged in 2020: weikuanren 尾款人, literally “balance due people.”
The phrase refers to a new payment model introduced by Taobao, China’s equivalent to Amazon. (Taobao is a product of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, the parent company of Goldthread.)
In the leadup to the shopping festival Singles’ Day, Taobao allowed sellers to take deposits from customers first. Then, when Singles’ Day officially began on Nov. 11, those customers had to pay the rest of the balance.
What is Singles’ Day?
Held on Nov. 11, Singles’ Day is considered the biggest consumer holiday in the world, dwarfing Black Friday and Boxing Day in terms of sales.
The holiday started as a joke in the 1990s among single university students who wanted to celebrate (or commiserate over) their relationship status. Students organized bachelor parties, which soon morphed into blind date parties.
Nov. 11 was chosen because the shorthand, 11/11, resembled four single sticks.
Singles’ Day took a commercial turn in 2009, when Alibaba, China’s biggest online shopping site, latched onto the university trend and held its first Singles’ Day sale as a promotional campaign. (Alibaba is the owner of Goldthread’s parent company, the South China Morning Post.)
The event has morphed into the world’s biggest shopping holiday, with other companies in China holding sales. This year, consumers spent over $70 billion on Singles’ Day.
The payment model worked, especially when it came to getting people to click on promotions.
China clamps down on food waste
One restaurant chain in Hunan went as far as weighing customers and giving suggestions on how much to order based on their size. But the group most affected by this government campaign is mukbangers.
Mukbang involves people live-streaming their meals—usually huge quantities of food—to an online audience.
Started in South Korea, mukbang is now a worldwide trend, including in China, where searching the phrases “eating show” and “big eater” usually yields videos of people devouring unholy amounts of food.
But in August, China’s leader Xi Jinping announced an initiative to crack down on food waste, which includes the kind of conspicuous consumption displayed in mukbang videos.
China has seen food waste rise in recent years, fueled by liberal consumption habits as the country gets richer.
One study by catering companies found that people threw out an average 11.7% of catered meals. Students threw away even more, about a third of their school lunches.
The latest campaign can be seen as an effort to change people’s consumption habits.
Millennials push back against hustle culture
Feeling burnout? In China, there’s a new meme for that.
This year, entrepreneurs, workers, and even executives took to sarcastically greeting each other with the word “laborer.”
Just sat down at your desk in the morning? You might get a text from a colleague, “Good morning, laborer.” Just found out the boss needs those materials by 8 am tomorrow? “Hang in there, laborer!”
It’s a self-deprecating take on modern office life. In the 1980s, during the early days of China’s manufacturing boom, “laborer” was used to describe factory workers who were easily replaceable.
Now, the word has been repurposed to describe anyone who works at a big company. The idea is that many white-collar workers in China now feel as replaceable as the factory workers of the ’80s.
“Laborer” is just the latest sardonic take on China’s hustle culture. Another widely used expression is “996,” referring to the typical work hours in Chinese tech—9 am to 9 pm, six days a week.
The memes reflect growing disillusionment with the work culture at China’s biggest companies. Tech upstarts with scrappy origin stories such as Alibaba, Huawei, and Tencent have become some of the world’s most valuable companies.
But their growth has come at a cost. Competition in the world’s biggest consumer market is high, creating an environment where regular overtime is common.
For a generation of entrepreneurial hopefuls who grew up inspired by these companies’ founding stories, the dream feels very far from reality.
The Chinese version of humblebragging
Adding to the list of millennial discontent is a snarky internetism called “Versailles literature.”
The phrase, which initially emerged around November, refers to social media posts that sound like complaints but actually flaunt a luxurious lifestyle. It’s the Chinese equivalent of humblebragging.
Versailles literature is yet another piece of commentary on the ostentatious displays of wealth prevalent on the Chinese internet, as the rift between the country’s haves and have-nots grows.
In 2018, one popular meme involved rich kids pretending to fall out of their fancy cars, with their designer bags, shoes, and expensive possessions all splayed out on the ground.
Almost immediately, critics responded by showing off their “ordinary” lives—by falling onto the amount of paperwork, chores, and other tasks they have to complete.